The Coven in Modern Witchcraft
In days long passed, it was commonly believed that witches were organized into groups known as covens. This belief led to the conviction and slaughter of more innocents during the infamous period of witchcraft hysteria that swept Europe centuries ago than anything else, for, as was written in the Malleus Maleficarum, 'Thou mayest not be a witch alone." Many superstitions sprang up around the coven. Some of these included: A coven consists of 13 witches, covens are ruled by a 'Man in Black' (or high priest) and witch covens hold great orgies during their sabbats.
Today, it is indeed true that many witches are banded together into covens. This practice is especially prominent in, but is not limited to, the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions. But what are covens today, and what is their function?
Generally speaking, a coven is a group of witches of the same tradition who band together for protection, teaching and learning, exploration of the Mysteries, and above all, the companionship of like minded individuals and fellow seekers. Today's covens do indeed include a 'Man in Black', although this gentleman is nowadays known better as a High Priest. Covens do not always consist of 13 members though. Although this is considered a functional maximum number of witches and an ideal coven, few modern covens are actually filled to this number. Contrary to the prevalent beliefs of the Middle Ages, it takes more than a simple lack of interest or hatred of Christianity to join a coven. In fact, a hatred or dislike of Christianity is not a true part of the modern Craft.
A modern coven is made up of two sections, the Inner and Outer Courts. The Outer Court is usually the publically known aspect of a coven, if there is such a thing, and consists generally of those students who are not yet initiates and the fringe members ('friends') of the coven. Generally, the Outer Court coven is known by a public name. Its members are in the process of training for a possible future as initiated priest/esses of the Mysteries and attend many Sabbat and Esbat rituals. The Inner Court, however, is a different matter. The members of the Inner Court of a coven are always initiates, and this inner circle is often known by a second, secret name. This was also the case with the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Inner Court of which was known as the RR et AC ('Rubae Rosae et Auris Crucis'--Ruby Rose and Golden Cross) and its existence may not even be known to the non-initiates, as was the case with the aforementioned Golden Dawn. The basic reasoning behind this segregation is simple. High magic and certain forms of ritual require the secret knowledge bestowed after initiation. It would not be proper to perform rituals of a secret nature with non-initiates present; it would also be a form of oathbreaking. Also, this inner circle relies more heavily on trust in each of its members and their abilities than does the Outer Court, which is also for training, and determining who is acceptable as a member of the Inner Court.
Within a coven is often formed a special bond and link called a group mind. This is truly a gestalt; within the coven's group mind develops a force that is greater then the sum of its parts. Many of us have had a friend or family member in our lives who has known what we were thinking without being told, or has had a strange ability to say or do the right thing at the right time. Now, imagine this link applying to several people at once, creating a web of psychic links. This is the group mind, which is often known to take on its own 'personality' based on a composite amalgamation of its members. In the Vodoun culture of Haiti, where ritual possession by the lwas (spirits) is not unknown, it sometimes happens that a new lwa is formed around a hounfour (Temple, a Vodoun coven) and will possess the hougan (priest) or mambo (priestess) and speak with its own personality and idiosyncracies. This group mind is the true power of a coven. Often, a thoughtform is developed around the group mind. (A thoughtform is a mental image that represents an idea. For example, a thoughtform representing the United States is 'Uncle Sam', while one that represents the UK is 'Britannia'.) One tale that comes from an Irish coven involves instructions they gave to Mara, their thoughtform, telling it to protect a local seal population that was being hunted to extinction. The seal hunters soon became fearful, as they could never get the seals they sought, and some claimed to have seen a woman veiled in greyish-green robes, veiled, haunting the island where the seals made their home. This description exactly matched that of the thoughtform.
