Finding A Coven
Seeking Traditional Wicca
Well, here we go,” I muttered to myself, finally hitting the send button after several minutes of staring at the email I’d spent too much time composing. I was nervous, loosened by an extra glass of wine, and figured that I really didn’t have anything to lose at this point. I’d begun practicing eclectic Wicca when I was fourteen. In college, I’d been a member of a grove in Blue Star Wicca. I’d explored non-Wiccan forms of Witchcraft after that. I’d been to more open rituals and Pagan meetups than I could remember (and plenty I wished I could forget). I’d started book clubs, attended student groups in college, and even been dedicated into a coven that had turned out to not be quite the right fit. I was done.
When I first started exploring Wicca as a young teenager, I’d been intrigued by the stories I read about the older traditions. What must it have been like, in Wicca’s early days, to belong to a coven and practice oathbound magic rites in total secrecy? I wish people still did things that way, I thought, dreaming fervently that I was part of something that powerful.
Of course, they did. They do. But for some reason—maybe it was the books I was reading, or maybe it was the people I was hanging out with—I got it into my head that these older ways had died out, replaced by new, more correct, “progressive” kinds of Witchcraft that people found more fulfilling or more authentic. Why be bossed around by a high priestess when you could be your own high priestess? Why not forge your own way and build your own tradition? No one could say who was and who wasn’t really a Wiccan! It had been decades, and we were a new generation with different needs and different experiences!
But part of me still longed for the romance that I experienced the first time I read Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner. When I looked at those old black and white photographs of Patricia Crowther, Janet Farrar, and Maxine Sanders, I felt something stir in my bones. After all these years and every experience I’d had in hundreds of other circles, a part of me never forgot that I had longed for whatever that was. It never went away, even when I’d stopped looking because I thought I’d found something else. Even when I thought that kind of Wicca just didn’t exist anymore.
And here it was, apparently, as though from nothing. Oh shit. I had only checked on an alcohol-induced whim. There was never anything. Not in years. But here, a three-line post on a Pagan website that I hadn’t bothered looking at in however many months: “Traditional Gardnerian Coven, North Carolina. We practice our tradition as it was passed to us by our Long Island elders. At this time, we are not currently accepting new students.”
Like hell you’re not.
I tossed back my drink like an action hero before he jumps off a cliff. Because this ad wasn’t here the last time I was seeking. Last time, I’d emailed covens in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Last time, I’d driven four hours one way to circle with people who, though they were dear to me, knew plain well that I didn’t belong. I’d just gotten out of a bad relationship. I’d just applied to graduate school. I’d just picked up and moved to a new city. I was ready to start my life over. This ad was here for me, I knew it.
Now I just needed to get them to let me in.
You Are Not Alone
There are a lot of Witches in the world.
If you’re like most seekers, you probably feel pretty alone sometimes. You look around you, at your friends, family, and coworkers, and marvel at the secret life you live. What would they think if they knew about you? Would they understand? Is there anyone who would understand? Maybe you live in a small town—the kind with a church at every intersection and where everyone knows everything about everyone else (almost)—and you’re sure you’re the only magical person for miles. No Pagan shops, no meetups or moots, and no hope. Or maybe you live in a big city and your problem is on the other end of the spectrum: there are Witches and Pagans all over the place … just not the kind you’re looking for. Whatever the case, most of us have the experience of feeling isolated and lonely. I don’t know a single practitioner of any kind who hasn’t spent time wishing for contact with others of like mind. Even if we’re happy working alone, most of us reach out to others from time to time, whether online or in the flesh. We need to be able to share our experiences and ideas, to ask questions, and take comfort in companionship. When we can’t do those things, it becomes very easy to feel like the only Witch in the world.
But here’s the thing: you are not the only Witch in the world.
