More on Covens

Covens are an interesting construct to me. The represent a secretive and defensive way of thinking and operating that should appeal to my Scorpio nature, but does not. I think perhaps my high school experience has left me with a distrust of clubs.

A while back I posted a video in which I talk about covens. I talk a little bit about their history, and about how I see them function in the Pagan community, and I mentioned that I believe that they are becoming obsolete in America, and that I really hope they do.

Apparently there was some issue with that perspective:

The thing that you lose when you shift to a totally community-based open system is the intimacy of a coven – you completely missed this point. Have you ever worked in a coven, yourself, or just observed them from afar and made your proclamations based on that? When you have a small group of people who know each other so very well that they can completely remove all of their masks, have complete trust with one another, what you get is a powerful magical and spiritual unity that can never be paralleled in open communities where few know, much less trust, one another. The point of it isn’t about hiding from persecution; it’s about creating a structure in which people can pool their energies to create magicks that are greater than the sum of their parts. A coven will never be out-moded, because it’s a necessary structure. We will always have a need for covens, because there will always be people who see and appreciate the deeper paths that one can take when one forms the greater bonds of intimacy and connection that only a coven – not an open gathering of strangers – can create.

This comment was full of so much wrong and missing of the point it I almost wondered what video they were responding to.

I was bothered by a lot of things here, but most of all the conflation of belonging to a group that does magic and a community that people live in and regularly interact with. That, and the dichotomy that says you eother belong to a coven, or you work with complete strangers.

I reject the false dichotomy that either I have to work magic in a coven, or I must work with complete strangers. I also reject the notion that only covens can foster intimacy among pagans. If I do need assistance, I have people that I trust that I can call upon. My community will support me, and we don’t need to belong to a coven in order to trust each other. I’ve also witnessed plenty of cases pf coven leaders manipulating their members to know that “perfect trust” isn’t always perfect.

And you’re missing a lot by fixating on the practice of magic.

I think that covens are outmoding themselves because we can always form groups to perform magic, and those groups can be strongly intimate. But more pagans are missing community support, not magical support. To be part of a community of shared values and raise their children, not a secret group casting spells.

I have worked with covens. I have seen their value. But to assume that a coven is the only legitimate magical working group is unwarranted. To assert that any other magical group will not be able to foster trust is absurd. To claim that any group at all is necessary to perform magic is condescending and obnoxious. And to cast efforts to build a community as scary dealings with untrustworthy and scary and dangerous strangers is paranoid and elitist.

So a few points to start with:

1) Covens are not pagan constructs, they are Christian constructs.

There is no strong historical basis for any pre-Christian European religion structuring itself in covens. Covens were a speculation devised on the part of Christian witch-hunters to explain how satantic witches could meet and practice their dark arts. Shitty Victorian scholarship latched on to these constructs and developed some rather bizarre explanations for how those reports of covens — all obtained under torture — from earlier times might describe a real thing.

So when Gardner came along, he used that shitty scholarship. And then he told everyone they needed to be nekkid, because he was a pervert.

2) Covens are not the only kind of magical group.

The assumption made above is that you either join a coven and enjoy untold power, or you work alone and presumably languish in magical failure. This ignores that there are many other kinds of magical working and training groups that are not covens. Indeed, the very assumption that any magical group has to be a “coven” is pretty Wicca-centric. The rules and relationships can be very different, as well as the inclusion of any religious activity.

3) Covens are not the only kind of religious group.

There are plenty of other Pagan ways of organizing religious practice. That covens receive so much attention is a result of the influence of Wicca on everything Pagan. My tradition is temple-based, and I’ve encountered a lot of resistance from other Pagans who either cannot grasp that concept (You mean your coven meets indoors?) or reject it outright (Pagans worship nature, and you can’t worship nature indoors!). Covens are in no way the only means of sharing Pagan spirituality.

4) Community activities are not limited to magical (or even religious) workings.

The assumption that the commenter made that drove me craziest is that any gathering of the Pagan Community at large in an open setting was an effort to perform magic among strangers. This misses the point by a wider margin than the Moon avoids hitting New York City every month.

Community activities are not about magic. They are about community. They are not about strangers. They are about getting to know people. They are not about raising energy and forming intimacy. They are about knowing that you are not alone, about having people you can interact with regarding daily )yes, even non-magical!) matters, who won’t judge you because of your religion. To cast the Pagan community as a bunch of untrustworthy strangers who want to invade the sanctity of your circle is an insult to the people who work to build that community.

5) The vast majority of Pagans are solitary practitioners.

Enough said. To assert that covens are a necessity is a snub to all of them

6) The coven structure is based upon secrecy.

