Per the request of a friend, who is the daughter of my late High Priest, I am going to do a “public service” post about identifying frauds and dangerous people. I apologize in advance if anyone feels that what I have to say here is offensive or off the mark–if I you feel that I am incorrect and have a sound argument to back up your claim, then please feel free to leave a comment at the end of this post. Being a High Priestess isn’t about being right all the time, it’s also about continually being open to new thoughts and ideas.
However, part of the reason I fell out of touch with my local Pagan community was having several experiences with people who had less than honest intentions. In one of those instances I was assaulted. Karma took care of that one’s punishment (he went from slender but muscular and very attractive with a smooth complexion to the exact opposite). Being a fringe community that is still largely underground, it is difficult enough to find those of likemind. Research into abusers and cult leaders has found that perpetrators look for people on the fringe, who are lost in the mainstream and trying to find acceptance and love elsewhere. Young people who have not reached psychological maturity, abuse victims, homeless or people estranged from their families, those with illnesses that leave them rejected, especially large people, small people, “unattractive” people, disabled–these are all potential target groups. As a fringe population, Paganism tends to have a lot of people who fit into one or more of these categories. The outcasts ARE the majority. That being said, new people attracted to Paganism can easily find themselves as targets. They manipulate people who are in a fragile position into thinking that they are their salvation, an ultimate authority to be obeyed and unquestioned, and they have just enough legitimate knowledge and information as to seem authentic and wise. It is important that our neophytes learn the warning signs and take steps to protect themselves so that perpetrators, or “kooks,” cannot harm them as has happened to myself and far too many of my Pagan friends.
To that end, I invite everyone who reads this post to share your red flags in a comment. Tell us what questions you ask, what answers you seek, and what you look for in your interactions with people who claim to be Pagan, or Pagan leaders, to determine if they are authentic or a “kook.” My list is as follows:
1) Money. Monetary exchange for a service is one thing. I will charge you a fee for doing your handfasting rite–I have travel expenses, time out of my day, food, possibly even lodging to be compensated for. A Tarot reading? A fee or donation is not unheard of. However, I never, NEVER charge for teaching. You cannot pay me $19.95 a month to make you a Witch–no amount of money will make you a Witch or give you a certain level of spirituality. Any teacher who demands an upfront cost, regular payments, or promises you any kind of results is a red flag for me. No teacher can promise you’ll become a High Priest/ess under their tutelage. An honest teacher will tell you that there may be some costs involved such as for books or tools they cannot provide for you, but they will not charge for the actual teaching. Now, some covens may have “dues.” That is different as well–that money goes toward ritual supplies, feasts, reserving spaces for getting together, etc. As long as the money can be accounted for and that knowledge is made known to the group AND they agree it is being used correctly, there is nothing wrong with that–but no coven should be in the business of “making money.” Excess should go toward scholarships, charities, etc, and not into the leaders’ pockets.
2) Sex. We are a fairly sexually liberated group as Pagans. Sex is holy and pleasurable. It is the Great Rite, the ritual of the creation of life. Homosexual sex is also sacred even though it does not beget life–it does beget love, which is the glue that holds the Universe together (read: chemical and physical bonds between atoms, metaphorically referred to as love). However, a “kook” may get himself or herself close to you, gain your trust, and you may find yourself adoring them–you may think you are in love. They may even offer you a little pleasure, and it seems innocent enough, and beautiful. An authentic person would keep it this way–Perfect Love, Perfect Trust. They would not ask for special favors in trade for more pleasure. Either you develop a legitimate relationship where there is equality and give and take, or you don’t. If they start promising you greater wisdom, greater power, future leadership, even just their love in return for sexual favors–run. Run far, run fast. Every time we have sex, we release a hormone called oxytocin. It’s called the “cuddle hormone.” It creates feelings of love, contentment–and attachment. (It’s also released during breastfeeding, which helps mothers and babies bond, and can make it difficult for a mother to stop breastfeeding when the child comes of age–so stop judging late breastfeeders.) Love and sex are NOT the same thing, but we get it confused due to our biology–and a “kook” will exploit this. Love and sex are gifts to be given to those with trust unconditionally (clarification: you have the right to choose your mates, whether you are monogamous or polyamorous is entirely up to you, but WHOMEVER you choose to be intimate with, that intimacy is given unconditionally, not with the promise of future favors).