You’re probably not even the only Witch in town (yes, even in your tiny church town). As alone as you may feel and as devoid of immediate resources as your surroundings may be on your average day, it is extremely unlikely that there are no other practitioners nearby. Contemporary Pagans number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States alone (exact numbers vary widely depending on how we define “Pagan”), and many of those practice some kind of Witchcraft.17 There are many more kinds of non-Pagan Witches, too, so these numbers are probably low. Once you factor in neighboring towns and cities, it becomes harder and harder to insist that you’re all alone in the world. You aren’t.
You just haven’t figured out where to look yet.
For many Witches—of any kind—the ultimate dream is to belong to a stable, working coven. Imagine: a tight-knit group of like-minded souls working together, advancing each other’s practices, celebrating together, working powerful ritual and magic together. In traditional Wicca, belonging to a coven is the norm. An initiate may ultimately choose to work alone, or he may spend much of his time on his own (because of distance or the need to focus on other areas of life), but training occurs within a group setting. Even if that group is small—perhaps only a high priestess and one or two students—becoming a traditional Wiccan is a social process.
As a seeker, one of your first hurdles is locating and joining a coven within the tradition you want to practice. This can be an extremely daunting task. In this chapter, we’ll talk about where to start, what to look for, and what to do when the going gets tough. However daunted you may feel, know that this is far from being an impossible task, and steady persistence pays off.
Before you even start seeking, you have to know what you’re looking for. This sounds self-explanatory, but, as you’ve seen, there’s a lot of variety within traditional Wicca. It usually isn’t enough to say “I want to be Wiccan” or even “I want to be a traditional Wiccan.” There are many Wiccan traditions operating today, and many different kinds of covens within each. Aside from considering which tradition appeals to you the most, you must also decide how much time you have to commit to training, how far you are willing to travel, and how well Wiccan training will fit into your life.
As an exercise, consider the following questions. Get out a notebook and jot down some answers so that you can review your thoughts periodically and refocus. Some of your responses may change in time, and you can refer to these should you find yourself facing similar questions from a prospective coven (many of these I require inquiring seekers to answer before allowing them to attend an outer court circle):
1. What attracts you to traditional Wicca? Of all the kinds of Witchcraft in the world, why this one?
2. How do you feel about working skyclad? Having a working partner (and, most likely, having one of another sex and gender identity)?
3. How much time can you devote to a coven? Can you meet on weeknights? Weekends?
4. How far are you willing to travel? Can you do so reliably?
5. How does your partner or spouse feel about you being involved in a coven? How will they handle not having access to this part of your life? How do they feel about the prospect of you having to keep some of your experiences secret from them?
6. Are you comfortable with hierarchy, or would you prefer something more egalitarian?
7. Do you want to run your own coven someday? Can you do that in the tradition you’re exploring?
8. What does your perfect coven look like? What kinds of things do they do? Are there a lot of people in it? How often do they meet?
9. Is your work life stable? Is your home life stable? Is now the right time to make a major change?
10. What are your short-term goals as a Witch? What are your long-term goals?
Answer these questions completely and honestly and you’ll have a solid idea of what you should look for, what kinds of covens are worth approaching, and what obstacles you may encounter moving forward. If you work every weekend, you’ll need to find a group that meets primarily during the week. If you’re only available for meeting once a month, then you shouldn’t join a coven that meets once a week. If you don’t have your own car and can’t travel outside of your own city, then you shouldn’t be looking at covens fifty miles away. If your wife is unhappy with your decision to pursue Witchcraft, then you’ll likely run into problems if you try to join a group that requires you to keep coven activities secret from her. If you’re a man who aspires to run his own coven one day, then you shouldn’t approach a tradition that passes authority exclusively through women.
