Coven Challenges

Coven Challenges May 17, 2016

A Witchcraft coven is by its very nature exclusionary. That’s not to say covens necessarily discriminate, but a good coven doesn’t simply let everyone in who is interested in joining. For a coven to be lasting and successful its members generally have to be on the same page. They have to share some ideas about practice, deities, boundaries, and lots of other little things.

The more I think about covens the more I find myself wanting to write “covens are weird,” because they are. In any given coven there are a dozen unique personalities, two-dozen backgrounds, a mix of traditional ritual along with new stuff, all sorts of various skills that differ from coven member to member, personal deity preferences, and most likely a folks who are more dominant than others.

I find covens superior to traditional structures like a Sunday church-service because they are more participatory. You can’t exist on the sideline in a a coven. Maybe you aren’t running tonight’s ritual but you are still an active part of it.

What follows are a few challenges I’ve experienced via the coven. Like covens, blog posts are also sort of weird and often take on a life of their own.
A great coven is a challenging, life-changing experience. If it’s something you are looking for, I hope you find it.

"Tam O'Shanter and the Witches"  by John Faed.  From WikiMedia.
“Tam O’Shanter and the Witches” by John Faed. From WikiMedia.

You Are Old Enough to Vote, But Not Old Enough to Be in My Coven

I was at the Sirius Rising Festival a few years on a panel about the future of Paganism and the moderator asked me a question about young people in Paganism. I think he said something along the lines of “you must work with young people Jason” and I responded with “I don’t talk to anyone under the age of 24.” Now while that’s not necessarily true, the minimum age for a covener in our group is 21, and there are several strong reasons for that.

The most obvious reason is that we drink alcohol during ritual. No one is downing a six-pack of cider while we ritualize, but for cakes and ale we generally drink wine or cider. For me this is more than personal preference too, there are theological reasons behind it. Ancient pagans and cunning-folk were probably drinking booze during their rituals (and in a lot of places, pretty much all the time), and if it was good enough for Gerald Gardner it’s good enough for me.

As a drink alcohol is simply alive in ways tap water and sparkling grape juice are not. Wine and cider are made through the process of fermentation, where little yeasts eat sugar and turn it into alcohol. To me that’s some extraordinary magic and I think including it during ritual is a powerful thing. (And when we’ve had people in recovery circle with us we’ve used grape-juice or had an alternative ready, but the preference is to use wine.)

There are other reasons not to let anyone under 21 into a coven situation, and they have nothing to do with maturity. I’ve met some very composed and mature teenagers and twenty year old over the years, but perception wise a coven with lots of young people and a forty-something geezer like myself can result in all sorts of sneers, smears, and gossip. It’s not worth it to me personally to deal with something like that, and it’s not fair to a prospective coven member. Besides, patience is a virtue in the Craft.

When it Comes to Deities, You’ll Have Fewer Problems If Everyone is On the Same Page (Or at Least Reading From the Same Book)

I’ve always found the Craft to be pretty flexible when it comes to theology. Once can be a polytheist, an atheist, or an animist (and more!) and still find a home there, but I’ve always found it’s far easier in the coven structure when everyone at least generally agrees on the nature of deity. There’s no litmus test in my coven, but I think most of us are generally believers in gods and goddesses. We draw down the moon, invite deity to our circle, and work with those deities when they show up. As long as everyone pays lip-service to the idea that we are dealing with real entities there are no issues, but that’s not always easy for some people.

We had a coven member for awhile who was an atheist. No problem there, I know lots of Atheist-Pagans and I think they have a place under the umbrella and have a lot to offer our extended community. However, this one member could never overcome her skepticism when it came to deity. The rest of us could be in the middle of this amazing spiritual experience and she’d be there with a look of doubt on her face radiating an energy that was very different from the rest of us. I don’t think she did it to be mean, it was simply who she was, and I still like this person very much, but just because I like someone doesn’t always mean they are going to be a good fit in a coven. (Another aside, I have an animist friend who told me once “Jason, I wouldn’t be a good fit at all in your coven” and we all love this guy. It’s all good.)

Picture by William Blake, From WikiMedia.
Picture by William Blake, From WikiMedia.

There’s a Place for Tradition Without Being an Asshole About It

I like dipping my athame into my wife’s cup (and you can take that any way you want to!) and we’ve been doing the Great Rite that way for over fifteen years now in ritual. For many people the athame is representative of the phallus, but it’s also representative of fire (or air if you like) and personal will. The chalice is often seen as symbolizing the womb, but it’s also representative of water and I also see the Summerlands within it and the idea of rebirth.

