Into the Coven: The Life and Times of a Working Wiccan Coven

Into the Coven is a sneak peek into the development and workings of a Wiccan coven. Each monthly installment will explore the history and lore surrounding the idea of the coven. In addition to looking at the coven in history, Jason Mankey will share the growing pains, triumphs, and tragedies of his own working group.

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Into the Coven: Beginnings

I'd like to imagine that starting a coven is a completely organic process.  Perhaps a few friends get together and decide that it's time to form a coven or at least begin operating as one.  On the traditional side it's easy to imagine a Priestess and Priest recently elevated to Third Degree and hiving off to form a new coven, perhaps taking a few of their old coven mates with them in order to do so.  Both of those scenarios sound better then how our group started.  Our coven began with a question:  "who should we invite over for ritual?"  

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We started our circle by inviting the very few Pagans we knew who lived within eight miles of us, we then cast our net a little further extending an invitation to the small handful of people who had bent over backwards to help us adjust to life in Northern California.  The only real limitations we put on things was not inviting anyone we knew who was actively involved in another non-public circle or coven.  We weren't looking to lock those folks out, we just don't have a lot of space, and we were looking to pick up the folks who were currently circle-less.  

I'd like to think that we drew up a list of names and put some thought into who to invite, but it was more like let's "Facebook a bunch of people and throw them against a wall and see what sticks."  There were a few people we really wanted to join us.  One of those was a young woman whose mother is the Grand Dame of Witchcraft in our area.  We thought she'd probably appreciate the opportunity to circle without having to be the "daughter."  My wife and I had also done our only (up until then) public ritual in the area with the daughter and her boyfriend.  

Since this would be an eclectic coven we purposefully didn't invite anyone who publicly identified as a High Priestess.  We certainly weren't planning on leading every ritual, but we thought the circle meeting in our house would be our ritual petri-dish and we didn't want any clashes.  Also we wanted to make sure it would be in our house.  One of the reasons we started the thing (read part one if you haven't already) was to have a place for my mostly-always-on-call-wife to practice ritual.  Inviting over people we thought might disrupt that idea was something we tried to avoid.  

I think we ended up with about ten or twelve people at our inaugural ritual.  That number was probably a little better than half of our initial invitees and we were pleasantly surprised by it.  We had people show up from far and wide too, one individual driving about an hour or so to make his way to our place.  I was a jumble of nerves at our first ritual.  I think I swept our wooden floors twice in the hours leading up to our initial "gathering" time, and I had a combination of candles (conventional and electric) placed strategically in our living room in an attempt to create just the right ambiance.  

Our early rituals lacked a whole lot of focus and the first one was dedicated to Aphrodite and her consort Adonis.  My wife is a Priestess of the Love Goddess and I'm quite fond of her as well and as our first ritual just happened to fall on one of her feast days . . . . it seemed a natural fit.  Looking back on that ritual now I can see elements of it that would become essential to how our coven works, but a lot of what we did that night ended up on the cutting room floor.  Most of the wordings in the ritual were very "eclectic Pagan" and in retrospect it wasn't nearly "Witchy" enough for us.  The ritual its self ended up feeling very "familiar," more like an activity night at a church youth group than a gathering of witches.  

Looking back on my notes for that ritual I (not surprisingly) put most of the ritual's execution into my wife's hands.  The ritual's "big working" consisted of making a charm bag for Aphrodite and then leaving the goddess an offering.  The ritual outline doesn't list any lines for that part of the rite or any materials instead it simply says "Charms" and "Offerings to Aphrodite" in bold letters.  I left that part all up to my High Priestess and partner.  

The ritual was basically a success and everyone we invited over that night showed up again a month later when we held our second ritual.  I have even fewer memories of the second ritual than the first.  That might be because I was extremely dissatisfied with how it all played out.  I realized one important thing during that second ritual:  "just because you like somebody doesn't mean you should do ritual with them."  One of our oldest friends in the area joined us that night for ritual (along with a friend of hers) and they came from a completely different Witchy background than my wife and I.  When handing out quarter calls one of them volunteered to call an element, but informed me that there was no way they were going to read the call as I had written it.

