12.6.13

Solitaries vs. Covens

Feeling as though I owe you an explanation of these two concepts, I'll begin the post with this and then continue talking about the actual topic at hand :)
When I say "Solitaries", I'm talking about Solitary Witches, that is Witches who work alone (outside of a group). They can choose to do so freely, or they may be forced to work alone because of various circumstances. A coven is a group of Witches who practice their religion and do rituals together. The number of members can vary, though the optimal number is usually thirteen (for symbolical reasons).

Now that I've gone through the basics, I would like to continue with my thoughts on the subject :)

You may often come across the discussion of what is "correct": working in a coven or as a Solitary. Some will claim that working in a coven is the only right way to practice Wicca, while others won't have anything against working alone. I belong to the latter group of people since I do 99% of all Wicca-related things alone. Though you may be asking yourselves what it is that so many people think working in a coven is so valid.

It all began with Gerald Gardner and the "founding" of Wicca in the 1950s (you can read more on the history of Wicca in this post). He laid down the foundations for what we today refer to as Wicca and, from the very beginning, practiced in a coven. Just to be clear, the concept of the coven existed even before this. It may be familiar to you from the many Witch tales from the Middle Ages that you might have heard, but I won't go into the whole ethnology of the word here. To continue, working in a coven soon became widely accepted and a degree system was introduced (there are usually three degrees + the role of the High Priest and High Priestess). This system soon slowed down the spreading of Wicca because it took some time for people to improve and gain the necessary knowledge which was needed in order to reach the next degree. Then again, this made people work hard and actually put an effort into it all. This resulted in a sort of separation of those who are actually willing to learn, work and improve and those that were in it just for the fun.

Of course, magick and various other forms of witchcraft existed before Gardner. You can find magickal objects and various depictions regarding magick even in the Prehistoric era (for example, the many cave drawings which were a form of sympathetic magick - a type of magick which is worked by the person depicting what they want to happen, thus making the chances larger for this to happen in real life). Shamans and medicine men existed even in those times and they were viewed as religious leaders or healers of their time because they had grown wise with age, life experience and abilities.

We can find traces of magick in many mythological depictions and stories. For example, may gods have been described as patrons of magick and Witches, and some were even said to have practiced magick themselves. Some of these are the Greek goddess Arthemis (the Roman Diana) or even the Greek god Apollo. 

John Collier - the Oracle of Delphi
(the Pythia), oil on canvas, 1981
Charles Gumery - Circe, statue
on the Louvre museum, 1860
The well-known Pythia (the Oracle of Delphi) can also be thought of as a sort of Witch because she was said to be able to predict the future and contact the gods. This is only one example, although you can find many more stories regarding individuals who were thought to be Witches, like Circe or perhaps Medea. We could even go so far as to say that every prophet in history was a sort of Witch.

In the Middle Ages, we come across Cunning Men and Women who specialize in herbology and similar healing arts. Cunning men were obviously med, whose job was to heal various wounds and diseases, prophesize, give advice and so on. The Wise Women were basically their equals when it came to knowledge and experience, but they are more important to us at the moment because it was precisely them who inspired the stereotypical depiction of Witches (a wrinkly old hag with bad skin, many moles on their face and crooked teeth). But why was it always elderly people? The knowledge that they had wasn't gained overnight; one needed many many years and decades of hard work and learning from their predecessor/mentor to achieve that status.

Eugene Delacroix - Medea, oil on canvas, 
1862
We are unable to find any proof that these people worked in groups because, in one way or another, they were competition to each other. During these times when it was very hard to come across some money, people practically fought for it just so they could stay alive and feed their family. Any person that was occupied with the same thing as you was your competition, a potential threat and a nuisance (though things seem to have changed so little since then, if at all). If this is so, then can't we conclude that first Witches were, in fact, Solitaries?