To deny this is to not fully understand how covens are structured. They have limited membership, hidden knowledge, and procedures for vetting new members. Some of those rules are considerably less strict in some groups, but it is implied they are still there.

I acknowledge that there are situations where secrecy is called for. But I believe that the need for secrecy, at least in most larger cities in the US, is becoming less. And I honestly hope that one day it won’t be needed, and that anyone who wants to can be openly pagan and not suffer significant stigma.

So if you’ve stuck with me this long, dear reader, it’s time to answer the response to my video, which was plastered upon the Witches’ Voice homepage a while back, and makes sweeping declarations about how awesome covens are and how you all should be in one (with appropriate disclaimers that, no they’re not for everyone, just the cool kids).

Let the fisking begin!

I’ve heard a bit of buzz from various Pagan people on the Internet suggesting that covens are going out of style, in favor of big public pan-Pagan gatherings. While I think that the coven is a classic, timeless facet of witchery, like the little black dress, here are some more concrete, universal reasons why covens will always be needed. Covens are a necessary structure for many practitioners of witchcraft, and despite the trends toward exoteric pan-Pagan community gatherings, covens aren’t going anywhere

Only buzz I saw was my video and blog post, that she commented on. And this article is pretty much a fleshing out of that comment, without the condescending “Do you even coven, bro?” I shall question the “universality” of these points in support of a coven structure. Two noteworthy points: The assertion that covens are needed and that those needs are universal is followed by a weak qualification that they’re a necessity for “many” pagan (but not “most,” because most Pagans are solitary), and that qualifications contradicts the strong language asserting the value of covens. And the assumption that magical groups are at odds with community-building implies that pan-Pagan events and Pagan community gatherings are a detriment to Paganism.

1. Trust and love

While many tout the idea of love and trust among everyone in the Pagan community, it’s not at all realistic. Love and trust take time to develop. Within a well-formed coven, the initiates share a heartfelt connection with one another, enough so that they can remove all of their masks and facades, and be completely as they are. Imagine how much more magical power can flow if you aren’t spending part of your consciousness worrying if so-and-so across the circle is giving you the stink-eye. Imagine how much more healing can be accomplished when you realize that you can bare your soul, every dark and scary thing, without fear of being talked about behind your back.

The bonds of friendship, love, and trust in a well-formed coven are often as close as family. People know each other on deeper levels, strengthened by the spiritual bonds they share. Nothing in a public gathering space can match that. A depth of love and trust can actually happen within a coven context. Can you say the same for a circle of dozens of people you only know in passing?

This demonstrates the author’s inability to separate covens from other magical groups, or trust from secrecy. Explicit here is the assumption that if you are not in a long-time coven, your only option is to work with strangers. The magical group I formed was composed of people that I had known and trusted for years, and people that they vouched for. The notion that we were barely acquainted strangers doing magic together is laughable, as is the condescending suggestion that trust can only be developed in a coven.

Present here is also the assumption that Pagan community events are all about magical work. When I went to the local Pagan Pride Day, I did no magic and participated in no religious ritual. I was there to meet friends, suppirt local vendors, make social connections, and reinforce my presence in the community. You know, what most people do at community events.

Has the author even been to a Pagan Community event? Do you even Pan-Pagan, bro?

2. Magics that are greater than the sum of the parts

I remember reading somewhere (oh, how I wish I could remember what book that was…) that one person creates 1x magical energy. Two people create 2x magical energy. Three people create 4x magical energy. Four people create 16x magical energy. And so on goes an exponential growth of magical energy as more people are added to the coven, until a critical mass is reached at which point the law of diminishing returns sets in. Too many people creates too many possibilities for stray thoughtforms and energies, and after a certain point, adding more becomes counterproductive. Though magical energy is hard to quantify in these kinds of terms, I have observed that with more people working in tandem, focusing their energies toward a single goal, the levels and vibrations of the magical energy can reach astounding heights.

Many covens, including my own, work skyclad, as a means to further remove psychic barriers between the coveners. This, coupled with the removal of barriers through the establishment of love and trust, means that the energies of the coveners can merge in a coherent, harmonious manner, amplifying one another to heights that would not be able to be achieved on one’s own. Within a coven, the magic worked truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Great reference there. “I once read this one time in this book by this guy that this thing was true.”

