Defining Traditional Wicca
The candles are beginning to burn low. Hours after their initial lighting, wax collects in deep puddles and drips down what remains of each shaft, pooling in hardening clumps on the altar top. The scent of frankincense and rose hangs heavy in the air, still vibrating from the power summoned to this place. The energy of the sabbat dance has begun to settle, and seven contented Witches now lounge in sacred space, happily uncorking fresh bottles of wine and passing blessed cakes. The Work done, the circle still strong, it’s time to reflect, plan, laugh, and enjoy the company of chosen family.
“Man, I missed you guys.” Wren shakes her head and sighs contentedly as she takes the bottle from Eis and pours herself a cup of wine. “I really needed that. Work has just been bogging me down lately. With the holidays coming up, we’re really looking to hire somebody in time for next semester, and I feel like all I do is sit in meetings. Plus I’m reading this book on Cerridwen right now, and it’s totally messing with my head. I’ve been having really weird dreams lately.”
At the mention of Cerridwen, Corvus snaps to attention, a cookie halfway to her mouth. She read The Mabinogion last year, and since then she’s felt a powerful affinity for the famous Welsh Witch.
“You need to come to the lake with me! When I started learning about Cerridwen, I had weird dreams, too. There’s this lake near my apartment complex, and I started walking down there and actually just trying to talk to her. I don’t really know why, but it helps. I feel like I can hear her there.”
“That’d be great! I feel like I’m in over my head here.” Wren grins, and the two women agree to plan their own magical adventure tomorrow.
“What are we doing for our New Year ritual next month? Do we have plans yet?” Lore interjects.
“Can we go back to that same cemetery? The one Lukaos took us to outside of Asheville? The view from the mountain was amazing in the fog.” Corvus leans back on a cushion.
Eis sloshes the wine in her cup, suddenly rocking forward in excitement. “And I get to actually go this year!”
“Yeah, that’s right! This will be your first inner court New Year’s Eve. We’ll have to tell you what you need to prepare. I think this might be my favorite spell.”
“I love that we have our own rituals, in addition to the traditional ones,” Lore says, smiling big. “Things that are just ours.”
Agreement resounds warmly around the room.
These are bonds forged by years of practicing Craft together. These Witches share in each other’s magical pursuits, religious explorations, and day-to-day lives. They come from different places and bring different experiences, but together, united by a shared tradition, they’ve built something that is uniquely theirs.
This is what is means to belong to a coven.
The Witch’s Family
One of the most significant differences between traditional and more eclectic styles of Wicca is the role of the coven. Traditional Wicca is coven-based and almost always requires joining some kind of group. You cannot simply read a particular set of books or learn about a tradition on the internet. You must actually seek out a high priestess or high priest in that tradition and ask to be considered for membership in their coven.
No two covens are exactly the same. Even within the same tradition, a great deal of variety may exist. A coven may have a dozen members or only two or three. It may be specifically designed to teach students, or it may be a collective of experienced elders. It may be very highly structured, with a tight calendar of regular meetings, or it may be more casual, meeting only periodically. Depending on the tradition, it may be run by a third degree working couple (a paired high priest and high priestess or a pair of the same gender) or by some council of qualified practitioners. Each tradition has its own protocol, and even within a tradition individual coven leaders usually have the autonomy to make executive decisions, so differences do arise depending on circumstances. In this chapter, we’ll look at coven structure and positions within covens. We’ll also discuss the functions of covens in detail.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Coven-based Witchcraft flies in the face of the digital-age trend where personal connections on a frequent basis are few and far between. And in many areas, coven-based Witchcraft offers the chance to connect with hundreds of other Witches for social gatherings of all varieties and traditions. For me, it’s one of the few venues where I can have a close and personal connection with people outside of work and family life.
