Who’s lovin’ a coven?

Have you ever read Tom Sawyer (the Mark Twain novel, not the lyrics to the admittedly awesome Rush song)? There’s a great scene in which Tom is whitewashing a fence. Naturally, the young fellow is none too impressed with spending a nice summer day on this sort of craptastic task. Well, along comes the none-too-bright Ben Rogers, who starts teasing Tom about being unable to enjoy the glorious day. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing the fence is actually a blast, and then oh-so-generously allows Ben to essentially pay him to have a go at it. Tom suckers other kids into a second and third coat, and gets their personal treasures out of them in exchange. Tom is a little bastard. An admirable one, if you’re the sort to cheer on Loki or all the other tricksters (which I most certainly am).

When someone is able to convince you that coven leadership is powerful fun, or a real pleasure, or a path to easy esteem, renown and respect…well, let’s just say you’re not Tom in this situation, and like his peers, you’re gonna lose your marbles.

Witches can be a secretive lot, but I’ll let you in on one of our little secrets. Leadership will age you, and not in a pleasant fine wine kind of way. See this gerald-brusseau-gardnerpicture of Gerald Gardner? He’d been leading a coven for a year or two when it was taken, and he’s only twenty six years old in this picture. That’s the traditional High Priesthood expression that means the Summoner was supposed to bring the wine and what the hell are we supposed to do with this kool aid, and if this happens again we’re drinking the bloody kool-aid. Well….ok, I exaggerate. A little bit. Especially with GBG’s age.

Not long after my 2nd degree, when I first contemplated getting a coven together, I had a dream in which an old, deceased friend appeared before me, wearing chains made of amber and jet beads and imploring me not to make the same mistakes she had made. “You’ll be visited by three coven officers tonight,” she moaned, “The Maiden of Circles Past, the Summoner of Circles Present, and the High Priestess of Circles Future.”

This, by the way, is why cakes and ale right before bed is not a good idea. Or burritos and beer. Same dif. I didn’t listen to those spirits. Unlike Scrooge I know how to banish spirits (especially vodka, which I am banishing at this very moment), and I learn the hard way.

Anyway, coven leadership. Yeah. Really, it’s not as bad a picture as I’ve painted above. It’s certainly got its rewards—when a student figures something out and has an “aha!” moment, or completely stumps you with a question so smart-assed you’re convinced Einstein is renting a room in their colon (get it? smart-assed? Einst…oh never mind). One of my favorites is when you see a student’s confidence come out—when they speak the words of an invocation and it’s come alive for them, seemingly speaking itself. They’re no longer standing there, eyes squeezed shut as they worry about not missing the next line, or skipping a word. That real moment when they’re able to let go, and fly. Moments like that are the ones that make the headaches worthwhile. But that’s the key—those glorious moments aren’t often about YOU. They’re about others, and what they are able to accomplish. Your job is to sit in the hot seat and try and direct a herd of cats in an aviary in the middle of a rainstorm. Their job is to learn and grow and develop—and if you’ve chosen coven members well, they will. Your growth, then, is tied to theirs for a while. It’s invested in them, as they become a larger focus. You’re like a witchy bodhisattva, like it or not, only without any perks, guaranteed proximity to enlightenment or saffron-robed monks wisely nodding their multi-generational approval. Or at least I never got any monks. Monkeys, maybe.

Running a coven is a lot more than Sabbat strutting or Esbat emoting. There’s prep work; lesson planning; group dynamics to consider and to which attention must be paid. Sometimes there are personality conflicts to deal with. Magic and ritual can force people to face issues they’ve not faced in the past—Jung and Starhawk both wrote of that happy little roller-coaster. Initiation doesn’t mean we’ve transcended all of our own issues either and anyone can suffer from “initiitus” and a runaway ego if they’re not careful and self-aware. Sometimes you’ll need a good smack in the jaw yourself, and enough humility to take that smack from your students and initiates when necessary.

And let’s say you do a good job. A really good job, and start to gain a wider reputation in your local community, or on an even bigger level. They start to call you an Elder (if you share my last name that would make you an Elder Berry, which your father smells like). Well, now there’s a whole new set of issues that crop up. However, my wonderful trad sister Yvonne Aburrow has already addressed this recently, and you can see what she had to say in her blog. If the Gods bear me any affection I’ll never have to sit in that Elder seat.

