by Phil Hine (1998)
Okay, so you want to join a magical group. So how do you actually find one? Possibilities range from going down to the local New Age shop and scanning the notice board, hearing about groups from like-minded friends or at public events, and finding adverts in specialist magazines. There are small press pagan magazines which are entirely devoted to Contacts, but first you have to find them! Whilst some groups and organizations have varying degrees of public access, through publications, holding events or websites, many groups don’t, and the only way you’ll get to hear about them is through word of mouth, or if they themselves put out feelers for prospective members. Some groups are open to new members all the time, whilst others will only consider applications periodically.
The Sliced Bread Syndrome
It’s easy for magicians to get into the habit of thinking "I am the best thing since sliced bread". The problem of course is when you try and carry this message to other people. It is very tempting to write off to a group saying "I’m so brilliant you can’t afford to pass me up", but it’s this sort of letter which is the most likely to get binned.
A common variant on this theme is the letter where the enquirer, after extolling his own virtues, points out where he thinks the group/organization is going wrong and offers his own proposal which he thinks that the group should follow. This is rather like being highly critical of a company and its bosses but still expecting to get the job you’ve applied for, and is unlikely to result in one being welcomed with open arms. Okay, you might well be the best thing since sliced bread, but the best way to prove it to a group is get in first and then demonstrate how wonderful you are.
If you do find out about a group which sounds your cup of tea, ask yourself some questions before putting pen to paper or rushing off to quiz someone about joining:
- Is this really the right choice for me? If you think of yourself as Satan’s Child then a Wiccan coven might not be the best people to approach.
- What am I looking for in a group? Make a list of points.
- What personal qualities could I offer a group? Again, a list is useful.
- Are there any problems that spring to mind? If you live several hundred miles from where the group is based, then travel might be a problem, particularly if you have to rely on public transport.
The idea here is to get your thoughts about the group clear before you approach them.
A rather more basic question to consider is "Who’s doing who the favour, here?" Over the years I’ve met quite a few people who show up where I work or at my house, or corner me in a pub, write or telephone at very short notice saying "I know you’re involved with X group, I want to join", and then expect me to suddenly rearrange my schedule to suit them. On one occasion someone rang me up and said "I’m off on a world cruise later this week, but before then I want to meet you as soon as possible to discuss joining group X when I get back". He was somewhat miffed when I declined to meet him. So yes, you might well be keen to join a group, but don’t expect the group to fall over themselves in order to meet with your demands.
What do you Know About the Group?
If you have a friend who knows about (or is in) the group then you have an obvious advantage in garnering impressions about them. For many people, it’s not that easy. You might, for instance, have just read a book on magic which you liked, and which recommended a particular group ‘for those who would like to find out more’. Author’s endorsements should be taken with a pinch of salt. In many cases, by the time a book hits the shelves some of the groups the author mentions will have disappeared, changed their address or committed mass-suicide. The author may even have fallen out with the group and inserted snide references about them in his or her other works. The kind of adverts that appear in occult magazines tend to be short, terse, and to the point:
"The Coven of Rhiannon and Ronald is seeking like-minded individuals interested in the religion of the Goddess. No LHP, please." Box HP14, editorial address.
International Order of Adepti, Box
So, in order to find out, you’ll have to write a letter of enquiry.
Creating a Good Impression by Letter
- Present your letter clearly. Hastily-scribbled letters on the backs of bus tickets or totally illegible handwriting should be avoided. And check your spelling!
- State your reasons for replying to the advert, but be succinct! An 18-page listing of everything you are interested in magic-wise isn’t necessarily going to be useful to the person reading the letter, particularly if they can’t read your writing.
- Try and give a clear picture of yourself, saying "I’m into reincarnation, UFOs, the lost city of Atlantis and crop circles" doesn’t help the reader form a picture of what you are like as a person, so give a few personal details. A photo might be an idea, too.
- Ask for more information about the group. If nothing else this shows you are interested.
- Can you offer anything to the group? It’s surprising how many people don’t think about this. It’s all too easy to give the impression that you’re expecting things from the group without offering anything in return. This needn’t be anything amazing, simply saying "Whilst I have no practical experience in magic, I can bring to the group my sense of humour and open mind".
- Enclose an SAE or IRC.
- Keep a copy of your letter and note the date you sent it.
- Avoid putting huge rubber-stamps of Baphomet on the envelope or embroidering the borders with runes. Not everyone wants his postman/parents/flat-mates to know that he has strange correspondents.
Getting a Reply (or not)
Magical groups may give the impression that they are superhumans bending the edges of reality. Whilst this may well be the case in the temple or circle, dealing with prospective applicants is subject to the same sort of problems as with any other organization. Letters get lost, misfiled, buried under piles of magazines or even eaten! Assuming that you’ve written a great letter, give the group 4-6 weeks to get their act together in replying. Providing you haven’t suggested that they make you chief magus or follow your 84-step plan of world domination, a reminder may be in order. Send a copy of your original letter again, with a polite note attached.