There are many (many) ways to do things during ritual, and I'm certainly not in possession of any hidden secret about how to call the elements to circle.  However, I like all of my circles to be balanced.  If Air is called a certain way it stands to reason that Fire should be called in a similar manner.  It's fun to think about all four quarters being called differently, but it just doesn't work in my mostly ordered little mind.  So my friend called her element in a very loud and very different way from everyone else.  The flow of the ritual stopped right there.  From that point on if someone just couldn't bring themselves to ritualize in a way similar to the rest of us we stopped inviting them over.  Again, there's nothing wrong with doing something in a way different from my own, heck that way is probably superior, however if you are trying to create a cohesive circle and collection of human beings you'll probably work better if you are all on the same page.  Besides, if I visit a circle at your house I promise to call the quarters in the way you prefer.  

In retrospect it was probably a good thing to go over that bump early in the history of our circle.  From that point on we had a pretty good feel about who would (and wouldn't) work well with us in circle.  We've always preferred Doreen Valiente's original "Charge of the Goddess."  I have no problem with the updated, slightly more feminist versions of The Charge but it's just always sounded awkward to the wife and I.  When we hear someone read that version of the Charge we know that they are probably not going to be a good fit with us.  

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A lot of people probably don't want to read this next part: but covens and circles should be choosey.  I know how elitist and douchey that sort of sounds but I whole-heartedly believe it.  If you are going to work with a group of people for the next X number of years you should be comfortable with them and them with you.  A coven is a massive blending and mingling of energies.  Those energies should all get along.  I whole heartedly believe in a Big Tent Paganism and help facilitate open circles in my area, but I think being choosey about who I work with in my house is an acceptable behavior.  Besides, my house is tiny, there's a natural limit to things.  

Over the next few months the participants in our circle stabilized.  Most of our original invitees continued to show up, and those folks slowly began to bring people with them.  It would be one new person every few months and when they showed up it just felt as if they belonged.  It truly felt like a higher power was pushing them towards us and who am I to argue with the gods?

Over the last few years some of our first circle originals have dropped out, but the individuals they brought with them continue to be a part of our coven.  One of our original members had been drifting towards atheism for several years, I knew that when I first invited her in, but the drift became more pronounced as time went on.  She eventually decided to move on from our group, but not before depositing one of her best friends in our ritual room.  My wife has wondered if that person's original involvement was simply a way for her friend to become a part of our circle?  

As we began to close ranks and people in the area realized that a circle was living and breathing in Jason's living room people began inquiring about it.  Some of the people I invited to our earliest rituals who declined the invitation were now suddenly interested . . . . . but the balance of energies (and our limited space) was just becoming too delicate to open the door back up to them.  Over the last several years some people have taken the closed door of our coven very hard, becoming obsessive and vindictive about it.  I don't know how to react to that.  It hurts me that they feel so left out, but we live in a huge area with millions of people, there are lots of circles and covens out there (and indeed many of those of folks are already a part of those circles and covens).  

In this article I've sometimes used the terms "circle" and "coven" almost interchangeably, but in the early days of our circle that was most definitely not the case.  During the period I'm writing about here we were only a circle.  We had no set way of doing things and while our membership was slowly stabilizing there were some individuals in our group completely uncomfortable with "the c(oven) word."  Before we could be a coven we still had to decide what sort of circle we would be, and we found that out by creating a ritual for someone else.  That's a tale I'll share next time.      

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Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason's main gig is writing "Raise the Horns" at Patheos Pagan, but he's also a columnist for "Witches and Pagans" (print) magazine, is currently working on his first book for a major publisher, hosts a twice monthly radio show, and lectures frequently on the Pagan Festival circuit.   When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

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