Analyzing Power Dynamics in the Coven Setting
Article ID: 12380
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Katessa Harkey
Posted: May 4th. 2008
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Though every group, regardless of character or purpose, will necessarily have a power dynamic eminent in the relationships between its members, the nature of the relationships inherent and nearly unique to the coven provides an unfortunately fertile environment in which the Power-over dynamic may readily come to expression. This is especially true of teaching covens because the majority of the membership will consist of Witches who have come to the group as seekers, looking to the more experienced members for guidance and direction. This in and of itself places the neophyte in a position of vulnerability, and the elder in danger of having his or her ego overly inflated.
The problem may be compounded in traditions where hierarchical advancement, such as degree systems, are employed as this may add a dimension of external validation to polish the ego’s internal tendency toward self-aggrandizement.
The Power-over dynamic is opposed by the Power-with dynamic, but both may be in operation in the same group at the same time. Restated, it is not a black-and-white scenario wherein the leadership is either Jim Jones or Mahatma Gandhi reborn. Most Witches who found covens or advance to an elder position have the best of intentions with regard to sensitive leadership.
Unfortunately, as human beings we are all fallible, and as stated before the deck is somewhat stacked against us under these circumstances. Therefore, a coven which starts out on the right track towards developing a consistent Power-with dynamic may easily slide over time across the scale, and those responsible will likely not even recognize it.
Power-over tends toward consolidation, corruption, and compulsion; in contrast, Power-with tends toward sharing, empowerment, and encouragement. Whatever your level of involvement with a given coven it is important to periodically “check in” to make sure that the group stays within the bounds of a healthy power dynamic. Once the bar starts to slip, the situation can rapidly spiral out of control leading to wounded relationships and even damaged students.
Conversely, for those seeking training within a coven, perhaps the most important question one can ask is where the power dynamic is at. With that in mind, the following is a discussion of some potential indicators.
Power-over tends toward consolidation; that is, the few have power over the many. Depending on the tradition this may be expected and even accepted. However, even under those circumstances Power-with leaders will engage in as much consensus decision-making as possible where issues affecting the group as a whole are concerned instead of handing decisions down to the masses in an authoritarian fashion.
Certainly, for a group of any size, minor “bookkeeping” decisions must simply be made, such as which campsite to reserve for the annual Beltane barbecue. However, if they wanted to forgo the barbecue this year and hold a peaceful protest instead the group at large should be consulted and their opinions meaningfully weighed against the wishes of leadership.
In the same vein of consolidation, do members of leadership tend to shun outside associations with those of the rank-and-file? If so, whether intentionally or unwittingly, they are utilizing exclusionary tactics. This says to the average member, and especially the newer student, that he or she is less valuable then the elders; conversely, that they are somehow more valuable.
Often times in larger covens this will be mimicked all down the line, the result being that the coven feels “cliquish.” Some will be turned off by this and choose not to play, but others will instead resolve to try and become more worthy so that they might be let into the (or a) clique.
The latter are exactly the people a Power-over dynamic selects for, as they will be much more easily biddable than their counterparts. They can be convinced over time to do almost anything if they are made to believe it will bring them closer to full acceptance.
And here we come to a third indicator in the consolidation line: discrimination.
Are some members who have completed all stated prerequisites kept from advancement within the tradition or group? Better still, are the requirements for advancement set, or does the leadership simply decide who does and does not “deserve” it?
This can be a testy topic, because certain circumstances could arise that would make it unwise to advance an individual right at the time. However, if more than one or two people experience serious delays beyond completion of all requirements it is a likely sign that the leadership equates power within the coven to level of advancement, and that they do not want to give those particular individuals more power within the group.
Moving on now to corruption, it may seem minor at first glance but if the leadership maintains an attitude of superiority towards the rest of the group they have taken the first step in the direction of dehumanization. In the American South, slaveholders justified the captivity, mistreatment, and even murder of slaves on the grounds of “racial superiority.”
If the leadership feels spiritually or magically superior to the membership they can justify any number of mistaken actions or attitudes to themselves. This may not always be easily detectable!
Be wary, however, if the leadership speaks in a condescending or patronizing manner to other group members, especially in conflict situations, or if they rely on position rather than logic to project their opinions.
Favoritism is a dead-giveaway that the leadership is engaging in the Power-over dynamic. Are some members given allowances exempting them from the rules, which govern the group at large, or allowed to advance without having met the stated requirements?
Preferential treatment encourages the rest of the group to envy the favored member, and to seek to emulate him or her in order to gain those self-same advantages. Thus, if the favored member goes to leadership with tidbits of gossip about the doings of other members, or comes over to mow the lawn twice a month, etc., others will be encouraged to do the same.
Does leadership engage in defensive posturing? Do they punish or even attempt to silence dissenting voices within the group? There are definitely some people out there who are simply divisive or corrosive, wielding their words like weapons against a foe. These people rarely make it as far as joining a coven.
If the leadership on a regular basis attempts to subvert the free discussion amongst the membership of matters relating to the coven, especially should there be disagreement, the leadership is clearly abusing its power. In a healthy power dynamic, the leadership does not need to maintain its power through force or fear of force.
Lastly on the topic of corruption, and perhaps the most telling sign of all, the leadership may attempt to inappropriately extend their power to matters not pertaining to the coven. That is, they may single out individual members, mandating that the individual do something not defined by the group consensus. Worse still, they might attempt to direct the lives of coven members outside of the coven setting.
For example, they might insist that all members adopt a vegetarian diet, or that they only date within the coven group. Usually this stage of corruption will begin to whittle away members if nothing else does, and for good reason. A coven leader who makes such a demand outside of the dictates of the tradition is way out of line, and nearly everyone will sense it.
The final hallmark of Power-over is compulsion. The leadership may assume or attempt to assume a parental role in regards to the membership. They will find ways to reward the student for “good” (that is, compliant) behavior and punish in the obverse. This is often referred to as the “carrot and stick” method. To get the donkey to move, you use both. Often this goes hand in hand with favoritism and discrimination. An example would be the teacher suggesting an increase in class frequency, with a reward of quicker advancement (favoritism) and a punishment of discontinuation (discrimination.)
Another tactic is redirection. In any relationship, both parties have goals, but this is even truer in a student/mentor relationship. Typically, the teaching party will have a certain minimum of requirements that everyone must learn if they wish to advance, plus an “ought to” list of his or her own to administer. The student also comes with issues to resolve, questions to answer, techniques to learn.
A good Power-with teacher will respect the goals of the student and try to incorporate them into classes, even if it means giving up some of his or her own “pet topics.” A Power-over teacher will ignore the goals of the student in deference to his or her own goals for the student.
Finally, everyone has certain rights that cannot be stripped or given away, including the right to magical self-determination. A member should never feel pressured in any way to participate in a ritual with which he or she is uncomfortable. Furthermore, the leadership should never perform ritual, magic, or energy work upon any member without first getting an informed consent. (“Informed” here means having had a working explained to the individual to the best of the explainer’s ability to do so.)
If, in considering these points, the reader finds that any of them touch close to home, it is important to remember that all of these are choices made; therefore, to change the health of the power dynamic in a coven, one simply needs to make alternate choices.
It helps to be open and honest with the membership about mistakes that have been made, and to ask them to help in the vigil to prevent similar mistakes from being repeated in the future. It is vitally important that a Power-with dynamic be preserved, most especially within a teaching coven. For every member that becomes disgusted and leaves, several more of the youngest and most vulnerable will likely stay behind.
The tragedy of the Power-over coven is that there will be those in the group who never have the opportunity to learn any better way.
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