—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the
Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions
Inside a Wiccan Coven
In its earliest stages of development, Wicca was practiced in groups. For many traditions, this continues to be true. Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a coven, which was the basic unit of organization for Witches. Covens were thought to function within particular territories, serving particular villages and operating as a kind of home base for practitioners within the region. Nearby covens may join together for the celebration of a sabbat or some other event (or to work magic for some larger purpose together, as they supposedly did to protect England from Nazi invasion during World War II, so the famous story of the magical battle for Britain goes), but generally covens were secretive, driven underground by Christian persecution.5 They existed quietly, passing the secrets of the Craft and the experience of the gods—what we’ve come to understand as “the Mysteries”—to new generations born to the coven, and bringing in deserving outsiders as they were recognized as one of their own.
Historically, we now understand that many of these early claims are suspect at best. But whatever may have really happened, the coven structure developed and still survives because of its proven value. In short, it works. Group practice makes for highly effective ritual and magical work. It also enables the consistent passing of traditions and the survival and protection of oral lore, which often goes overlooked in more eclectic (and especially solitary) kinds of Wicca. Just like classrooms, covens are often the best learning spaces for new practitioners, who benefit from mentorship, peer feedback, and group discussion. A Witch in a coven always has someone to ask for advice or input. He also benefits from the emotional support that any strong social community may provide to its members.
So how exactly does a Wiccan coven work? And is it different from other kinds of Witchcraft groups? What separates a coven from a study group or open circle?
In its simplest form, a coven is a group of Witches that practices their Craft together. Traditional Wiccan covens are united by a shared praxis. Members share foundational techniques and experiences, which are acquired through a shared training process. Often, there are fundamental religious beliefs and worldviews that are also shared, though these may be assumed upon entrance or otherwise not emphasized formally. Remember, traditional Wicca tends to stress practice over belief. This is confusing, especially if you come from a religious background that is grounded in a shared belief system, so allow me to describe an example:
My working partner, Lukaos, and I have been practicing Wicca in the same coven for several years. We work the rites together, train initiates and students together, and share a deep love for our tradition. Our coven, Foxfire, is the product of our partnership. However, our experiences of the gods are sometimes very different. My partner tends to envision the gods in more abstract terms, with a lot of care taken toward his research into various schools of theology. He’s well educated in other ways of thinking and tends toward skepticism. He can be somewhat uncomfortable with paradox. It’s often useful for him to think about gods in archetypal terms, and he describes himself as a bit of an agnostic. All of this is perfectly acceptable within the context of our tradition, and many other Wiccans feel similar. In contrast, I’m a little more visceral. I don’t usually like to think about the gods in those kinds of reasonable, more objective ways, and conversations about theology often bore me. I can’t always give you clear explanations for why I believe the things I do (which makes me mostly worthless in debates). I tend to think about gods as discrete entities with human characteristics, and I identify comfortably as a polytheist. I believe that our gods are unique to our tradition and have their own agendas, apart from other gods.
Despite these differences, my partner and I work happily and effectively together, performing the same rites according to the same tradition. We have different beliefs about the nature of the gods—we relate to them differently, we conceive of them differently—but we’re both Gardnerians, even trained together in the same coven. Our students have an even greater variety of beliefs about gods. One identifies as an animist; gods become gods insofar as people pour energy and belief into them, and everything has a spirit to it that might be divine. Another came to us as an atheist. For her, gods are psychological constructs that people employ toward practical ends. They impact our lives because we use them to inform our experience of the world. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re “real” in any kind of objective way. Any or all of these ideas—plus many more—may exist in a single coven. That the members of Foxfire differ is not an issue, because our individual beliefs are not ultimately what define traditional Wicca. It’s our shared practice of the rites that is important. That is what makes us Wiccan.
Our coven allows us to mutually create a shared space in which we can perform the rites that are central to our tradition, while also exploring our differences, experimenting with new magical techniques, and perfecting established ones. There’s a lot of room for creativity and growth in many directions.
As you can probably imagine, this shared experience leads to a profound level of intimacy. Coven members often become quite close. It is difficult to consistently practice Wicca with a group and not open up to each other over time. You’ll share magical experiences—and particularly experiences with the divine—that will set you all apart from the mundane order of your lives. Because of this, there will be some conversations that you can only have with your covenmates. Other people—even other Wiccans outside of your coven—will not be able to relate or understand. This is the nature of the Mysteries, and this shared experience of those Mysteries will create a bond between the members of the coven. Even if you don’t socialize outside of circle, even if you’re very different kinds of people, you will still share this intimate connection.