3) No lineage. If a person is eclectic, this doesn’t count. But if someone claims to be Lord Ravenwing of the We Work in Circles coven, which has been around for five months or fifty years, and they claim to be a tradition, they should have an initiatory lineage. I don’t have mine memorized because it’s kinda long, but I do have it on hand in case someone asks. Some people will tell you that if you are a Wiccan and your lineage doesn’t trace to Gardner then you are a fraud–and I would not even engage in that argument. It’s ridiculous on several levels. There are old Wiccan traditions out there that developed alongside Gardner and his tradition. Additionally, one human man did not invent out of thin air the entire philosophy of this religion. What he did do, however, was remarkable–he gave it a unifying name (Wica–later developed into Wicca) that the public could recognize, and instead of hearing “Witchcraft” and immediately growing afraid, the response was, “What’s that?” It opened a dialogue. He took a practice and a coven, further fleshed out its philosophies and rituals with his own ideas and knowledge, and gave it a name, made it public, and even made it popular. Those philosophies and rituals, however, were his–and they define the path that we know as Gardnerian Wicca. Not all traditions use his rituals or follow his philosophies, but their fundamental components are the defining aspects of Wicca, and so they are Wiccan, just not Gardnerian or one of Gardnerian’s descendents. Interestingly enough, I remember reading in a book by the Farrars, I think The Witches’ Bible, that one of the traditions considered descendent from Gardner is Alexandrian–but its founder, Alex Sanders, was never initiated by Gardner or into a Gardnerian coven, he was turned down. So he researched what he could and moved forward with his own tradition.
I’m babbling. Wiccan history is very muddied, and you will run into “purists” who will never listen to any argument outside of Gardner being the founding father of all of Wicca, and without him in your lineage, you’re no more than a wanna-be. I dispute this wholeheartedly, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on the legitimacy of my spiritual belief or practice. My own lineage does not (obviously) go through Gardner. However, I claim to be a traditional Wiccan High Priestess, and therefore I should have a documented lineage, and I do. If you run across someone claiming to be a traditional priest or priestess, they should be able to produce a documented and verifiable lineage. If they seem untethered to a lineage, cannot product one, or no one seems to have ever heard of them or their tradition, it’s worth looking into. They may still be authentic, you will just need to do your homework and ask questions.
4) The evidence doesn’t line up with the words. They say they are Pagan, but they throw styrofoam in a stream without a second thought. There are no books on their bookshelves, let alone any to do with Paganism. They spend no time out of doors and seem remarkably unobservant when they are outside. They talk about hurting people with no remorse. But they are Wiccan, worship the Earth as their Mother, practice the Craft of the Wise, and revere nature as their church. They have clearly read a few things on the Internet and know things, but they don’t live it. This is the way my attacker was–I found him spray painting trees one day. He spent all day on the Internet. Now I know.
5) Honesty. They can’t keep their story straight. You aren’t allowed to question them–ever. They purposefully withhold information from you without just cause. You have an uneasy feeling that something isn’t right, and when you do learn more, you realize they are not who you thought they were. People are allowed to make mistakes, but they should be honest.
6) This one is a story, and I’m not sure how to paraphrase it. I had a friend who was Wiccan. I loved him dearly, but he, like many, had major ego problems. He was convinced that he and I would revolutionize the Wiccan world by storm. I constantly counseled him to just focus on his own development and to have patience. I was still a first degree. He was not part of my circle because he lived three hours away. Eventually he found a group, and at first he was excited, star struck, and was telling me all sorts of things about their rules and how they do things–but it didn’t sound right to me. I told him to be careful, something sounded off, but he told me to trust him..and gradually I stopped hearing from him altogether. A group that isolates you from the people you know and love is a red flag itself. It was over a year before I heard from again, and he told me he was trying to get out. He owed them some money, and the leader was very angry with him. He had made some faux pas after a ritual one night and forgot to address her as “Lady,” and she went ballistic. Money, rampant egotism, abusive language and treatment (he was an adult by this point in his mid-twenties), and then ostracism by other members…but still they fought with him when he desired to leave. You should not be a prisoner to a group, you should be welcome to leave any time if you feel it is right for you. My friend has not been the same since. I fear he has been permanently damaged.
This post is exceptionally long, but I hope it was informative. I could think of other warnings, but I think this covers the grand majority of what to watch out for.
I want everyone to be safe. I want everyone to have a positive journey on this path. I know that not everyone will experience danger, but not everyone will escape it, either. Pagan culture on the whole is beautiful, loving, and accepting, but it is still part of this world, and this world has abusers, sex offenders, sociopaths, frauds–and we need to be fully aware.
Please share your experiences or red flags in the comments. I look forward to everyone’s input.