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

As a Witch the goal for me has always been to work and practice in a coven. In twenty years of mostly Wiccan-style Paganism I’ve only truly been a part of a real, living, breathing coven a small handful of times. That’s not to say I’ve been a solitary for the majority of a my time as a Pagan, just that the groups and people I was working with didn’t quite meet the standard of a coven. The word coven means something to me, it has value, so I don’t like to use it lightly.

Most of my group ritual has taken place in ritual groups I generally label circles. These are usually eclectic gatherings of people without much (or any) adherence to any particular tradition or path outside of the basic Wicca-101 type books. I’ve had some truly amazing experiences in these types of groups, but with revolving door memberships most of them lacked cohesion. Just because something worked the one time didn’t mean we’d remember it for the next sabbat.

For many years these sort of drop by groups were my preference in all things Witchy. I didn’t have to invest a lot of time in them and I liked how I could get away with pretty much anything while in circle. I shared many of those spaces with people who are still friends all these decades later. Those kind of groups taught me how to write ritual, even if they were never able to explain why it sometimes did or didn’t work as I had anticipated.

About ten years ago I began to get involved with British Traditional Witchcraft and as a result my perception of groups and ritual began to change. The biggest change was meeting a High Priestess who actually took the time to explain what was going on in ritual space, and why it was happening. Her teaching style was unassuming, but so damned effective that it’s basically become the backbone to everything I (and my wife) do in circle. In addition, this amazing woman ran a coven, parts of which I got to circle with over the next couple of years. We ate together, we ritualized together, we grew together. That core group of folks remain some of the people I love best in the world.

Eventually we moved on from that High Priestess and were initiated by some of her students, and not surprisingly we became a coven. It was a small group most night (two couples!) but we had been working together for years at that point and it was all so easy. There was a comfort level between us, and no ritual ever felt silly or incomplete due to our lack of numbers. Sadly that experiment in coven building ended far too quickly. Almost as soon as it began my wife and I moved to the West Coast, where the searching began anew.

I assumed that with my thin rolodex of Pagan connections we’d soon be circling (and covening!) again relatively soon, and we mostly were. Open circles led to coven invites, but as soon a door began opening it would quickly shut. My wife works in the medical field and her job keeps her “on call” far more often than we’d like. Weekends are often limited to a range of about fifteen miles from her laboratory, groups of any distance quickly became undoable. Plans to visit other groups were often thwarted by her pager (yes, she has to keep a pager) or the sheer exhaustion that comes with working a twenty hour day.

The gods work in strange ways and near the end of our first year in California I was pretty damn miserable. We were living in a townhouse that thwarted any plans we might have had to ritualize with a group at our place and my wife’s (admirable) dedication to her job made us kind of hermity. Sensing my misery one Saturday morning my wife uttered a prayer to Dionysus and threw down a shot of whiskey in devotional sacrifice. She then called a rather shady number from Craigslist advertising a property for rent.

Never underestimate the power of a good covenstead. That house changed our lives. If my wife wasn’t allowed to leave the house for ritual we’d simply attempt to bring the ritual to us. After moving into our new house we began inviting people over for ritual. Most of our early invitees were people who had been especially nice to us after our move out west. We also invited a few folks we simply found interesting and wanted to forge stronger ties with. This group was no coven, it was a circle-group, just like the ones I had experienced in my early Pagan days. It wasn’t perfect at the time, but it filled a need, and not just for my wife and I.

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For me the word coven implies a few things. The first is a major commitment between individuals. When our coven ritualizes we welcome everyone to the circle in “perfect love and perfect trust.” Those are words that get tossed around recklessly in a lot of circles, but to me they really mean something. The people in my coven have my back, I have their back, what we do is our business and not anyone else’s. We’ve made a promise to be a part of each others lives. This kind of limits membership because for “love and trust” to mean anything it has to be earned over time.

I also believe that the word coven implies a fairly set way of doing things. That’s not to imply that every ritual is exactly the same, but there’s a pattern to things. No one is calling an angel in the South and a dragon in the North. Everyone in the coven understands what is being said and why it’s being said. Rituals aren’t just something written in haste, but have components to them that mean something. For my current group that means our assembled by me Book of Shadows, a book everyone has contributed to over the last couple of years whether they know it or not.

Many of you who recognize my name or writing style probably know me from my blog Raise the Horns, a part of Patheos Pagan. I also write a column in the print edition of Witches and Pagans magazine called In the Orchard. Those outlets don’t really have any agenda other than “Paganism” and I write a good many things in them, especially at RtH. This particular column is about one thing and one thing only, the coven. Part of it will be the journey I’ve experienced in my own coven (called imaginatively enough, The Oak Court, mostly because I live on a street named Oak Court) and parts of it will simply be about covens. I call this little writing exercise Into the Coven and I hope you’ll be a part of it.

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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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