Covens

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The formal organization and working unit of
witches and Wiccans. The origin of the word coven is not
clear. Most likely, it derives from the verb convene, which
includes in its variant convent, which once referred both
to a religious meeting and the place of a religious meeting.
Chaucer used the term covent in Canterbury Tales
to refer to the meeting of 13 people. The term covine
was used in 1662 in the trials of the Auldearne, Scotland,
witches to describe the witches’ organizations.
One of the witches, Isobel Gowdie, likened the covines
to squads. The witches were divided into these subdivisions
because there were so many of them, Gowdie
said.
Sir Walter Scott, in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft
(1830), notes that the term Covine tree was the common
name for the tree that usually stood in front of a
castle, probably so named because the lord of the castle
met his guests there:
He is the lord of the hunting horn
And king of the Covine tree;
He’s well loo’d in the western waters
But best of his ain minnie.
Montague Summers referred to covens as conventicles,
from the Latin coventus, (assembly or coming together)
and also includes covey, coeven and curving as variations
of the word.
Historical Beliefs about Covens
The existence of covens. References in literature to covens
of witches date back to the 12th century. In Polycraticus,
John of Salisbury describes organized groups of witches
carrying on at wild sabbats but adds the caveat that they
are merely deceptions created by the Devil and are not to
be believed. A story popular in the late Middle Ages concerns
an episode in the life of St. Germain, the bishop of
Auxerre (390–448), in which he encounters villagers preparing
a dinner for “the good women who walked about
coven    75
at night.” St. Germain, expressing the dominant view of
the Catholic Church, discredited these sabbats of covens
as deceits of the Devil.
It was not until the Inquisition that the existence of
covens was taken more seriously. Accused witches were
tortured into confessing that they were members of secret,
subversive organizations, and were forced to implicate
others (see torture).
British anthropologist Margaret A. Murray held that
covens were far more prevalent and organized than the
Church was willing to believe, though there is little evidence
to support that contention. Many accused witches
persecuted by the Inquisition were solitary old women,
outcasts from society, who may have possessed special
healing or clairvoyant powers.
The earliest known reference to a coven in a witch trial
occurred in 1324 in Kilkenny, Ireland, when Dame Alice
Kyteler was accused of being part of a 13-member group.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, more witches, though not
a great number of them, confessed under torture to having
joined covens. By the time witch-hunting died down
in the early 1700s, the concept of the coven was firmly
established.
Among Wiccans, it was once commonly believed that
witchcraft had descended unbroken from prehistoric
times as a pagan religion.
Some Witches claim to be members of covens that date
back generations. Sybil Leek’s New Forest coven claimed
to be 800 years old. Some covens may indeed be old, but
there is little evidence to indicate that covens have existed
in unbroken lines throughout history. As of the 1980s,
most witches had abandoned the unbroken tradition theory
in favor of the view that modern Witchcraft reflects a
reconstruction of old beliefs and practices.
Number in a coven. Traditionally, the number of witches
in a coven is supposed to be 13: 12 followers plus a leader.
Murray stated this unequivocably in The God of the Witches
(1931), concerning medieval covens:
The number in a coven never varied, there were always
thirteen, i.e., twelve members and the god. . . . In the
witch-trials the existence of covens appears to have been
well known, for it is observable how the justices and
the priests or ministers of religion press the unfortunate
prisoners to inculpate their associates, but after persons
to the number of thirteen or any multiple of thirteen had
been brought to trial, or had at least been accused, no
further trouble was taken in the matter.
The leader was believed to be either the Devil himself
or a person, usually a man, who, witch-hunters said, represented
the Devil and dressed himself in animal skins
and horns at sabbats.
The evidence for a constancy of 13 members is slim,
however, and is referenced in only 18 trials (see thirteen).