Be as honest with yourself as possible. If you’re not sure about something, admit and accept that. You’re still exploring, after all! You can’t possibly know exactly what to expect and what will work best for you at this point. This exercise just gives you a starting point—a way to cross some covens and traditions off your list immediately. It’s not uncommon for seekers to meet with several groups before finding the best fit. It’s also not uncommon for a seeker to spend time working with a coven—maybe even several months—and then come to the realization that it isn’t a good fit. At the core of traditional Wiccan training and practice is the process of self-development—coming to know yourself and realizing your potential. You have to start exactly where you are. This means knowing your desires and goals as well as your fears and limitations. This is in your best interest and will ensure that you make the best match possible with a potential coven. Not only will you know what to look for, but you’ll also know what questions to ask of coven leaders you may meet.
FROM THE CIRCLE
When I left the Catholic Church and became Pagan, I was determined to never join another organized religion. But I missed the structure and the ritual. I missed the burning incense and people coming from all over to speak in unison to lend power to something greater than themselves. I compromised by going to open circles and ended up becoming friends with three other Witches. The rumor was that one of them was a traditional high priestess. Until this point, I had assumed that traditional Wiccans were an extinct branch of the Witchcraft evolutionary tree: where a lot of current Craft traditions came from, but no longer a living tradition. It was like I was talking to a living archaeopteryx (minus the bird-like shrieks). I asked a lot of questions, and she answered them when she could. Over the course of the year that I got to know her coven, I went from being mindfully skeptical and secretly jealous to timidly asking if I could attend outer court.
—Acacia, outer court member
Before we get too much farther, let’s pause and consider one of traditional Wicca’s most famously divisive characteristics, and one that many seekers initially struggle with: ritual nudity (or “skyclad” ritual). If you’ve been considering traditional Wicca for any length of time, you’ve probably already learned that it’s typical for covens to perform the rites nude. Indeed, one of the most controversial things about early Wicca was its penchant for nudity in circle, and this is something that continues to raise some eyebrows. If the thought of taking your clothes off in front of a roomful of other people makes your stomach twist, know that you’re not the only one. This is a hurdle that most seekers have to leap.
The thing is, skyclad ritual is supposed to be uncomfortable at first. It should feel out of the ordinary at first. Skyclad practice is part of the process of separating from the mundanity of your day-to-day. It’s a magical trigger designed to put you in the mindset that allows for the extraordinary. It’s also a sign of the profound trust that is required for successful work in a coven.
There are a number of reasons that various people cite for skyclad ritual. For some, it’s a reference to a popular Wiccan text by Doreen Valiente (though many versions exist) called “The Charge of the Goddess,” which includes the proclamation to be naked in your rites as a sign of freedom. For others, it’s an equalizer. Stripped of our clothes and other symbols of status, who are we? It’s also a symbol of our reverence for the physical. We revel in our bodies and our sexualities. Some practitioners also insist that clothing can inhibit the flow of magical energy (though I’d be more inclined to attribute that problem to practice).
Obviously, there are plenty of good reasons to practice clothed. When it’s cold and rainy outside, you better believe I’m gonna be wearing something. Furthermore, when it’s your body at stake, it’s your call. No one should be trying to force you into something that you don’t want to do. It’s okay to choose to work robed or in street clothes if that’s what you prefer. Just take that as an indicator that a particular tradition, coven, or coven leader isn’t for you!
But if you’re on the fence, it’s worth challenging your discomfort. Ritual nudity in a safe environment can be enormously beneficial. Years of practicing skyclad with people I love and trust has taught me to value my own body in ways beyond the typically prescribed self-love routines. Just the act of seeing other naked bodies engaged in something positive—without concern for culturally prescribed standards of beauty—does something to alter our (usually unrealistic) expectations for ourselves. It makes us stronger Witches, because we develop the power to be at ease (more potent, even) in our own skins, regardless of what they look like or what they can do. Believe me, traditional Wiccans are just as fat, skinny, scarred, hairy, variously abled, and prone to body-image hang-ups as anyone. We just take it off anyway. It was a struggle for plenty of us. That confidence is something that most of us had to work up to. If you really think that the people in your potential coven are going to ridicule you, take this as an indicator that you’re circling with the wrong people. In good ritual, the focus is on the work at hand. Not on your body.
