A recent conversation with the members of a Pagan Clergy list led to a long discussion about the ethics of teaching and practicing magick online, particularly in the case of Traditions with a history of being transformative and initiatory (like Wicca).
The world of online magick is not quite 20 years old, having begun in the ‘good old days’ of Compuserve, when BBSs were the primary mode of transmitting information. Rituals have been held online as early as 1985, and participants have reported amazing results, akin to those found arising from physical rituals. Online covens (which may also be called ‘temples,’ ‘groves,’ or ‘circles,’) however, have not been able to last that long. There are only two cyber covens in still existence from 1997, and those are the earliest I can find record of.
So, online magickal teaching has quite a bit of history to it, but stable online groups do not. For the seeker, there is a great deal of gray area in which to fall, and potentially become damaged, or at least misled.
Beginning the Search
Every seeker should spend some time examining his or her motives for working online. It may be as simple as not being able to find a physical coven, or not comfortable with the training found in the ones nearby. Or as complicated as being unusually shy and unable to communicate with people physically. Or as honest as knowing that a physical coven will require too much time and effort for the learning provided. Be honest about your motives, if only to yourself. You will not have be able to find a magickal group that suits you best unless you are, and that is the whole point of the exercise, isn’t it?
Having done that, the seeker will probably want to spend some time considering what s/he wants from the group experience. Again, there are a variety of choices here. Do you prefer to find like-minded people to swap spells with you? Maybe you just want to get a lot of information to ‘pump up’ the size of your HDoS (hard disk of shadows). Then again, maybe the God/dess has called you, very loudly, and you know that now is the time to get that formal training you always swore you’d get to solidify your 20 years of solitary practice. There are hundreds of other wants in between –- one for nearly every reader.
It would be useful to also spend some time thinking about how you learn best. Is a more formal, structured environment with specific goals to attain better for you? Maybe an easy-going ‘you’ll learn at your own pace’ setting is more practical.
Finding Your Magickal Group
There are a couple of ways to find groups to work with. For the widest variety of groups (and probably a lot of crap, too) try a web search, using an engine like Google (www.google.com) or AltaVista (www.altavista.com). Good search terms to use are: cyber, coven, teaching, class, pagan, and witch, making use of the “” markers to separate words (“cyber” “coven”) and the + sign to make sure your results include *both* words in the page (“cyber”+“coven”) so you don’t get too much junk along with the useful stuff.
Another thing to do is to search the larger list services. YahooGroups (www.yahoogroups.com), Cool List (www.coollist.com) and Smartgroups (www.smartgroups.com) are three large list services that host many magickal groups. Since the numbers of groups is smaller than the number of websites, you can just search using “cyber” and “lesson” and you’ll probably get good matches. (The above search terms can be useful here as well.)
Make a list of the groups and sites that are appealing to you – but do not join them all! You’ll be overwhelmed with email in no time at all, and that won’t get you anywhere.
Another idea is to ask your friends and contacts online for referrals and ideas. Having a recommendation from a friend or a person you know well and trust is the best way to find a great group to work with.
When you have your list, take some time and look for class listings and (ideally) a syllabus. Think about the courses offered – are they what you want? Is the time frame reasonable (how can you learn all about the Tarot, for example, in two weeks?)? If you are looking for information to increase your HDoS’s size, then look for a group that seems to have a lot of posts daily. Ideally, you can look at a sampling of messages (some YahooGroups allow this from their individual home page). In all cases, don’t bother with a list that only has a few posts per month (which I arbitrarily define as less than 30, or one a day. With traffic that low, there isn’t enough going on the list to be useful to you, in most cases.
If you are looking for a teacher, keep reading; otherwise, skip right down to Warning Signs.
Teaching is a skill, and sometimes people with a great deal of knowledge are terrible teachers (just think back to some of your high school or college classes for an example). Teaching magick requires an even greater degree of skill, and correspondingly there are fewer excellent teachers available.
If you desire to spend the time and the energy to learn magick online, then give yourself the gift of validating your teacher’s credentials before you go any further. This happens frequently in legitimate physical covens, and can happen online as well.
Write to the teacher and (respectfully!) inquire about where she received her training. Ask for email addresses to verify, and then do it. Ask about the format of the class, how she handles students who fall behind because they don’t understand the material presented, or because life interferes. Ask whether she is the only person you can turn to with questions, and if so, how large the class generally is. Ask about whether there are tests or goals to achieve, and what happens if a student can’t pass. Treat this like a college-level class, one that will make the difference between your getting that $100k a year job and remaining a fry-cook for the next decade… or whatever motivates you to take this seriously.
The answers to the above questions (and any others you may think of) will help you decide whether this class, and this teacher, is right for you. Is the response warm and informative, or do you feel like you’ve offended the teacher in some fashion by daring to questions her abilities (gasp!)? If a student falls behind, are they summarily kicked out of the class? Will you have several ways to learn the material, and several places to ask questions?
Use your common sense when looking for an online class or magickal group. If things don’t look right, or seem odd, then don’t join or leave right away. I promise you there are more, and better, alternatives.
Also, pay attention to your instincts. Frequently, your gut will give you negative information, which later turns out to be correct. Don’t let anyone talk you into doing something you don’t want to do.
Always take the time to verify background information. If the group says they started working online in 1980, ask them how things worked with an Atari. If the leader claims to have been initiated by Janet and Stewart Farrar, then ask for dates and places, and write (via email or snail) to the Farrar’s for verification (most teachers are proud to substantiate the claims of people they trained). Diplomas and other paper documents can be faked, so they are pretty useless online.
