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'De-myth-stifying' the Wiccan Coven
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Recently I moved through my 3rd degree initiation in Chalice Well Coven and formally hived to start a new daughter Coven: Ravens Well. As I have moved almost 100 miles away from Covenstead, I am starting completely from scratch. It has been interesting communicating with people about what it is they are looking for in a Coven and why they feel they want to be a part of a Coven. What I have found is that most often people have a kind of “Disney” version of what a Coven is and how it works.
All chants, candles and pretty vessels spread out on a perfectly draped altar with happy, unified members circled around in a darkened (but not too dark) space. Of course the ritual takes place outdoors on a warm night in a beautiful garden gazebo on enough land so that the neighbors can’t peek over the fence to watch.
Wow! Sounds great! Who needs to start a Coven? I want to join this one! Where do I go to sign up?
I realized that while there are many books out there on how to work magick within a group setting, how to set up and run a magickal group and even how to handle conflict within a Coven setting, there are not many that deal with the day to day reality of working in a Coven. Perhaps this is why so many people have a pretty unrealistic view of what being a member of a real working Coven means. It probably explains why so many also believe that they must, simply must, be a part of a Coven to get the “full Wiccan experience”. I may not necessarily agree with this sentiment, I understand why many people feel this way.
Myth: The beauty of never-ending and continuous harmony
Many people say that they want to enter into a Coven because they want to work closely with “like-minded” individuals. They want to enter in to sacred space with those who create it as they do. They see becoming a part of a Coven as entering into a place where people can achieve a “group mind” and become “one” in ritual.
Few understand that in order to do this a person has to let go of some of the ways they are used to doing ritual and learn how to create sacred space the way the Coven they have stepped into does. This is generally where things start to get tough and real. Yep, right there at the beginning. The first thing one learns when stepping into a Coven: it is no longer all about you. Surprise!
Okay, I will be the first to admit that I am a pretty down to earth, let’s dispense with the romance and get on with reality, kind of witch. I do not have a dragon that sits on my shoulder (although I work with Dragon energy) nor do I believe that fairies are cute; little winged beings (although I do experience the Faerie). I’m all for romance-in the bedroom with my man-but not mixed in with my magick. For me, magick is already, well…magickal and it does not require soft, blurry lights.
Seriously though…most well run Covens do work to create a kind of “group mind” in ritual. This means that everyone in the group focuses on one specific concept or purpose within ritual in order to achieve an agreed upon goal (manifestation) .Wow, that sounds very unwitchy doesn't it?
There is no becoming “one”-at least not in the sense that most people use the term. To me this is like saying that two people who choose to marry become “one”. This is a very pretty and romantic notion but not a very practical or helpful one. When people come together for any reason to achieve a specific goal or outcome, they do not completely give themselves over to another-they choose to let down boundaries, to put their egos aside and share themselves and their energy with the group.
There is a difference between this and “becoming one” as most people use the term. There is interdependence but not total dependence.
So far, so good, right? Here’s the secret that pretty much anyone in a Coven will tell those who are looking for a Coven but no one really wants to hear and even fewer listen. Shhhhh, step close now, you will not want to miss this…
Working with people in a spiritually and emotionally intimate manner is hard and sometimes painful. Gee, that doesn't sound fun does it? Again, not very witchy or romantic, but true.
Most of us have not been taught how to behave in an environment that depends on honesty and treating others as equals to survive. We are used to wearing our masks of perfection. We pretend, we manipulate, we lie to ourselves and others, we expect others to lie for us and to us, we hide, we refuse to address our issues and we ask others to carry the burden of our emotional baggage.
We want people to “love us for who we are” but we never consider that we generally don’t even love ourselves “as we are”. We say we are angry when we are really afraid and we attack others when we do not understand something.
So within a safe Coven setting we learn, slowly, sometimes very, very slowly, to trust, to believe, to forgive, to accept forgiveness and just to accept, to take on challenges, to grow and to transform ourselves.
We learn to care about someone even though they are not perfect, to agree to disagree-and mean it- to understand that we are more than the sum of our parents, DNA and childhood.
We learn how to fail and how to start over again after failure. In this safe environment we can let go of the labels that have been placed upon us by others and ourselves and become that person who we secretly, silently most want to be but are too afraid and emotionally shackled to attempt to become.
This, in my opinion, is real magick.
