Over ten years ago ignotus press published An Inside View of Coven Working to help explore the intricacies of the different paths and traditions for the benefit of those who wished to join an existing group, or set up one of their own. Writing as Philip Wright and Carrie West, the authors were both members of the Coven of the Scales, the magical teaching Order formed by Bob and Mériém Clay-Egerton in the late 1980s. Having run their own coven for well over thirty years, and able to trace their lineage back to the turn of the last century, who better to offer advice on what to look for in a magic group – and what to avoid!
In 2013 ignotus press ceased publishing and it wasn’t until it was brought to our notice that copies of the book were exchanging hands for silly money on the internet, that we decided to re-release Coven Working: How to Join or Set Up a Working Coven for the benefit of those who were seeking this information. Witchcraft has changed quite considerably in the past twenty years but the guidance given by the original authors remains as clear and relevant as it did over a decade ago.
Here is an excerpt from that book, about coping with hierarchy:
There is a growing objection amongst newcomers to Craft about working within a hierarchical system, although as Aeron Medbh-Mara pointed out in Life-Rites, “In any magical ritual it would be rather fool-hardy to try to run a focused magical or path-working without someone directing operations – if only from a safety point of view.”
The real under-lying objection does, of course, stem from those who are looking for a quick-fix on the magical ladder [‘Learn to be a witch in five days’] and who appear to believe that having read all the ‘right’ authors [usually American], they have the ‘right’ to question everything the group leader says and does. Within our own coven, no one has that ‘right’ until they have completed the first year’s tuition to our complete satisfaction. Should we be confronted with this kind of arrogance from a beginner, we would be well within our own ‘right’ to deny them access to further training. Here the purposely-crafted first year of tuition will sort out the sheep from the goats in terms of personal approach and attitude, regardless of any magical ability.
In truth, the main difficulty that would-be witches and magicians have within a hierarchical system, is in accepting that they are often not as magically adept as they like to think they are. Coven leaders have a responsibility not to allow acolytes to advance beyond the level of their own magical competence, not because they fear for their own position within the group, but because unfettered experimentation is dangerous. As a result, the occasion will arise when a long-standing member of the group is refused advancement, simply on the grounds that their abilities do not match their ambition.
If the group leader is sympathetic to the disappointment (and embarrassment), in most instances this deficiency can be corrected with a lengthy period of intense one-to-one instruction away from the rest of the group. No one is capable of maintaining good grace when they feel they have been rejected, or their efforts have not been good enough, and it takes a great deal of tact and understanding to explain the reasoning behind the decision while still giving encouragement. Like all schools of learning, some people are merely slow developers and with sympathetic tuition can eventually become staunch and valuable members of the group. The wise leader never rejects anyone on the grounds that they fell at the first hurdle!
Disappointment can, however, manifest in anger and resentment. The ‘injured party’ takes offence on the grounds that they believe they should have been awarded the rank or grade on the grounds that they “thought we were friends!” We should make no bones about it - when duty forces us to over-ride personal friendships, no matter how much we might like them personally, our duty to our Tradition must remain paramount.
Even in the most balanced of groups, however, it is another fact of life, that from time to time, disputes will arise out of misunderstandings, a basic lack of communication, or because there is a trouble-maker in their midst. When faced with the question of whether she would prefer: a) a magical democracy, where everyone was considered equal, or b) an elitist inner-court, where entry was gained through merit, one first-year student replied: “Ideally, I believe in a magical democracy but I have observed group dynamics in many forms, and without some sort of hierarchy (and I wouldn’t call it elitist), any group will inevitably disintegrate. Just one individual within any organisation can destroy an entire group, leaving the membership in tatters. I’ve observed this many times and, it’s a sad fact that some people can be very calculating and deliberate in their desire to destroy an established group.
“For this reason I’m afraid to say that it is essential to have an inner-court, but one that is flexible and where entry is gained by trust and merit. At the same time, everyone should be equal in other ways. Except for setting policies, or tutorials, there should be an agreed format for voicing differing opinions, or this can be another area where problems can arise. Compromise within the inner-court will, of course, also be necessary at times, but people of the inner-court must be trustworthy and flexible, and not forget the purpose of the group or coven, or their core principles.”
The actual merits of hierarchy
Providing we’ve asked all the right questions, whether as interviewer or interviewee, all problems of oath-taking, sexual practice and hierarchy should be addressed in the first couple of meetings. Often a formal system is much fairer than a casual grouping, simply because there is a clearly defined programme of teaching, recognition and acceptance. After all, would you want another student being offered a rank, degree or Initiation because they had managed to circumnavigate the system, and you’ve had to work your way through the rules and regulations?
It would be untrue to say that there are never any ‘teacher’s pets’ but the hierarchy does prevent favouritism from clouding a tutor’s judgement. “There is always a long and detailed discussion with the rest of the Elders when a student reaches the initiatory stages,” explained one Old Crafter, “and sometimes these can be quite heated. Just because you think your little treasure is the best thing to hit the Circle since Crowley, doesn’t mean that the rest of us are going to share your enthusiasm. Others might see certain flaws that will need extra tuition before that particular student can advance …”
This is why new groups should be open and honest about their limitations, because this might have a knock-on effect if your group suddenly expands. If the founder members are all non-initiates, there is still a need to establish some sort of ‘system’ to allocate the various different duties that are involved in running a successful group, or one person will finish up doing everything. This is fine if there are only three or four people involved but it will eventually cause resentment if some form of job allocation isn’t sorted out in the early stages.
