The Modern Day Feminist Magick of a Coven

Fed up with society’s casual misogyny? Here’s why a group of women came together to form a coven

Feature by Rosie Priest | 01 Oct 2018

On an early Sunday morning in August, as a slither of sun begins to warm the cold water at Portobello beach, five naked women crash into the sea. A fire keeps our clothes toasty on the beach as chants and howls fill the morning air. Early morning dog walkers steer clear of the water’s edge as we emerge from the sea and sprint for our clothes. This is the semblance of my coven. Usually, there are more of us but the results of our meetings tend to be similar: things are burned, metaphorically or literally, wounds are cleaned, spaces are cleansed and each member of the coven creates a united whole, pushing against the burdening dread, fear and day-to-day tyranny of being a modern woman.

This tyranny isn’t new but the coven is. Some of us have been friends for over ten years and many of us worked together in a Glasgow bar where we saw one another degraded, eroded and dehumanised by misogynist patrons, sexually inappropriate staff members or self-identifying male feminists who were more than happy to claim they were creating equality while simultaneously belittling those of us they considered less beautiful or less educated than the women who deserved their help. As our friendship group grew and more members joined, we all moved from job to job and city to city, with some members of the coven leaving Scotland for a year or two at a time. Despite the different contexts, our experiences remained similar to what they had been in the bar, only this time we weren’t young women. We were edging closer and closer to our thirties and what seemed to lurk in the shadows when we were younger became an almost uncontrollable influence on our lives: the day-to-day tyranny women endure.

In a 2015 study of Australian young people’s attitudes, one in five young men believe that women often “provoke violence” and 26% of Scots surveyed in 2007 thought that a woman bore some responsibility for being raped if she wore revealing clothing. These aren’t the hyperbolic claims of an angered feminist – these are the factual realities women have looming over them every day. It was out of these facts and our lived realities that the coven came to fruition.

On an evening four years ago, I found myself burning the name of the man who had pushed me to the ground and screamed “bitch” in my face. That experience wasn’t unique. All of my friends have spoken about similar violence, from the daily slow erosion of self-confidence to the manipulated isolation from loved ones to the sudden vulnerability pushed upon them by sexual assault. We’ve all felt it – a complete lack of control of our own bodies, our own voices and our own mental wellbeing. It was only after six years of knowing one another that these stories started to creep out.

The group of us didn’t set out to become a coven, or even identified the small rituals we had started to put in place over the years as leading towards the creation of one. These rituals were learnt from one another: using sage to cleanse spaces and internal thoughts was something several of the group had been taught from their mothers, tarot reading had been handed down from a superstitious grandmother, the natural instinct a lot of us had for collecting stones or shells from significant places or an affinity with certain flowers led to a shared knowledge of their healing properties. There was never a meeting in which we decided to form a cohesive whole; it organically grew from all of us.

As one of the coven members puts it: “My coven is the only safe space I have. Work, family, relationships, none of them provide genuine sanctuary.” This is not to belittle the relationships we have outside of the coven, but rather a recognition of the strength of the relationships within it. Another said: “From the outside, I think the connection between the members is palpable and has been noted as such by those looking at the coven from outside.” Another claims, “our coven is a feminist powerhouse.”

The ceremonies which have cemented our group started small and grew over time. They were gestures to claim back some sort of control and to cleanse ourselves of wrongs done. They have turned into evenings where we no longer cleanse but put forth what we want from the world. We build a cohesive power within the group and the results can be substantial. One coven member says: “The days that followed swimming in Portobello, I felt renewed – truly reborn. I had gained an energy I hadn’t felt in some time; I felt strong, supported and empowered. I imagine it’s how some people feel every day but not me. Most days I’m running at 60%, with the remaining 40% of my energy dedicated to holding together the parts of me that have been eroded, beaten and buckled by men in my life. I want that feeling of 100% energy every day and I honestly can only get that from my coven.”

The 6000 women burned, boiled or tortured to death as witches in Scotland stand before us as an example of what can happen to women under the tyranny of patriarchy. Traumas are still inflicted on women today, only this time it hides in plain sight. As one member put it: “[I] will never know the depth of pain men have caused me, rape, assault, mental and emotional abuse.”

You too may be in a coven – only rather than early morning swims, rune stone casting and tarot card readings, your ceremonies are the ceremonies of the everyday, as ours often are too. Rather than casting a sacred circle or meeting inside a home anointed by sage, you may find your safe place in a corner of a café or on the sofa of a friend. You may not recognise them as rituals, but you are creating something magick within them: safety, sanctuary, a connection. The only difference between my coven and yours is that we have recognised ourselves as one; as one member puts it, “we're in it together.”

My coven would exist without the rituals, runes, tarots and sage. It would exist over coffee, watching films, drinking wine. The difference is that we’ve acknowledged the power we create as a whole. This is modern day magick in a world that feels ever expansive in its ability to undermine women.