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Leaving Magical Groups


The dynamics of Magical Groups and organisations has for some years been a field of increasing interest for me. In this essay, I want to explore what is often a turbulent issue - the processes attendant to an individual leaving a magical group after some years of association and intense magical exploration. My contention is that it's not always as simple as sending in a resignation letter and walking away from the group - that there may be varying degrees of psychic and emotional 'fallout' to deal with, both on a personal and sometimes, interpersonal level. I will also discuss some of the group processes by which members are identified as transgressors within the group and how they tend to be dealt with.

Experiences of Leaving Groups

In 1980, after some years of being a lone magician, I made contact with a Wiccan coven in my home town. Having previously only met two other practising magicians, you can imagine my joy at having finally met some other folk who were serious about the occult in the same way that I was. I began to work with this group on a weekly (sometimes more frequent) basis, doing the 'year-and-a-day' training. As is recounted elsewhere (in the New Falcon edition of Prime Chaos) following my initiation into the coven, I was summarily dismissed from it (this being, as I found out much later, part of the initiation!). I dealt with the shock of this by going abroad for eight months. But dreams followed me across the water - dreams of doing rituals with the group, and of talking to its members, and I also had to work through a good deal of hurt and anger at being rejected by the group after such an intense bond had been built up. It was this experience which first led me to dwell on the psychic and emotional consequences of 'leaving' a magical group. To cut a long story short, I subsequently returned to this particular group, and worked with them for three years before leaving again (on my own initiative this time) in somewhat acrimonious circumstances. This time, the psychic fallout didn't seem to be as intense. In retrospect, I can see why this was. By this time, the coven was no longer my primary source of magical friendships, relationships and ways of doing magic. Not only had I met other magicians by then, but I had also begun to strike out on blazing my own trail in earnest. Also, both my work and geographical distance from them meant that I had only been seeing the group every few months or so, and had very little social contact, apart from the odd telephone call. And, after a short hiatus, I was able to find another group which had no links with the other one.

Some ten years later, I found myself in similar circumstances. Shortly after moving to London in 1991, I was initiated into a large, international magical order. At the time, about two-thirds of the magicians I knew in London were associated with this order. So, in addition to attending formal meetings, there was a good deal of socialising involved as well. Despite being associated with two or three other groups, this particular order quickly became my 'primary' focus of attention. I met my present partner through it, and began to devote a great deal of energy and enthusiasm into initiating various projects in it. Being in something of a 'privileged' position, I was party to the various 'political' manoeuvrings within the organisation, and largely treated them as games - a necessary evil perhaps, particularly if one wanted to get certain things done. In my enthusiasm, I recommended to various friends that they should join the organisation, and tended to reduce contact with correspondents who weren't involved or interested - my rationale (to myself) being that I didn't have the time anymore, now that I was devoting most of my attention to this group. It wasn't entirely a 'rosy' picture however. Looking back in my diaries, I find that I was critical of many things inside the organisation (often openly so) and several times was on the point of leaving - but never quite went that far, always saying "I'll give it another six months." There was the added complication that I was involved with various publishing-related projects with fellow members and had built some strong friendships with fellow members, both in the UK and abroad.

By late 1995 I decided that it was time to leave this organisation, and retired from it a few months later - initially taking a formal leave of absence, and then making it known that I had no intention of returning. My partner left a few months later. Once again, I found that my dream-life began to reflect this - dreams of working rituals with people in the order, talking to various people, and even dreams where rituals were being done with me as the focus of the rite though I was not present. I am not for one moment suggesting that I was being 'magically attacked' here. My dreams were merely resolving and working through the various emotions and feelings I had towards this organisation and the people within it, particularly those I regarded as friends & magical colleagues.

Part of the problem of leaving, with respect to this particular organisation has been that I still have a fair number of friends who are involved in it, to varying degrees, so it has been difficult to avoid discussing what various people are getting up to or what the current 'gossip' is pertaining to various internal politics. I've also found that whenever I get together with friends who have also left this group, it's difficult not to either reminisce or go over old battles/arguments - particularly after a bottle or three. Eventually, I have come to see this as a self-defeating exercise - only serving to keep the various emotions & feelings I had about the group and certain members 'alive'. This has resulted in my becoming 'drawn into' some of the organisations' current soap-opera plots - again something which I have come to recognise as my own tendency to want to keep particular personal axes grinding away. So despite having to all intents and purposes 'left' this particular group, I have been, to some extent (perhaps unconsciously) maintaining my link with them.