If you don’t get a reply then it’s safe to assume that the Post Office lost your letter, the group member dealing with applications lost your letter, the group found some new members from elsewhere and your letter has been forgotten, they are just plain untogether when it comes to dealing with mundane matters, they didn’t like something you said, or they dowsed your letter and concluded that you have a negative aura - depending on how charitable you are feeling. You might shrug it off and put it down to karma. Or you might conclude that they are all arseholes and devote your life to slagging the group off at any available opportunity.
It’s worth bearing in mind that a good many established groups have a loose network of contact between each other with mutual friends in different groups exchanging information and gossip. Some years ago at a public festival I met some friends from various magical groups and happened to mention someone who’d recently applied to one of the groups I was then involved with. It turned out that this person had applied to at least half-a-dozen groups more or less simultaneously, and been turned down by all of them. The polite ‘sorry we don’t feel you are suitable for us’ had been met with an angry rebuttal and follow-up hate-mail. So if you start getting shirty with groups who turn you down, word might well get around to others.
It’s difficult to deal with being rejected by a group, and it’s often equally difficult for the person on the other end to phrase a rejection letter appropriately. So silence from a group may well indicate that they don’t think you are suitable for them (for whatever reason), and that they don’t quite know how to put it across. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken personally and it certainly does no good to start arguing about it. There are many reasons why a group will decide that a particular individual isn’t suitable for them.
Being Messed About
As I have said, some groups can be somewhat untogether on planes more solid than the astral. Just as you approach a group with courtesy, you equally have a right to expect courtesy in return. If you are invited to meetings which are then cancelled at the last minute, and no one bothers to try and contact you; if you receive replies to letters which are so ambiguous that you suspect the people on the other end are prevaricating and can’t make up their minds; or if you suspect that the person you are corresponding with has taken a personal dislike to you - then you can withdraw your application and feel justified in doing so. An advantage of some of the larger magical organisations is that if you feel you’re being messed about by one person or group, you can ask to be put in touch with someone else. That is, if you’re still interested in that organization. It’s not generally a good idea to judge a whole organization on the basis of one or two individuals who, to all appearances, are incapable of getting their act together. Remember, when we look at our own performance in a situation we tend to justify our actions in terms of our reactions to the circumstances and what was happening for us at the time, but tend to attribute the behaviour of other people to their personality. Perhaps the people who are messing you about are having their own difficulties, or are they just crap?
First Steps to Meeting
Let’s say you are one of the fortunate few who’s letter hasn’t got lost, used to light incense with or been eaten by someone’s familiar. The group sends you a reply and invites you to an interview in a public place or to an open meeting of the group. When you write back to confirm that you can make it (or to arrange an alternative date), ask if you can have a phone/fax number or e-mail address in case there is a last-minute hitch (train strike, earthquake etc.,) and you can’t make it. In my experience, waiting for three hours in a pub for someone who doesn’t turn up definitely prejudices his chances of getting a foot in the door of the group.
The First Meeting
It’s always a bit difficult being the new (or prospective new) person at a meeting of an established group. There’s the feeling that as soon as you’ve left, they are all going to sit down and talk about you behind you back. Which is why they’ve invited you in the first place. Hopefully they’ll allow for the awkward circumstances and give you the benefit of the doubt. Give them the same courtesy as it’s likely that the people in the group will feel just as awkward as you do. Just as you might well be putting on a show for them, they might well be doing the same for you.
Some Danger Signals to Watch for
Finding a magical group is one thing, but finding a group which is entirely suited to you is sometimes more difficult. If you are in the position of trying to decide whether or not you want to join a particular group or organization, bear the following points in mind:
- Do most of the members strike you as weak, passive individuals who let one or two forceful people dominate the proceedings?
- Does the group work entirely from one particular set of teachings or manual and not allow deviation from those principles or allow people to question them?
- Does the group demand that you observe a number of strict rules, or attempt to interfere in your life outside the group (i.e. telling you to avoid certain people or not to read particular books)?
- Do they insist that they are the best group to be in and that all others are second-rate?
- Do they make it difficult for people to leave the group and, if people do leave, are they then demonized, i.e., made into enemies of the group?
- Do they make all kinds of wild claims about how your life will be made better by being a member?
- Is there a complex and rigid hierarchy, where high-ranking members have impressive titles and seem to be beyond criticism or censure by others?
- Do they encourage members to demonstrate loyalty either by donating large amounts of cash to the group’s coffers or devoting a good deal of their spare time to unpaid work for the group?
- Do they continually draw a distinction between themselves and the outside world, regarding themselves as superior initiates and depicting everyone else as ignorant?
- Do they strongly discourage the voicing of dissident opinions in meetings, and label anyone who does speak out as immature, unbalanced or weak?
If you feel that the group in question displays two or three of the above points, then tread warily. If it seems to display four or more of these characteristics, then unless you think you are going to be happy in such a situation, it may be best to avoid it.