At her trial in 1662 Isobel Gowdie stated, “Ther ar
threttein persons in ilk Coeven.” In 1673 accused witch
Ann Armstrong of Newcastle-on-Tyne stated she knew of
“five coveys consisting of thirteen persons in every covey,”
and of a large meeting or sabbat of many witches, and
“every thirteen of them had a divell with them in sundry
shapes.” Such “testimony” may have been the result of
leading questions posed by inquisitors, combined with
torture.
Structure and activities of a coven. In The History of Witchcraft
and Demonology (1926), Summers defined covens as:
. . . bands of men and women, apparently under the
discipline of an officer, all of whom for convenience’
sake belonged to the same district. Those who belonged
to a coven were, it seems from the evidence at the trials,
bound to attend the weekly Esbat. The arrest of one
member of a coven generally led to the implication of
the rest.
Cotton Mather, in writing on the Salem witchcraft
trials of 1692, said “the witches do say that they form
themselves much after the manner of Congregational
Churches, and that they have a Baptism, and a Supper,
and Officers among them, abominably resembling those
of our Lord.”
Murray also drew on witch trials to portray the alleged
organization of a coven. According to old testimony, the
titular head of each coven was the grandmaster, or deity
worshiped. Most likely, this was a pagan deity with horns
(see Horned God), but in the Inquisition it became the
Devil himself. Usually, the god/Devil was represented by
a substitute man or woman who conducted rituals in the
god/Devil’s name. At sabbats, when the god/Devil was
present in person, the grandmasters then became officers.
Each coven reputedly also had a summoner, a person
who secretly gave notice to members regarding the next
meeting time and location. Sometimes the officer and
summoner were the same person; not uncommonly, this
person was a Christian priest who still participated in pagan
ceremonies. The duties of the officer/summoner included
keeping attendance records, scouting for recruits
and presenting initiates to the god/Devil.
Covens also had a high-ranking position called maiden,
a comely young lass with primarily ceremonial duties.
The maiden served mostly as consort and hostess at the
right hand of the grandmaster, or Devil, at sabbats and
led the dance with him. The witches of Auldearne, Scotland,
in 1662 claimed to have a “Maiden of the Covine,”
described in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and
Witchcraft as “a girl of personal attractions, whom Satan
placed beside himself, and treated with particular attention,
which greatly provoked the spite of the old hags,
who felt themselves insulted by the preference.” In some
accounts, this maiden was also called the Queen of the
Sabbat.
Murray contended that Joan of Arc was a witch and
that her appellation “the Maid” therefore had special
significance.
76 coven
Each coven was independent yet supposedly was
linked to other covens in a region through a cooperative
network. In the trial of the North Berwick witches in
Scotland in 1591, three covens allegedly worked together
to try to murder King James VI of Scotland (see North
Berwick Witches). There is scant other historical evidence
for formal networks of covens.
The Coven in Wicca
Existence and formation of covens. Many Wiccans belong
to covens, although it is estimated that many more
practice alone as solitaries (see solitary). The number
of covens is unknown, for most exist quietly, some even
secretly.
Most Wiccans do not proselytize or seek converts;
prospective joiners must seek out a coven and ask for admission.
Novices are admitted at the coven’s discretion;
not everyone who wants to join a coven is admitted. Applicants
are screened and trained in a “training circle,”
traditionally for a year and a day. They are evaluated as to
their reasons for wanting to enter the Craft and how well
they fit with the group. A coven is a close working group,
the effectiveness of which depends heavily upon the rapport
and trust of its members. Successful candidates are
those who are interested in healing and spiritual development.
Candidates who are accepted are formally initiated
into the Craft and the coven.
Most covens follow a tradition that has its own book
of shadows, a set of rules, ethics, beliefs, rituals, songs
and administrative procedures for running a coven. It is
customary for new covens to be formed by “hiving off”
from existing covens.
Wicca is fluid, and any witch can start a new tradition,
as well as a coven. Smaller ones abound, even onecoven
traditions. Some of them are short-lived. Some
covens choose to be eclectic, blending various traditions
together or incorporating elements of shamanism or other
religions. Even within traditions, covens vary in the emphasis
given to aspects of the Craft (see witchcraft).