I feel this is fairly natural. In retrospect, when I have left other magical organisations where close friendships and intense magical work (or even enmities) have not been a factor, there has not been any 'fallout'. In general though, when a group has been a 'primary focus' as in the above instances, it can take some time to work through all the personal and interpersonal issues which are thrown up. It's natural for us to be concerned with what a group (or people we know in it) are up to, or to wonder how we are being perceived ("what are they saying about me"). This also works both ways. It's fairly common for people who leave magical groups in somewhat acrimonious circumstances to go on to devote energy into slagging the group off, either in magical journals or, as seems more common these days, on the internet. Magical groups tend, naturally, to be sensitive to such criticism from former members, although over-sensitivity to criticism can be equally self-defeating. Over the years, I have seen various groups and orders issuing lengthy 'statements' (either in broadsheets or latterly, on the net) concerning what various ex-members have said about them - this has occasionally spilled out into protracted correspondence in the pages of magical journals). Again, I personally do not feel that this is of any help. Silence is better than denial, which only gives cause for speculation on the part of others not involved. It would be better to recognise that when people do leave an organisation in less than happy circumstances, they might well feel justified in airing their grievances as part of their own process of resolution.

The Process of Demonisation

Another issue which relates more to the group rather than the departed individual is the process by which ex-members become 'demonised' by the group. This is a common response by a group to the occurrence of members departing. Some years ago, a friend became involved in a group in North Yorkshire. She became wary when she was informed by the groups' leaders that a number of ex-affiliates had banded together and were now engaged in magical attack against the group! My friend put this down to ingrained paranoia and departed, and subsequently found that she had been tarred with the same brush. It seems that some groups require enemies to maintain a sense of cohesion, whether those enemies are former members, enemy magical groups or the state. Occasionally I have heard the argument voiced that the enemies are 'within' the group - a preferable alternative to dealing with internal conflicts, it seems, is to make vague references to unknown enemies inside the group. Demonisation can be a very subtle process. Former members can become scapegoats on which various unresolved issues within the group can be dumped, with the added fillip that they are unlikely ever to be in a position to defend themselves, if indeed, they are so inclined. Of course, this can be a problem if the person in question still has some friends within the group. In this kind of situation, friends of the ex-member face the choice of keeping quiet whilst their friend is having ordure heaped upon them or speaking up, and of course, risking censure themselves. As we know from studies of group dynamics, there is a great deal of peer pressure to conform within groups, particularly to those norms of behaviour or belief which are below the surface, and often go unspoken or are assumed to be all-inclusive. A related issue is that if the group has invested heavily in the belief that they are the 'best' group in existence (and I have been in several where such a belief is an undercurrent - particularly when the grape begins to flow) then of course, people who leave become 'second-rate'. And of course, since the group in question is 'the best' then they don't have to own any of the responsibility for the circumstances over which the person departed. There does seem to be some expectation on the part of the group members that the departing member will never amount to anything (at least 'magically') once they have left the group.

Scapegoating in Groups

This process of the 'demonisation' of ex-members appears to be related to the well-observed phenomena of scapegoating. Scapegoating is a process resorted to by a group whereby particular members of the group are blamed for what is happening in the group. When a scapegoat is identified, other members of the group are likely to feel a considerable degree of relief, as a source for whatever feelings of resentment, distrust and anger etc. has been identified. As Douglas (1995) notes, this process seems to arise "without apparent conscious effort" on the part of members. Scapegoating appears to be resorted to when there is a lack of cohesion in a group, as a 'safe' means of resolving conflict. It is important to note however, that although the scapegoating process appears to arise 'unconsciously' within the group, that the scapegoats themselves are selected. Factors which influence this selection include:

