I am the High Priest of the "Coven of the Cauldron." Although we are primarily Celtic in nature, we are also quite eclectic and are willing to use anything that works. We have done rituals from Native American, Strega (Italian), ceremonial magic, and Northern European traditions. These non-Celtic rituals usually take a great deal of planning, education, and training. They are fun to do and we have been very successful with them.
As the High Priest, I am responsible for overseeing everything that goes on for the coven. That doesn't mean I control everything, just that I help people achieve their finest work. But the duty of a coven's High Priest in our tradition goes far beyond running the rituals.
As in any religion, the local leader also provides guidance and spiritual counsel to the members of his or her group. I can be questioned about anything:
For many of the questions, a simple answer works well ("That will make a fine athame"). I also have an advantage in that Coven of the Cauldron has an expert Tarot reader who can answer certain types of questions for me ("Should I take the new job?"), but there are certain things I feel that I alone should have the primary responsibility. For example, not being the one who gives comfort to a person who is grieving doesn't sit well with me. Sure, others can give comfort, and I hope they do, but as the coven leader, I feel that specific responsibility should fall to me.
One of the reasons I became the High Priest of the coven (after the founder decided to take a less active role in the day-to-day covenwork) is that I have been involved in the Craft for almost twenty years. At that time, there were far fewer Wiccan traditions than there are today. There were many differences over the way covens worked back then, at least the ones I originally studied with.
One of the big differences was on the performance of rituals. Back then, we only did a small number of rituals. We did them frequently; we just didn't have a wide variety. We had basic rituals that could be slightly modified to meet any need. Because we repeated them so often, we learned them very well and very deeply so we could focus on the "behind the scenes" work—such as raising and increasing psychic/magical energy—rather than trying to remember new words and physical actions.
Over the years, the popularity of frequently doing new rituals has increased. With such rituals, there is a new psychological and psychic impact with each performance, so nothing ever becomes mere rote memory.
So, which do I think is better, having a small number of adaptable rituals or frequently creating new rituals? Both have their advantages. I think each member of the Craft should find what works best for her or him. I have no problem working with either system. The Coven of the Cauldron works with both techniques. We have some rituals we use frequently, and in other situations, we have coven members create original rites.
Sometimes, the responsibility for creating a new ritual falls to me. Most of the time this is easy for me to do. But sometimes—because I'm tired, too close to the matter, have other things on my mind and can't focus enough to do research, etc.—it is difficult. And as I always tell members of the Outer Court study groups, "Anything less than excellence is not accepted." By this, I do not mean comparing what you do with the work of others; rather, I mean doing the best job you possibly can. And I know when I've not done my best work.
One of the coven members, Lilith, came to me asking that the coven do a ritual to help her get over the death of her sister in a senseless car accident. A drunk driver had slammed into the side of her sister's car. She was dead before the cars had stopped moving. I told her I thought it would be good for the entire coven to do a ritual and that I would design it. We then talked for hours about her feelings and how she missed her sister. I did my best to console her.
I spent about ten hours over the next several days trying to come up with a good ritual, but for some reason, nothing would come through me. One of the techniques I use to "get the creative juices flowing" is to simply start writing. Within a short time, I usually come up with ideas that are clear, precise, and excellent. In this instance, nothing happened. My trashcan was filled with crumpled papers covered with discarded notes, words, and ideas.
Over the years, I've amassed several hundred books on Wicca and Witchcraft. I decided to go through them and look for examples of good group rituals to see if that could get me going. I ignored all of the books on the history of the Craft, and those that focused on solitary practices. To my surprise, this left a rather small selection of books. Most of them had initiation rituals and seasonal practices. Some of them had simple spells for individuals. A few with group rituals were rather old and dated. I wanted—I needed—something fresh.
So I trekked over to a local book store and looked through their section of New Age books. Within that relatively small section was an even smaller area, the shelf with books on Wicca. Once again, I passed over the books on history and on solitary Witchcraft. "Hello," I thought. "What's this?"
There was a brand new book, Spellworking for Covens by Edain McCoy. On the back cover it says, "This unique grimoire includes group spells for healing, fertility, love, prosperity, protection, banishing bad memories, resolving legal problems, overcoming obstacles, calling back or breaking a spell, and more."
"Bingo!" I thought. An hour later I was at home, listening to Enya and reading the book.