The First Step
So now that you’ve got a sense of what you want, how do you actually start looking? Where should you look? Whom should you talk to?
Sometimes, being a seeker is a little like being a private investigator in a mystery novel. What you’re looking for is rarely right in front of your face. You have to recognize clues, follow leads, ask the right questions, and be willing to take chances. Most importantly, you have to be willing to persevere when the trail goes cold. It can be a long, frustrating process. A lot of would-be Wiccans give up almost as soon as they begin simply because they don’t have the patience to work past that initial difficulty of realizing that the perfect coven probably isn’t operating next door.
Witchcraft is a broad and diverse practice, and as such it attracts a sometimes surprising variety of people. Often, when we struggle to find others in our communities, part of the problem is that we’re making too many assumptions about what a Witch looks like and how they should choose to live. We tend to look for people who resemble ourselves, forgetting that other possibilities exist. More times than I can count in almost twenty years of Wiccan practice, I’ve been in the company of another Witch, listening to them complain about the absence of others, completely unaware that there was another Witch (and one who runs a coven, at that) in the room. In my professional life, I work to be inconspicuous. I tend to blend in with my fellow classroom teachers (I even have Wiccan students, and not a one knows their teacher is a Witch). Our personal lives—including our religious inclinations—aren’t relevant to our work, so they rarely arise outside of the more intimate conversations we may have with our actual friends. There’s no reason a coworker would suspect that I’m a Witch. I consciously don’t give them a reason. That’s a choice I’ve made, for the sake of maintaining my own privacy. And yet here I am. I don’t stand out. You couldn’t pick me out of a crowd. Nonetheless, I’ve built clear avenues for other Witches to find me, if they know how to look. And I’m not the only Witch leaving trails of breadcrumbs in the forest for seekers to find.
Making the Most of the Internet
Despite its prevalence—its everywhere-ness and our dependence on it—most of us are kind of bad at the internet. We can use it to do our jobs and keep tabs on our friends and families. We play games and catch up on the news and cruise social media sites for cat memes. Some of us consciously use it for research purposes, Googling “Wicca” or searching the hashtags on Tumblr or Wordpress for Witchcraft-related sites. What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that you can also use the internet to find covens, study groups, mentors, and friends. In the same way that you might reach out to find other Game of Thrones fans or other stay-at-home moms or other fountain pen collectors, you can find other people interested in whatever tradition of Witchcraft you can think of. There’s a good chance that you’ve already done some exploring of the Pagan and Witch internet, and none of this is news. We live with the internet, after all. Even so, I’m often amazed by what people say they can’t find, despite hours of ardent surfing, and I suspect that the issue lies with impatience rather than unfamiliarity. I lurk on a longstanding traditional Wiccan listserv where seekers may post inquiries, and I always chuckle to see my own city come up in conversation. Every time a beginner posts, “I can’t find any Wiccans here!” I know that they either haven’t looked or don’t know how to look. So let’s discuss some specific sites and strategies for making the most of your internet experience.
Most fundamentally, you’ll need to refine your search skills. There’s a balance to be struck between being too broad and being too narrow. Running a search for “Wicca” is going to turn up googobs of websites, most of which won’t be what you’re really looking for (and many of which will hurt more than they help). On the other hand, searching “Mohsian high priests in Salt Lake City” might turn up bupkus (although I don’t actually know for sure … I haven’t tried!). You have to know what you want, but you also have to be flexible. A good place to start is with “Wicca” and your state or city (or country, depending on how much geographic space that entails and what kind of travel is reasonable for you). That’s how many seekers have found me. That’s also how I found the coven that trained me. If that yields a lot of options, try narrowing things with “traditional Wicca” or even the specific tradition you’re considering.
