PART 1: AN INTRODUCTION TO ESOTERIC GROUPS
Most people interested in the esoteric have a belief that there is a Hogwarts or an Invisible College—a secretive coven or hidden society with mysterious secrets and powerful initiations. The late great Francis King, a renowned occult writer, once said that an occultist needs a group like a politician needs a party. You can do some wonderful things as an independent candidate, but if you have the backing of a party you can do so much more.
Finding groups has become easier over the past thirty years with the wider distribution of esoteric information, particularly on the Internet. While no Hogwarts or Invisible College has made itself known, esoteric groups exist all over the world and joining a group has become part of many people's spiritual path. Since the number and accessibility of esoteric groups is on the rise, potential group members have a wider variety of groups to choose from, and the option to move from one group to another until they find a spiritual home.
However, some people, after many years of trial and error, turn away from groups and happily carry on by themselves. Some successful magicians and witches go through their entire magical lives without joining a group or school.
So which is your path? To answer that question, you must first strip away the myths that have accumulated around esoteric orders and see what they really are.
What is a group?
An esoteric group is any gathering of people working toward a goal of mastering techniques that will raise the consciousness of individual group members. Groups provide collective security for people walking the esoteric path. People in the esoteric world are mostly what writer Colin Wilson dubbed "outsiders," meaning that they are not in the mainstream of society. They are unusual people with extraordinary belief patterns. By coming together, they are reassured by the fact there are others like them. They feel this proves that they are not as weird as they thought.
Like clubs, different esoteric groups fulfill different needs. It is important to decide what you want from an esoteric group before seeking one out.
Groups can be broadly divided into three categories: Hermetic, nature, and mystical. Hermetic groups focus on structure, ordered ritual, and thinking. Nature groups are more about feeling, and have looser structures. Mystical groups are rare, as the path of the mystic is a lonely one; however they can be a mixture of the two others.
PART 2: A SHORT HISTORY OF ESOTERIC GROUPS
At the turn of the 20th century, magical groups were divided into two different types: schools and Orders.
A school presents a system of magic—usually gently introducing you to different ideas—and then lets you practice on your own. Occasionally small groups will meet to perform rites, but for the most part students are left to their own devices. The Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn is a school that, aside from initiations, does not do much in the way of magic. Once you have learned a tradition from a school, you are expected to work it largely on your own.
An Order is a network of groups that performs rituals utilizing the same traditions or magical languages. Order members meet in temples or lodges, which are similar to franchises; they have the same basic structure as the larger Order, but exercise a degree of autonomy in their own region and for their own members. Sometimes it's possible for disaffected members to appeal lodge decisions to the central authority.
In the past one hundred years, new types of groups have emerged that defy this system of classification. The first is the "outer court" lecture. This system of public meetings became a forum in which lightweight esoteric subjects were discussed. Although these meetings were ends to themselves, their real function was for esoteric groups to meet potential candidates. They were also a good place for leaders of different groups to meet and swap notes.
Similar to the outer court lecture is the Sunday church service. This bizarre marriage of occult and Christianity came about when some of the bigger groups realized that they would qualify for tax exemptions if they held a regular "church service." An Order called Builders of the Adytum holds a "cabbalistic church service," which is used to introduce newcomers to the Order before exposing them to more complex rites.
The past fifty years have seen the lines between school and Order blur in a way that would have been unthinkable one hundred years ago. Some Orders now run teaching programs, and some schools now have varied magical programs. Even the modern version of the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn—the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—now works magic in the middle of its outer order workings. In the early days, the outer order would have simply heard a lecture or read a few announcements.
Under Gerald Gardner, Wiccan groups were more religious and less instructional. During this era, they would have fit into the Order category. But modern Wiccan groups provide instruction to novices and also do regular ritual work. They are one of the modern hybrids.
Looking at the structures described above, you may decide that you will not get what you need from a group. If you dislike, or lack the time to do regular work, you will not benefit from a school. Many schools even acknowledge this fact. One school I know of expects a 90% drop out rate in the first year. Schools tend to give you a lot of homework! Orders require regular attendance, and it might not be possible for you to get to every meeting. Belonging to an Order takes dedication, particularly if you live far from the temple or lodge. I know of one person who drives seven hours every month to get to a meeting.