These men and women have all the characteristics that are applied to modern Witches (a Witch = Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress", Old English wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic" from verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft", referring also to a person who is adept at what they do e.g. herbology or similar healing crafts). Of course, I emphasize healing as a precious skill since the sanitary conditions of the time were appalling, there weren't that many remedies and the only ones that were available had a herbal basis (i.e. made of herbs), and in order for one to be able to handle herbs, they had to have the necessary knowledge that went with it (i.e. herbal knowledge). I hope that I cleared that up :)

Many practitioners of the Craft (short for witchcraft) and Wicca believe that working in a coven is the only correct way to work, though I don't agree with this, as don't several authors whose beliefs I share. If that were the only "right" way to go about things, then many cases would have been recorded in history (with no mention of Solitaries), though the case seems to be that there are much more Solitaries recorded than covens (at least up to Gardner's time). Therefore, you don't have to worry yourselves if you can't find a coven to work with. Sometimes, working alone is the harder route, but I believe that with hard work and consistency, you will succeed in your intentions and see the results of your efforts. Just remember the many people in the past who had to hide their occupations from their surroundings just so they can continue to do what they love. You can find yourselves lucky that you live in a time when tolerance isn't so low (although it is still quite love in some countries, but you don't really come across burnings or hangings because of faith differences).

Since Wicca is adapted for coven work, it is sometimes necessary to tweak the rituals a bit for Solitary work (in fact, this is highly recommended). It would be ideal if you could write your own rituals, although some of them are so quality and have become ingrained that it is a shame not to use them. You will probably come across some rituals designed for covens that you will wish to enact. When this happens, simply sit down, think about what you can shorten, how you can play several roles, etc. With a bit of time, patience and determination, miracles can happen :)

A cunning man
A wise woman
It is up to you to decide whether you want to work by yourself or in a coven. This is often a matter of taste, practicality and security. If you find that you don't like working alone, try to find a coven. Nowadays, there are many ways to find like-minded people around you, for example by using the Internet (some useful web pages are under the "Useful links" category on the right side of the blog). On the other hand, if you realized that you're secure and sure enough when you work by yourself and believe that you don't need a coven to improve, then chances are that you really don't. Just remember, covens aren't there to control you or remind you that you have to do good; you'll have to remind yourselves this every now and then. Just because you're not in a coven (but still think of yourself as a Wiccan) doesn't give you the right to ignore the "golden rule" of Wicca: an ye harm none, do what ye will!

But to get back to the original topic; Wicca may be "made" for covens, but that doesn't mean that this is the only right way to practice it. In Wicca (and Paganism in general), individuality, love towards everyone/thing and yourself, tolerance and the right to freedom of choice are encouraged. It is your choice how you will practice your beliefs. It is because of this that there is no "book of laws" in Wicca which dictated how you should behave. Of course, a few guidelines do exist in order to help you, but it is not said anywhere that you must follow them. So, if someone comes up to you one day and says that you have no idea what you're doing because you're not in a coven or that you're less worthy because of this, don't listen to them. I would even respect you more because of your bravery to set off on your own on this spiritual journey. 

Solitary work isn't a mistake. All you need are trustworthy resources of information and the will to progress and, above all, good intentions (intention is key). If you have this, you have no reason to worry at all...you're already on your way to improvement in this area :)

I would like to emphasize that I am not initiated (although I would like to be one day), but also that this post isn't some sort of jealous outburst on those that have had the opportunity/privilege to experience this. There is no room for negativity here. Also, even people that haven't been initiated can work in groups (except these groups aren't called coven, but rather circles, or simply groups). If you already have someone with whom you work and feel comfortable with, I really am happy for you :) If you have, by any chance, been initiated into the tradition you wanted to become a member of and happy with this choice, then all the better!

The goal of this post was to remove the misconception that Witches who work in covens are "better" than Solitaries. I also don't want to generalize by saying that every coven member will think this way, although there may be a person or two who do.

There aren't that many Pagans (or Wiccans), at least where I come from, but also in the world compared to other major religions. I think that these tiny differences mustn't upset us and lead us to argue with one another, but rather help us develop a higher tolerance towards others. Paganism is a very broad term, and every tradition of it leaves room for individual interpretations..this is simply part of the magic of pagan religions :D I hope that you will accept other people not depending on their religious beliefs, or in the case of Paganism, not depending on the tradition they follow.

Love the beings with which you share this planet as well as this life, and this love will be requited. Remember: an ye harm none, do what ye will. ;)

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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