Over time, the coven develops its own unique egregore—a group mind. This occurs when coven members fall into a kind of magical rhythm with each other. Just like how best friends and close family members develop the ability to communicate nonverbally and read each other’s emotions and thoughts through the tiniest gestures, so covenmates learn to respond to each other magically. Exactly what that entails differs from group to group, but if you can imagine your own experience “reading” and responding to a close friend emotionally, you’ll begin to understand how a coven egregore is formed.
Every time someone new is brought into the group (or someone leaves), the egregore shifts. This is why coven leaders take such great care in evaluating and admitting new members. Even if a seeker is well suited to the tradition as a whole, he may not be a good match for the individual coven. This is not to be taken as an insult. Just as we make good friends with some people and not others, so too do we bond with some people magically more naturally than others. This is not by itself a judgment of any person’s inherent value.
The bond created between covenmates is a psychic, magical one. It may also be a social or romantic one, but these are rarely the point (though neither is uncommon). Because these are deep psychic bonds, they are often permanent and far-reaching. Even if a covenmate leaves —either temporarily or permanently—their presence may still be felt in circle. Absence becomes palpable. It is never an easy decision to leave, however necessary (and amicable) leaving is.
It is this level of closeness that distinguishes a traditional Wiccan coven from a study group, an open circle, or some other kinds of Pagan groups. Study groups and open circles are necessarily more casual, as typically the requirements to participate are much lower. An environment in which anyone can attend at will with minimal investment rarely, if ever, creates the sort of space that fosters intense magical intimacy. And that’s okay! These other kinds of groups serve different but much-needed purposes. It’s still beneficial for seekers to participate in these more casual social or educational groups because they have the opportunity to meet others from a variety of magical and religious backgrounds and explore the practice of Witchcraft without the weighty commitment of joining a coven. Many covens even run their own separate study groups, which are more inclusive. A coven may also host open events for a wider community, which foster goodwill, serve the needs of local Pagans, and allow the coven to screen potential members.
But while these more casual groups are sometimes called covens in eclectic communities, it’s important for seekers to understand that the term has different connotations for most traditional Wiccans. For us, a coven is much more than a reading club, or a group of friends that sometimes meets to mark a sabbat or a full moon. These are good, useful things in their own right, but a coven is an intimate group that enjoys the bond of a shared magical praxis. Membership is exclusive and granted cautiously, usually only after a candidate has been extensively evaluated. Leaders have to make sure that a seeker is both sincerely interested in the specific tradition, and also compatible with the members of that individual coven.
Even amongst traditional covens, there is variety in purpose. Some are designed specifically to accommodate newcomers to the tradition, and these are often called “teaching covens.” Teaching covens are normally made up of relatively new initiates and their mentors—maybe a working pair of third degrees, a second degree preparing for elevation, or some combination of elders. In any case, the purpose of a teaching coven is to bring in new members, pass the tradition, and prepare those new members for deeper work.
Other covens are made up entirely (or primarily) of established, seasoned practitioners. These may individually run separate teaching covens, coming together as a body of elders to perform and explore materials and techniques only suitable for the experienced. They could also be Witches who have decided to retire from teaching Craft students or who decided not to become teachers at all. There is something to be said for working only with other initiates of the same rank or skill level, and so some covens restrict their membership in this way.
Most covens are some combination of the above. Rather than talking about types of traditional covens, it may be more useful to think of covens as cycling through stages. Maybe one year a number of new students are initiated. They learn over time and earn their elevations or subsequent initiations, until everyone is a third degree or otherwise a high priest or high priestess in their own right. Some may hive to form their own covens, but others will stay and share the more advanced rites amongst themselves. Eventually, new students may be brought in and the cycle will repeat. So when approaching a coven as a seeker, it may be more accurate to ask if it is accepting new students at this time, rather than to ask if it is a teaching coven.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Solitary or coven? It’s not really either/or. In my very humble opinion, a good covener is also a good solitary. Just because you’re in a coven doesn’t mean that you stop doing any work or practicing magic on your own. Coven work should help to fuel your solitary work and vice versa. If joining a coven is right for you, don’t let that stop your personal work.
