A coven is 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 com- mon 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 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 exist- ed in unbroken lines throughout history.
As of the 1980s, most witches had abandoned the unbroken tradition the- ory 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 maid- en, 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 Sahbat. Murray contended that Joan of Arc was a witch and that her appellation “the Maid” therefore had special significance.
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 one- coven 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 em- phasis 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 co- venstead 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 rap- port and harmony. Most covens have both male and female members, which is in keeping with the male-female polarity re- quired 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 co- ven 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 spir- its 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).
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 second- degree 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.
Further Reading :
- Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1986.
- Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium. Revised ed. London: Thorsons/Harper Collins, 1996.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
- Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1913.
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truner & Co. Ltd., 1927.