This kind of search may turn up many kinds of results. If you’re lucky, you may find websites devoted to individual traditions or covens in your area. You may also find links to ads placed on websites like The Witches’ Voice (www.witchvox.com) or small Pagan social media sites (www.wiccantogether.com). Many of these kinds of websites have been around for a long time (The Witches’ Voice has been around since the nineties!), and sections of them are no longer being maintained regularly. Increasingly, people rely on larger social media sites like Facebook and don’t even realize that specialized networking hubs exist. Even on these older sites, however, you may be able to turn up useful leads. Just because a group advertisement was placed a few years ago doesn’t mean it’s no good. It doesn’t hurt to give it a try. This is especially true within older Wiccan traditions, whose elders may still rely on more dated contact media. A coven that’s been running smoothly for twenty years may not feel the need to delete its tried-and-true Witchvox listing in favor of a Facebook page. You may even turn up a PO box address (I maintain one myself and have absolutely received seeker inquiries by mail). If you find a lead, try it!
In most cases, however, you won’t turn up a whole website or a specific advertisement directed at local seekers. It’s much more likely that you’ll find social media profiles for Witches and Pagans living in that area. You may find blogs, too, which can be fantastic resources. If you find Instagram accounts, Tumblr pages, or similar personal internet spaces and the owner welcomes followers, add them! In following their regular posts—even if they’re not directly about Witchcraft—you do two important things. First, you give yourself the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who could someday become a friend, a mentor, a covenmate, or a study partner. Second, you become connected to a larger network of people (other followers, linked blogs and other web pages, etc.), which means even more potential contacts, any one of whom may provide the key for moving forward in the future. Some of these people will specifically invite questions, comments, or other kinds of individualized input from people who find their accounts. Take advantage of this. On my own social media accounts, followers can contact me through comments and direct messaging. Over the years, I’ve built solid friendships this way.
Social media provides seekers with more opportunities for networking than ever before. Individual platforms come and go, but so many now exist that it’s easy for anyone with a computer to reach out to others through many mediums. You can go to YouTube or Vimeo and watch videos by thousands of other Witches and Pagans of all kinds (both professional, informational videos and unpolished, personal clips from practitioners just sharing their lives using home recorders). You can explore Witch-related hashtags on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter to find personal pictures, links, and blog posts. And you can search sites like Facebook, Meetup, and even old standbys like Yahoo! Groups for groups and listservs that provide networking opportunities for seekers. Social media changes constantly, and platforms certainly have a shelf life. By the time you read this, there may be a half dozen new places to build your online home. Take advantage of what’s available! Many Witches create accounts specifically for their Witchcraft and use them to reach out to others, collect information, and share their experiences. The more of these you explore, the more likely you are to find people close to home (or people who know people close to home). Every new contact represents possibility.
Beyond just searching for resources in your own area, look for those with broader reach. There are websites out there that cater to particular traditions, and some of these maintain pages designed to help seekers find covens. Search the names of specific traditions, favorite authors, or famous practitioners (living and dead). These broader searches will reveal more resources than what you’re likely to find when you add your region or city. Follow all leads, no matter how small. Can you find a blog written by someone who works within the tradition you’re pursuing? They may be able to point you to a local group that isn’t vocal online. Contact them. Can you find other seekers to the same tradition you’re studying? Ask them about their experiences. Reach out to other people, even if it seems far-fetched. Worst-case scenario is usually that you just don’t get a response.
Casting the Net
Seeking isn’t easy. Maybe you will be lucky enough to find covens and other kinds of groups and open events relatively nearby. Maybe when you ran your first internet search for “traditional Wiccan coven near me,” you were blessed to find two coven listings, a big meetup group for all local Pagans, and a dozen blogs maintained by local Witches, just writing about their lives and posting pictures of their friends, families, and homes. Maybe you found the address of a local shop that caters to Pagans and occultists. Lucky you!
It’s more likely, however, that you didn’t find quite that much. In fact, maybe you found none of it. Like I said, seeking isn’t easy, and this first part is sometimes the hardest. For some people, it’s a lot harder than for others. But now isn’t the time to give up in despair. Just because that first, simplest internet search didn’t turn anything up doesn’t mean that you’re the only Witch in town. It just means that they aren’t advertising. At least, they aren’t advertising via the most popular channels. It’s time to cast a wider net.