—Phoenix LeFae, Wiccan priestess and Reclaiming Witch
Roles in the Coven
Aside from a greater sense of intimacy, traditional covens are different from other kinds of Pagan and Wiccan groups in that they tend to be organized according to specific roles. These roles are usually hierarchical, assigned according to individual experience or through passed down authority (and we’ll discuss the role of hierarchy in traditional Wicca in a later chapter). Sometimes, these roles are partially determined by gender, though this may vary from coven to coven, especially as new generations of Witches explore nonbinary models. You’ll find, too, that some of these roles overlap or exist in some covens and not others:
Initiates: Initiates are those individuals who have been formally, ritually accepted as full members of a tradition. They are no longer seekers or trial members but recognized participants in the coven. Depending on the tradition, initiates are usually ranked, often according to a degree system. In many Wiccan traditions, this is the point at which someone officially earns the title “Witch” and also becomes a priestess or priest. Barring extreme circumstances (which vary across traditions), once one is an initiate, one is always an initiate, regardless of subsequent positions bestowed or even the decision to leave the tradition.
First Degree: This is the first level of initiation. First degrees are usually the newest, least experienced initiates, though in some traditions the decision to keep an initiate at first degree may have more to do with nuances in degree obligations. In some covens, for example, second degree initiates are expected to teach their own students. A first degree may choose to stay at first because she does not aspire to teach or to lead a coven, or she may simply be unable to at the time. Sometimes, an initiate’s personal life requires additional time spent at first degree, in which case he may be surpassed by more freshly initiated peers, even though he is the more experienced.
Second Degree: In some traditions, second degree Witches earn the right to the title of high priest or high priestess. They take on additional responsibilities in the coven and have access to additional magical knowledge and more advanced techniques. They may be allowed to take on their own students, even running their own outer courts. In some traditions, they are allowed to initiate others into the Craft. In other traditions, this is still only the beginning. First degree may serve as a sort of trial phase, with much of the real work saved for second.
Third Degree: A third degree initiate is a high priestess or high priest of their tradition and has demonstrated mastery within that tradition. A third degree has earned total autonomy and may leave to start her own coven through a process called hiving. Some restrictions may apply, according to the specific tradition, as there is still an obligation to the legacy of the mother coven. Not all third degrees will hive, but they possess the power should they choose to do so. In some traditions, third degree women are entitled to the honorific “Lady.” Less frequently, men may take on the title of “Lord,” though many traditions eschew this entirely (and referring to yourself as Lord so-and-so is a sure way to give yourself away as a fraud). In either case, such titles are usually reserved for circle, and are not bandied about in public spaces for the sake of ego. Many covens choose not to use such titles at all, viewing them as pretentious and unnecessary.
High Priestess: The high priestess is the female leader of the coven. In many traditions, she is the supreme leader, and this is the highest rank that may be achieved. Often, she is the founder of the coven. Even if there are other third degree priestesses (or second degree priestesses), usually only one serves as the high priestess. In the circle, she is the representative of the goddess. In many traditions, a coven sword symbolizes her power. Final decisions may rest with her, as well as the responsibility of training students. When you approach a coven to inquire about training, more often than not it is her you must persuade.
High Priest: The role of the high priest depends heavily on the tradition. There are covens in which the high priest functions much like the high priestess, described above. If he is the founder and leader, then he will bear the responsibilities of vetting and training students, organizing coven meetings, and so on. In a coven with both a high priestess and a high priest, all of these duties may be shared equally. But in many Wiccan traditions, the high priestess still holds supremacy. The high priest is her consort and support, her helper and guardian. He is the coven’s high priest because she has granted him that power in her coven. He will help train students, but final decisions rest with the high priestess.
