I get an awful lot of messages from folks through this website, saying that they want to join a coven, and can I tell them how to go about doing this. If you've spent any time on this blog, you will have seen my previous posts, Finding Your Coven and How to Approach a Coven and Ask for Training. In my last post I alluded to the fact that I would write more about what a coven actually is, and so here I am. It is really important that we spend some time looking at what a coven actually is, and that you get very clear about what it is you are looking for before you ask for training. This post should probably have been written before the other two, but there you go. Sometimes it takes time to tease out what you need to know...
This isn't anything you have encountered on tv or in films...
First of all, you won't have encountered anything accurate about what a Wiccan coven is like on tv or in films (unless you have been trawling YouTube for some of the old footage of GBG, Alex or the early High Priestesses). A wiccan coven is nothing like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Craft, Practical Magic, Bell Book and Candle, The Love Witch, The Craft - Legacy, or Harry Potter for that matter. The list could go on, and it is not exhaustive. You could write to me naming any film or program and I would tell you, 'no, its not like that.' That's not to say that Wiccan's don't love that stuff as much as you do, but its just not representative of what being in a coven is like.
When people write and say they want to join a coven, I think what they are really looking for is a The Craft-style group of friends who do magic together - which for the sake of my typing fingers, I will refer to as a working group in this post.
The differences between a coven and a working group are endless...
There is absolutely nothing wrong with working groups, let's get that straight. I am not here to judge which one is better than the other. Working groups are a great way to start learning magic, and how it works. They are also a great way to learn about group dynamics, and how you foster and nourish relationships within a group. Its hard work, and has to be delicately balanced. This will stand you in good stead for all sorts of experiences in life, although you might not choose to put it on your cv. However, what they don't give you is any learnings beyond what is published and freely available in your local bookstore, and they don't connect you to a magical current or lineage.
But, there are loads of books published, aren't there?
Yes, and no. There are books that will teach you magic, whether your taste in reading leads towards the Grimoire tradition, or more modern equivalents. Around the 1980's, things got a bit messy with the language of all of this. Uncle Scott Cunningham (I love him!) published Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, although he wasn't the first author to use the name Wicca outside of the Craft. This confused things, as Wicca and Solitary practitioner are an oxymoron as far as Wiccans are concerned. You cannot self-initiate into Wicca (you can self-dedicate, and I see another post coming on that one soon). In order to practice Gardnerian Wicca, or Alexandrian Wicca or British Traditional Wicca (or whatever we label it) you have to be taught and initiated into a group of existing Wiccans. Its a magical lineage, an oral tradition, that is passed down from Priestess to Priest and onwards. There are few books that describe it accurately, as much of it is oathbound. This is a part of the Western Mystery tradition. Its sacred to it, and not shared outside. This means its quite hard to know exactly what you are entering into until you reach the point of initiation, but it will have taken you a long time to get there. Wiccan's don't do anything in a hurry, when it comes to our spiritual lives. We take time to feel our way in.
The best book I have read so far on preparing for this, is Thorn Mooney's Traditional Wicca for Seekers.
Wicca is a vocation, not just a phase...
We rarely initiate people under the age at which you can legally buy alcohol. Not because it has anything to do with alcohol, but if I am going to take on a student, nurture them through the required pre-initiation training, and then in through initiation and to first degree studies, we are talking about a five year commitment. This means you will need to be able to demonstrate a level of vocation. If you are called to Wicca, potentially this is a life-long commitment, and you will be expected to attend circles when they happen. This is not a negotiation. There is no reason why someone would join a Wiccan coven if it wasn't their calling. It's hard work. it requires years of study and dedication. You wouldn't become a priest or a nun just to see what its like, would you? Wicca is the same. The reason for the pre-initiation training taking so long is that we need to be sure of this before making that commitment.
Wicca is hierarchical
Don't let anyone try and tell you otherwise. Covens are not a democracy, although you will be consulted. At the end of the day, there are three degrees of study once you get through the outer court training. As a first degree, you may find yourself the last person in the group to be asked, although a good HPS will always talk to everyone and think of the wider group wellbeing when making decisions. You have to put in your time, and be prepared to go through the process of training. Humility is part of that, and its not for everyone. You really do have to check your ego in at the door. In the old days of apprenticeship, the neophyte was expected to wash the clothes of the master. Wicca is not quite like that, but you get the idea. You need to be able to take instruction without the feeling of 'don't you know who I am' rising each time you do.
Wicca is an oral tradition
It's not written down anywhere. If you join a group who is teaching you things you can find in a published volume, then they are not genuinely Wiccan. My High Priest and High Priestess both taught me that craft as they were taught it by their High Priests and High Priestesses. That's not written down anywhere.
In Wicca you are connected to a current...
What that oral tradition gives you is a connection to a magical current, or a lineage. Lineage is very important in magical terms. When we perform magical acts, using the same words that our magical line used before us, on an energetic and spiritual level, those ancestors are lining up with us and adding their power to our magic. This is why covens are important if you want to practice Wicca (as opposed to wicca).
That current means that we don't have to worry about how to control the magic (in the way that the girls in the original film The Craft did) as our training and discipline over time leads to the ability to master yourself. You don't so much master magic in your long years of training, as mastering your own personality (in a non-judgmental, kind and loving way). When you have learned all your own quirks and weirdnesses, the mastery of magic happens alongside it.
In conclusion, therefore...
If you write to me telling me that you wish to join a coven and be trained, I will really be looking to see what level of vocation you have, and how much time you have spent preparing. If you are completely new to paganism, its not the time to make a life-long commitment to a Wiccan coven. Go away and read some books. Explore it. Look at the different paths in some depth to see if they are what you actually want. If reading isn't your bag, they join a class. At Treadwell's London I teach various beginner's classes that will give you an overview. I also teach intermediate and advanced levels which you can explore once you have a grounding.
Wicca isn't for everyone. It's not meant to be. 99% of people who initially say they want to join a coven and be trained, don't actually want this at all. What they want is a working group, so if you approach a High Priestess to ask for training and you feel as if you are being fobbed off, forgive them. If its what you really want, do persist. There is a certain level of testing you will go through before you are accepted for training, and a whole other level of testing you will be subjected to before initiation. This is not just to protect the coven, its also there to protect you. I can't imagine anything worse than being initiated into the craft and then realising you have made a mistake when you get there. This is meant to be a beautiful, uplifting, spiritual experience for all the members of a group, but we all have to put the work in to achieve that.