In the last few blog posts I’ve alluded to people who claimed to be pagan, but who had some hideous ideas and intentions. I’ve been active in the pagan community for more than a decade, and my experience is that the vast majority of pagans are lovely, genuine people, soulful, responsible, ethical, totally dependable and honourable. There are a few who are foolish and self important of course, and a tiny minority who really are dangerous. I think you could say the same of any social grouping. Where there is any kind of power or status to be found, there will always be people who hunger after that.
So how do you tell if you are dealing with someone genuine, or someone who is actually unpleasant? If you’re just encountering people at a moot and open ritual level, it’s not that big an issue – you’re in a public place you can walk away, so if anyone starts announcing a desire to sexually initiate you, charge you silly money for their ‘wisdom’ or any of the other obvious signs of fraud and insanity, getting out is simple. It’s when we move into closed working groups, one on one tuition and other, more intimate relationships that the need for caution arises.
As with any other kind of relationship, people who are intent on abusing and who are good at it do not start out antisocial. In just the same way that a domestic abuser doesn’t normally start thumping a woman on their first date, so a ‘pagan’ who is using claims of spirituality to harm others won’t make that too obvious early on, because they know any smart person will get away from them. I’ve been mulling over the handful of bad encounters I’ve had, and thinking about stories from the wider scene, and I think it boils down to the same elements as in any other relationship – the closer you get, the more careful you need to be. In ritual, as in romance, trust is essential. Respect should go both ways, and bullying is not ok. Any signs of these, are signs to leave.
Turning the focus the other way, a good pagan, a true pagan, someone who is on a spiritual path and not merely using faith as a way to access potential victims, is a very different creature. They don’t pay lip service to ideas of love for nature, respect and community, they walk it in their daily lives. Most pagans have strange experiences, and most are aware that if you go round making too much noise, people will think you are crazy. The majority of pagans, having no desire to be labelled as loopy, do not start telling you about demons they have fought, how they were burned at Salem in a former life and how they remember all the secrets of the ancient druids, the first time you meet them. It takes time to build enough trust to be able to share stories about moments of uncanniness, fleeting memories of past lives, spells that might just have worked. If someone seems far too quick to trust, they may be very naïve, but then again, they may not.
I think there’s much to be said for considering what someone says, and how that relates to what they do. Talk is easy. If a person is serious, they live it. There are of course a subset of hobby pagans, in it for the novelty, the desire to be alternative, and because pagans wear really cool clothing. They tend to be younger and they tend to move on – irritating sometimes but not inherently harmful. One thing I have learned to watch for is people who are excessively judgemental or dogmatic or people who are too certain about their ‘intuition’. They might well not do it in public, but if someone starts making little comments to you, suggesting very alternative takes on reality, be cautious. Little asides that establish the authority of the speaker, put other people down, insinuate special knowledge, or feed paranoia, are never a good sign.
Again, an issue that applies to all kinds of relationship is, how well established is a person? Even someone who moves round a lot should have older friendships, people who drop by to visit them, friends they allude to in anecdotes. Even the most socially inept people tend to have someone they care about. A person setting themselves up as a teacher, a leader, an active social figure, should have some kind of visible history, and that should include previous students, or friends, some signs of a family. This isn’t foolproof, I’ve known some atrocious people who had all the trappings of normalcy, but I’ve yet to find a person who has no longstanding friendships, without there being considerable reasons for this.
There was a chap who came to the midlands, announced that he was a third degree wiccan, that he was starting a coven, and doing all manner of other things. There were later claims of fraud, and other nastiness. He got away with all sorts of things for years. It was only by chance that someone turned up from the same part of the country he had come from, who knew him, and knew that he’d only been actively pagan a couple of years, and that all his claims were lies. We aren’t always that fortunate in uncovering the manipulative.
Trust is a vital and precious thing, essential for any serious human interaction. But there are predators, users and abusers out there, and some of them will call themselves pagan. To such people, nothing is sacred. Finding a path to walk between the soulfulness of trust and the necessity of caution is not easy.