Generally understood in Neo-Paganism as a working group of witches.
In Wicca it has more technical implications as well, referring to a bonded group of Wiccan Initiates.
One joins a coven by being Initiated into it or, if already Initiated, by being formally adopted into it. Wiccans often make comparisons between the coven and a family - loyal to and supportive of fellow members through thick and thin.
The term, coined in Scotland circa 1500 AD, is a corruption of the Latin coventus meaning 'an assembly'. It may also be a further corruption ofthe French word convent referring to a religious community.
Despite the assertions of the author Margaret Murray, there is no evidence in England that the word 'coven' was associated with witchcraft prior to the 1930's or that it involved anything more than a gathering of people.
Witches' Sabbats would appear to have been effectively non-existent during the sixteenth and 17th centuries. Witches tended to be solitary individuals and if nocturnal gatherings did occur their participants were, more likely to have come together in barns and outhouses.
Court records from Elizabethan and Stuart England offer virtually no indication of even the most tenuous links with any earlier Pagan tradition that may have involved ritual gatherings.
In England, the nearest word that appears in the relevant historical literature is conventicle.
Gerald Gardner, widely considered to be the 'father' of Wicca, wrote that a coven should be made up of thirteen people, ideally six men, six women and a leader. According to Doreen Valiente, while a coven should not include more than thirteen members, it may also consist of eight individuals constituting a more experienced circle concerned principally with fertility rites.
In practice, a coven may be a group of witches of indeterminate number, headed by their High Priest or High Priestess or both - and it should be remembered that many Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans have little - if any - contact with a Coven or other group, prefering to practice alone.
see also WICCA
One of the major problems with 'defining' Paganism and/or its beliefs and practices is that it is an 'organic' movement, in that it is undergoing constant change and re-evaluation from within, and as such any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to understanding Paganism will be found wanting.
Due to the very 'organic' nature of Paganism, and the many differing Paths and Traditions within it, in many cases no one definition may be universally accepted by all Pagans. Therefore, where such cases of possible conflicting and/or contradictory meanings of certain terms occur I have endevoured to give not only the generally accepted meaning, but also any major 'variations' in belief and/or practice.
Christians who believe this difference in meaning of certain key terms, beliefs and practices to be unique to Paganism need to remember that such conflicts also arise within the Body of Christ - the Church. Take for instance the differing practices amongst Christians concerning Baptism and the different attitudes towards women in the clergy.
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