For me the big idea behind the Great Rite is the creation of new things through the magic of joining. If someone wants to read penis and vagina into our knife and cup thing that’s fine, but it’s certainly not all that’s there, or even what I’m thinking of when we do it. Our cups and athames are among our primary working tools, we like using them in ritual. I don’t care if other groups do that or not but it works for us.

I’ll also admit that the language we sometimes use in ritual can be a bit sexist. I like things that sound like they were written in 1955 by way of 1650, which means we often use archaic sounding language. The original version of Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess includes the lines “I am the gracious Goddess who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man,” and “and before my face, beloved of gods and men” not to mention a few other lines that say use “men” to mean to all humankind. Is it a bit sexist? Of course it is, though it certainly wasn’t written with that in mind (and Valiente later changed these lines in later versions). However it’s how we grew up with the Charge and adding another syllable changes the cadence of the thing.

We’ve performed the symbolic Great Rite in all sorts of gender combinations over the years and will continue to do so. I have never experienced a situation where someone was offended by the knife and cup thing, but if it ever were a problem we’d certainly discuss it. It’s also not anything that should ever take someone by surprise, it’s in all of my rituals (and those are all over the internet.)

"The Dance to the Music of Time" by Nicolas Poussin.  From WikiMedia
“The Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin. From WikiMedia

A Coven Doesn’t Have to Be a Democracy

Years ago while running a college student group the meeting I most dreaded was the annual “what night are we going to meet this semester?” meeting. There’s never any way to satisfy everyone involved and in almost every situation that involves adults there will be certain nights that simply don’t work for people. There is no way to get around this and it sucks when someone can’t be as involved as they would like, but that’s life sometimes.

When we started our circle that became a coven one of the things we did from the start was schedule things with no outside input. The juggling would have been too much and taken away from the joy we got from working with our chosen family. Not caring about everyone’s schedules also includes us of course. I’ve missed all sorts of rituals because I’ve been at festivals and/or concerts, and my wife sometimes misses rituals because of second-shift at work. A few coven members are part of a second circle that meets on the same night as our group, no big deal, they just have to decide where they want to be. And if someone misses a ritual, no big deal.

If you were to ask me how our group functions I might say “benevolent dictatorship” because I settled on a coven structure (and have tweaked it over the last few years) and do most of the scheduling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to people. I want everyone involved and I want everyone comfortable with new members and whatever else. We also want more people to lead ritual too, a coven needs more than just two people who can lead ritual, the more the better! So I guess I’m not really a dictator, but it feels that way sometimes.

Every group needs leadership of some sort, it’s up to each individual coven to figure out the best sort of leadership for them.

Richard Dadd-"Come unto These Yellow Sands" from WikiMedia.
Richard Dadd-“Come unto These Yellow Sands” from WikiMedia.

Sexual Relationships in Covens Scare the Shit Out of Me

Adults should be free to do whatever (and whoever) they want, provided proper consent is given. However, inter-coven dating and sleeping around scares the bejesus out of me. I hold my coven brothers and sisters in high regard but I’ll never sleep with any of them other than my wife. Once I share coven-circle space with someone the romance is done.

This may sound rather silly but I’ve seen far too many circles and covens implode over sexual politics. As a High Priest I see myself sort of the role in teacher, and believe I should apply that sort of behavior to myself. If I noticed that someone came into our coven-group actively in search of a romantic partner I’d probably ask them to leave. Facilitating the dating lives of members is not the purpose of a coven and if someone starts believing it is they need to reevaluate their commitment to the Craft.

Editor’s Note: You never know how other people are going to read your articles before you post them to the internet. Sexuality is a part of not just the Craft, but a part of who we are as humans. All I’m saying here is that I would never sleep with a coven-member, and I would kick someone out of my coven if they looked at our circle as a dating pool. Do relationships bloom in some covens? Hell yeah! And that’s a good thing. It’s about how it’s approached, but I still think I’m right to be nervous about it in a coven situation.

What if the relationship doesn’t work out? Will both coven members be comfortable circling together afterwards? Will the rest of us have to pick sides? I think you get the point, it does open up a can of worms and it’s a can I’m wary of.

As for sexuality in the circle, when my wife and I are together there’s plenty of that in the circle, always has been and always will be. Adults should be free to be adults. These are my rules and no one else’s.

Happy Covening!

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