Some covens join together and incorporate in organizations
that serve as sources for networking or as advocates
in legal issues (see Covenant of the Goddess).
The regular, working meeting of a coven is the esbat
or circle, which usually occurs at the full Moon but may
be set at other lunar phases. Covens also meet to celebrate
eight seasonal festivals (see Wheel of the Year). The covenstead
is the location of a coven’s temple and the place
where a coven meets. It may be an outdoor site or the
basement or spare room in the home of one of the coven
members. The covenstead is the epicenter of a circular
area called the covendom, which extends out one league,
or three miles, in all directions, and in which all coven
members are supposed to live. Traditionally, covendoms
are not to overlap, but this rule is not strictly observed.
Number in a coven. Gerald B. Gardner considered 13 to
be the ideal number of a coven, which would include six
“perfect couples” of men and women, plus a leader. Ideally,
the couples would be married or be lovers, in order
to produce the best harmony and results in magic. Sybil
Leek also said that all New Forest covens had 13 members:
six men and six women plus a high priestess.
Thirteen is traditional, but not a rigid rule. Many covens
vary in size from three to about 20 members. Size is
important, for too few members means ineffective magic.
Too many become unwieldy. Some witches consider nine
to 13 the ideal range. Much depends upon the group rapport
and harmony.
Most covens have both male and female members,
which is in keeping with the male-female polarity required
for a fertility religion. Some covens are all-women
or all-men.
History of a coven. Members of a coven are called coveners.
All are priests and priestesses, save the leaders, who
are the high priestess and/or high priest. Some traditions
call the leaders the Master and the Lady. Most traditions
have a three-degree system of advancement that calls
for a minimum of a year and a day at each degree. As
the Witch advances, she or he learns more secrets of the
Craft and is entrusted to perform higher-level duties and
rituals. Third-degree witches are eligible to become high
priestesses and high priests.
In most covens, the high priestess is the ranking
leader of a coven and represents the Goddess. The high
priestess is sometimes called the magistra (and the high
priest the magister). If a coven has both male and female
members, the high priestess shares leadership with a high
priest; however, she is still viewed as the titular head of
the coven. A Witch may become high priestess by leaving
a coven to start her own, or by group consensus, should
a high priestess leave a coven or step down. The high
priestess is responsible for the smooth running of the coven
so that all members can work in spiritual harmony
with one another.
Besides good leadership qualities, the high priestess
should possess strong psychic powers and sharp intuition.
Much of a coven’s magic work involves the sensitive
use of psychic abilities. The high priestess must be able
to build and shape the group psychic powers and sense
when they are at their peaks. In addition, she helps individual
coveners develop their own psychic abilities. It is
usually the role of the high priestess to cast and purify
the magic circle and invoke the Goddess and the spirits
of the four quarters and elements. She also directs
the chants, rituals and magic work. The high priestess
may “pass the wand” or delegate these duties from time to
time to other coveners, as part of their training.
The high priest represents the Horned God, who is
the consort to the Goddess and performs certain rituals
with the high priestess. In most traditions, only high
priests and high priestesses may initiate others into the
craft; men initiate women and women initiate men (see
initiation).
coven    77
There are no appointed or elected “kings” and “queens”
of Witches, though some individuals have adopted those
titles. A high priestess from whose coven others have
hived off is entitled to be called a Witch Queen, which is
entirely different.
Many covens have a maiden, who is at least a seconddegree
Witch and is the personal assistant of the high
priestess. The maiden can substitute for the high priestess
in certain tasks; she also handles various administrative
duties. She is likely to be in charge of a “training
circle” of potential initiates. According to tradition, the
office of maiden is held by one woman, until she succeeds
the high priestess or leaves to form her own coven. In
some covens, the position may be rotated as a means of
training for third degree.
Many covens have a summoner, also called a fetch,
who is in charge of scheduling meetings and notifying
members.

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