I recently listened to an interesting podcast from Circle Talk: Four Witches on Coven Hierarchy. I was pleased to note that most of the speakers on the podcast were advocating for a pretty flat hierarchy. I have written a fair amount about the roles and expectations of the different degrees in Wicca (in All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca) and quite a lot about coven leadership and the concept of “elders” (in The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation). I regard the Wiccan degree system as being like the apprenticeship system in medieval guilds (apprenticeship, journeyman, master). There was very little in the podcast that I disagreed with, except the one guy who makes his first degree coveners clean the coven brassware. I’m with the woman who said she is happy when people volunteer to help, but she doesn’t make them do tasks.
The podcast is hosted by mostly Alexandrian Wiccans, and the biggest difference seems to be that they have a formal neophyte role. I’ve never liked the word neophyte, it sounds like a developmental stage of insects to me. I call them trainees. But I like the idea that was mentioned of having an oath and a dedication for this stage of the journey.
The role of a trainee in a coven is to learn about the basics of the Craft. The minimum of a year and a day for training is for the trainee and the coven to get to know each other and see if they’re a good fit for each other. The coven should encourage trainees to ask lots of questions and develop and share their own ideas. One of the exciting things about teaching is that you sometimes reframe your own ideas in the light of a question or an idea from a trainee.
Important things to cover during the pre-initiation training include correcting misconceptions about the Craft (like erroneous ideas about the Threefold Law and the Wiccan Rede, and the historical origins of the Craft and the Wheel of the Year). It’s also good to challenge things like cultural appropriation, the introduction of New Age ideas into witchcraft, ideas from mainstream culture around what we value and the use of power, and to encourage self development and reflection. These learnings can continue into the first degree and beyond, too.
I like to keep the hierarchy as flat as possible in my coven. I assume that everyone is an adult and is keen to learn. If they’re not, then they will not progress in the Craft.
The first degree is like exploring a garden. I’ve likened it to the first year after you move into a new house, and you are getting used to the earth and the climatic conditions in your new garden. You wait to see what flowers come up before you plant anything new. In terms of the guild system, it’s the equivalent of the apprentice role. You watch and learn from others, and also learn by doing. It’s okay to make mistakes. You are a member of the priesthood of the Wica, but as yet, you are a priest unto yourself only. What is a priest? Someone who can approach the gods directly.
The second degree enables the person to initiate others. It also means that the person can visit other covens to see how they do things; and in some lines, it means they can hive off. It is like the journeyman role in the guild system, and now the person can train others and is more confident in ritual. They may also have developed a specialism such as healing or divination or herbs. In terms of the garden metaphor, the person is ready to start moving plants around and digging deeper.
The third degree is the equivalent of the role of master in the guild system. At this point, the person has achieved a level of maturity where they are able to teach others and run a coven, and possibly serve the wider community in some way. In terms of the garden metaphor, the garden is now at a new level of maturity — an understanding has been achieved with it, and the gardener is in harmony with the garden.
Other roles within the coven include the High Priestix, High Priest, and High Priestess. Most covens have two leaders (they could be a High Priestess and High Priest, or two High Priests, two High Priestesses, two High Priestixes, a High Priestix and a High Priest, or a High Priestix and a High Priestess). The leader of the coven is first among equals. They are there to ensure that everything runs smoothly, facilitate the ritual, run the training, and may delegate these tasks to others.
I am always pleased when someone wants to help with the setup of the temple, writing rituals , and organizing the calendar, but I’d always prefer to ask for volunteers than to make anyone do things. Writing rituals is an important part of personal growth and developing confidence as a witch though, so I definitely want people to do that.
Another role is the coven Fetch (also known as the Summoner or the Man in Black). It’s generally their role to summon everyone to the ritual. These days that involves managing the coven social media group, website, and Google Calendar. The Fetch can be of any gender.
The Freemasons have a role called a Tyler, who guards the door to prevent non-initiates gaining entry. The word is probably derived from the French word tailleur, one who cuts out.
Another very important role is that of the Maiden, who sets up the temple and passes things to the High Priestess during cakes and wine. The Maiden can also be a person of any gender.
Other coven roles have been suggested by Thista Minai in their book Casting a Queer Circle: Nonbinary Witchcraft, such as the Guardian (rather like the Tyler) and the Greeter (a bit like the Fetch or Summoner).
It’s fun having cool witchy titles like the Fetch and the Summoner, but I would definitely want to make sure that they have a magical role as well as a mundane one like managing the coven calendar. Maybe the Fetch could also challenge people on the threshold of the circle, asking them to give the password.