Not everyone out there has your best interests at heart. This article looks at some cautions to help you avoid some of the most common problems you might come across in various magical and ritual activities.
(This is not a complete list – it is only one article – but it should give you ideas for patterns of concern.)
Isolated from community
One of the biggest warning signs is relying on someone as a teacher, group leader, or other figure of authority who is not connected to the larger appropriate community.
If they’re leading a Pagan group, do they talk about participating in larger open events (such as Pagan Pride, open rituals, or other events)? Do they talk about their own experiences learning the tradition or path they practice (and are they still in touch with at least some of the people involved?)
For divination, many readers actively participate in larger communities. That might be conferences, get togethers, or online via discussion groups, doing deck or book reviews, or through social media.
Do they continue learning and growing, by reading books or blogs, listening to podcasts, engaging in conversations with other people in the community? Do they talk about connections they have elsewhere in the community (people they’ve studied with, groups they’ve worked with, people they talk about related topics with)
This doesn’t have to be in person most of the time. There are many options out there for people who are geographically isolated, or have many other reasons that travel or larger events are difficult.
Be cautious of splendid isolation
There are sometimes good reasons for someone to be disconnected from their local community or their former teachers and communities. Some communities are toxic, circumstances might have changed, etc.
But it’s good to be cautious of anyone who seems to be living in splendid isolation from groups or people in their past. This is especially true if it’s all of them, and they’re not connected to their current local, regional, or other community now.
They may know what they’re doing – but they may not. They may not be aware of current concerns and best practices under discussion in the larger community at the moment. You will also have much less information to help you determine if this person has the training or experience they claim if they don’t identify any broader connections.
Over the course of someone’s life, they’ll almost certainly have some periods where they’re more actively sharing with others, and some where there are less. (Health issues, small kids at home, elderly parents or other relatives who need more help, a demanding job, etc. can all cause these seasons in someone’s life.)
However, if someone’s setting themselves up as a teacher or source of information, it’s fair to ask how they’ve been connected to the community in the past, and what they’re doing at the moment.
That said, respect privacy.
Don’t expect that you’ll be handed contact information for other people on demand. Someone’s teachers and personal contacts may not be available for all sorts of good reasons – age, change in circumstances, very busy lives, a need for privacy for various important reasons.
Early on, it’s reasonable to ask for (and get) a basic idea of someone’s background, perspectives, and training.
Asking for a way to confirm their background is the last step before looking at focused training or long-term or higher commitment work with them (such as initiatory training). Up until that point, pay attention to what they say and how they talk about their background, but don’t demand details from them.
When you do get to a point where you are considering a specific long-term commitment, then ask for more specifics if you need to.
A polite way to handle this is to say “Is there a way I can confirm this?” and ask about a specific piece of their background that they’ve claimed – most commonly that they’re a member of a particular tradition that passes things down an initiatory line (often called a ‘vouch’.)
Some traditions have resources like email lists or other methods of contact that can confirm someone is a member of the tradition without being one of their direct teachers or in their direct line. Other traditions or practices may not have that, but should have some ways to talk about what can be confirmed by others.
Either way, someone who you’re considering for teaching should be able to talk about their own training experiences, share some specific examples.
They may not be able to talk about what their training included (if their tradition has substantial oathbound material), but they should be able to talk about what it prepared them for (for example, creating and running rituals, leading a group, doing work in the larger community, building skills in a specific technique.)
If they’re not in contact with the people who trained them (sometimes this is for excellent reasons) they should be able to tell you briefly about why, at the point at which you are considering working closely with them in an ongoing way. Most people who are part of the larger community can point to some public options or events they’ve been part of or contributed to.
Do some searches on your own (based on what they tell you) to see what you can find.
Some people won’t have much online presence at all (or not under the names you have available for them), some people will have sufficiently common Craft names (or legal names!) that you can’t reliably identify them.
If you can’t find more details, don’t worry, but it’s worth checking to see if there are any warnings or public stories about someone. And of course, if someone has claimed to be a presenter at a major festival or convention or other event, you may be able to find evidence of that online.
Pushing for immediate decisions
Be wary of anyone who pushes you to make immediate urgent decisions without a chance to sleep on it, consult trusted friends or family members, or investigate options. Legitimate private groups who are thinking of the well-being of the group and the people involved tend to be want to be difficult to join and easy to leave.
Most covens and other small groups will actively encourage you to take some time to reflect on the process or go through some earlier stages of lower commitment first. Legitimate divination readers will let you know about their availability (which does have limits) but not force you into a decision on short notice.
Legitimate groups, teachers, and practitioners may have limits on when you need to make a decision.
For example, they may only take one or two students at a time, they may start training at a particular time of year (or not during a certain period), or they may only be available for some periods of time and not others.
But those options should be clearly laid out, and the reason for the deadline briefly explained. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then find other resources.
Announcing hidden costs
A huge sign of a psychic scam in progress is an escalating set of costs.
