Pagan Paths

Into the Coven is a sneak peek into the development and workings of a Wiccan coven. Each monthly installment will explore the history and lore surrounding the idea of the coven. In addition to looking at the coven in history, Jason Mankey will share the growing pains, triumphs, and tragedies of his own working group.

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Into the Coven: Celebrating the Sabbats

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

 

Next week my coven will be celebrating the Winter Solstice and instead of writing this blog post I should be writing our sabbat ritual. I'm sure the inspiration will come, eventually, but for now I'm going to continue to procrastinate (and perhaps daydream about an Oak King/Holly King scenario).

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Procrastination isn't all bad though, sometimes it gives me time to think about what I should be working on. When writing ritual I often stop to re-evaluate why we do rituals and I'm always reminded that rituals exist for several reasons.  The biggest reason is connection.  Rituals connect us to the Earth, our gods, and each other. Unless I'm doing solitary ritual my rites connect me to whoever I'm working with.  

Rituals are also about service. I think most people get that, but there are always those folks out there who think rituals are about the people leading them. I'm sure I suffered under this delusion when I was younger, but as I've grown older (and mostly wiser) I've come to know better. Ritual should never be about standing in a spotlight, it should be about serving the needs of the people at the ritual. Wanting to lead a ritual is not enough, there needs to be a reason behind the want. 

This is all humming through my head because when I write rituals for my coven I do so with all of my coven-mates in mind. The ritual is about them, the Wheel, and the gods, it's not about me, and it should serve some sort of purpose that make our lives better or at least richer. Ritual should also fit the right spot tonally. 

When it comes to tone there are some obvious things that come to mind. Midsummer is probably not the best time of year for a completely serious and dark ritual (unless there are extenuating circumstances), and Samhain is probably not the best time of year for merriment and mirth. There are also expectations to be balanced, Fall rituals generally say something about the harvest for instance. A lot of groups expect to see maypoles at Beltane etc.  

Most of my coven is involved with other groups and circles. The "Presidents" of two very large, open groups are both a part of the Oak Court (the name of our coven, and the street I live on-I'm not all that creative) and when writing sabbat rituals I tend to take into consideration what those groups have done or will be doing on the sabbats. At Samhain for instance nearly all of us were involved in at least one large public All Hallow's ritual. Both of those rituals were also very intense and it was the kind of intensity that takes a toll on the body and the psyche.  

Because of that, our coven Samhain ritual was rather reserved. It was going to be my second Samhain ritual in six days, occurring just two days before my third one. We needed a break, so I dialed everything back a little bit. For Yule a little less than half the coven is involved in a rather elaborate public Midwinter rite. That makes me wonder how to approach our own celebration.  

I generally think of our coven rituals as where "the work gets done" and the more public stuff many of us do as celebrations and observances. There are certainly times when public ritual is just as meaningful as anything done in our ritual room, but that's usually the exception. The public Yule involving two of our members as High Priestess and Priest is a bit more intense than most public stuff, and in some ways will be one of those public rites where "work gets done." This means our Yule ritual should probably be more celebratory as not to burn everyone out.

Some covens avoid problems like this because they repeat the same ritual (with minor tweaks) again and again every time a particular sabbat rolls around. Sometimes I wish my coven operated like that, but only sometimes. There's something nice about not having to write anything new, but I prefer adapting my rituals to fit current circumstances. Yule for example is one of those holidays that can go either way. It can be a bit more reserved and have a very serious spiritual message, or it can simply be fun. We can stand around completely still and enveloped in absolute darkness or we can open up Christmas Crackers (I don't recommend doing both at the same time, unless you enjoy scaring people). 

Instead of tradition dictating the ritual, I prefer to let circumstances dictate the ritual. I'm not in service to my Book of Shadows, I'm in service to my coven. I need to come up with a ritual that suits their circumstances and reflects where they are currently at. In many ways I've found this to be an extremely trying year within the Pagan Community. I know that personally I've had a great year, but when I look at the bigger picture I see something else. So should our Yule ritual be serious and attempt to heal some of this year's wounds? Or would something light and more jovial do more to mend broken hearts? It's a rhetorical question, I don't know the answer right now.

While I do like writing new "middles" at most sabbats that doesn't mean everything is entirely new. I'm great at recycling ideas, and with eighteen years of public ritual writing experience I've become quite adept at stealing my own ideas and recycling them from year to year. Our coven has a pretty complete ritual structure too, so I'm never starting from a place without a firm foundation. In fact that firm foundation is one of the things I like best about coven work.  

Our coven does have several limitations when it comes to rituals, and I often feel those most acutely while celebrating the sabbats. Because land is at a premium where we live (and large, private backyards are few) we do ritual indoors nearly year round. For some Pagans that's probably a blasphemy, for me that's just how it goes. I'm not going to complain about it all that much, except for maybe when it's 90 degrees indoors during Lammas.

Why bring all of this up?  Mostly because coven ritual should be about more than "hey I've got one good idea for a spell."  It should reflect where the coven is currently at, and meet the needs of its members. I don't need to draw down the God if most of us shared the experience the weekend before. I also have to be careful about not getting too wedded to my own ideas. Just because I have this awesome thing that I want to do doesn't mean that my coven wants to do it, or needs to do it a particular junction.  Taking everyone into account is always the best way to plan ritual. Hard to do when you are doing a public ritual for 45, much easier to do for a coven of 14.  

As for our own Yule ritual I feel like going with jovial. It's been a pretty heavy year, I think a little laughter and a bit of ridiculousness might go a long way.  Besides, I'm not sure I want to end up on the floor "killed" by a coven member on yet another Midwinter's night.  



 

 

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Tagged in: coven Pagan ritual Wicca yule
Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason's main gig is writing "Raise the Horns" at Patheos Pagan, but he's also a columnist for "Witches and Pagans" (print) magazine, is currently working on his first book for a major publisher, hosts a twice monthly radio show, and lectures frequently on the Pagan Festival circuit.   When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

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