Well, I see your fabricated mathematics and raise you Chaos Magical Theory:

“The effects of a number of persons conjuring simultaneously  or sequentially for a common objective never exceeds the best result that any one of them might achieve … Scores are not cumulative. Thus the only value in a collective conjuration is firstly that it allows a greater scope for someone to do sometime outstanding, and secondly that mutual assistance is often conductive to the creation of a better performance all around.” – Peter J. Carroll, Liber Kaos

“Energy raised” is not significant to most magic. Focus of consciousness is. And working in a group may help you attain that focus better, but the values don’t stack.

I also object to the assertion that more people = more magic in that it ignores the fact that a weak link can inhibit your magic. Not only are you not likely to surpass the most focused in the group, but the least focused might drag you down.

Also, not the rather weak defense of working skyclad. Working skyclad was something Garnder threw in to Wicca because he liked to creep on young girls. Unless you’re taking advantage of the sexual tension that everyone is pretending isn’t there, I’m not sure what you’re hoping to gain. And if clothing blocks your psychic connections, I don’t see how the solution is to remove your clothing instead of improving your ability to pick up on psychic connections.

3. A setting that meets the individual’s needs

Let’s say that your grandma is sick in the hospital. You go to your local Pagan church and tell them this, and they give you the standard, “We’ll light a candle or send some energy at the next event.” That’d be very helpful, except for the fact that eight other people have likewise come to the church with requests to focus on their own needs. Whose gets priority? Is it first-come-first-served? Or do they just do a wide-spectrum scatter of energy and hope that the motley of people who may or may not care about your situation has some actual impact on Grandma’s well-being?

This is rarely a concern in a coven. If I have something planned for my coven to work on at any particular esbat, and a covener has a working he or she needs to do immediately, I can shift things around. I can make sure that everyone’s needs are addressed in a timely fashion, and work with the coveners to ensure the best possible spellwork to achieve their goals.

A few responses to this.

1) Why can’t this be a problem in a coven? Covens I’ve worked with have faced the difficulty of whose family members to cast healing spells on.

2) If you have a larger congregation, why is it a problem to light candles or do healing work for more people? This is inconsistent with the assertion in the last point that more people = more magic. If magical efficacy is logarithmic, then doubling the size of your group will have a huge increase in power, and healing all of the people shouldn’t be a problem.

3) There is again the assumption that a coven is the only kind of group that can offer this kind of support.

4) There is again the assumption that performing magic requires the assistance of other people. My mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer – the first one firing off healing spells is me, because I am the mage that has the strongest link to her, and hence have better chances of being effective.

4. A place to accomplish your own goals

We witches are a very diverse lot. Some of us really love to spend our time learning about herbs, potions, and balms. Others are fascinated by energy work and energy healing. Still others really like to focus on divination and scrying, while others still love going on flights through the realms of spirit, and I’ve barely even touched on all of the many fascinating facets to the Craft. Within a small group, we can take time to ensure that each person has a space in which they can pursue their own magical goals. Often, we will rotate who is doing what, and what our focus is on that particular esbat.

So, within a large pan-Pagan format, when and where do you find a place to explore your interest with others? Do you have to wait until the few dozen or so other people get a chance to do their thing? Or until the leaders’ whims favor you? No such worry in a coven; there’s time enough for everyone to explore what they desire.

This shows a profound misunderstanding of how Pagan community gatherings work, and an inability to think outside of the coven model than frankly exemplifies its limitations.

So we have a Pan-Pagan group. And obviously what we do is sit around and do magic. And everyone takes turns and does their own thing. Yeah, that’s it.

How about if you want to do energy work, you find people who do energy work and chat with them. You sign up for a workshop. You plan a time to get together and work on technique.

Want to scry? Find people who do scrying. Talk to them. Meet with them. Share tips. Learn a perspective you hadn’t had before.

Want to learn about herbs? Talk to that vendor over there, selling the tea. She’ll talk your ear off and suggest some great books.

Or just chat with a few people, get some ideas, and try it yourself, on your own time.

I would not want to have a coven dictate what kind of work I was going to be doing. I decide what to pursue, and because of my community connections, I can find people to help me with what I don’t know.

How on earth does this prevent you from achieving your goals?

5. Privacy

We have a very strict rule in our coven: what happens in the circle stays in the circle. At the last pan-Pagan gathering I attended, someone set up a video camera, so obviously, that rule wasn’t in effect there. Even if there are no video cameras, there’s a circle full of strangers who may or may not repeat what you said to others. I wonder how someone who needs to use that circle to deal with a depression issue, a health problem, a relationship difficulty, an addiction, or a work-related trouble might feel, knowing that their very personal, very difficult words are potentially going to be spread far and wide.