PART 3: THE PROS AND CONS OF VARIOUS GROUP STRUCTURES
When you are investigating a group, you should ask about its structure and who makes the decisions. Structure—particularly in the more hierarchical groups—might cause you some difficulty, unless you are the type of person who can accept things without question. Some groups believe that they can function in a collective anarchy. While this sounds good, psychological group theory suggests that a natural leader will still emerge. Each structure has its good and bad points, and if you join an esoteric group you should be aware of what they are.
A guru is someone who, by merit of his or her experience and knowledge, becomes the natural leader of a group. Gurus teach and make decisions on behalf of the group, and group members compete for the chance to bask in the guru's attention. The guru delegates tasks and honors in accordance with his or her whims. The guru provides the group with a sense of continuity. Teaching is consistent in the sense that it comes from the same source. The guru can become an almost messianic figure for the group to work with. This is appealing to students who are seeking a father or mother figure that may be lacking in their lives.
However, if power corrupts then esoteric absolute power corrupts that little bit more. In political terms, a guru is a dictator. Guru-based groups are most dangerous to the leader. With so much control, gurus can start to believe that they are gods on earth—especially as this system fosters that belief in students.
Some guru-based groups are aware of the problems inherent in the guru system, and try to mitigate their leader's power by holding yearly elections. Leadership positions in the organization are determined by voting at an annual meeting. The advantage of this system is that gives group members some measure of control over who runs their group. It also means that leaders who perform poorly can be voted out. Everyone has a say in running the group, and nothing happens without the blessing of the majority.
But democracy—which, in this context, is essentially a popularity contest—rarely works in an esoteric group where unpopular decisions about group members may have to be made. A democratic group can fall to bitter infighting unless a strong leader emerges who completely understands the "will of the people."
Priest and priestess-led groups
This structure is common when magical partners set up a group to support their work. Some Wiccan covens are led by a priest and priestess. In theory, one person can mitigate the power of the other. If one leader is set his ways, then group members can approach the other leader for a second opinion that carries weight.
However, if a priest and priestess disagree, they can effectively neutralize themselves. As a result, decision-making is stalled or even stopped altogether. Additionally, priest and priestess often have a personal relationship, or a magical one that amounts to the same thing. Because of this, personal spats and domestic arguments can influence their effectiveness in running the group.
The Round Table
In this structure, the leader is a "king" or "queen" figure. This person is usually the most experienced member of the group, or the most natural teacher. This leader has the final say on everything, but is expected to rule by the consensus of the rest of the group. The Round Table structure has the advantage that group members feel they have a say in most decisions. Communication is usually good, as the king or queen is often called on to justify his/her decision in the face of the group.
But for this structure to work effectively, the king or queen needs to have people management skills, and needs to be able to organize a consensus. Many teachers or leaders find this difficult, as the skills of a chairperson may not come as naturally to them. Additionally, the king or queen can still run the group like a guru or dictator and dismiss the Round Table meetings as confirmations of decisions they have already made.
The Golden Dawn's Leadership Structure
Theoretically, Golden Dawn groups have three chiefs. All three are initially appointed by an outside organization. The best teacher becomes the Praemonstrator, the best administrator becomes the Cancellerius, and the best ruler becomes the Imperator. All three have equal power. Decisions about and within the group are made swiftly because each chief has control in their area of expertise.
If all three chiefs are strong, it is impossible for one to have total control. When power is balanced, one chief can be fired by the other two if he or she becomes somehow unfit. But if one chief is much stronger than the other two, this system essentially reverts to a guru system where the other chiefs hold power in name only.
PART 4: DISPELLING THE MYTHS: Unique Occult Teachings?
If the only reason you are thinking of joining a group is to access secret teachings, think again. There are no schools or orders in the world that can teach you how to be superhuman, or how to wave your wand and turn someone into a pig. Most schools and Orders teach subjects and rituals that you could study on your own in books, or research on the Internet.