The relationship between a high priestess and high priest is a complex one. In some cases (and this was the ideal in Wicca’s early days), they’re a married couple or otherwise romantically committed to each other. In other cases, it’s more like a sibling relationship, especially if both were trained in the same parent coven and hived together. No matter the specifics, the high priest and high priestess are a team. Each working pair will be different, so these positions may be a bit more fluid than the descriptions I’ve provided.
Queen: Not all Wiccan traditions have queens. Usually, she is a high priestess whose own initiates have gone on to form their own covens and have initiates of their own. In this sense, she’s sort of like a Witch grandmother. In some cases, she must have a certain number of covens descended from her before she is considered a queen (usually three). In others, she must be ritually made a queen in a coronation ritual. She may wear a garter fastened with a buckle for each coven her own initiates found. How much she participates in these covens will vary. She may continue to train students and run her own coven, or she may “retire” from teaching and continue to provide advice and wisdom as an elder.
Magus: As you may have guessed, the magus is the male equivalent of the queen. The magus may have all the responsibilities of a queen in his own right, depending on the tradition, or he may be the consort of a queen. As with queens, magi do not exist in all (or even most) Wiccan traditions. Very, very rarely will you hear a man referred to as a Witch king (and, often, only in reference to Alex Sanders and only as a curious piece of history).
Elder: Elders are those coven members who have the most experience within the group. Usually, these are the third degrees, whether they are serving as high priests and high priestesses or queens and magi. Elder is a relative term, though. A second degree is elder to a first degree, but not to a third, for example. Within the entirety of a tradition, elders are those who have long operated covens and trained students and also those who have made significant contributions in other ways. What’s important to understand is that being an elder isn’t inherently tied to age. People may come to the Craft at any point in their lives, so physical age is not a fair judge of a Witch’s experience. A high priestess in her thirties is still elder to her fifty-year-old first degree. One does not become a queen simply by virtue of aging. Elderhood is about experience in the Craft, not the age of your body.
Elders have a lot of responsibility in the coven, no matter their other roles, because they are always expected to serve as models and guides to newer members of the tradition. Sometimes, they may function directly as mentors to new initiates or they may be asked to run the coven’s outer court, a student study group, or other coven-sanctioned learning community.
Maiden or Handmaiden: The maiden of the coven is the female who directly assists the high priestess in circle. Often, she is in training to become high priestess in her own right. She may sometimes serve as high priestess, or give direction and instruction in the high priestess’s absence.
Summoner: The summoner is usually a male, and it is his responsibility to organize the coven for ritual, providing practical direction, especially for newcomers. The idea behind the name was that he would “summon” Witches to the sabbat once the coven leaders had finalized their intentions. In some situations, he would also stand outside the circle, armed and guarding the coven against intruders, whether physical or magical. I have seen this use of a summoner at open rituals and at outdoor events on public land, but it’s less common for smaller groups and groups that meet on private property. I’ve also seen the position of summoner filled by a woman (and have filled it myself!). It’s also possible to see a summoner serving as assistant to the high priest, as the maiden is to the high priestess.
The roles of maiden and summoner are common in some traditions and totally absent from others. Sometimes, they are not permanent positions, but individual coven members may rotate these duties. Very small covens may have no need for them at all.
The remaining three coven roles have a greater variety in usage across Wiccan traditions and in individual covens. It’s not uncommon for these terms to be used interchangeably. According to mundane definitions, their meanings are very similar:
Neophyte: A neophyte is someone in the process of becoming something. The term is usually used to refer to someone preparing for initiation. In some traditions, like Blue Star Wicca, neophyte is a ritually acknowledged stage in a series of rites of passage. These are individuals who have formally asked for initiation, and whom the coven leaders have decided are ready to begin formally working toward it.
Dedicant: Usually, a dedicant is an acknowledged student of a coven. Often, this position is marked with a formal dedication ritual. In most cases, she has taken no oaths and is not formally a member of the coven. This is a discovery period, when a seeker may learn about a tradition firsthand, before bearing the weight of responsibility that comes with initiation.
Student: Sometimes, this is a formal position, where a student is someone (like a neophyte) who is formally working toward initiation. A student may be someone who’s been formally accepted into an outer court. Really, we never stop being students. Even a high priestess may continue to defer to her own high priestess years after the fact.