None of this is easy for the individual or for the group. It is precisely because a well-run Coven environment creates a space where people can “be naked in their rites”-naked referring not just to the body but also in emotion, spirit and mind-that conflict will emerge.
Safe space makes us feel vulnerable and most of us are not comfortable being vulnerable or honest. This is the reason that a Coven setting will probably be the place where many of us will experience the most intense and painful conflicts of our lives. We, our egos, struggle to become a part of something that is bigger than ourselves. In order to do this our focus has to move from "me" to "we". Not behavior this culture is renowned for, teaches or really values.
As we begin to become who we are supposed to be, we experience loss, fear and confusion. Sometimes, our lives literally come apart. I personally refer to this as “being on fire” because I know that the transformation is happening, I can feel it. I know that things will be better at some point but I’m not really sure when and it feels (on an emotional level) like I am on fire.
To put it in a less poetic manner, transformation generally is painful-it hurts. It is intense and scary. Don’t let anyone kid you. Transformation is about change and sacrifice. In my experience, transformation is powerful Crone energy.
When in pain, many of us will lash out at others. Many times we will take this pain out on those we feel safest with-Covenmates. Because most of us have not been taught how to communicate what we are feeling and because most of us have not experienced the kind of intense transformation that can come about in such a setting, we explode and create conflict. I’ve done it. Every person who I experienced within Coven has done it; most people will explode not just once but many times.
This is because most of us are attached to our labels and "old life" regardless of how destructive, oppressive and restrictive they may be for us.
As I mentioned earlier, change is difficult even good change. Although the old stuff often holds us back, it is comfortable. The new is frightening, evolving and unknown. The new feels like chaos.
The archetype of the ever-harmonious Coven is a myth. While there is harmony it is hard won. We are individuals living in an individual centric culture. We all have egos regardless of how long we have trained.
Group harmony is achieved when people are willing to stick things out, put relationships first and work through issues regardless of how insurmountable they may seem. It means admitting to being human and to not being perfect. It means learning how to apologize with grace and how to repair a damaged relationship.
It is not magick in the sense that many people like to think of magick-immediate, material and covered with glitter-but it is magick in the sense that in doing this hard and dedicated work a group of individuals can achieve what others would refer to as a "group mind".
The Matron Goddess of Chalice Well Coven and Chalice Well Fellowship (a Pagan Church) is Bride also known as Bridget. The Celtic Goddess of the forge, healing and inspiration. The message board I own is called the Clan of the Healing Wells in part to honor Bride and as homage to the healing well in Glastonbury, England where Chalice Well Coven gets its name (there is no affiliation between the Coven and the well site).
Bride is a most appropriate Matron. She lends her aid in healing what is required in order to grow and become, She gives us inspiration and guidance to overcome our own fears and insecurities. As the Goddess of the forge She works her time honored alchemy on each of us creating something strong, beautiful and durable out of what began as our soft, insecure and frightened selves.
Covens, like many things in life, look easy and pretty from a distance but it up close is where one experiences all the hard but abundantly meaningful work required to make a group of individuals into what is termed a “group mind”. Perhaps this would be better described as a group of likeminded people who work hard to create magick together and get results.
Back to the “Disney” Coven ritual described in the beginning of the essay.
While nothing can really compare to the perfection of Disney, there are thoughtfully adorned altars, draped in beautiful cloth, scattered with lovely vessels and colorful candles. However, these altars are not created with fairy dust or by cute woodland creatures. They are created with respect, care, and honor.
More importantly, when a group of dedicated people is able to resolve and put aside any personal conflicts that may come up from one cycle to the next they honor the Gods and Goddesses in their lives long before the first ritual candle is lit. For me, this is what it means to enter into safe, sacred, space in “perfect love and perfect trust”.
As someone I know once said, “Covens ain’t for Sissies”. And that ain’t no myth.
Warm blessings and all the best!
Godiva le Fey
Note: I’m sure everyone knows this but just to be on the safe side…
While people often receive support and experience personal transformation within the circle of a well run Coven, Covens do not replace professional counseling. For those who have experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction, trauma or are having an unusually difficult time moving through a life transition, professional counseling is well advised.
A Coven also does not replace focused and specialized therapy groups such as 12 step programs. In my experience, nothing beats the combination of Coven and good professional counseling for true life transformation, personal empowerment and growth.
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