Furthermore, many of us require privacy. Some have employers who would not be too pleased to see their employees engaging in rituals that may well terrify their sensibilities. Some have vindictive exes who would gladly and gleefully use such a video, indiscriminately placed on Youtube, to wreak havoc in the person’s life. Some of us take that lesson of the north, “to be silent, ” to heart, and prefer to stay private about our activities. Regardless of reason, nobody should be forced to be any more out of the broom closet than they are comfortable. If your religion puts your personal, professional, financial, or familial well-being at risk, then that religion needs to be reassessed; a spiritual practice should be bettering your life, not the other way around. A coven can assure your privacy at whatever level you are comfortable with.

This is the first point I can agree with. A lot of people join coven out of a need for secrecy. That was my initial point all along.

But this repeating assumption of “Unless you’re in a coven, you’re working with strangers that you can’t trust” is reaching paranoid heights.

YOU CAN WORK IN A SMALL GROUP WITH PEOPLE YOU TRUST AND NOT BE IN A COVEN!!!

I’m not in a coven. If I have problems, say a relationship issue, or depression, you know who I go to that I can trust? Friends.

And here’s the real kicker: if privacy is your biggest concern, you can do what the majority of Pagans do. Work alone.

6. Coherency of paradigms and practices

Pagans can’t even agree on what Paganism is. You need to believe nature is sacred… or not. You need to worship multiple gods… or not. You need to be environmentally conscious… or not. You need to practice magic… or not. You need to work ritual in this particular format… or not. You need to be around this place on the political spectrum… or not. You need to do these certain practices… or not. You need to celebrate the Wheel of the Year… or not. You need to have this understanding of the mechanics of the universe… or not. There’s absolutely no coherency. Looking around the Pagan world, I see many, many people with whom I have nothing in common. How can I share a meaningful spiritual experience with people who don’t even agree on what a meaningful spiritual experience consists of?

A coven solves many of these issues. Simply put, within a coven, only those who fit the coven’s agreed-upon practices and share a sufficiently similar spiritual paradigm are extended welcome into that group. In a coven, nobody is asked to put aside their personal paradigms or practices to mesh with the group – the group’s practices mesh with the personal practices and paradigms of the coveners, else they wouldn’t be there in the first place. By the use of one set of rituals for the group, the group’s egregore becomes strengthened, and the energies of the group become more harmoniously attuned. Initiation rituals further solidify this bond; everyone who is in the coven has undergone the same ritual, and have that shared experience as their starting point within the coven.

This is a very good point here, and a valid one. But there are a few problems in this as well.

Why do you have to be in a coven? Why can’t another religious group fulfill the same requirements?

What if you can’t find a coven that fits your personal paradigm? Are you just screwed?

What if your spiritual paradigm changes over time?

How do you find a coven in the first place? Oh, I suppose you could ask around in the local community ….

Coven work is not for everyone, but for some of us, nothing can replace it. Humans are not a one-size-fits-all kind of species. Each one of us has different needs and seeks our spiritual practices with different goals. I have attended a good number of open pan-Pagan gatherings, but rarely have I ever walked away feeling as incredible as I do after a circle with my coven. I need the intimacy and depth that coven work offers. For me and many other witches, nothing can replace the feeling of working in a coherent, cohesive, close group. While many might flock to the exoteric gatherings, there will always be those of us who need to tread the more esoteric ways.

And we have those same flawed assumptions repeated in closing. You didn’t get the same feeling from a Pan-Pagan gathering that you do from working in a coven? Hm, I wonder if that’s because they are two completely different phenomena with different functions. You need intimacy and depth? Obviously only a coven can offer that, since no other close magical groups exist. And obviously, only people in covens have access to the really cool esoteric secrets.

And don’t forget the biggest implicit assumption here. If you are not practicing a Wiccan or Wiccanesque form or witchcraft, you’re missing the things that makes magic and Paganism good. Now part of a tradition that has covens? So sorry, you exoteric rube.  You just have to miss out on all the fun we’re having in our special club. Go hang out with your untrustworthy stranger-folk while we hoard the secrets of the universe.

I realize this doesn’t sound very nice to covens and those who are members of them. I work with covens on occasion, and have found some great people in them. But the primary purpose of a coven is secrecy and exclusion. Yes, other groups can do this as well, and yes, sometimes its necessary. In fact, a lot of times it is.

But I hope that someday it won’t be, and I can’t see how it is wrong of me to think that way.

And I’m also sick of being looked down upon for not being part of a tradition that does not have covens, and for preferring making friends and social connections to being part of a secret club.

I don’t want to have to separate my religion from the rest of my life, and that means I don’t like being told I have to in order to fully appreciate my own religion.

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One response to “More on Covens

  1. Pingback: More on Covens | Practical Pagans

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