hen I was very young and gullible, my first witchcraft teacher had convinced me they were exactly what I wanted and needed. It took a few months for the glamour to crack, but when it did I realized that my teacher was a very ill woman, completely sociopathic, and had been able to fool me (at least for a short time) because they 100% believed in their delusions. This is how many of us get suckered, no matter how clever and educated we are. When a very magnetic person in a leadership role fully believes in their delusions, other people will believe them too because they are so convincing in their faith. Such persons can be very dangerous to those believing in magic to the point that it inspired me to write an entire article on the subject a couple of years ago titled: “Maintaining a Healthy Level of Skepticism“. After having escaped the clutches of my insane first teacher, I quickly learned the importance of getting my hands dirty by doing some detective work before taking on a teacher or following a tradition by interviewing current and former students and doing a lot of fact-checking. It has kept me out of a lot of bad situations since.
Shortly after what I call “the Baba Yaga incident“, I was invited to join a coven of which many of my friends were members. I was very tempted because I was already so close to the majority of those in the coven and I loved that most of their rituals were performed out doors in the forest. Despite my temptation, I did some detective work anyway as my burn was still fresh. I talked to some past students of the high priestess and they did not have anything good to say about her. An elder in the local community admitted to me that it was a secret that the high priestess had gotten her third degree online and not from the physical initiation that was required to be a member and high priestess of the tradition she was teaching. I then met with her for tea one day and quickly realized that training with this high priestess would be like walking on glass due to her egocentric and controlling attitude. I knew about Isaac Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame and she met far too many of the factors for my comfort. I told her thanks but no thanks and continued to simply be friends with the members.
Less than a year after this, the coven self-imploded after the high priestess’ ego had gotten the better of her, leading to favouritism, infighting, members quitting, the ostracisation of members she didn’t like, the warlocking (the formal removal of a coven member and stripping of their degrees and lineage) of those who stood up to her, and a very public display of crazy at a large event. Everyone quit after they couldn’t take her erratic behaviour and drama-queendom any more. Needless to say, I was very glad I had done my research and dodged that bullet. I was sad that some of my friends were hurt, but it was even sadder that this woman was continued to be considered a respected elder in the community despite the harm she’d done and lives she’d ruined. Most of the former coven members disappeared from the community and there was no one left to call bullshit. I’ve seen this happen far too often –everyone being too afraid, too polite, too disappeared, or too ignorant to speak a bad word about a person in a leadership role who should not be.
In doing background checks on two traditional witchcraft paths I was interested in early on, I discovered that both male leaders were misogynists with unchecked egos who had lied about their source material (aka they’d thieved it). One was a secret racist and both had a secret desire to create a cult. To discover these unpleasant facts I had talked to their past students and acquaintances as well as the two men in question. The reality was a huge turn off, my interest was gone, and I walked away. Yet another path I was interested in was full of infighting, drama queens, and name calling — all of it coming from the leaders of the tradition and not the followers as one would expect. It was not worth sorting out who was telling the truth or not with such childish behaviour going on. It’s not a good sign when covens following the same tradition can’t get along. Again, I walked away. Eventually I did find a good teacher who restored my faith in the leadership of the magical community. It gave me hope that others wouldn’t settle and, instead, wait it out to find a good teacher who wouldn’t lie or abuse their leadership role.
The moral of these stories is that it is very important to look into the person behind the writings, teachings, and belief system you are following or want to follow. How balanced and grounded is this person in reality and every day life? What is the state of this person’s personal and home life? Is it chaos, broken relationships, and a home that’s taken hoarding to an unhealthy level? Have they lost friends and family due to unacceptable social behaviour? Do you actually like this person and agree with them, the things they’ve done, and how they live(d) their life? Are you okay following someone with an unchecked mental illness, someone who’s killed or raped, someone who is a pathological liar, a racist, or who stole all their lore? No? Then you should be aware that many of the founders and teachers of magical traditions, both well-known and obscure, had skeletons in their closets that we aren’t dealing with today. Some of their transgressions are forgivable, but many are not.
Gerald Gardner was such a sensationalist and media whore that half his original coven abandoned him, not happy about the bricks thrown through windows, after he went public and outed everyone. Wicca’s founder was an exhibitionist and not in keeping with Wicca’s reputation for secrecy. He was a notorious liar and thief when it came to his source material and he was also a reported creeper and bondage freak by the former female members of his coven, including Doreen Valiente. Today we laugh it off as him just being a dirty old man and nudist with a trickster’s heart — look at his crazy hair, isn’t he adorable?
