Pagan Paths

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: Finding a Ritual

The first six months of its existence my ritual group mostly floundered.  We had a good circle of people around us and did some nice rituals, but we didn't really have any sort of structure. To find a solidity for ourselves we had to do a ritual for someone else.

When my wife and I put our ritual group together we did so with low expectations.  We were basically just looking for a group to ritualize with, we weren't necessarily seeking anything formal.  During those early months our rituals were continually different. We never used the same quarter calls twice or called to the same gods and goddesses for that matter! The circle was scripted but eclectic, details constantly in flux.  

About the same time our group was getting off the ground a friend of mine asked me to lead the Samhain Ritual for his group. This would be a major undertaking, maybe 100 people in attendance and in an old Masonic Hall.  Would my wife and I be up for such a challenge he asked.  I wasn't sure myself but said yes anyways.

Up until that point I had always imagined what a big "Witch Ritual" at Samhain would look like. I've watched enough Discovery Channel specials in October to know what the big knock-out, high production budget rites in Salem Massachusetts look like and that played into my thinking but I wanted something more than that. I wanted to craft a ritual that possibly scared people and made them uncomfortable. I like happy little run through the woods rituals as much as the next person, but I also like the idea of a ritual with presence and heaviness.  I wanted to write something that was going to make a few hairs stand up, something praising the Goddess of Death and the Lord of Death and Resurrection.  

When I think of a "Witchy" ritual my mind immediately pictures British Traditional Witchcraft. "Witchy" makes me think of "I conjure stir and call you up" and all of that archaic sort of language that twists the tongue and tantalizes the soul. Eight months before my Samhain Ritual, starting in February, I began living with the thing on a day to day basis. 

The group I was writing the ritual for tends to be very theatrical. They take a lot of pride in constructing imaginative worlds for their sabbats, so much so that the rituals sometimes get lost in the props. I wanted to keep things simple and stark, let the words and a few large deliberate actions tell the story. Having a wishing well in the middle of a ritual is pretty cool, but I'm far more impressed with a High Priestess slowly (and almost menacingly) raising a sword and drawing down the God into her Priest. That's always been the type of Paganism, and by extension Witchcraft, that appealed to me, especially in late October/early November.  

So I began constructing my ritual with an emphasis on words and atmosphere. I wanted the working to focus on the thinning veil and reuniting the souls of the dead with the living, but I also wanted that working to be flexible enough that each person in the circle dictated their own experience. I've never liked rituals that attempt to force me to feel a certain way, and Paganism is so big and diverse today that I'm not sure everyone really believes in the immortality of the soul. I eventually decided on a journey to the edge of the Summerlands (which was really a journey from one room to another in the Mason Hall). We'd create an atmosphere and environment where the transition would feel real but once in the realm between the living and the dead people would be free to do as they like.  They might cry at the photo of a loved one and reunite with that person, or simply stroll our "hall of the dead" and pay their respects to those have left our world. In a lot of ways it was all simply pictures on a black wall that could be interpreted in various ways.  

I wrote much of the ritual myself but to get the feel I wanted I turned back to Janet and Stewart Farrar's The Witches Bible and my own training in a Traditional Witch Outer Court. How my High Priestess in that circle did ritual simply worked, and worked better than most things I've ever done. At various times in my life I've thought that what she did was too wordy, involved, or archaic sounding, but it always called me back home. Despite any misgivings I might have about it sometimes, it always ends up feeling like the "right" way to do things, at least for me.   

So I had this idea for a Samhain Ritual and all of this language I wanted to use and when I gathered the circle to help me with everything they got caught up in it too. Everyone enjoyed seeing the bits and pieces pull together and parts were assigned. I had originally hoped to use a lot of people outside of our circle, but it was so much more comfortable to work with the people I was already working with on at least a semi-regular basis. The circle picked up on the archaic language and embraced it. I was worried that the Traditional Witch sounding stuff might go over like a lead balloon, I shouldn't have been. 

We worked on that ritual for a month and a half, and had a whole series of practices. The process of simply practicing ritual with a group of people can lead to good things. Seeing each other on a near weekly basis we got into each others head-space a little bit more. Everything that I wanted to accomplish with the ritual could be spelled out, and with everyone talking and contributing the structure of the ritual improved considerably. 

The ritual we did that night was great. People now refer to it as "that Samhain" a designation that makes me beam with pride. During our first rehearsal in the Mason Hall that afternoon we could all feel that we were stirring up some pretty big energies. Sitting in our "hall of the dead" a half hour before that ritual will always be one of my most treasured memories. The spirits were knocking on our front door even then, and it was making the hairs on the back of my neck stick up. I had never felt more alive and more drained after a public ritual than at that Samhain rite.  

After that ritual there was a new urgency in our circle and we started doing ritual much like that Samhain Ritual. Since it all had worked so well (and everyone was so familiar with) we began using it for our rituals. Suddenly our quarter calls calls to the Watchtowers were being repeated and after shaving off a few words we had a consistent working Symbolic Great Rite.  It wasn't quite all fully formed yet but it was coming together very nicely. We didn't settle on working as British Traditional Style Witches we embraced working in the style of British Trad Witches. 

At Yule of that year my wife and I wanted to create something memorable and give a big thank you to the members of the circle. We decided to create a mini-Book of Shadows and called it The Rites and Rituals of the Oak Court.  It was more pamphlet than book but it mostly reprinted our Samhain Rite as the beginning and end points for future rituals.  It became the structure of the coven, and structure is important.  

There's something about doing ritual the same way over and over that helps to create ritual space. It puts everyone on the same wavelength so to speak. Rituals that constantly change sometimes leave the participants groping in the dark wondering what's going to come next. That distracts from the ritual. Sure there should be a place for mystery, but the time for that mystery is not at the start of ritual. The powers being called to ritual should be things that everyone is familiar and comfortable with.  Having a an established ritual process helps with that.  

Our pamphlet Book of Shadows didn't completely codify our ritual structure though. We continued to tinker with it over the next couple of months. At Imbolc the following year I decided I wanted to use an old prayer my wife and I used previously. We slipped it into the ritual's working and then began adding it to the start of ritual. It felt right, set the proper tone, and soon enough people were saying it along with us. There were also typos in The Rites and Rituals that needed to be fixed, so we fixed them. After we had a spirit visitor attempt to join our circle I began thinking of ways to fortify our circle casting. Pieces were added and the addition of four candle sconces to the walls of our ritual room inspired even more ritual.  

By the following Yule the changes had been substantial enough (and we had done enough rituals) that I put together a complete Book of Shadows for our group. Now the typos were fixed, the ritual structure was expanded and improved upon, and our rituals became more powerful. Now there's a continual feeling of power and energy in our ritual room and a feeling that comes the moment we begin ritual.  A way of doing had been established and as a coven we took another step forward.  

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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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