Once a scapegoat has been identified (by the group as a whole or, as is more usual, by the leaders or dominant members) the group rallies to diffuse conflict within the group by censuring the scapegoat. This can range from 'formal hearings' with the scapegoat appearing before a tribunal to proceedings in absentia. In one notable occurrence, as the scapegoat refused to come to a group meeting, the High Priestess ordered that the individual concerned be summoned 'astrally' to the group. There is strong pressure exerted on the scapegoat to accept and conform to the role which has been thrust upon them. When, as sometimes occurs, the identified scapegoat refuses to conform to the group expectations, further conflict ensues. Once a group member has been identified as a scapegoat it is extremely difficult for them to disassociate themselves from that role. Whilst the initial aim of the group may be to move the scapegoat to the periphery of the group until they 'recant' for their errant behaviour, if the scapegoat brings about further and prolonged conflict, (i.e. by refusing to recant) they may well end up being forced out of the group or being considerably marginalised (i.e. withdrawal of social support or notification of group events). As there is a common tendency in such situations to avoid open conflict within the group, scapegoats tend to find it difficult to gain support from other members, particularly if other members are passive, acceding to the dictates of the dominant members. The scapegoat is generally perceived as endangering the existence of the group, not only in terms of its social cohesion, but possibly also in terms of it's magical belief structures. I have occasionally heard group member's censured in terms that their behaviour is "endangering the group egregore". Whenever sources of conflict in a group are elevated into magical or spiritual issues, the feeling of being threatened on the part of other members of the group tends to be heightened considerably.

Evidence of Transgression

An element shared by both the processes of scapegoating and demonisation is that of the identification of transgressions on the part of the individual concerned. Here, any instances of perceived asocial behaviour (no matter how apparently trivial), including behaviour beyond the immediate group is re-interpreted by group members as further 'evidence' to support the perfidy of the transgressor. Taken objectively, such 'evidence' may seem to be tenuous, but for those members projecting the scapegoat/demon role onto the individual, they are enormously helpful in terms of providing a focus for strong emotions which are deflected onto the member concerned. Instances of transgressive behaviour are seen as reinforcing the individual's deviant status rather than in terms of their historical context or the other member's perception or memory of the event. It is not unusual for the current transgressor to be blamed for previous conflicts within the group, particularly when these have been unresolved or the reasons underlying them remain ambiguous. Personal dislike and prejudice towards the transgressor is also re-interpreted as evidence of their deviant nature.

Group Responses to Departure

Just as a departing individual works through a process of personal resolution towards the group they have left, the group must also go a similar process of resolution. An apposite term from workplace studies is "organisational healing" - which denotes how a company deals with sweeping changes such as the downsizing of employees. I have observed that when individuals who have high status or who have been given a particular key task within a magical group suddenly up and leave - or if internal schism causes a large number of people to depart at once, the group needs time to 'heal' from such situations. It is possible that defence mechanisms such as the demonisation of departing members (not always viable, depending on the perceived status of the persons concerned) are short-term measures, (though they can of course become habitual if the group has a culture of paranoia† ) relatively speaking. The problem with such defence mechanisms is that they only defer resolution of conflicts and interpersonal issues. Just as an individual's post-departure 'demonisation' of a group seems only to continually recycle their own feelings about and towards the group, I would propose that any demonisation of individuals by remaining group members does the same. Of course, this is a difficult proposition to test, as it unlikely that any magical group is going to admit that they use the demonisation gambit in the first place, much less that the departure of any member (even after years of involvement) is in any way problematic for them, either individually or collectively. Indeed, from my own experience of magical groups it seems more usual that there is a common tendency to 'explain' why members leave in terms of it being due to their own personal difficulties and shortcomings, and whatever dissatisfactions that individual has expressed towards the group are ignored or at best, made light of. It should be noted that the group's recent history (in terms of prior conflicts) is likely to influence future situations of a similar nature. For example, a group which is still recovering from a recent upheaval is less likely to tolerate any behaviour from individual members which appears to diverge from the groups' norms and values. A common gambit resorted to by magical groups in order to 'heal' themselves is to resort to a ritual aimed at restoring 'group balance'. This may well be effective in the short-term, bringing members together for a common purpose and giving rise to a shared feeling of unity, but tends to serve to 'close' a period of conflict without dealing with the deeper issues of member's dissatisfactions and anger. This might well temporarily discharge feelings of tension within the group - effectively 'banishing' them, but unresolved issues have a habit of creeping back, and tend to recur when the original sources of dissatisfaction reassert themselves.

