When life at first takes a magical turn, it’s not uncommon to be welcomed by a whole bestiary of fantastic creatures , staring at you with hostility from the pages of your books and your internet sources. Astral larvae, energy vampires, shadow people… they all may have threatening names, but they’re no match to the nastiest beast of them all: the dreadful DramaLLama.
This deceivingly cute creature can turn any friendly, social, good-hearted witch into a grumpy vodka aunt with a trigger-happy attitude towards hexing in a matter of years, if not months. However, withdrawing into a self-imposed solitary practice, though sometimes tempting, can mean missing out on a full range of precious experiences, invaluable lessons and lots of fun.
This article does a good job covering “what to do” if you wish to start a coven (or at least a study group that may, if the stars are right, be turned into one).
What this bitter yet unbroken vodka aunt will do here, however, is talk about what not to do – and what to look out for, before the Llamas come stampeding down your garden all Lion king style.
So, let’s start by asking:
What could possibly go wrong?
So. Many. Things. Mind, they may also not go wrong at all: spotting the red flags in time can be all it takes to make a difference. In this article, I’m only going to cover the pitfalls that come from inexperience, lack of emotional maturity, character incompatibility and basic pettiness. For now, I’m leaving out the subjects of maliciousness, deception and predatory attitudes: though less rare, in such an emotionally loaded field, than one could hope for, they tend to need to be addressed differently.
So, let’s round up some Llamas:
Peculiar characters, nitroglycerin and herding cats
Let’s be honest here: meek, accommodating , non-polarizing (and, one may say, especially well adjusted) people just don’t tend to make up the majority of the witchy demography. You’re much more likely to find strong-willed, somewhat argumentative, driven and quite often outright weird characters. Even now that much of the whole thing has gone mainstream, it still takes more than a pinch of madness to reject the overarching cultural theme that says “this is all there is”, and decide to go out and become a witch.
Now, imagine putting a handful of people like this in a room, and telling them to work together. No matter how sweet and hippy their brand of witchcraft, it’ll still be a good idea to keep a fire estinguisher on hand. Out of metaphor, it’s essential to make an effort to constantly remind yourself that, unlike maybe in your mundane life, in your magical endeavours you’re going to be surrounded by people at least as headstrong as you are. The only way to make it work is if everyone takes this into account, and tries to be as forgiving as possible of the sharp edges of their friend’s characters.
The orphan fallacy
Ok, this was probably more of a problem before the internet became so widespread, or maybe before things like witch-tumblr came to exist – in the dark ages of forums and early message boards. However, depending on where (and how) one has grown up, there may still be an issue here.
Ok, you found magic. Your world suddenly became larger, teeming with life – the skies, the land around you, the waters, the cities, everything. Or maybe you’ve always known, but now, finally, you found out that you’re not the only one to know or care. Hell, you can even talk about it with others! Forget talk, you can act upon it! With others! Others who can understand!
It’s easy to get overexcited about such a finding. You may feel like you’ve found a new family – a “true” family, maybe, especially if yours isn’t that glamourous at the moment. Still, it’s important to keep both feet steady on the ground. Chances are your new companions, regardless of experience, are just as fallible as you; they’ll have weaknesses, second ends, fears and flaws; ultimately, they may not be the family you’ll end up choosing – or maybe they are, but just for a short while.
That’s okay. Cherish the experiences you share, be friends with all your heart, but also be ready to pass through other people’s lives, and let them pass through yours. There’s no easier way to spoil a magical friendship than thinking of it as something…
…Bigger than life, deeper than dreams
Since the dawn of humanity, witchcraft has dealt with those aspect of life that are most intimate and emotionally loaded – death, birth, sickness, love, and what it means to live in a world made of matter, spirit, space and time.
It’s only natural, then, that relationships may feel more intimate faster than in a group brought together, let’s say, by the shared love of an obscure Nu Metal subgenre, cake decorations or designer pugs.
Moreover, you will end up sharing experiences that lie on the border of the ordinary – be them weird, pleasurable or somewhat scary. You may not be textbook stupid as I was as a teen, falling head-over-heels in love with the first boy I shared an otherwordly experience with, but such things do affect bonding, quite a bit.
That’s far from a bad thing; still, it does take a pinch of sobriety not to fall for high-fantasy narratives about “soulmates”, “astral families” or whatever else your elated spirits could come up with after a successful ritual or other such event.
Resources, commitment, and the power of sharing
Coming back down to earth, it’s usually the most mundane issues that cause conflict. Imbalances among different members’ access to resources can wreck havoc on the tightest group of friends. A reliable car, free time, a house that can offer privacy, access to parks and nice places out in nature, or just disposable income are bound to be distributed less than equally, and it takes very little for someone to be considered (or see themselves as ) a freeloader – or an overbearing wannabe boss, if they happen to have and offer more than others.
