I am a Solitary Wiccan. This means that I do not work with a coven, nor have I ever. I have also never worked with a teaching circle of any type until I joined CFFN. I’ve done most of my studying with the help of books, and a healthy dose of just trying to figure things out myself.
I have heard many coven-based Wiccans claim it is impossible to be a self-initiated Wiccan. They tend to claim that since Gerald Gardner defined the tenets of the religion as having coven-based initiation, male by female and female by male, no other form is valid. I wonder if this then makes male by male and female by female initiations invalid as well? I have also heard it argued that a non-lineage initiation means you are not carrying on the core beliefs and tenets of your tradition. I do see some merit in this argument. I believe that one can not claim to be a member of a lineage, coven-based tradition if one is self-initiated. However, I do believe that one can still be a Wiccan, just as it is possible for a Christian to be Christian without having a Christening, and they can also be Christian without going to church. Membership to a religion should be defined by whether the person follows the beliefs, holidays, and mores, not by who has blessed you or orchestrated your “introduction” to your deities. I wonder why some people feel an initiation between the practitioner and the gods isn’t enough.
There are many drawbacks to being a Solitary beyond not being recognized by other Wiccans, I won’t deny that. Perhaps one of the most difficult things is determining which material is “correct” and meaningful for you. For example, some books include information on ritual magic, but this is not necessarily important for the practice of Wicca. If you don’t already know this and find yourself uncomfortable with the material, you might consider turning away from Wicca.
This leads directly into another problem Solitaries often have – what to study. Sabbats, esbats, Tarot, magic… it all seems so interesting, but which are the most important? The major areas of Wicca to study include history and philosophy of the faith, Sabbats and esbats, and your relationship with the Lord and Lady. (I am sure that there many out there that will disagree with me, but personally I feel these topics will give you a good foundation from which to study further topics.) Other topics, such as Tarot, magic and astrology, are excellent additions, but they are by no means necessary and essentially to the study and practice of Wicca.
It is also wise to be aware that some books, often unintentionally, contain misinformation. A good example of this is a well known book on Celtic magic that speaks about an ancient Irish potato goddess. The potato didn’t come to Ireland until around the year 16001, long after the heyday of the ancient Celts. Sadly, there are also some books that present other religions in a poor light, often in a thinly veiled way. Examples of this are often found in the language used when a book speaks of how certain religions adapted the holy days and sites of older religions.
It can be difficult for a Solitary to determine what information is good or bad, even when aware of which general categories to be on the look out for. An excellent idea for any type of study is taking a course in, or reading a book on, Critical Thinking. I took such a course in university, and I found it extremely useful, especially since I can often be swayed by a persuasive sounding argument.
So with these drawbacks, why would anyone want to be a Solitary? I can’t compare being a Solitary with being a coven member, so my thoughts are obviously one sided and influenced by my personality. Being a Solitary suits me because I am a very private person. I don’t like group politics, and I have little patience for stroking the egos of others. Of course, I am aware that very close friendships can grow up between coven members when a family-like atmosphere is present. I do wish sometimes that I had the chance to experience that, but I still believe being a Solitary suits me better.
By working and studying alone, I have the freedom to study the topics that interest me most, and I can cover the material at my own speed. I don’t have anyone present that I can bounce ideas off of, but for most topics there are many good forums, mailing lists and study groups available on the Internet. There are usually many good websites as well, which are very helpful in figuring out where to begin. By having some experience with Critical Thinking, as I mentioned above, it is usually possible to avoid misinformation. And of course, common sense helps here too.
In being Solitary, I feel that my relationship with the Lord and Lady has become very personal. In this way I think every Wiccan is a Solitary. We all have our own personal relationships with the divine, which we cultivate both within the circle and without. However, coven-based Wiccans generally have a relationship with the group deities, as well as with their own personal deities. I don’t necessarily see this as better or worse then the relationship a Solitary has, just different.
When it comes to working magic or performing rituals, working with a coven can make it easier to raise large amounts of energy. The actual ritual itself may go smoother as well, since there are more people present to carry out all the parts. However, keeping focused on the specific goal of the spell or ritual may be easier for a Solitary, since there is only one mind that needs to stay on task.
I think that choosing to work within a coven or to remain Solitary really comes down to a personal preference. Some people may decided to work within a group because they like the companionship, while others may avoid groups for the same reason. You may also want to remain Solitary because you aren’t out of the broom closet yet, or because you haven’t got the time to work with a group, or for a hundred other reasons. In the end, I don’t think it really matters whether your work with a coven or on your own. All that matters is your intent, you love of the divine and yourself, and your willingness to find the sacred in the everyday.