Many different kinds of people practice Witchcraft, it’s true. Making too many assumptions can inhibit our seeking. But it’s also true that certain kinds of people seem to be more likely to feel drawn to practice the Craft, study magic, and worship the old gods (or abandon all talk of gods entirely, seeking their power elsewhere, as many Witches do). Witchcraft—no matter what kind of Witchcraft we’re talking about—exists on the margins. Whether or not we individually think it’s right and fair—if we believe Wicca deserves the same kind of recognition as any other respectable religion, or if we feel that Witchcraft is necessarily an art that belongs only to the marginalized—the Craft resists the mainstream. Secret by nature and harboring ideas that often challenge conventional society, Witchcraft tends to attract people who are at least somewhat unconventional already. To find other Witches, it is often useful to traverse other spaces that draw these personalities. Certain Witchcraft communities overlap with other “alternative” or “fringe” movements, subcultures, and interest groups. These terms are often used dismissively, in contrast to the “mainstream,” which is itself a kind of myth that fails to account for the individual complexity of people (in this age, the “alternative” may be the majority, and what appears “mainstream” may be only a veneer). Nonetheless, here we can use this kind of categorization to positive ends.
Over the decades, Wiccan Witchcraft, collectively, has come to emphasize certain concerns, which give it some distinction (whether or not any of these may be central to individual covens or practitioners). Speaking broadly, these are nature and the environment, sexuality and gender, health and personal development, and the practice of magic. Various components of Wicca—the celebration of seasonal sabbats, skyclad ritual, a gendered pair of deities, the practice of spellcraft, a generally open attitude toward sex and sexuality, and others—naturally extend into other fields. Consequently, it is often easier to find other Wiccans (as well as other kinds of Witches and Pagans) amongst communities that share these interests and concerns. You may have difficulty finding a local store specifically serving Witches, but is there one specializing in health and holistic healing? Is there a gem and mineral store? A feminist bookshop? Maybe there’s no Pagan meetup, but is there one for environmentalists and other outdoor lovers? People with these interests may be more likely to also have an interest in Witchcraft or related practices. Be creative here. The wider the net you cast, the more leads you are likely to find. Some connections are clearer than others. For example, I once lived in a city that didn’t have a Pagan meetup (sometimes called a moot), but it did have one for tarot readers. Whether or not I was passionate about tarot (and I wasn’t, at first), I suspected that at least some members would probably also be Pagans or Witches, and may be able to point me to other communities. I was right. There were several people who, I found out in time as I got to know them, were solitary practitioners or part of small, private covens with no internet presence. I could have Googled from dawn to dusk and I never would have found them.
Other communities may also have connections, though they are less obvious. Queer, feminist, and kink communities often attract Witches and Pagans, as all of these groups tend to share “progressive” or “alternative” attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and gender. You may also find contacts and other resources within communities interested in folklore, history (particularly in eras somehow pertaining to Witchcraft or Pagan religion), mythology, and fantasy. Groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) are famous for harboring Pagans and occultists, thanks to a shared interest in European history. You’ll find a disproportionately large number of Pagans in historical European martial arts (HEMA) groups, for similar reasons. Gamer and fandom communities are also good places to find others, particularly those bent toward fantasy, magic, and horror.
Do not fall into the trap of assuming that just because you can’t find groups, meetups, or shops that are explicitly Wiccan that you must be alone. Witches are complex people with varied interests, but some patterns are discernible. If “Wicca” turns up nothing in your online searching, expand it to “Witchcraft,” “Pagan,” “occult,” or “New Age.” Consider which of your other interests might appeal to fellow Witches. In exploring, you may even discover new interests. Creativity and persistence are key.