It begins with a relatively inexpensive reading ($25 to $50, maybe a little more) but then the reader claims there’s a curse, and she’ll need $50 or $100 immediately to get the items she needs to remove it. When that money is provided, she asks for more and more. Some of these scams have ended up with people losing tens of thousands of dollars.
Practitioners do have a right to charge for materials used in their work (and quality materials are often not cheap!) And in many cases, charging for their time is also reasonable. But someone who is doing magic for others should have a wide range of options at their disposal, and should be able to explain where the costs are coming from.
They should also generally be able to suggest options to cut costs (for example, setting up a candle for a candle working but having you be the one to tend it would likely cost less than them doing so.) Legitimate practitioners do not want you to become dependent on them, and may also have their own policies to discourage too-frequent consults.
Having one true way (their way)
There are thousands of ways to do magic. Tens of thousands. There is no one single way to do anything magical, no more than there is one single way to make food.
Different methods, different approaches, will work better for some people than others. And they will work better for some kinds of problems than others.
Beware of anyone who insists only they have the answer, or only their magical whatsit or intervention can solve your problems.
Requiring frequent visits or calls
Legitimate readers (and teachers) have lives and other people they talk to.
Many legitimate Tarot and oracle readers or astrologers actually have limits on how often they’ll have a session with a given client (once a month, once a quarter, etc.) in order to avoid creating dependency. Others require clients to make an appointment at least a day or two in advance.
Sometimes people will have times when more readings or longer ones are appropriate. For example, an initial astrology chart reading may be longer and more involved, in order to have time to discuss the entire chart, and later readings that focus on a specific issue may be quite a bit shorter. In these cases, the reasoning should be explained up front.
Of course, a coven or other group will meet regularly, but especially with new members, there should be reasonable advance warning of group events and a discussion about expectations.
(This may not happen immediately: the practice in my tradition is to do this after a few introductory Seeker classes, so that both sides can get a sense of each other, before we get into the more complex scheduling. However, I’m up front about the general time commitment needed.)
Making claims that aren’t substantiated
One thing that turns up sometimes is someone will buy cheap items (for example, mass produced jewellery from a low-cost supplier) and claim they have been painstakingly hand assembled by the seller and imbued with magical powers, etc. etc. Sometimes you can track these back by doing reverse image searches, but often it will be clear that the seller wasn’t really involved in the creation for other reasons.
If someone is making magical or spiritual jewellery, and claims it has particular effects, be cautious.
An ethical creator will more likely say things like “This stone is associated in folklore/tradition with these things. I chose this other stone to complement it because of these reasons.” rather than making broad claims about what it will do for you.
If someone is claiming their items are made at a particular astrological moment, they should be making it easy for you to identify that – for example, by posting the chart or giving specific information of when the item was made.
In general, be cautious of claims that something always works.
Look for statements like you’d expect to see from a doctor (or other licensed health professional), lawyer, accountant, etc. None of them will claim 100% success, and certainly not without something backing it up.
A highly skilled surgeon, for example, might be able to claim a high number of procedures without significant complication, but there will be sensible boundaries on what they claim that fit the circumstances. And you can compare that to other information about other similar professionals.
Something creepy this way comes
One final area of caution are people who set up groups to benefit their own personal social (and specifically sex) lives.
Be extremely cautious if you see a group that encourages people under the age of adulthood where you are, especially if the group leader or leaders are older.
Ethical groups may include teens or young adults, especially groups with a public ritual or public education focus. However, there should be appropriate precautions (i.e. no adult alone with a minor, appropriate background checks for people doing children’s education or youth programming, reasonable approaches to parent or guardian notification, etc.)
Historically, groups led by a single man without other peer relationships in the group (i.e. other people of similar levels of experience) have sometimes been predatory in nature. Instead, they may have an endless cycle of new students who become the bright shining stars, and who are then discarded.
There are of course lots of reasons someone might not be in a romantic or sexual relationship as an adult, but group leaders should be aware of the possible power dynamics. It’s appropriate to take steps to make sure there are multiple people interacting with new group members, and that group members are encouraged to grow and develop their own skills.
If the group is just getting started, then the group leader can take steps to share out parts of the group activities, and focus on activities that are less likely to cause concern.
This might include some public meeting spaces, or semi-public ones, rather than private homes, making deliberate choices to focus on general, broad interest topics rather than more explicitly personal ones dealing with relationships or sexuality, etc. until the group has a few more members.
Finally, if you’re going to spend an extended time in the Pagan, New Age, magical, or related communities, it can be really good to get familiar with some of the broader techniques that can be used for manipulation out there.
These include cold reading (taking small responses from people to general statements, and using that to guide and sometimes manipulate the conversation), Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP (a technique of emphasising particular words or phrases to guide the other person in the conversation in a particular direction) or other methods of guiding the conversation.
The podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie does some great investigations looking at different situations and techniques, and provides an enjoyable introduction to these topics.
Reformatted November 2020.