To summarise so far then, - I would say, based on my own experiences and observations that individuals may encounter problems in leaving a group when:

These last two points are significant - as individuals sometimes feel hesitant to leave a group if it provides their primary source of contact with other occultists - particularly those who share similar interests. One of the most commonly-voiced reasons why people join groups in the first place appears to be that of meeting like-minded individuals.

The Importance of Support

The tension experienced as a result of leaving a group might well also be heightened if the individual concerned has no support network to turn to. It is often difficult for occultists to discuss such matters with non-occultist peers. In my own experience, I have found it to be very helpful to have magically-oriented friends whom, whilst not involved in the groups I have been in, have enough of their own experience of groups to understand my feelings in this regard. Having someone to talk through one's feelings with is highly beneficial to any process of resolution. Of course, in the case where the group has provided the primary source of peer relationships (as in the instance of my first departure from the coven, described above), this is difficult to obtain. I have met other magicians who, though voicing strong dissatisfactions with the group they were in, appeared to feel that there was 'no where else for them to go'. It does appear that the strong inclusiveness in many magical groups (the sense of 'we-ness') which acts as a bonding agency (shared interests, belief, & common experiences) can serve to isolate individuals against making contact with other groups & individual magicians. Other factors which can influence this include: geographical location (i.e. it is often harder to diversify one's range of contacts in a small town rather than a large city)and the suspicion which often exists between magical groups - particularly when an individual is 'crossing' from one belief system to another, or to a 'rival' group within the same genre. The diversity of belief and approach which characterises pagan and magical genres is generally regarded as a strength - however it can also make the transition between different affinity groups and peer networks a difficult process, particularly if the individual concerned is already feeling isolated and wary from the break-up of their previous association with a group.


In joining any group, the individual is taking personal risks. Although magical groups have some unique characteristics which distinguish them from other types of group (I have dealt with some of these elsewhere) they are of course subject to the general dynamics which have been observed in all kinds of social organisation. As with other kinds of group, it is important to be able to identify the processes which underlie situations and events, and this understanding is often difficult to come by. One reason being that the more one is emotionally attached to a situation, the harder it is to step back and uncover the underlying dynamics which contribute to the situation. Another is that there is a general lack of awareness of group processes within magical groups (at least in my experience - the one notable exception being a group which largely consisted of educators and health care professionals), coupled with a lack of awareness that being a member of a group requires the exercise of interpersonal and observational skills. Indeed, there seems to be a common assumption that being part of a group is easy and requires little effort. This lack of awareness is thrown into sharp relief when conflict occurs - in fact the very idea that conflict is an inevitable consequence of membership seems alien to some groups I have been involved with. The result being that processes for apportioning blame to individuals tend to be resorted to rather other forms of dealing with problems which arise. The problem with both scapegoating and demonisation is that these processes quickly become habitual patterns for the group and are highly distressing for the individuals concerned. This in turn feeds the 'culture of paranoia' both within the group and how the group regards the external environment, again making it less likely that the group will explore other avenues of conflict resolution.


Tom Douglas, Survival in Groups, Open University Press, 1995


† The phrase "culture of paranoia" refers to a dynamic whereby the group members appear to be highly sensitive to criticism both from within and externally to the group. From my observations, this is something which grows over time and tends to be (perhaps unconsciously) expressed by the leaders or dominant group members. Factors which influence this include: the degree to which group members identify as being 'outsiders' in society and must therefore guard against intrusions by the state, media or government agencies; the injunction that what occurs within the group must be kept 'secret' at all costs from outsiders (which again can reduce individual member's ability to establish external peer networks); the recent history of the group (in terms of previous conflicts and how they have been resolved) and the common perception that any criticism levelled at the group is also direct personal criticism of those concerned, including criticism of their 'magical abilities'. Although such a 'culture' is not uncommon in small groups, it is particularly notable (in my experience) in larger organisations and networks where there is a tendency for subgroups within the overall structure to become suspicious of each other - particularly when geographically distanced or where there is a wide divergence of opinion between group members over beliefs, magical approaches and the direction the 'whole organisation' should be taking. A quotation passed to me in reference to a pagan network I was involved in for a while sums this attitude up: "Those people in Leeds - I don't know what they're doing - but whatever it is, I don't like it!"