The world of online magick is just 20 years old, having begun in the ‘good old days’ of Compuserve, when BBSs were the primary mode of transmitting information. Rituals were held online as early as 1985, with participants have reported highly successful results, akin to those found arising from physical rituals. Like physical covens, virtual covens (which may also be called ‘temples, ’ ‘groves, ’ or ‘circles, ’) do not last very long. So online magickal teaching has quite a bit of history to it, but stable online groups do not.
My coven, JaguarMoon has been working together for five years now. Online, that is an ancient tradition. Physically, we are at a place where it looks like we will be here for the long run. From our perspective, every piece of magick can be done online. We have healed; built an Astral Temple, honor the Deity at each Sabbat, invited prosperity into our lives, channeled energy toward peace and clear reasoning, and even initiated members.
We do not believe that spell work is an integral part of our tradition, but is a necessary part of being a Witch. In our year-long class, we break the components of ritual and spell work into specific pieces (casting a circle, choosing correspondences, etc.) . We than have the students work with each piece before moving on to the next component. After each piece has been reviewed and discussed, and only then, the students put those pieces together to create an entirely new ritual and create specific spells. No one is required to actually do the ritual, or work the spell – we leave that up to individual desire.
Within the coven, we do most of our spell work on various Esbats through the year, with two Sabbats also used for specific spell workings. The Esbat spells are agreed upon beforehand by the group, and are things like healing, abundance, prosperity, and specific manifestations. The Sabbat spells are cord magick and releasing negativity.
In our experience, many people interested in working with a group online think it will be easier than working with a physical group. In some respects it is. Scheduling rituals, working with people no matter their physical location, sharing information – all of these things can be easier than with a physical group. Sharing energy and creating connections with one another, however, is much, much, more difficult.
For the seeker, there is a great deal of gray area in which to fall, and potentially become damaged, or at least misled. There are specific steps, however, that will help the seeker find a good group to work with.
The seeker should spend 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. Perhaps it is as straightforward as being unusually shy and unable to communicate with people physically. It can be as honest as knowing that a physical coven will require too much time and effort for the learning provided. All good spell work begins with being 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 many 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.
Think 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.
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. Request an email address to verify, and then do it. Ask about the format of the class, how she handles students who fall behind because they do not 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 cannot 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.
Is the response warm and informative, or do you feel like you have offended the teacher in some fashion by daring to questions her abilities (gasp!) ? If a student falls behind, are they 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 do not look right, or seem odd, then do not 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. Do not let anyone talk you into doing something you do not 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 Janet Farrar and ask 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 useless online.
Some online practitioners make claims 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. 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? Alternatively, 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 is expected of you in time, 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 is 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 – physical or virtual — will not be obvious at first. If you ever feel that something is wrong, or you do not like how a situation is 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.
There are specific warning signs:
A group 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 group leader’s philosophy and beliefs are narrow and one-sided, then back away.
A group leader who has too much authority. Do they feel it is ok to control the personal lives of the group’s members? Does it seem like there is a ‘guru’ to whom everyone defers?
A group where much of its doings are 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?
A group leader who shows a lack of respect for members. Related to this, I would be very unhappy if it seems the magickal group has ‘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. Occasional disagreements are ok – even healthy! – but anger should not usually be a part of it. Are guilt-trips a part of group discussions?
A group that is 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? Ask yourself why they are 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 group where you feel like you cannot 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 group that requires that you engage in sexual activities of any kind with any member. In a cyber group, this is less likely to occur, but if sexually explicit flirtation is common in list posts, be wary.
Consider carefully before joining a group that offers a First Degree Initiation after a short time period (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 group 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 group unhappy with the idea that you might want to work with or learn from other groups or individuals? I do not think it is a good idea to belong to more than one group 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 group have Laws or a Compact that you can examine before you join? If they will not show them to you until after you have been Dedicated or Initiated, be wary. Group Laws should be easily obtainable before you have initiated – how else will you know what you are agreeing to abide by?
Do they ask for more than a small amount of money to join, receive training, or be initiated? Are ‘gifts’ expected or required?
How organized are they? 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, do not 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 will not, because now you have seen the warning signs first hand, and they will always be prominent in your mind.
(This article first appeared on WitchVox, April 3, 2005)