Again, there’s no way to stop this from happening. The best way to prevent drama is to avoid letting bad feelings stew, and try to figure out a solution together. If it gets too uncomfortable, splitting the group or reducing one’s involvement is better than letting such issues brew into resentment, badmouthing, or even worse exploitation (either of those with more, or with less resources).
In the land of the cups, the lone wand is… (in) trouble
One very peculiar “resource” is gender. If sex, romance and courting are perhaps the main threat to the stability of any group of friends, this becomes more relevant if one considers that several currents of witchcraft put so much emphasis on the cycles of life, most often focusing on a male/female polarity. Even though the scene has recently been welcoming much more variety, there’s still an issue, especially in some currents, with a lack of boys on the playground. Be ready to spot imbalances in the group dynamics when the cups wildly outnumber the wands.
The Lone Chicken in the roost
The opposite can also happen – although it tends to take a different form. One may spend rivers of ink wondering if that’s a secondary effect of heteronormativity, the Patriarchy or what, but it’s not rare for friendships among women to be sorely tested by competitive tendencies. When people are working toward discovering their own power, they may get clumsy with it; a bunch of head-strong women hell-bent on bringing out their inner goddess can be… pretty much a powder keg.
Still, regardless of gender, all it takes is a small slip to fall victim to…
The Queen of Hearts Syndrome
Let’s be honest: power feels good. Being the boss feels good, and so does having something to teach, and people ready to listen, drinking in all your words. Unfortunately – at least as much as in any other field, but probably more – such a role tends to attract those least suitable to hold it, or at least not for long.
It takes too little to drift from “enthusiastically sharing that little more experience you have” to drinking your own cool aid and thinking/selling yourself as some sort of illuminated master, maybe half-imagining some more or less indirect connection to this lineage or that. After all, it’s not like there’s an official clergy (well, there is in some currents, but they’re far from the majority), and you do have shared meaningful experiences, haven’t you?
This is a dangerous road to take, as it can lead to more malicious – if not outright predatory – dynamics in little to no time. It never ends well for anyone involved – especially not for the one caught in the power trip. Friends should always look out for each other, and be ready to spray each other with cold water like misbehaving cats, should anyone start going down that road.
Scapegoating – and why it doesn’t really work
We’ve all had that experience: everything seems to be going smoothly, except for that one grain of sand in the perfectly oiled cogs of the group…
Now, I’m not saying people can’t be disruptive. There are such things as incompatible characters, toxic attitudes, people who just like being disruptive, or even times of our lives in which we’re too deep in our own issues to be a positive force in our friends’ lives. Sometimes we’re just in the wrong place, and splitting is the best idea.
However, it also often happens that what isn’t working in a group, gets projected on the one member who’s expressing that very awkwardness the loudest. Typically, after that one person gets frustrated by the growing hostility and leaves – or is thrown out – the group appears to work more smoothly… for a week or two. Then the unresolved issues that caused it all in the first place resurface, and the circle starts again.
This happens in any group, not just witches’ covens, yet it’s relevant to mention, considering the whole history of contemporary witchcraft, from Gardner to our days, is written in a never-ending sequence of micro-schisms (“a state of constant, low-key civil war”, to quote Ronald Hutton’s massive text about the history of Wicca).
Splitting is not necessarily bad: it’s how modern witchcraft evolves. Projecting all your uneasiness on some unlucky fella and tossing him out? Not so helpful.
In-vs-out illusion, echo chambers and freedom
Ok, but what if you do (more or less deservedly) get kicked out?
Breathe. It’s not the end of the world. It definitely isn’t the end of your magical life, either – unless you want it to be, at least. It should be plain obvious, but if you consider the “orphan fallacy” and the “bigger than life” phenomenon together, you may see how this plain truth may sometimes get overlooked in the heat of the moment – especially if you’re pissed as all hell.
Sharing intimate experiences such as those that happen in a Coven can create a strong sense of belonging; if left unchecked, it could develop into the illusion of a clean border between a “true”, “magical” inside, and a dull, mundane outside.
It is very important to never let this delusion take hold: not only it can blind us to the wonders that can be found outside the small, welcoming world of the “newfound family”; it’s also routinely exploited by those who, more or less consciously, travel the treacherous path that leads to becoming less of a Coven and more of a cult.
It just doesn’t work that way. The world is as magical as it was before. The gods are still out there, calling and listening, no matter if right now you’re walking alone or surrounded by friends. Togetherness and solitary reflection are part of a cycle that everyone – if they so choose – will walk over and over again.
May your travel be light and full of wonders.
Arianna likes dreams, fiction, cats, nerd stuff, magic, and finding out what happens when you mix them all up. She studies neo-pagan movements for academic and personal interest, and is trying to figure out Chaos Magick because why not?