The word coven originated from the Latin term coventus, meaning “assembly” or “agreement.” (Covenant comes from the same root.) The term first appeared in Scotland around the 1500s to denote a witch's meeting or a local group of practicing witches. However, the word was rarely used until the modern witchcraft movement became more public and popularized.
In her book The Spiral Dance, Starhawk describes a coven as “a Witch's support group, consciousness-raising group, psychic study center, clergytraining program, College of Mysteries, surrogate clan, and religious congregation all rolled into one.” That about sums it up. In short, a coven is a spiritual family in which each member is committed to the principles of the Craft and to one another.
The traditional coven has thirteen members, although some groups may choose to include more or fewer. Keeping the group small enables intimacy to grow among members and reduces the likelihood of developing into a pack of disciples led by a guru.
Traditional covens have thirteen members. Why? A year contains thirteen lunar months. Wicca and witchcraft are closely aligned with the moon and its feminine energy; thus, the number thirteen represents the lunar calendar and signifies wholeness.
Wicca and witchcraft tend to appeal to people who dislike hierarchy and rigid dogma. Many modern witches were raised in patriarchal religions that didn't encourage free thinking; they have chosen Wicca (or another pagan path) because it allows them to follow their own truth.
Covens offer a lot to practitioners of Wicca and witchcraft. It's nice to have “kinfolk” with whom to share information about magick and spirituality. Covens provide an opportunity for learning on all levels. It's also fun to celebrate meaningful holidays and events with people who feel as you do. In a world that still doesn't completely accept witches and magick, a coven brings individuals into a community where they can feel safe, accepted, and valued. Furthermore, the power a group can raise when they work together for the good of all far exceeds what one witch could muster alone.
The challenge, which faces groups of all kinds, is to get past egos, unrealistic expectations, and self-esteem issues, and just allow the group connectedness to happen. Dedication, commitment, and work on the part of each individual in the coven are necessary to bring about strength and harmony.
As you can well imagine, thirteen independent-minded witches are likely to have lots of differing opinions, ideas, and objectives. At times things can get pretty dicey. Some covens split up over trivial matters, while others work through problems and find solutions. If you decide to become part of a coven, you'll want to ask yourself if you are willing to devote the effort necessary to make the coven work. Being part of something greater than yourself requires cooperation, respect, and tolerance.
Benefits of Working with a Coven
You can learn a lot — about magick and life — through working with a coven, especially when it comes to foundational information that a well-established coven can provide. In particular, you will have the opportunity to:
Learn what modern magick is in practice versus popular ideas and misrepresentations.
Discover the history of a specific magickal tradition.
Receive instruction on how to meditate and focus effectively (in a group setting).
Learn how to raise and direct energy through group spells and rituals.
Explore divine images and their meanings to a specific group.
Acquire the tools of witchcraft and use them in a coven setting.
Unless the group is eclectic, these points will be conveyed according to the coven's particular traditions, but that doesn't reduce the value of learning at the feet of good teachers. Everything you glean can (and will) be applied to other magickal methods and situations, either as a solitary witch or within a group.
The best covens are made up of individuals who take their responsibility to the group seriously. You want a group whose practices honor both the person and the Circle.
Consider the coven's tradition and the constructs that different traditions provide. Some covens follow specific “lineages” and ideologies, such as Celtic or Egyptian, Dianic or Alexandrian. If a coven holds to a particular tradition that doesn't interest you or with which you feel uncomfortable, you're in the wrong place.
As you decide whether a coven is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
What kind of attendance and study requirements are expected of you?
Do these mesh with your mundane schedules and responsibilities?
Does the group you're considering have a specific initiation ritual?
What is it like? Is there anything in that ritual that doesn't fit your vision?
Does the group require secrecy? If so, what's the reason behind it and how hush-hush is everything?
Ask the coven leader for permission to attend an open Circle or other function before you consider pursuing membership. This will allow you to observe how the coven operates and how the people involved interact. Keep your senses open, allowing yourself to imagine what it would be like to work within that structure.
“In a strong coven, the bond is, by tradition, ‘closer than family’; a sharing of spirits, emotions, imaginations. ‘Perfect love and perfect trust’ are the goal.”
— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
Only you can determine whether joining a coven is right for you, and if it is, which coven best suits your objectives. Take your time and don't rush. Bear in mind that every group you review will have its strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies — that is part of being human. Find a group with whom you feel a common bond and focus on the big picture; the nitpicky stuff you can work on over time.