When a coven comes to its natural end

Fall leaves, photo by Andreina SchoeberleinAs popular Wiccan opinion goes, the number one coven killer in existence is a dreadful little thing called divorce. We’ve all heard the stories; the High Priest’s and High Priestess’ relationship devolves, the marriage unravels, the trust is shattered and people inevitably pick sides. Much can be said about divorce and its effects on a coven and on an entire line by Gardnerians in the USA. But this article isn’t about the number one coven killer in America. This article is about another way that covens end; this article is about life.

A few months ago, I met with the majority of my coven mates in the covenstead we’ve been gathering in for the better part of the last decade. Typical setting, the home of my initiators in suburban America. I’ve been driving anywhere from 2-4 hours (depending on traffic) to that house, every month, for more than eight wonderful years. The drive was a pain, because sitting in standstill traffic regularly is not anything a person looks forward to, but in the end, I’d give almost anything to keep making that trip for another year.

The energy of place

Our coven was located in southern California, the car capital of the world; home to Disneyland, the entertainment industry and more Winnebagos and dirt bikes than anyone can even imagine. When I flew into San Diego one a one-way ticket in 2004, the first thing that struck me about this place, in stark contrast to my native New York, was which elements clearly ruled. The American northeast is full of water. The ocean is there, it rains a lot, there are streams and rivers and lakes. They get storms, there are mountains, and everything exists in its own blended balance.

Southern California is a different beast entirely. The elements are a lot more segregated here, and when they mix, it’s not usually good. The layout is great for Wiccans, with the ocean (water) in the west, the mountains (earth) in the north (at least here in Los Angeles), the Santa Ana winds (air) blow from the east, and, well, Mexico is to the south and it’s really, really hot there (fire). It’s great, really, but sometimes, the elements run amok, together and apart.

My plane touched down in San Diego just after a record-setting wildfire wiped out a huge area of inhabited land. I saw more piles of ash with a chimney standing alone in it than I could ever have imagined. The fires are spread and fed by the Santa Ana winds and clouds of ash so large that they are mistaken for a layer of cloud rain little grey pieces of debris everywhere. This was a place ruled by fire and air, in my mind. That year also brought great rains, as I witnessed more flash flooding and landslides from the mixture of water and earth than I thought possible.

The disparate and collective force of the elements is stark here, and that affects the feeling of the witchcraft practiced in these parts, at least for me. It took me a good little while to feel aware enough of the energies of this part of the world before my thoughts could even turn toward finding others.

Finding the right coven

While acclimating to this shift, I sought out a coven. I had only two requirements: they needed to be sane, and meet regularly. It took me almost two years to come across such a group of witches, and after travelling for more than a year and a day to what would soon be my covenstead, I was blessed to be brought into their tradition of Wicca, which happened to be Gardnerian.

I remember being a seeker in that house, with those people who I grew to know and trust and love. I remember when the dog died, and then the cat died, and when a new puppy came to be home. I remember the cute little 10 year old who lived there, who has grown into a massive 6’2” teenager getting ready to go off to college. I remember initiates moving away, people leaving for a variety of normal reasons, and new initiates being brought in after me.

Each departure and arrival was a change, a shift that altered and integrated with the coven and our egregore. The coven existed in function and form every time we met, but it also existed in perpetuity through our interactions with each other, through phone calls and emails and Facebook and facetime. It existed through the relationships we had with each other as family. Through successful bouts with cancer, surgeries, recoveries and the revelation that my HPS magically turned into a Vicodin Fairy when I was sweating out an infection on her couch after an appendectomy. Much as the coven was alive, so we each were alive, and life places people together and eventually leads people apart.

Approaching the end

We’d known that the end would come for years, because my ridiculous initiators would wax eloquent about their grand “retirement,’ but it was always some distant time when my initiators’ 10 year old son would turn 18 and they would retire somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Eight years goes by in a flash when you’re happy.

So, we met tearfully one last time, in the living room that had served as the physical grounds of our temple for so long, looking around at an empty house, with my HP already off in another state, beginning a new life with a new career. That retirement part was always a lie. I knew it, they did too; they just persisted in it because they liked the idea. Silly witches, trying to create a truth out of obvious fantasy.

Their last and most spectacular fib was that this was also their retirement from the Craft, which was followed shortly after their move by beautiful pictures of their new altar and working space and a series of text messages reminding them of that bullshit retirement theme they had been building up in their heads. You can’t keep a good witch down, and these are some good witches. (I give it a few more months before they have an outer court going in the Bible Belt.)

Saying goodbye

In that empty house with my HPS, my coven sibling and our Queen, I looked around and felt the energy I had always felt there. I knew where the tree was painted on the wall with words of power in Theban that we’d covered up with many, many coats of white paint. We knew it was there. I knew where the pentacles had been placed in the beams of the house as it was built, where the other pentagram was placed under the patio in the front of the house to keep us safe and protected. I knew a dozen ways that a new family doing construction could come across something spooky and occult, and I smiled.

But mostly I knew that we were releasing the coven, releasing the group mind, the egregore, and our active attachment to each other, allowing the energy to wane and subside into the love of a family whose members would now span several thousand miles. We’d get together every year or so, we hoped, but who really knows how often.

We were saying goodbye to the people who had been the pillars, the foundational aspects of the tradition of Wicca we knew and loved and shared with each other. The creators and curators of the art and science of witchcraft through which we’d made magick together, transforming ourselves and the world around us. In the trust and love of the bonds that we shared, anything was possible, and we reached regularly for the stars that made up the dust at the feet of the Queen of the Host of Heaven. We had tread the old road between the worlds, opening the gates of death through the love and guidance of our Lord.

Parting gifts

Little pieces go with you when your coven comes to a natural conclusion. Most of them are memories and feelings of gratitude and love, but there are also things shared, parting gifts that maintain a part of our shared tradition and lineal connection.

In the last months of our meetings, I was given a sword that had been used by the first Gardnerian coven in Southern California, and for over 25 years. I was given the coven wand that I had helped my High Priest create, the craftsmanship superb and the symbology mixed with our actual blood (mine was accidental, his wasn’t), sweat and tears (from having a few drinks and laughing uproariously while crafting the thing). Its twin, made from the same wood, adorned the altar of one of our upline covens in Olde Salem Village in Massachusetts, on the other side of the country.

We each took things that would become a part of our solitary practice, which would remind us of what made the mill of magick turn for us, and grant a sense of continuity and connection to the past, things that represented earth and air, fire and water, and most of all, spirit.

We find ourselves now at a crossroads, the place where magick begins and ends, the place that is no place, between. Any of the three of us who remain within driving distance of each other could start a new coven if the space and time and life permit. But for now, we are once again that thing we remembered so distantly from the past: solitary.

A return to centre

I am a solitary witch. I haven’t been able to say that in almost a decade. My practice is once again fully my own. The memories, the links I have to the past encourage and empower me. That feeling of being at a threshold, not knowing what will come next, but feeling something brewing, a beginning, in the distance, is the best description of my current witchcraft that I can presently give. I feel full of gratitude to the people who have brought me before our Gods and spirits and called me kin, and that experience, that connection, can never truly be lost.

The coven is done, but the tradition, the connection, the relationships between witches, gods and spirits, and the land, all of that lives on within me, and I am but one link in the chain of tradition that spirals within the turning of the wheel.

We will meet, know, remember, and love each other again and again, and for this time, I am grateful.

Image credit: Andreina Schoeberlein

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A Gardnerian blogs at gardnerians.wordpress.com, and can be found on Twitter as @Gardnerians.

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