Some online practitioners makes claim about their mundane abilities, like working with local police or writing a column in the nearby newspaper. Again, call and confirm, to the best of your ability. If you are told, “We have never heard of this person,” well then, ask yourself why the leader is lying. Oh, and do NOT believe someone who make incredible assertions (“I used to do contract work for the CIA,” “Aleister Crowley showed me how to make bread pudding”). In most cases, their claims are conveniently unprovable, so ask yourself why they need to make such bold statements; their worth should be seen in their everyday attitude and abilities.
Ask for references from former students, or for contact with current group members. Pay attention to the tone of the conversation they have with you. Do the group members seem warm, open, and pleasant? Or do you get the feeling they are keeping something back, borderline hostile, or even a bit paranoid?Finally, before you make any kind of commitment, make sure you understand exactly what will be expected of you in terms of time and energy and other resources (perhaps financial). Find out what you will learn, what the teacher will do to support you in the learning process. Get a feel for the group and people. If it’s a training group, are you guaranteed to get a degree? (That may not be fair, to you, or the group.)
Some things that are wrong in a coven will not be obvious at first. If you ever feel that something is wrong, or you do not like how a situation is being handled, then seriously consider whether you want to stay with that coven. Use your common sense, people do make mistakes, and text-only communication has many pitfalls, but staying in an unhealthy situation is not a good idea.
Here are some specific warning signs to look for:
* Be wary of a coven leader who claims to have grasped the one and only truth, making all other beliefs and practices wrong. For a newcomer, it may feel as though a teacher is saying ‘this is the only way to do that’. Good teachers will probably say ‘this is the way that I was taught this, and it has worked very well for me and those I’ve taught it to.’ If a coven leader’s philosophy and beliefs are narrow and one-sided, then back away.
* Does the coven leader, or leaders, exercise too much authority? Do they feel it is ok to control the personal lives of its members? Does it seem like there is a ‘guru’ to whom everyone defers?
* Be wary of a group who keeps much of its doings secret or cloaked in ‘mumbo-jumbo’. NEVER speak words in a ritual setting that you do not understand. I doubt you could partake in something evil without your knowledge, but why get into something you do not understand? As hard as it is to do, remember that you can always ‘walk out’ of a ritual.
* Be wary of a coven leader who shows a lack of respect for members. Related to this, I would be very unhappy if it seems the magickal group has a lot of ‘misunderstandings’ all the time. If there are seemingly constant flames and harsh words, followed quickly by apologies and ‘buddy-buddy’ posts, be wary. Flames and harsh words indicate a lot of disrespect being
aired. Occasional disagreements are ok – even healthy! — but anger should not usually be a part of it. Are guilt-trips a part of coven discussions?
* Is the group overly concerned with how many members they have? Do they accept anyone who asks to join? Is the screening process essentially meaningless, or even skipped? Why are they so concerned with ‘having’ members?
* Be skeptical of a group that has no clear belief system or one that accepts everything — from Sculderianism (a system that worships the dual deity in the form of Mulder and Scully from the t.v. show “The X-files”) to the Illuminati (a hidden magickal organization that theoretically runs the world)– as valid belief systems.
* Be wary of a group that alienates you from family and friends. This aspect, a particular trait of cults, should be a HUGE warning signal to you.
* Do not join a group in which it is not okay to excuse yourself from practices that make you uncomfortable, for any reason.
* Do not remain in a coven where you feel like you can’t ask questions about magickal workings. Maybe not during the rite, but there should be some way of being able to ask ‘why did you use Sandalwood incense and not pine?’ As well as all of your other questions.
* Do not join a coven that required I engage in sexual activities of any kind with any member. In a cyber coven this is less likely to occur, but if sexually explicit flirtation is common in coven posts, be very wary.
* Consider carefully before joining a group that offers a First Degree Initiation after only a short period of time (unless you have training in other traditions and/or have been practicing solitary for more than decade). At the same time, watch out for groups that require you to Dedicate yourself fewer than two months after joining. That is barely enough time to get to know everyone, even in a cyber coven, where interaction can occur on a daily basis.
* Does the coven follow the Rede verbally as well as in practice? Do they participate in bindings, hexes, or ‘witch wars’? Do they require a physical link from you before you join? Do you ever wonder whether their magick would be used against you? Have you ever been told that if you leave you will suffer reprisal?
* Is the coven unhappy with the idea that you might want to work with or learn from other groups or individuals? Although I do not think it is a good idea to belong to more than one coven at a time, to work with another group (as long as you are clear about your commitments to each) should be no problem.
* Does the coven have Laws or a Compact that you can examine before you join? If they won’t show them to you until after you’ve been Dedicated or Initiated, be wary. Laws should be fairly public documents.
* Do they ask for more than a small amount of money to join, or to receive training, or to be Initiated? Are ‘gifts’ expected or required?
* Is the coven disorganized? Do meetings flow all over the place and typically end with a feeling of ‘getting nowhere’? Does participation and attendance at rituals or classes seem to not matter?
You may have different reasons for being uncomfortable or wary of a group’s true intentions. Listen to your intuition and follow your heart out the door.
If you find yourself in a magickal group gone bad, don’t waste time blaming yourself, just get out as quickly as you can. Be polite, respectful and swift. Taking care of yourself is your number one priority. Know that this was a lesson, and one to avoid repeating. You won’t, because now you’ve seen the warning signs first hand, and they’ll always be prominent in your mind.
First published at The Virtual Pagan, www.thevirtualpagan.org/choosing.html, April, 2002.