Regardless how fruitful your local search for fellow Witches, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll have to move beyond your familiar surroundings and venture into unexplored territory. This will be especially true if the parameters you’ve set for your ideal coven are somewhat narrow. You may be determined to become an initiate of Alexandrian Wicca, but there may simply be no Alexandrian covens in your city. If this is the case, you’ll have to seek further afield. Even if there were twelve Alexandrian covens in your immediate area, it would still be worthwhile to explore the other options that may be available to you. Fifty miles away, you may find a coven with a more compatible high priestess or a better group dynamic. Even happily covened Witches benefit from meeting other Witches and Pagans from other traditions or other lines within their own traditions. You can use the same strategies for finding others that you used locally, with some additional possibilities.
FROM THE CIRCLE
The most challenging thing was finding a group that was the right fit for me. I believe too many seekers are in a hurry and just want to get going. I was no exception to this. Do your best to be patient. Explore! Look everywhere until you find what is right. Understand, too, that traditional Wicca may not be right for you. Be honest. Don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t bullshit experienced Witches—they’ll see through you if you pretend you’re more knowledgeable than you really are. If you don’t know something, just say so!
—Liam, third degree high priest
Attending Festivals and Open Events
The Pagan festival movement has been going strong for decades. Born in the same spirit as the music and consciousness-raising festivals popular in the era of the American counterculture, Pagan festivals are opportunities for practitioners of myriad traditions to come together to celebrate, learn, teach, and enjoy their own space, apart from the mundane. There are many festivals all over the United States and in many parts of Europe and Canada. Some are impromptu weekend events put on by single Pagan groups, open to the community. Others are annual events that last for whole weeks and draw in hundreds (or even thousands) from other regions. Festivals often offer a program of workshops, author talks and book signings, musical performances, and plenty of ritual. Organizers may bring in Pagan presenters, or offer classes taught by local experts. There may be fireside drumming and dancing, outdoor activities like hiking and camping, and plenty of time to socialize with different kinds of practitioners. These types of events are fantastic opportunities to network. At larger festivals, many traditions will be represented, and you need only ask an organizer to point you in the right direction. You never know who you could meet!
Festivals usually involve travel and require taking time away from work. There are also admission costs, plus the expense of food and lodging (whether that means hotel fees or camping supplies). For most of us, careful planning and saving throughout the year are critical. But if you’re hungry to meet others and find a place in a wider community, the cost may be well worth it. I have been to several different festivals over the years, but one in particular—Free Spirit Gathering in Maryland—has become my summer home. Whatever else is going on in my life, I do everything in my power to be there every year to enjoy my festival family. Even after becoming a member of a traditional coven with established practices, the experiences I’ve had at Free Spirit have continued to influence my Witchcraft and my relationships with the gods. I continue to learn and grow every summer, even though (actually, because) we come from different paths. That’s the real benefit of festival.
If one of these larger events sounds appealing, be aware that they offer different amenities and have different rules. Plan accordingly. Do you mind being in a tent for a week, or would you prefer something indoors, where you can purchase a hotel room? Some events are outdoors but on campgrounds with furnished cabins and indoor plumbing. Will you have to bring your own food for each day, or is there a meal plan available for an additional fee? Are workshops free, or do some have a speaker or supply cost? How do you feel about clothing-optional events? Many outdoor festivals allow nudity. This usually does not include the possibility of public sex acts, but there are certainly adult-only festivals where this may be permitted. Are you looking for an event where you can include your children? Some festivals have children’s programming or childcare. Others may allow children but not provide for any of their specific needs, leaving it to parents to find ways to entertain and educate. Be aware, too, that many festivals allow nudity but also have children in attendance. This may influence your decision to bring your own kids. Some events cater to specific Pagan groups or traditions, and others are more inclusive. Depending on how far you are willing to travel and how much funding you have available, you have much to consider. It’s also worthwhile to see if an individual festival offers a work option, “scholarship,” or other type of assistance for attendees who may not be able to pay the full cost. Many do!
