Friday, August 12, 2011

The Company of Witches

Cottage in Blaise Castle estate. Photo by Angi Nelson.
In some of the British wiccan traditions descended from Gerald Gardner, you may come across the saying "You cannot be a witch alone;" but this of course is not always the case. When imagining the classic figure of the witch, the image is often that of a very solitary figure: the herb-wife or cunning man of the village, living alone and plying their trade unobtrusively, set apart by talent and temperament if nothing else, separate from village life but an inextricable part of it as well. Certainly the witch of fairytale lore is a lonely soul, hidden away in the dark forest in her slightly sinister but oh-so-very-attractive cottage. The soul brave enough to seek out and enter the witch's cottage may find therein the answer to her wildest dreams...or the loss of her very soul or sanity. In legend, of course, that cottage may symbolize the deepest part of our unconscious, the place where the demons dwell, and the witch residing therein the keeper of the mysteries of ourselves that we have yet to uncover; to seek then to enter that cottage, and to learn from that witch (or, even better, to become such a being) is to seek our own soul-knowledge and mastery.

But that's the inner working; at the external level, there is also the very concrete reality of the witch's work, whether it be done alone in a cottage at the edge of town, or amongst compatriots in a coven. One certainly can be a witch alone, but sometimes one wants or needs the company of like-minded persons; hence the coven, where witches may meet for esbat or sabbat to work magick, dance, feast, or get up to other varieties of No Good. The woodcuts that so many of us find so evocative often portray what could be considered a coven: rings of witches dancing in a circle, often around a sinister horned figure. The modern reality tends to look a bit different, as it's difficult to fit a 20-foot-tall goat-man into a suburban living room; and many modern covens are more celebratory and, dare I say, religious in nature, gathering more for social purposes than magickal ones. (I frankly am less concerned about what the local coven may be getting up to than what's going on at the megachurch down the way, but in terms of actual impact it's easy to see which of those entities has the advantage.) There are benefits to having a support structure like a coven, like the sense of belonging and connection that can arise from being a part of a group, of a lineage, of a tradition with a real history about it; but such connections are not strictly necessary for one to be a witch.

The ideal situation for many would be to have a coven to meet with for certain occasions or purposes, while maintaining a vigorous personal practice on an as-needed basis. I have always found this model to be most effective for me. Having a network of trustworthy fellow practitioners with whom to discuss the art is highly desirable and, in the modern age, perhaps easier than ever to come by thanks to the internet; and having others with whom to gather and do the work of the witch can be extremely satisfying and enlivening. But even covened witches should remember that their work is sometimes best done alone, free of distraction, in that secluded cottage or forest glade or living room. You can be a witch alone, or witches all together; the work, and the wisdom, are the final determinants.

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