What a school or Order does provide is a symbolic alphabet that will help you understand spiritual experiences, and the discipline to help you adopt it. For example, a group might force you to learn colors that represent planets or spiritual states. After a while, you will associate the color blue with Jupiter. One night you might have a dream of an angel dressed in blue, and you would automatically know that whatever the angel is up to will be connected to Jupiter.
The advantage of a group is that it presents you with a system of symbolism. However, you could teach yourself the same system of symbolism if you were so minded.
The myth of initiations
Some groups practice ritual initiation. In theory, these rites of passage are supposed to open a pathway for the initiate to progress within the framework of the group. Initiation means "a beginning," it does not mean an attainment.
During initiation, an initiate is sometimes asked to envision what a higher spiritual level is like. But more often, an initiation rite involves planting a symbol in the initiate's aura so that they can experience it later. Such initiations are emotionally powerful, and are often effective spiritual experiences. However, experienced members will not be able to open spiritual doors for a student if he or she is not ready.
Many schools and Orders perform ritual initiations long before their initiates have developed the spiritual maturity to understand the state they have been symbolically rewarded. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, it is possible to pass through the first five initiations in two and a half years. Some groups will even put you through the rituals in a weekend! But if you examine what those initiations are supposed to represent, you will see that you are looking at a lifetime's work (if you are lucky).
To be fair, most good groups will tell you that these initiations only provide you with symbols of those spiritual states that you can use later.
Beware of groups that use initiation to make their group leaders appear more godlike, or to assert control over dissident group members. This posturing stems from the mistaken belief that the initiator must be a powerful being—and that the initiator has the right to refuse the gift of initiation to anyone he or she deems unworthy. It is true that the initiator must be aware of what he or she is doing, because merely performing a rite of initiation will not in itself do the job. But this has nothing to do with the leader appearing godlike.
Making the initiation "take"—so that the traditions of the group become ongoing part of the candidate's life—is the real purpose of these rites. This has nothing to do with the initiator; it is purely the job of the initiated. True initiation does not need a ritual or an initiator. It can happen spontaneously in the heart and mind of the person on the path. As the Golden Dawn neophyte ritual says: "God alone is our Light and the Bestower of Perfect Wisdom. No mortal power can do more than bring you to the Pathway of that Wisdom, which he could, if it so pleased him, put into the heart of a child."
Mysterious Secret Chiefs and Inner-Plane Adepts
An esoteric group differs from an ordinary club or organization in that it has to be open for business on the astral and spiritual levels. Some groups miss this point, and as a result fail to do much more than form an amateur dramatics club.
In the 19th century, esoteric groups influenced by Theosophy took this principle of multiple plane workings further. They claimed that true esoteric schools had a special inner-plane adept or secret chief that mediated power from secret sources to the group. These inner-plane adepts were magicians who died but were so good at living they no longer needed to reincarnate. They lived in the spiritual realm basking in the light of God (or the God and Goddess), and helped groups achieve great cosmic purposes. They did this by activating themselves on the astral, and acting as a channel for the special groups they selected. Such groups were flavored with the adept's power and became "contacted." Some modern groups still market themselves as being "contacted" and dismiss other supposedly lesser groups as "uncontacted."
Personally, I don't think it makes the slightest difference if a group includes an inner-plane adept, but some groups think it important. Before you commit to joining a group, find out if it includes an inner-plane adept. Consider whether you believe in super-beings that direct the fate of magical groups. If you are comfortable with this concept, there are plenty of groups to join who promote it. But if you find that you don't believe in inner-plane adepts, there are also groups that do not believe that being "contacted" is important or necessary.
The Right to Initiate
In your search, you might come across groups that claim theirs is the only legitimate version of a certain tradition. Groups of this kind often claim they have a charter that gives them the right to initiate others in this particular tradition. You may safely ignore such claims, as they do not add anything to the spiritual abilities of the group.
The idea of lineage comes from the old Masonic groups. Their traditions stated that groups were not legitimate unless they had correct lineage and a proper charter issued to them from someone who had a high enough grade. The Masons got this idea from the Christian church. The church claimed that its priests had the right to do their job because Christ had placed his hands on (blessed) his apostles, who had placed their hands on those who became the priests of the new church. This formed an unbroken psychic link from Christ to present-day priests.
