One of the questions I often receive is a request for contact with an occult group, order, coven, etc. As a policy, I don’t recommend such organizations. The reason for this is that I, personally, have been “burned.” That is, some time ago an organization that was great evolved into something that was not good. As a result, when I recommended that group, I was sending people into a bad situation. I never want to send people into such a situation, so rather than make a recommendation for a group with which I’ve had no contact for a long time, I just don’t recommend any particular group.
If people are looking for a group I do recommend places they can look to find one. For example, the good people at The Witches’ Voice have contact information. Similarly, the people at Circle Sanctuary offer their Circle Guide to Pagan Resources as both a hard copy and an instant download. I also suggest that people contact local occult and new age stores to see if they have any recommendations.
If you do make a contact through one of these sources or another source, I still recommend that you pay attention to what is going on. If you don’t think a group is right for you, quit orÂ don’t join in the first placeor. Don’t allow such a group to spiritually intimidate you into staying. I remember joining a group and realizing that I knew moreâ€”and I mean much moreâ€”than the leaders of the group. This was not due to my training or learningâ€”I didn’t know all that muchâ€”but because of their outright ignorance. My simplest questions went unanswered or, with a bit of checking, were clearly in error. When I politely and respectfully resigned from the group, I started to receive phone calls and visits telling me that if I cared about my spiritual evolution I’d do anything to stay with them. I kept politely saying, “No, thank you,” but the pressure was intense.
This doesn’t mean that the group was necessarily “bad” for anyone else. It just wasn’t right for me. I have no desire to qualify any particular group as to their worthiness. You can decide for yourself. One thing that can help you in this is a chart designed by Isaac Bonewits, The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. This easy-to-use tool will let you determine just how cult-like (in the negative sense) any group is.
Why Join a Group?
With all these warnings, you might be wondering why anyone would want to join a group. There are numerous advantages.
Years ago, a young man who was dedicated to Witchcraft, lived far away from the city where I lived. He used to come into town occasionally and was always friendly. Once he said he wanted to share some of his “rits” with people. We were puzzled…did he want to share his clothing dye with us? We eventually realized that he meant “rite.” He had never heard the word pronounced and didn’t know how to say it.
Recently, on a forum not associated with occultism, a person announced that he was a Wiccan High Priest. He had never worked with other people, had very limited studies, and called himself a “solitaire.” He said this meant he worked by himself, but whenever I hear someone say that I keep thinking they are claiming to be a card game for one person. Someone who works by himself or herself is more accurately a “Solitary Practitioner,” not a card game. Oh, and this Wiccan High Priest Solitaire was 16 years old. I have met a lot of great people who are 16, but never one with the experience to be a High Priest.
So one of the great advantages of joining a group is the ability to learn from others. Sure, you can get information from books, but it’s not the same as learning from people. People can learn from watching othersâ€”it’s how you began to learn to walk. Other, more experienced people, can give you advice and helpful critiques of what you’re doing.
Another great advantage is specialization. As a solitary practitioner, you probably don’t have expertise in all areas. Some people are better at astrology than Tarot. Others are better at ritual design while some people are better at ritual performance.
One of the keys to magickal development is objectively assessing your skills. If you’re not very good at ritual performance, you can start studying and practicing in this area. But to become highly effective may take months or longer. If you’re working with a group, those who are best in certain areas can use their skills there while you add your talents to the areas where you excel. This can give you the best of all possible magickal worlds.
And also, you get the friendship of people with similar beliefs as you. Being alone with your beliefs about magick, spirituality, faith, etc., can be quite daunting. If you’re not a member of a group I strong urge you to at least attend one or two festivals every year. If you’re wondering where you could go, this season I’ll be giving workshops at the Florida Pagan Gathering (May 3-6, along with Raven Grimassi,Â Stephanie Taylor, Orion Foxwood and Holly Allender Kraig) and Babalon Rising (June 6â€“10 in Indiana, along with Lon Milo DuQuette, Phil Farber, Maegdlyn Morris and others). I hope to see you there.
Another challenge of learning by oneself is that we tend to study only those things that interest us. If you are a member of a group, they will probably have a course of items to study, resulting in giving you a much broader knowledge of that tradition than if you picked and chose only what you wanted to study.
So there are lots of great reasons to join a group. If you can’t find a group, I would encourage you to at least attend one or two festivals. Unfortunately, there can be a dark side to groups.
Why to Avoid Groups
There are a couple of major reasons that groups can be negative. One of the key concepts of virtually all occult traditions are the two words of the ancient Greek aphorism,Â Gnothi Seauton: Know Thyself. The goal of occult training, as the Golden Dawn used to describe it, is to help the individual become “more than human.” In short, the purpose of a group should be about helping each individual evolve and improve mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually and magickally.
When the group becomes more important than the individual, watch out! This is almost inevitably a sign that the group is becoming a negative cult, often some type of personality cult. I know of one group where if anyone dares to merely disagree with the leader, that “leader” will personally attack you on numerous blogs and threaten lawsuits. This “leader” posts all over that you are not disagreeing with the leader, you are attacking the group and all similar groups! That leader then “suggests” that others in the group also attack (verbally or in writing, not physically) the person who disagrees. People who are in this personality cult follow these “suggestions” as if they were Daleks who only know how to “Exterminate! Exterminate!” This is a typical response to criticism by ego-driven leaders and members of personality cults.
If you think you’re too smart to be taken in by a personality cult, again, watch out! See the book Snapping which shows how you can suddenly or gradually fall into belief in a cult.
Another sign of negativity in a group is a closed hierarchy. Some people have stated that any hierarchy is bad. The truth, however, is that people naturally form hierarchies. Some people make good leaders. Others just want to follow along. This results in a structure and groups will automatically end up following this type of structure. The problem is when this becomes set in stone. I would contend that it’s a good group when there is what I call an open hierarchy, where anyone can move up or down depending upon their interests, abilities, and dedication to the group and its members. When the hierarchy is locked in place, when you can’t move up or down, the potential for a personality cult becomes stronger. To avoid this, look for a rotation of people in the positions of leadership and make sure that doing the more mundane workâ€”ranging from notifying of meetings to cleaning up before and after ritualsâ€”isn’t always delegated to the same people.
In conclusion, joining an occult order or coven can help you advance spiritually and magickally. As with all groups that offer the possibility of personal changework, there can be problems. Listen to your head and heart and you will find that membership for you can be very positive.
Have you been part of a group that was negative?
Have you been part of a group that was positive?
What recommendations would you give to people when it comes to groups?