Running the show means, in the end, responsibility. And like all responsibilities it’s one that should be considered carefully. Reaching the appropriate degree in your tradition doesn’t mean you have to run out and start running a group (and let’s not forget the 23 year olds out there who clutch their dog-eared copies of Nietzsche and cry into antique glasses of absinthe about their inability to find an appropriate student to whom they can pass on their vast store of Arcane and Mystical Knowledge, generally culled from way too much Lovecraft). There is always more to learn. Marge Simpson thought she could teach piano by staying one lesson ahead of her students; this will not work for you. Wicca is one place where you really can’t fake it until you make it.

Really, in the long run, leading a coven is a lot like raising a child. People will tell you how rewarding it is, and it does have rewards. But they’re hard-earned and you pay for them in blood, and sweat, and tears; anyone who tells you different has a fence they need painted.

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Hunting a Coven

Hunting a coven?

You can do that. You could try…hunting witches with a bow is a thorny affair (that’s a sly reference, yo). You could try a sling, but using barbs and arrows requires outrageous fortune (REFERENCES!). Guns don’t work either, because witches can really get the lead out.

But if you’re hunting FOR a coven, well…that’s a different matter altogether! Today, modern Wiccans and witches don’t always meet in covens; in fact, solitary practice is one of the dominant paradigms in the modern witchcraft movement. Sometimes this is due to geographic isolation from like-minded persons; other times it’s a simple matter of personal preference. However, when it comes to the modern traditions often called BTW (British Traditional Wicca or witchcraft—a problematic term but not one I feel much like unpacking in this post, and it’s my blog, so nyaaah) coven-based practice is pretty central. Teaching, rites and ceremonies are undertaken within the coven setting, and one of the purposes of initiation is to bring one in to such a group.

Finding a traditional coven isn’t always easy. Not every town or village has one–the fact that we’re non-proselytizing is one of the reasons for this. Maybe the day will come when skyclad Circle-goers walk door to door with copies of a magazine called Lords of the Watchtower, and inviting you to hear the good news of the Queendom of the Gods, but it’s not today, and hopefully will never be.

There are resources to help in the quest. Websites like The Witches’ Voice maintain listings for different covens and individuals (Cesig Gwynion maintains one there). Groups can often be contacted through local magical or alternative spirituality shops. But let us assume you’ve been successful and found a group. What now? What should you know? What should you look for, and avoid?

Learn what you can about a tradition, a coven and its members—don’t be all creepy and root through their immaculately separated and sorted trash, but it doesn’t hurt to ask about them. After all, 28.34 grams of prevention are worth 0.453 kilograms of cure (because metric—looking at you, America, Burma and Liberia). When you approach a group, at least be toilet trained. Your first question to a prospective coven shouldn’t be “what’s a Gardner?” or “why are those guys named after a guy who used sandpaper?”

Don’t jump at the first—or even the only—coven you find. Covens are, in a way, family groups, and like families they differ from each other. No two covens are alike, even daughter covens stemming from the same source—a cactus will be at home among cacti, but might not be at home among wild roses (oh the references)! Remember that its members will want to meet with you and get to know you. They’re trying to get a feel for who you are to determine if you’re a good fit. At the same time, remember you are also interviewing them.

Grab or print off a copy of the ABCDEF. It’s a quick and handy tool to use when you’re vetting a group to see if they’re the sort you’d like to be involved with. Now, don’t be a Richard’s cranium here and whip the thing out, pointedly making notes on it while having coffee with your prospective High Priestess. It’s rude and you’ll likely offend her; the last thing you want is an offended traditional HPS with a scourge and the will to use it. If you’re going to meet with these people initially remember that you don’t know them. Make sure someone knows where you are, and how to reach you. Think of it as a blind date, and protect yourself accordingly.

If the coven with which you’re meeting is part of a lineaged tradition be sure to ask for a vouch, which is the equivalent of a reference in a job interview. If they cannot produce someone in their upline or the wider community of the trad who can vouch for them being proper initiates, or are unwilling to, or make excuses, it’s a big red flag. The last thing you need is to work hard to join a tradition and then find out you haven’t. Some lines keep written records, others don’t. Be patient. Be prepared to ask questions, even if they won’t be answered or you won’t get the answers you want. Be prepared to answer questions as well, and be honest. If something smells fishy avoid the group, and remember that they’ll do the same. It’s not your right to join a coven or tradition, so be respectful and expect the same.

Joining a coven can be rewarding. You end up with brothers and sisters who will help and support you. You’ll also end up with brothers and sisters you have to help and support. When you do get to meet the group pay attention to the dynamic. Is there a lot of raging ego? Does it seem like you’re one of the kids on Recess looking over the fence into the kindergarten playground? Do they seem to get along, or is it all about one or two people with the rest along for the ride?

There is a lot more that could be said, but that can wait for another day.