Covens and Witches
In 1662, Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne made four separate confessions of
being a Witch, and in the process, gave the word "Coven" to the world.
Although there is no other historical evidence for this word, it has
proven to be one of the most lasting facets of Witchcraft - ask anyone
today what Witches do, and the answer will almost certainly include the
fact that they meet in groups, called "Covens".
So given that a number of modern Witches do, in fact, either run, or
belong to, a Coven - just what is its purpose in 20th (and 21st) century
Western Civilisation? Why has this word of such dubious historical
veracity survived over three hundred years? Is there a place in our
modern world for a social group which, as far as we know, occurred only
in 17th century Scotland?
The very fact of its survival for over three hundred years argues that
there is a place for such a group. In my own case, I have been a member
of, and run, Covens of Witches for a number of years, and it is a social
model which fits extremely well within modern society.
The structure of a coven varies, but generally has one or two leaders,
and a number of members of varying levels of experience. In a sense, the
modern Coven has replaced the tribal family, and its members often
fulfill familial roles, which are no longer available to them in the
family in which they were born.
Some researchers have commented that many modern Witches come from a
background which was disrupted; i.e., did not provide a safe family
environment during their formative years. As I know a great many Witches
for whom this was not the case, I think this is only a partial reason,
and only for some people.
Humanity itself seems to be inherently tribal; any common bond between
people will generally result in the creation cults or sub-cultures,
where those of a like-mind will bond together. They will evolve their
own social order (generally hierarchical), have their own common
language, and often are identifiable by their demeanour and appearance.
Witches gather together in Covens for very much the same sorts of
reasons; we are apart from general society by virtue of our beliefs and
practices. Meeting with others who think and feel similarly to ourselves
gives us the opportunity to share ideas and skills, as well as being
able to practise our Craft.
A modern Coven provides a family-style environment, where the "Elders"
can, by virtue of their experience, give encouragement, support, and
advice to those seek to learn about Witchcraft. As with all families,
Covens have very unique and individual ways of approaching this. Just as
no two families are the same, neither are any two Covens.
Some Covens are run by people with an academic bent, and as would be the
case in any family, this characterises the way in which their "children"
are brought up. Other groups are oriented towards a more simple
approach, and the oral traditions play an important role in the way in
which the Coven is structured. Some combine the these two approaches,
and the variations upon the basic themes are endless.
For any "family" to exist harmoniously, everyone within the group must
feel a part of the group, and wish to learn and grow within that group
environment. With a path such as Witchcraft, with its emphasis upon
personal growth and development, it is likely that individuals who may
at one time have been happy within their family group, will change, and
wish to move away. This is a perfectly natural process, and the wise
coven leaders will send those people off with their love and blessing.
Trying to keep them would be like trying to keep your sons and daughters
tied to your apron strings forever!
Ultimately, and despite the popularity of the word "coven", I do believe
that most Witches are solitary in nature, and will generally spend at
least part of their lives without being a member of, or running, a
coven. I think the inward exploration during these periods is vital to
self-development, just as we believe it is important to encourage
social-awareness in children. However, I also believe that at some stage
it is important to learn the practices of Witchcraft from another
person; to be an apprentice, if you will; because the act of passing
knowledge from one person to another cannot be replicated by books,
correspondence courses, or be self-taught. This may seem an almost
impossible task to some people, but as all the magical traditions teach:
when the student is ready, the teacher will appear! What's more, it's