I thought the rituals in the book would simply fire my creative writing juices. After all, the cover didn't say anything about the ritual I needed. To my pleasure, I found exactly what I needed on page 188: a consolation spell. The book says that the goal of this ritual is "To offer comfort and consolation to someone who is grieving." It goes on to say that the subject for the ritual (in this case, it would be Lilith), should be "A coven member or someone close to your coven. The person for whom the spell is being done need not be present and, in most cases, it is better if they are not."
For the ritual, the following items are needed: "An unlit white candle in the center of the altar, a censer or heat-resistant bowl with incense coals burning in it, dried marigolds, dried lemon peel shavings, and dried violet." The book advised that this rite could be performed at any time.
I told everyone what we were going to do and explained to Lilith that she should remain at home, peacefully meditating while the rest of us performed the ritual for her. As the coven assembled and got into their robes, I carefully mixed the ingredients listed above for the incense.
We drew a circle. We meditated a bit. Then I went forward and lit the white candle "to symbolize peace and the power of spirit." As I did, I said the following words, just slightly modified from the book:
We light this candle tonight in the presence of our deities in the sanctuary of this sacred space to help ease the grief of Lilith, whose sister has passed into the otherworld. We ask that this flame burn in her heart and mind, offering her the light of hope for happiness in her own life and that of her family. We also light it as a beacon to help Lilith's sister's spirit make her journey to wherever she is called by the deities she loves. The flame also burns as a representation of the unity of all things in all realms and stands as a symbol of our belief that we are all one and that someday we will all be united again when we merge with the divine. Blessed be and so mote it be.
The mixed herb incense was in a small bowl. Some people brought other herbs to add to the mix according to the directions in the book. I carried the bowl around and each person took a small amount, mixing it with the herbs they brought. One by one, each person came forward, tossed the herbs onto the hot coals, and made a small blessing. I had the first four people use blessings based on the book, so that people would see what was needed. Here is what the first four said:
I wish Lilith a good night's rest, free from thoughts of guilt, pain, or fear.
I brought lemon balm to ease Lilith's spirit and calm her in her time of anxiety.
I wish Lilith and her family the peace of knowing that God—however they view him or her—is in charge of her sister's spirit and that someday they will be reunited.
I brought myrtle, a love herb, to remind Lilith that love never ends. May it follow her sister into the otherworld and provide a pathway of light to lead Lilith to her again when it is her turn to pass into the otherworld.
Following the instructions in the book, we then held hands around the circle and mentally sent "group energy of consolation and healing" to Lilith. Finally, we broke the circle.
The next morning, I got a call from Lilith. She had been disappointed that nothing had happened during her meditation, but an amazing thing happened when she went to sleep that night. "I dreamed that I was meditating with my eyes closed, and a bright light brought me out of the meditation. I looked toward the light and saw that it was my sister! She looked beautiful and was surrounded with this incredible light that changed from white to silver to purple and then back to white. Her smile was radiant, and so was she.
"We talked for what seemed like hours. She told me she was sorry that she had to leave and that she would miss me. 'But as long as you are alive, you will always know that I love you. Here is a sign of my love.'
"She put out her hand and touched me lightly on my chest. I felt an incredible bolt of energy flow through me. I knew it was pure love. She told me she would always love me and that I should remember the sign even though the sign would fade, just as her presence here was fading. I watched her become more and more transparent as she said, 'Good bye. I love you.' I watched until I couldn't see her any more."
I asked Lilith what the sign was, and she asked to come over. When she arrived, she unbuttoned the top of her blouse. "It's already faded," she said. "I doubt if it will last longer than today." On her chest was the clear image of a hand. The palm was small and the fingers were long. That was the description of Lilith's sister's hand.
I got out a camera and took several pictures so the results of the ritual could be kept for posterity. But when the film was developed, not one of the pictures showed the handprint. I showed the pictures to Lilith. "What do you think happened?" I asked. "The hand print isn't there."
Lilith gave me one of the most beautiful smiles I've ever seen, put her hands over where the handprint had been on her chest and took a deep breath. "You're wrong," she said. "Her print is still there. It will always be there."
Lilith had moved on in her life. The pain was gone. The fond memories and love remained.
Since that time several months ago, we have worked with several other rituals given in Spellworking for Covens. Nobody can say that the spells will work for everyone, but we have had tremendous success with the rituals from the book that we have tried.