Some modern esoteric groups claim lineage from older groups, although few of these claims survive any scholarly scrutiny. Even if there were evidence of such links, there is no guarantee that such a psychic link is desirable. While Victorian esoteric teaching is fairly timeless, the social structure and moral codes of the period have little to offer the 21st century magician or Wiccan. Forming a psychic link with a 19th century group could foster outdated ideas rather than empowering a modern working group.
If a group is doing its esoteric work correctly using an older tradition, it has a right to initiate new members because the divine agrees to manifest through the group. If God or the Goddess does not want to initiate someone, no group will be able to do so.
The Truth About Grades and Titles
Another thing to consider is whether or not to join a group that uses grades and titles as a method of assessing progress. The idea of grading members of occult schools has been popular for centuries. Grading originates with medieval craft guilds—a system in which a worker entered a trade as an apprentice to an expert, and progressed to the level of journeyman after gaining considerable experience. Finally, after many years of work, the journeyman became a master and had the freedom to practice his skills without help.
An adapted version of this system has since become part of most esoteric schools, from Wicca to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There are usually three degrees, with each symbolizing the work that you are needed to learn:
Every group that uses degrees has variations on this theme. There is often an outer grade that you must pass through before you reach the first degree. Not all groups work with a degree system, and you must decide if it is a system that you want to be a part of your spiritual path.
Can groups actually do more powerful magic?
If a group has real expertise, it can do much more than an individual. You are likely to see more magical and spiritual fireworks working with an esoteric group than you would working by yourself. But just as going to church every Sunday does not make you a good Christian, your esoteric spiritual path is still dependent on the work you do alone. Esoteric schools and groups should give you lots of homework, and only by doing that homework will you tap into the personal spiritual development a group can offer.
PART 5: FACTORS TO CONSIDER: The Fundamental Problem with Groups
Since members of esoteric groups are human beings, the groups often suffer from members' mortal fallibilities. The work of bringing people to the light creates shadow; in working with angels, our personal demons are evoked. A knitting club may not have these sorts of problems because its members are unlikely to become identified with divine energies. In an esoteric group this confusion is more common.
Many of these problems arise because occult groups are run and populated by "outsiders." These outsiders are not—as they would like you to believe—special or more powerful than anyone else. They are merely people on the path, just like you.
Some esoteric groups are still locked in the structures and beliefs of the Piscean Age. This was an era when students were encouraged to play the role of the good sheep looking for the shepherd. This idea's time is past, which is why many occult groups are failing. Groups that fail to help people develop as individuals, or make them lose sight of their own divinity are doomed to collapse. Esoteric groups should be producing people who can stand as powerful individuals, capable of bringing about change in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Some groups have become comfortable wombs where there is no emphasis on seeking and meeting challenges. For this reason, be wary of groups that are too "nice" and "fluffy" or appear conflict-free. If a group is pushing its members to work, the group will force change and individualization. Becoming an individual is painful, both to the person experiencing it and those around them.
What Is the Alternative?
It is only within the past three hundred years that group work has really been an option for practitioners of the Western Mystery Tradition. Before that, a person interested in the esoteric would study under someone who is already a working magician.
Now we have books and e-mail, which enable people to follow a path without joining a group. There are some drawbacks to walking the path of the solo magician or Wiccan. Solitaries do not benefit from the guidance of someone more experienced in spiritual matters, and have no one to keep their sense of self-importance in check.
Walking the esoteric path requires personal discipline. Some believe it is much easier to develop this sort of discipline with the guidance of a group. However there are frequent cases of the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome; some solo magicians believe they would be better off in a group, while group members sometimes think they would be better off in another group or working alone!
What Should You Do?
To determine if joining an esoteric group is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
If you are happy on your spiritual path without joining a group, continue walking that path.
Otherwise—forewarned of the potential pitfalls—start looking for a group that matches your needs and interests. Ask questions and try out a few groups until you find one that matches your own philosophy. Once you find this group, be prepared to stick to it for at least three years. This amount of time will give you the chance to fully absorb and evaluate the symbolism, techniques, and beliefs of your group's tradition. If you are truly suited to the group you've chosen, you will find that group work will become a cornerstone of your esoteric work.