Within a coven there are four officers. Without a minimum of these four a coven cannot truly exist. These four officers are the High Priestess, the High Priest, the Summoner (also called the Fetch) and the Handmaiden (also, simply the Maiden). Of these, the High Priestess (HPS) wields ultimate authority, while the High Priest (HP) serves as her voice to the rest of the coven, her confidant, friend and often consort. It is the HP who was often refered to as the 'Man in Black' in the witch trials, and the HPS who was often known as the 'Queen of Elphame'. The Summoner is the public face of the HPS; he is the messenger between covens, and bears the word of the HPS. He is also her protector, and must be willing and able to die for her if need calls for it (rare today). The handmaiden is essentially an assistant HPS. Care of the Temple and the coven's altar tools are often some of her tasks. She handles much of the work the HPS would otherwise be left to do, thusly freeing her up to deal with other duties that fall within her office.
One of the most facinating aspects of a coven is the dynamic that exists (in an astral sense) between the four officers. A good way to understand this dynamic is as follows. By drawing a pentacle and placing the officers upon the points (HP to the middle left, Summoner to the lower left, HPS to middle right and Handmaiden to lower right, group mind centered on upper point) we can glean a bit of the flux of magical forces that exists in a proper coven. The lines of the pentacle may be considered to be 'lines of force'. The primary line of force is the horizontal, center line ocnnecting the HP and HPS. This line, being horizontal, and cutting across the center of the pentacle, shows us the balance that exists bewteen the male and female forces embodied in the polarized souls and bodies of those two officers. This is a fundamental state that must exist in any true manifestation of the Western Mysteries. The second line of force connects the HP and Handmaiden. This line shows the connection between the Father and Daughter archetypes. Any readers familiar with Hermetic Kabbalah will have a greater understanding of these concepts, for they are dealt with in great depth amongst the literature dealing with the mystical aspects of Tarot and alchemy. As his magickal daughter, the handmaiden serves as the High Priest on a lower level, for both are essentially representatives of the HPS to the world at large, carrying out her instructions and bearing the majority of her lent authority. Also connected are the HPS and the Summoner. The Summoner serves the same role as the Maiden to the HP; he is the magickal son of the HPS, and there is a great significance in this archetypal relationship as well. The Summoner is, like the Maiden to the HP, the HPS on a lower level, for he is her voice to the outer world. While the HPS is aloof and silent, she manifests the spirituality of Deity. This majesty is manifested to the mundane world through the office of her Summoner, for he speaks forth the edicts and messages she sends forth. The two remaining lines of force connect the Summoner and the Handmaiden with the group mind, or totality of the coven's psychic existence. The HP and HPS are also connected to the group mind through these lines of force, but connect through the offices of their magickal children. This is also a Mystery, for through our children do we attain a greater awareness of the Universe, as any parent of a mystical mindset can attest. The group mind therefore is also a manifestation of the spiritual will or 'destiny' of the group that has formed it, for it rests upon the point of Spirit. The lines of force I have herein described are actually visible in ritual to those who have developed the Astral Sight (the ability to close the eyes and mentally percieve the non-physical aspects of ritual).
We may also place these officers within the Circle as representatives of the Elemental forces. The HPS, as the spirit of the Divine Feminine, is naturally enough placed in the west, magically speaking, for she represents the power of Water. Through her is the regeneration after death attained, and the west is the direction of the 'land of the dead'. The HP represents, as the Divine Masculine, the element of Fire. His power flows from the south, the direction wherein the Sun comes and never departs (in the northern hemisphere, where the Craft originated). His is the power of light, and he bestows this power upon the Circle and the HPS. The Handmaiden is allied with the element of Earth, her place being in the north of the circle, for she is the firm foundation of the Outer Court, and as daughter of the HP is the same as the Princess of the Tarot deck and the sephira Malkuth, also associated with elemental Earth. The Summoner then, is the representative of elemental Air, and has his place in the east, facing his mother in the west. Through him are the early stirrings of light that come with dawn; he foreshadows the coming of the solar HP.
This then is the significance of the coven in the modern resurrection of ancient wisdom. It must always be remembered that a coven may only exist through proper understanding and application of the two greatest tenets of the Craft: Perfect Love and Perfect Trust. These items are, however, worthy of a paper in and of themselves, ands will be dealt with accordingly.
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