We look upon our own coven in tribal terms, in that we are responsible for the group, but all the senior members have a specific job to do. Evan John Jones in Witchcraft – A Tradition Renewed fully described the function of each member of his group and this is fairly standard within traditional Craft. [These systems are, however, impractical if there are only a handful of members participating in a ritual and Old Craft had certain functions that do not feature in modern witchcraft. MD] Normally, the ‘officers’ are as follows:
The Lady or Maid (sometimes Dame)
Often called ‘High Priestess’ by certain Wiccan factions. She generally directs operations, dedicates the Circle and leads the chant/dance. She embodies ‘Goddess energy’ that is represented by the chalice. Some Old Craft traditions will have both: one appointed as the Lady, and the Maid her successor. The Lady holds the position for as long as she is able (traditionally retiring when reaching the menopause) and then steps down to become the Crone. Thus the Coven benefits from having guiding members at all different levels of experience. Problems arise if the Lady refuses to step aside and the Coven energies stagnate.
A mature female member of the group who has inher turn been Maid and Lady but who retains a certain unstated rank among the members. Usually bringing the benefit of her knowledge, wisdom and understanding to the magical workings and development of the Coven.
The Man In Black and/or Magister
He partners the Lady (or Maid) and in Old Craft will more often than not, be the actual leader of the group. He invokes the ‘Horned God energy’ into the ritual, which is represented by the knife. Some larger groups will have both Magister and Man in Black. He rarely has a place in modern Wiccan working.
In contemporary groups this can be either male or female but in Old Craft will usually be male, and is part of the very old tradition. His job is to act as adjudicator or witness to any Coven events.
The Musician or Piper
This ancient position is rarely heard of these days in any aspect of Craft practice but it was the person who provided the music and led the dance for the Mill. An image of a piper is often found in Palaeolithic cave paintings leading the dance.
The Four Quarter Guards or Elders
These are senior members and experienced magical practitioners, all of whom should be Initiates or Elders. They stand for North (power of Earth), South (power of Fire), East (power of Air) and West (power of Water); they stand guard at the quarters during a ritual.
The overall running of the group and the organisation of the rituals falls to the Lady/Dame and the Man in Black/Magister; while the Summoner and the Quarter Guards/Elders are cast in supporting roles, each able to stand in for the others. Larger group will also have a number of Initiates, ‘acolytes’ and ‘neophytes’. In well run set-ups, those senior members acting as Quarter Guards should be willing to stand aside and occasionally allow newer members to take their place in the Circle, under their supervision. This simply means that if an Elder were unable to attend the meeting for whatever reason, there is always someone able to step in and perform that part of the ritual. As a guide, the magical levels are as follows although the terms ‘acolytes’ and ‘neophytes’ are only used here to differentiate between the levels of beginners.
A new member who knows little or nothing of the Tradition; a beginner with no previous magical training.
One who has reached a basic level of competence and understanding of magical working – one who has vowed to serve their deity and be loyal to the group following the prescribed period of study.
Those specially selected by vote or inheritance to act as the channel for the God and Goddess, and who can invoke deity in order to bring the power down into the Circle.
One who had attained a higher level of magical and mystical training – one who is capable of passing on the teaching to others within their own group.
One who has attained practical ability and magical learning within the system – one who is admitted into the Mysteries and taken the Coven Oath before deity.
Neophytes should undergo a period of training (often for a traditional year and a day) before formally being admitted into the group. This will give the group a chance to satisfy themselves that the new member will fit in with the rest. In some cases, it may even be the first time that the neophyte has been given the opportunity to formally meet members other than their tutor. It is also important that those at acolyte level should be encouraged to experiment magically by being taught how to work solo, or with a partner (of both sexes), as well as participating in group work. Ideally, each should be taught by someone from the level above, as those at ‘priesthood’ level often forget what it is like to start at the bottom. Members should also be made aware if any particular member has specialist knowledge of a certain subject, such as wort-lore, tarot, divination, etc., so that they get the best possible tuition if that subject is of interest to them.
There is no place for being precious within a coven, and those operating established groups would do well to look at their own structure before deciding to expand. Do the existing ‘senior’ members have the ability or aptitude to teach? Are there sufficient adepts available to act as tutors for any influx of new members? Are the current facilities large enough to cope with additional members? Have the group’s workings become so insular that there is no room for new ideas or opinions? Those wishing to start a coven with just a group of friends will, hopefully, be able to nip any problems in the bud by learning from others’ mistakes.Coven Working: How to Set Up or Join a Working Coven by Philip Wright and Carrie West is published by ignotus press. You can buy it direct from the printers at a discounted price - https://www.feedaread.com/books/Coven-Working-9781786971234.aspx
You can also view Coven Working on Amazon.