Alex Sanders and Sybil Leek both lied about their background and initiation stories (which they had the gall to publish as books), were both shameless media whores like Gardner, and used the media to gain fame in a way not seen since (okay, maybe Fiona Horne and Christian Day come close). The father of modern Traditional Witchcraft, Robert Cochrane (aka Roy Bowers), had a history of mental illness, dosed coven members with dangerous poisons without their knowledge, viciously blasted Gardner and the adherents of Wicca in early witchcraft periodicals under a pseudonym (possibly starting the first witch war), and continually cheated on his wife which led to her filing for divorce. Shortly after, he killed himself by taking an overdose of his antidepressant meds mixed with belladonna and hellebore. It took him over a week to die in the hospital as he didn’t take a strong enough dose and ended up in a coma. Not the mysterious and magical myth of his life and death most of his followers will tell.
Aleister Crowley was most definitely a sociopath as demonstrated by his lack of empathy for the people he performed magical and mind control experiments on combined with his egotistical and irrational behaviour which resulted in several deaths, including his fellow K2 climbers whom he let die in an avalanche because they had disagreed with him earlier, not wanting him as their expedition leader. Crowley left quite the trail of angry, broken, mentally ill, and suicidal people in his wake. Accounts of his life and personality, including his Wikipedia entry, have been incredibly white-washed for a modern audience to better stomach. Oh, and besides having a sexual scat fetish and a heroin (cocaine, hash, opium/laudanum) addiction, he also made one of his female followers have sex with a goat. Lovely poetry he wrote though… *coughs uncomfortably and looks for a brain eraser*. None of this has stopped countless people from following his teachings or popular musicians from using him to sell t-shirts and albums or me from attending my Thelemic friends’ annual feast of Liber Al vel Legis. I don’t even want to get into Gavin and Yvonne Frost condoning pedophilia and incest to initiate children into the craft at puberty in their book The Witch’s Bible. I could go on, but it only goes downhill from here folks.
You’d ask around about a prospective teacher who you’re interested in training with in order to find out other people’s experiences and impressions about them – why wouldn’t you do the same for an author or a “Big Name Pagan” – alive or dead? There are so many authors who have either stolen or completely made up their content that they would take up an entire post on their own. There is far too much white-washing going on in the occult, pagan, and witchcraft communities for my liking when it comes to our leaders and teachers. It’s so much easier to conveniently forget and push aside all the unpleasant things a person has done and cherry pick the parts we like instead of questioning if we should be following and passing on that person’s teachings at all.
You can’t take the cards that scare you out of a tarot deck and expect an accurate reading and you can’t subtract an author or teacher’s negative qualities expecting the things you like to be an accurate representation of them and their beliefs. People are three-dimensional and, to understand them, you need to know the bad things too. We are all human and we all have flaws – teachers are not gods and should not be placed on pedestals — they are just people. Maybe one teacher is on an FBI watch list for a murder they can’t prove he did or maybe another made up their entire tradition and are passing it off as something ancient. In knowing the more unpleasant facts about a teacher, you can better determine what you will tolerate and what is unacceptable. From there you should be able to figure out which teachings you’d like to keep and which you’d like to douse with gasoline and set on fire.
In conclusion, please care about the people behind the books, teachings, and traditions of our greater magical community. Please care enough to do background checks and fact checks. There is no need to immediately stop incorporating the teachings of anyone who was a degenerate or an asshole, but be aware of that facet of their personality alongside their magical teachings. When you recommend their works or teachings to students, please disclose the full context and make them aware of the bad along with the good. There is no need to perpetuate hurt and disillusionment in our students through silence and selective memory. The truth hurts, but it will set us free.
- Greenfield, Alan. “A True History of Witchcraft“. 1992.
- Johns, June. King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders. Coward-McCann, 1970.
- Leek, Sybil. Diary of a Witch. Prentice Hall, 1968.
- Semple, Gavin. A Poisoned Chalice: The Death of Robert Cochrane. Reineke Verlag, 2004.
- Serith, Ceiswr. “The Charge of the Goddess: A Source Analysis“. 2006.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Phoenix Publishing, 1989.
Article © 2013 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is welcome.