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Coven; Covenstead; Covendom

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A group of Witches is referred to as a coven, from the word "convene." Within the Craft, a coven is a small group that meets together on a regular basis to practice their religion. To most members it is an extended family. In fact, many coven members feel far closer to their fellow coveners than they do to their own blood relatives. A coven is composed of Witches from one district or, perhaps, from just one family.

The word "coven" was first mentioned in 1662 at the trial of Issobel Gowdie, one of the Auldearn (Scotland) Witches. Under questioning, Issobel said, "Jean Mairten is Maiden of owr Coeven. . . Ther ar threttein persons in ilk Coeven. . . The last tyme that owr Coeven met, we, and an vther Coeven, wer dauncing at the Hill of Earlseat. . . . " (Robert Pitcairn Criminal Trials Edinburgh, 1833). There had been many references to groups of Witches before this was the first recorded use of the word. This was also the first time that thirteen was specified as the number of members of a coven, although that total could be found as early as 1567 in the trial of Bessie Dunlop. Bessie had spoken of five men and eight women in her group. Even earlier, in 1440, Gilles de Rais's group had eleven men and two women. Indeed, although not necessarily mentioned at trials, the number of Witches apprehended in any one district and taken to trial during the persecutions frequently totaled thirteen. Margaret Murray made a case that at a majority of the Witch trials, membership in covens was said to number thirteen, but as others have pointed out, she tended to manipulate figures to support her theory. Thirteen was certainly mentioned in a number of the trial records, but not nearly as often as Murray suggested.

Certainly not every coven had to have thirteen members. At the Alloa trial, in 1658, Margret Duchall declared that there were seven women in her coven. Today, there is considerable variation in coven membership. Smaller covens are more common.

The size of a coven is constrained by the size of the meeting place. Traditionally, Witches meet in a circle nine feet in diameter, and thirteen is the maximum number of people one can squeeze into such an area with any degree of comfort. The circle can be increased in size to accommodate more participants, but this is not traditional and can create its own difficulties. When working magic, the relationship of the number of people to the size of the circle is important for building what is known as the "Cone of Power"; the kinetic energy that is the driving force behind the magic. Having a large group in a large circle may work well for a purely celebratory meeting, but if there is magic to do then a smaller number is better. If a coven has a large number of members, it is better to split them into two separate covens.

Chaucer speaks of a covent in The Canterbury Tales when referring to the meeting of a group of thirteen people, indicating that the word was, at one time, used for a group of non-Witches of that size. Doreen Valiente mentions a book of Ecclesiastic Memorials (1536), which says, "the number in any one house is or of late hath been less than a covent, that is to say under thirteen persons." Quite possibly, then, the word coven is derived from the older spelling covent, meaning simply, "no more than thirteen."

In some traditions, thirteen is the maximum number of members in a coven, but it includes an "inner circle" of elders—those of high degree (where a degree system operates) and experience. They can number as many as eight. They make the major decisions affecting the coven and, perhaps, work the more strenuous magic.

In speaking of the significance of the number thirteen, Doreen Valiente cites the fact that there are thirteen lunar months in the year. In astrology, there are twelve zodiacal signs, together with the sun. Romulus had twelve companions (the lictors), and Hrolf, the Danish hero, had his twelve berserks. The Christian Jesus had twelve disciples, Odin had twelve lesser deities beneath him in Asgard, and Charlemagne had twelve Paladins. So the number thirteen, made up of a leader and twelve followers, seems to be significant for many groups of people.

The coven is led by a High Priest and/or High Priestess. From the records of the early trials, it seems that the majority of groups at that time were led by a man, known as the Grand Master. To the judges of the trials he was equated with "the Devil." In cases in which he was identified, the local major landowner often filled the role. He would, however, have substitutes able to lead the individual groups in his absence. At the Grand Sabbats, where a number of covens would come together to celebrate, the substitutes would be known as "officers," when the Grand Master led the proceedings.

It is possible that organized covens came into being during the persecutions, allowing the persecuted Witches to meet with the security of numbers. Before then, solitary Witches were common, as were smaller groups of family (hereditary) Witches, with larger groups coming together only for the festivals. During the Witch persecutions it was necessary for the "hard core" of the followers of the Old Religion to band together, and this was done in the form of covens.

The home of the coven, and the site of its temple, is known as the Covenstead.

This is invariably the home of the High Priest and/or High Priestess. The temple may be outdoors but today is more commonly inside the home: in the living room, basement, attic, or a room dedicated specifically for that purpose. In order that one coven would not overlap the boundaries of another, the old rule was that the "covendom" was limited to one league (about three miles) radius from the covenstead, and coven members had to live within the boundaries of their covendom.

Covens are autonomous. There is no central authority, no governing body or equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope. Sometimes a number of covens do, over the years, hive or branch out from a central one. The original coven's High Priestess then became known as a Witch Queen, or Queen of the Sabbat, ruling over her own group and those that had broken away. But she would help and advise the younger covens only if needed, and the newer covens would govern themselves. There are, then, no Kings or Queens of all Witches. At the Greater Sabbats, the covens stemming from one mother coven will frequently come together to celebrate, as was done in the past, with the Witch Queen—the High Priestess of the Mother Coven—playing the part attributed to the Grand Master in even earlier days.

The priesthood decides how often a coven meets. In Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, Aradia, daughter of Diana and her brother the Sun, Lucifer, speaks to her followers and says, ". . . Once in the month, and when the moon is full, ye shall assemble in some desert place, or in a forest all together join to adore the potent spirit of your queen, my mother, great Diana. . . ." Modern Wicca uses this passage as part of the Charge of the Goddess, recited by the High Priestess at the ceremony of Drawing Down the Moon. The words have been reworked by Doreen Valiente to read, ". . . once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall ye assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me, who am Queen of all Witches." Most covens therefore meet at least once a month, preferably at the full moon. Many groups, however, meet weekly, and a few celebrate only the major sabbats.

The thirteen members of a coven are a mix of male and female, with many groups trying to achieve the natural balance of equal numbers of male and female members plus a leader. This balance is not always possible and, indeed, not always sought. There are covens, and whole traditions, today, that are totally Goddess or totally God oriented, and have all female or all male membership. The vast majority of groups, however, recognize that throughout nature there is a balance of male and female and consequently aim for that same balance within the coven. The balance of the two energies seems to be especially important for the raising of power to work magic.

The coven meets first and foremost to worship the deities, to ask them for what is needed and to thank them for what is received, as with most religions. Additionally, "work" may be done at the esbats—never at the sabbats, which are pure celebration—which is the Wiccan way of saying that magic (frequently healing magic) is performed, or divination accomplished. Initiations occasionally take place and there is much teaching of the coven members by the elders. Outside the coven meetings, teaching of neophytes may take place, preparatory to initiation.

Within the hierarchy of a coven, the Maiden is second to the High Priestess and is training to become a coven leader herself. In a system with three degrees of advancement, she would be of the Second Degree. There is also a Summoner, who functions as the coven secretary.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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