at night." St. Germain, expressing the dominant view of the Catholic Church, discredited these sabbats of covens as deceits of the Devil.
It was not until the Inquisition that the existence of covens was taken more seriously. Accused witches were tortured into confessing that they were members of secret, subversive organizations, and were forced to implicate others (see torture).
British anthropologist MARGARET A. Murray held that covens were far more prevalent and organized than the Church was willing to believe, though there is little evidence to support that contention. Many accused witches persecuted by the Inquisition were solitary old women, outcasts from society, who may have possessed special healing or clairvoyant powers.
The earliest known reference to a coven in a witch trial occurred in 1324 in Kilkenny, Ireland, when Dame ALICE KYTELER was accused of being part of a 13-member group. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more witches, though not a great number of them, confessed under torture to having joined covens. By the time witch-hunting died down in the early 1700s, the concept of the coven was firmly established.
Some Witches claim to be members of covens that date back generations. sybil LEEK's New Forest coven claimed to be 800 years old. Some covens may indeed be old, but there is little evidence to indicate that covens have existed in unbroken lines throughout history. As of the 1980s, most witches had abandoned the unbroken tradition theory in favor of the view that modern Witchcraft reflects a reconstruction of old beliefs and practices.
Number in a coven. Traditionally, the number of witches in a coven is supposed to be 13: 12 followers plus a leader. Murray stated this unequivocably in The God of the Witches (1931), concerning medieval covens:
The number in a coven never varied, there were always thirteen, i.e., twelve members and the god. . . . In the witch-trials the existence of covens appears to have been well known, for it is observable how the justices and the priests or ministers of religion press the unfortunate prisoners to inculpate their associates, but after persons to the number of thirteen or any multiple of thirteen had been brought to trial, or had at least been accused, no further trouble was taken in the matter.
The leader was believed to be either the DEVIL himself or a person, usually a man, who, witch-hunters said, represented the Devil and dressed himself in animal skins and horns at sabbats.
The evidence for a constancy of 13 members is slim, however, and is referenced in only 18 trials (see THIRTEEN). At her trial in 1662 Isobel Gowdie stated, "Ther ar threttein persons in ilk Coeven." In 1673 accused witch
Ann Armstrong of Newcastle-on-Tyne stated she knew of "five coveys consisting of thirteen persons in every covey," and of a large meeting or sabbat of many witches, and "every thirteen of them had a divell with them in sundry shapes." Such "testimony" may have been the result of leading questions posed by inquisitors, combined with torture.
Structure and activities of a coven. In The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), Summers defined covens as:
. . . bands of men and women, apparently under the discipline of an officer, all of whom for convenience' sake belonged to the same district. Those who belonged to a coven were, it seems from the evidence at the trials, bound to attend the weekly Esbat. The arrest of one member of a coven generally led to the implication of the rest.
Cotton Mather, in writing on the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, said "the witches do say that they form themselves much after the manner of Congregational Churches, and that they have a Baptism, and a Supper, and Officers among them, abominably resembling those of our Lord."
Murray also drew on witch trials to portray the alleged organization of a coven. According to old testimony, the titular head of each coven was the grandmaster, or deity worshiped. Most likely, this was a pagan deity with horns (see HoRNED god), but in the Inquisition it became the Devil himself. Usually, the god/Devil was represented by a substitute man or woman who conducted rituals in the god/Devil's name. At sabbats, when the god/Devil was present in person, the grandmasters then became officers.
Each coven reputedly also had a summoner, a person who secretly gave notice to members regarding the next meeting time and location. Sometimes the officer and summoner were the same person; not uncommonly, this person was a Christian priest who still participated in pagan ceremonies. The duties of the officer/summoner included keeping attendance records, scouting for recruits and presenting initiates to the god/Devil.
Covens also had a high-ranking position called maiden, a comely young lass with primarily ceremonial duties. The maiden served mostly as consort and hostess at the right hand of the grandmaster, or Devil, at sabbats and led the dance with him. The witches of Auldearne, Scotland, in 1662 claimed to have a "Maiden of the Covine," described in Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft as "a girl of personal attractions, whom Satan placed beside himself, and treated with particular attention, which greatly provoked the spite of the old hags, who felt themselves insulted by the preference." In some accounts, this maiden was also called the Queen of the Sabbat.
Murray contended that JoAN of Arc was a witch and that her appellation "the Maid" therefore had special significance.
Each coven was independent yet supposedly was linked to other covens in a region through a cooperative network. In the trial of the North Berwick witches in Scotland in 1591, three covens allegedly worked together to try to murder King James VI of Scotland (see North Berwick witches). There is scant other historical evidence for formal networks of covens.
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