FROM THE CIRCLE
One of my favorite things about being in a coven is not just having a community, but having a family. This feels especially important to me because I come from a small family (I’m an only child) and we aren’t very close. I revel in family dinner together before circle, exchanging gifts at the winter solstice, or just knowing that I have Craft siblings that I could call on if I ever needed anything. I also enjoy meeting extended family (my high priestess’s coven siblings are like aunts and uncles, and my queen is like a grandmother) and hearing old stories about my upline.
—Corvus, Wiccan initiate
Due to the publishing boom and the media attention that Gerald Gardner, Alex and Maxine Sanders, and others attracted, the public interest in Wicca soon surpassed the number of covens that had space for seekers. Qualified people might be turned away simply because a working high priestess or high priest could only reasonably take on so many students at once. Further, some seekers were interested in practicing the Craft or worshipping the old gods but didn’t necessarily feel called to become priests or priestesses, devoting themselves to a larger community or running covens of their own. It became necessary to devise a strategy for handling newcomers—one that would allow a coven to accommodate larger numbers, more time to screen potential initiates, and a way to train those who belonged in the religion without requiring that they commit such a large part of their lives to it.
Outer courts provided a solution. Developed primarily in the eighties by author and Gardnerian high priest Ed Fitch, a training system called the Pagan Way arose to prepare seekers for life in a coven. Members of a coven usually oversaw Pagan Way groups. They had their own rituals, activities for beginning magical practice, and even their own deities. Seekers spent time in the coven’s Pagan Way group (or sometimes just “Pagan” group) and then went on to become initiates. Others, however, chose to stay in the Pagan Way, and many of these groups came to be independent, with their own leadership, their own developing traditions, and no desire to enter the Witch priesthood formally. Pagan Way materials were published in assorted popularly available books—notably Ed Fitch’s Magical Rites from the Crystal Well (1984) and A Grimoire of Shadows (1996)—and were quickly absorbed into a wider Pagan movement, particularly in the United States. Many of the wider Pagan community’s most well-loved rituals, techniques, chants, and beliefs arose from expansion and development of the Pagan Way. One of the reasons why “generic Paganism” (as though that could ever fairly be an objective thing) looks so much like Wicca is because of the spread of the Pagan Way.
These Pagan Way groups were also called outer courts, with the initiates making up an inner court, in contrast. Other groups use different terms (including grove, training circle, and others), but the basic premise is the same: a ritual group for would-be Witches, designed to prepare seekers for future participation in a formal coven. Sometimes, there is a set curriculum and a minimum timeframe during which students must participate and complete a set assortment of tasks. Often, however, the training process is individualized. Some outer court groups are very informal, functioning more like book clubs or discussion groups. Usually, there is some ritual component, but every group is different.
Running an outer court alongside a coven (or inner court) is a huge job. Coven leaders may delegate the task to experienced second or even first degrees. Sometimes, outer court students will be kept completely separate from initiates. Other times inner and outer courts are combined, with shared rituals being appropriate for noninitiates. Outer court members may have mentors in the coven and often meet with coven leaders individually for discussion and individualized training.
In seeking to join a traditional coven and become a Wiccan priestess or priest, the first step is often asking to join a coven’s outer court. This process allows the high priestess and high priest to assess seekers over time for sincerity and compatibility. It also allows the seeker to make an informed decision before committing to either a coven or a whole tradition. The specifics of outer court participation—what’s included in training and how long one can expect to remain in outer court—can vary considerably from coven to coven. Some covens may not employ an outer court model at all, choosing to evaluate potential initiates in other ways before committing to them. You may be asked to attend social events with coven members or to otherwise spend time with the leaders more casually to gauge your fit with the group.
We will discuss the finer points of joining and succeeding in an outer court (or other kind of training group) in part 3, as well as what to expect!
5. For more, consult Dion Fortune’s The Magical Battle for Britain, edited by Gareth Knight (1993). A fictionalized account also exists in Katherine Kurtz’s Lammas Night (1983).