When someone mentions the word "coven," you might envision thirteen black-clad, pointy hat-wearing witches dancing around a fire or cackling around a cauldron. I'm not sure that was ever the norm, but even if it was, times have changed. And covens have changed with them.
During the years when Wicca was the most common form of group Witchcraft practice (or at least the one you were the most likely to find if you went looking), covens usually followed specific outlines. They were led by a high priest and a high priestess, members progressed through levels like first degree and second degree, and there were formal initiations. Rituals were complicated affairs full of ceremony, and everyone wore robes or some other form of garb.
None of this was a bad thing. I've been to a number of wonderful Wiccan rituals, and my first teacher/high priestess had come from a Wiccan coven and that's how she taught those of us who were in her own group (with some variations). We didn't do degrees or initiations, and when I got to the point where I was ready for my own training as a high priestess, she merely set me a number of tasks to perform in my "year and a day" of preparation, but there is no doubt that my witchy origins were firmly rooted in the Wiccan world.
On the other hand, over the last couple of decades, modern Witchcraft practices have changed and shifted. It is, after all, a vibrant and blossoming spiritual practice—the fastest growing religion in North America. As more and more people find their way to a Witchcraft path, the variety of approaches to working within a group structure has changed and shifted, too.
While there are still many traditional Wiccan covens, the desire for diverse forms of group work, along with the need for more flexible alternatives and the changes in Witchcraft itself, have led to a shift in what constitutes a coven, and a group of witches may look very different today than it did twenty or thirty years ago. Certainly my own practice, and my group's practice, have undergone a number of changes from where we started out in 2004. Here are some ways in which covens may vary.
The Modern Witch's Coven—Variations on a Theme
- Size: While covens didn't have to number thirteen, they were often more likely to be larger groups. These days, a coven can literally be as small as two people, if they practice together on a regular basis. My own group started with three, and has been as large as twelve. These days it is usually five with the occasional guest, but not all of the members can attend every single ritual due to distance and scheduling, so it's not unusual for there to be three or four of us at any given ritual.
- How Often They Meet: The first coven I belonged to was a little unusual in that it started out as a study group, so it met every Thursday night, and we simply celebrated whatever occasion was closest to that night, if there was one. Otherwise our high priestess just taught us some aspect of Witchcraft. My own group, Blue Moon Circle, started out by meeting twice a month. We met for every full moon, and for the eight sabbats, and did new moons in the four months without a sabbat in them. But as our lives got busier and more complicated, we ended up just meeting on the sabbats, and observing the full moons on our own. I know covens that only meet on full moons, and others that gather on any and every lunar and seasonal occasion. This can vary from group to group, and will probably be based on what people want and can manage.
- Who Is In Charge: Some covens still have the traditional high priest and high priestess, but it is just as likely to only have one, or to have the person or people who lead the group use no titles at all. (I no longer do, for the most part. I might lead the rituals, but we're all equal.) Some covens don't even have a leader, and people take turns being in charge of ritual.
- How People Dress: Some covens still wear witchy garb (robes or some other clothing specifically reserved for ritual use), while others don't. Blue Moon Circle used to dress up for full moons and sabbats, but we've gotten more relaxed over the years (or lazier, depending on how you look at it) and mostly just show up in our everyday clothes. The only exception is our yearly Yule dinner party, where we get kind of fancy, but nothing particularly witchy. Again, this is something that the people within a coven can discuss and agree on.
- The Rituals: The formality of the rituals themselves will vary a great deal, too. Some covens still do a long, ornate ritual, including walking in a procession into the circle, casting a formal circle, lighting candles and calling quarters, invoking the gods, and so on. Others, especially groups that meet on a more sporadic basis and have a more casual approach, may just skip that part and just do whatever ritual they have planned. My group used to be more formal before Covid hit, but we were all so tired and frazzled, we shifted to a more laid-back way of doing things and most of the time that's what we've stuck with. It really depends on what mood we're in and what we're doing.
No Wrong Way
The most important thing to realize is that there is no one right way to practice with other witches. Whether you call yourselves a coven or not, whether you meet up regularly or just when people have time, whether you are formal or casual, what really matters in that you treat each other with respect, enter into a ritual circle prepared to do serious magical work, and follow whatever your path is with reverence and mirth.
Witchcraft is, at its best, an accepting and welcoming religion, with something to offer to all those who come to it with an open mind and a willing spirit. If you can find people to share it with, that's just a bonus.