Covens have been referenced in literature as early as the 12th century. In the Polycraticus, John of Salisbury describes organized groups of witches who carry on at wild sabbats. A story popular in the Middle Ages concerns an event with St. Germain (390-448), in which he encounters villagers preparing a dinner for the "good women who walk about at night" dancing with the spirits.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the existence of covens was taken more seriously. The judges of the inquisition tortured witches into confessions of being part of 13 member covens, and forced them into providing the names of the other participants. The Church believed this would allow them to throw a wide net around these 'criminals'.
The earliest known documented reference (outside of literature) to a coven is from a 1324 witch trial in Kilkenny, Ireland. Dame Alice Kyteler was accused of being part of a 13-member group and was being forced to reveal the other members. Dame Alice refused and was executed for her insolence and being a witch. By the 1700s, the concept of a coven was firmly established in society. But many quickly went under ground and became secret to avoid the persecution of the Church.
Some witches of today claim to be members of covens that date back generations. Sybil Leek's New Forest coven claims to be 800 years old. Some covens may indeed be old, but there is little practical or accepted evidence to indicate that these covens have existed in unbroken lines throughout the centuries. That doesn't mean it's not true, just hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt.
European witches were and are not, the only pagans to gather in groups. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BC and describe Druid Groves. Formal organizations were also known as Bangors. Both of these were groups of Druid Priests who became teachers, leaders and even judges when necessary of their local communities.
In addition to the Druids, and some say prior to their formalization, there were the Irish Clans. Family groups usually, who were lead by a warrior leader and a spiritual Shaman. This is the basic concept of Celtic Shamanism which is slightly different than the Druidic Order. In these groups, Shamans gathered Together With the Clan for ritual work. At times their workings required them to meet alone without the laymen of the Clan. In these cases, the gathers would consist of at least 3 members if possible. But many Shamans of a Clan worked alone. During special events, Shamans from neighboring Clans would also gather together for spiritual workings.
Across the waters, the Norse also had/have their own coven versions called Kindreds. These groups are formed with members, who the existing practioners would want to be in their own family and extended family. This is how many Kindreds are formed today in Vinland. Today the Asatru Alliance promotes the founding and growth of Kindreds, and that through the pages of their publication, Vor Tru, they reach out to many of the Folk, or people of the Kindreds.
For further details about each of these groups, I'll be adding postings to each section listed on the Witchcraft & Shamanism menu. Stay tuned.
Free eBooks (Can Be Downloaded):Walter Gibson - Witchcraft A History Of The Black Art
Isaac Bonewits - Witchcraft A Concise Guide
Fransis Bragge - Witchcraft Farther Displayd
Gerald Gardner - Witchcraft Today
Anonymous - Witchcraft Dictionary