Most of the largest festivals maintain websites that will come up with relatively simple internet searches, along with useful festival guides (try searching “Pagan festivals” and adding your region).18 You can also visit the websites of your favorite Witch writers, musicians, internet personalities, and speakers to see if they’ll be appearing at any events nearby. Don’t forget to ask the people in your network what events they love! You may have to travel, but you could also be lucky enough to find something fun right under your nose.
If a long festival is out of the question for now (or even if it’s not), there are many other kinds of open Pagan events that may be available to you. In the United States, Pagan Pride Day events are becomingly increasingly common and popular, particularly near larger cities. Usually, Pagan Pride Day occurs at some point in the fall and doesn’t last beyond a weekend. These are public, free events that are designed to spread awareness of the growing influence of Pagan religions and to build community amongst Pagans and their neighbors. Often, donations are collected for local charities. There are vendors selling Pagan goods, teachers offering workshops, and often special guest speakers and performers. Your own town may not have a Pagan Pride Day (though you could start one!), but it’s very possible that a neighboring city does. Make a road trip, if you can, and spend the day making friends and learning from others.
You may also be able to find meetups, Pagan night out events, open rituals, and workshops at Pagan stores. Many Unitarian Universalist churches offer Pagan events or even have an organized CUUPS group (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans). Meeting other Pagans may very well mean going to church on Sunday morning! Even if you can only commit to attending any of these things once, they are worth seeking out. There are many Witches who frequent these kinds of events specifically to find like-minds to establish private groups and covens. It hardly matters whether or not the ritual or class is directly relevant to your specific practice or even if it’s particularly good. The real point is to make contacts. You may not be interested in a class on ancestor offerings in Druid traditions or in a public ritual for the new moon, but go anyway. It’s very likely that there will be at least one other person in attendance who is also only scouting for friends. I assembled my first ritual group through relationships that I built over dozens of open events, many of which were not even remotely resembling my proverbial cup of tea. Don’t miss the opportunity to participate in your wider community, even if it’s an approximation. Just because there’s no one putting together public events that appeal exactly to you doesn’t mean that there aren’t others out there who practice (or aspire to practice) as you do. A little boredom or frustration is a fair price to pay for finding your tribe. Go. And then mind your mouth and don’t be a snob; you never know who’s listening.
No matter where you end up looking and no matter what strategies you use to find others, it’s going to take time and a lot of patience. If you are lucky, you may find a coven within your desired tradition near to you and accepting new students. But it’s more likely that you will have to build a network, ask around, go to events, follow internet leads, and venture out into a wider community. You will find your way forward taking baby steps, not giant leaps.
Seeking is a process. Before initiation, before training even begins, there is this first test. Do you have the patience to wait? Are you diligent enough to persist in the face of discouragement? Are you creative enough to recognize opportunity beyond your original vision? Are you brave enough to reach out? For many, this first step is the most challenging. It’s a rare person who stumbles into the perfect coven with minimal effort. Sometimes, that lack of an initial struggle makes such a person overly soft, vulnerable in future trials of patience and commitment. We tend to value those things that we have to work and wait for over those that simply fall in our lap. So when you’re feeling frustrated, remind yourself that this is part of the process, not some cosmic indication that this path isn’t for you. Keep practicing your own Craft. When you’re feeling lonely, practice Witchcraft. When you’re unsure of where to look next, or you’re reeling from a false start, practice Witchcraft. Finding home with the right coven can take years. Don’t wait until then to figure out who you are as a Witch. All of that effort can only serve you and ultimately push you to where you should be. Practice. Learn. Try. Be brave.
17. James R. Lewis, “The Pagan Explosion: An Overview of Select Census and Survey Data,” in The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hannah E. Johnston and Peg Aloi (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 13—23.
18. Wiccan author Jason Mankey publishes an extensive list of summer festivals every year on his blog, which you can visit at www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey.