How to Identify Cults & Cult Leaders in the Witchcraft Community
So many of us come to the paths of paganism, witchcraft, and earth-based spirituality looking for freedom. For a path that’s all our own. And a place that we can call home, where we aren’t judged, manipulated, or pressured. And for most of us, that is what we find. Sadly, like in any other religious path or walk of life, there are frauds, cons, and cults that infiltrate our community with malicious intent. My mission in this post is to show you how to identify cults, frauds, and cons in the witchcraft community. So that you don’t fall prey to their malevolence.
First, What is a Cult Exactly?
According to the Wikipedia, a cult is “a relatively small group which is typically led by a charismatic and self-appointed leader, who excessively controls its members, requiring unwavering devotion to a set of beliefs and practices which are considered deviant.”
I would add that cults use manipulation tactics to not only recruit their members but to keep them in a state of utter control. Typically the goal is to use recruits for financial or personal gain and they usually accomplish this through getting their recruits to engage in free labor, sexual acts, and other despicable deeds. So the first rule to learning how to identify cults is to ask yourself this – are they controlling their members or do they seek to control their members?
Where are these cults located? Literally everywhere.
Here’s the truth. Cults aren’t “out there” somewhere deep in the forests or mountains of Utah. They aren’t that far removed from where you’re sitting right now in front of a computer or smart phone screen. In modern times, many are using technology to bait and hook people. YES cults are on the internet. They’re all over social media, including on FaceBook, Instagram, etc. And yes, they are also out in the public, proselytizing to passersby and/or making connections in simpler ways.
A good example of a cult that actually arose from an online following is the Twin Flames Universe. You can watch a documentary about them on Netflix right now called “Escaping Twin Flames”. Another one that I’m sure a large majority of you have heard of is led by the online spiritual “guru” Teal Swan. A woman who literally built a following via her spiritual YouTube videos…videos that she made by targeting mental health SEO keywords. This is why it’s so important to learn how to identify cults because they can literally be anywhere these days…digitally or IRL.
The Instagram Wannabe Cult Leader
Personally, I know of a very popular figure on Instagram who has quite a following. His looks, craftsmanship, and mystery has a tendency to pull people in…particularly women. A good friend of mine got involved with this man and found herself captivated. Yet after the love-bombing phase had ended, he began degrading her. Playing manipulative games with her. And she realized he had more sinister plans. Not only did this popular pagan have a wife of which he didn’t reveal to her, but he was a die-hard fan of Charles Manson and Hitler.
And…here’s the kicker. His ultimate goal was to establish a cult in which he would have multiple women birthing his children. She cut off communication with this man and did some further investigating to discover although he has tried these tactics with countless others, he has YET to succeed in starting a legitimate cult. We hope he never does!
The Cult that tried to recruit me in Target…
I’ll give you a personal example of how there are cults everywhere. One day I was walking in Target with my baby boy in the shopping cart with me. We were browsing the aisles when two pretty young women came up to me. The first one said, “Hi, do you have a minute?” I said, sure. At first I thought she was an employee or just needed help with something. She said, “can we talk to you about the Bible?” I started to back away and she said, “more specifically, did you know that god was a woman?” My heart fluttered a bit because I thought maybe these women were going to talk about Shekina, the holy spirit, or the Divine Feminine. But when I brought those terms up to them, they stared at each other and had NO clue what I was talking about. I quickly realized we were NOT on the same topic. Or level.
They promptly asked me for my phone number so they could call me. I said no, but I would gladly accept theirs. They handed me a card with the one girl’s name and phone number. They told me they hold “women’s meetings” every Monday night and want me to come and study the Bible with them. At this point, I knew something was wrong here. So I went home and looked up the group these women were referring to and discovered they were indeed a cult. But not just a cult…a cult that had branched off another cult! They believed Jesus had come to earth as a Korean man and that Mother Mary was a Korean woman.
Cults can be religious or non-religious
Some folks get sucked in because they don’t know how to identify cults outside of religious boundaries. Cults can arise from every religion, every spiritual path, and sometimes they can begin outside of spiritual beliefs altogether. Sometimes they are business pyramid schemes, first, then spiral into religious methods later. But ultimately, many end up with a spiritual undertone of some kind. This is the way cult leaders ultimately prey on people’s deepest consciousness.
Sadly, many people come to a pagan or witchcraft path thinking they are completely safe from things like cults. But, unfortunately, cults and malevolent people are everywhere. And they will use any spiritual or religious structure to manipulate and control their followers.
The NXIUM “Business” Cult
A good example of a “non-religious” cult is NXIUM. This is a sex cult that was run by Keith Raniere in the early 2000’s and began as a corporation that was centered around “human potential development”. Their main schtick, if you will, was self improvement through addressing one’s emotions.
If you’d like to learn more about the dark path this “corporation” took, there’s a documentary out there and, of course, a wikipedia page. Keith Raniere and quite a few others of his comrades are in jail today for racketeering and sex trafficking charges. This cult was particularly strange to me because it wasn’t necessarily religious…until the leader put himself so high up on a pedestal that he acted as if he was god.
How to Identify Cults Using the BITE Model
Does anyone who joins a cult go into the cult with the intention of joining a cult? I’m almost sure that’s a resounding no. If the recruits were automatically aware that they were getting involved in a cult, I’m sure they would run away screaming. But here’s the thing. Cults, their leaders, and their higher-ups use manipulation tactics to draw in recruits or “bait and hook” them. Then they slowly take control over nearly every aspect of their lives.
To understand what red flags to watch out for, I’d like to introduce you to the BITE model developed by psychiatrists Singer, Martin, West and others based on communist mind control methods.
B – BEHAVIOR CONTROL
The B in the BITE model stands for Behavior control. This is when the cult seeks to control the behavior of its members with the ultimate goal of dependency and obedience to the group and its leaders.
There are many ways to control behavior, one of which being every member is required to involve the group and its leadership in major life decisions. The members are not allowed to make decisions for themselves down to their clothing, hairstyle, diet, and sleep schedule. If they deviate from these regulations, they are often criticized and humiliated in front of the entire group. The group is put first above the individual.
So watch out for any group that seeks to make their members look and act all the same. And those that are intrusively making decisions for their members everyday activities. Cults do not encourage individuality and in fact will punish it.
I – INFORMATION CONTROL
I is for Information Control in the BITE model. When information is controlled within a cult, it typically starts with propaganda distributed by the leaders. This informaton is then spread down the line by the cult devotees to its fringe members and potential recruits. The information is solely at the discretion and the word of the cult’s leaders. Then it becomes the ONLY information the cult members may consume. They are typically cut off from all other news sources, including controlling their TV, radio, and online consumption of materials. Reading books or literature outside of the cult’s propaganda is restricted or prohibited.
The members are often trained to spy on one another. Surveillance might be put into place for cults who live on a compound or in close quarters. If any information is brought in from outside the cult’s approved media, the member will be called out in front of the entire group, humiliated, and punished.
According to Psychiatric Times, “To be independent thinkers, people require information from a wide variety of reputable sources. Cults indoctrinate members to distrust critics, former members, and any media that is negative. Some groups tell members to avoid newspapers, books, articles, TV, radio, and any academic, science-based information. Some controllers keep believers so busy that they do not have time to think, check things out, or make outside relationships. Other groups control believers through their cell phones with GPS tracking, frequent texting, or calls. Some authoritarian groups have countless ‘front’ groups to hide the parent organization.”
T – THOUGHT CONTROL
T is for Thought Control which obviously relates to controlling the thoughts and minds of the cult’s members. They are discouraged from making any personal decisions on their own. Often this is done with tactics like hallucinogenic or trance-inducing drugs, repetitive meditations and visualizations, and hours up on hours of class lessons and lectures in which the members are then required to memorize and repeat the information.
There is frequently an “all or nothing” or “black and white” type of message being pushed on its members. Preying on people’s fears is common and seen in doomsday cults. The members are sometimes required to take on a new name and learn new words that are only known to other members.
E – EMOTIONAL CONTROL
And last we have E for Emotional Control. This is when cults manipulate members through their emotions. At first, new recruits are love-bombed and told how amazing they are. Sometimes there is obvious flirting and the individual is made to feel loved. And accepted. Following the love-bombing phase, the individual is broken down through emotional manipulation by leaders.
Again quoting Psychiatric Times, “Members learn techniques like thought-stopping and emotion-stopping, mainly to block feelings of homesickness, anger toward leadership, or doubt. Whenever individuals feel depressed, anxious, or fearful, they are encouraged to feel guilty and engage in practices to further surrender themselves to the great leader or group. Whenever there is a problem, the group and leader are always right, and it is the member’s fault.”
Watch for These Red Flags: How to Identify Cults in the Witchcraft Community
First, I’d like to say that just because we are going into the red flags that might pop up in harmful covens or pagan groups DOESN’T mean that ALL covens and pagan groups are cults or harmful to their members. There are thousands of covens and groups that are kind and beneficial to their members.
Now that we’ve talked of the manipulation tactics of cults ad nauseum, I’d like to summarize it for you. And, more specifically, I’d like to address things you might see in cult-like groups in the witchcraft community. Here are the major red flags to watch for and how to identify cults in the witchcraft and new age communities:
- A Priest/Priestess who discourages or doesn’t allow individualism within the coven or group
- Priests and Priestesses who claim to be an incarnated or reincarnated deity, famous witch, ascended master, etc.
- Leaders that claim they have been passed down this knowledge from a “long line of witches” (sure, maybe this is possible but in this day and age it is 99.9% unlikely and is being used as a tactic to claim authority over others)
- Leaders who claim they channel gods and goddesses’ messages and require the members to adhere to these “lessons” or messages
- A group or coven that requires its members to dress a certain way. NOTE: some covens and pagan groups ask their members to wear certain ritual garb like cloaks or hooded capes, etc. Wearing ritual garb for actual meetings and rituals is one thing. Requiring members to dress a certain way all of the time is another matter entirely and points to cult-like behavior
- If the group or coven proselytizes and is out recruiting members either actively in the public or indirectly through requiring its members to recruit family and friends
- Requiring members to date or even marry other members
- Asking or requiring its members to cut off relationships outside of the group or coven (an isolation tactic)
- If the group or leader wants to “tap in” to your emotions or past traumatic memories using meditations or trancework – BIG RED FLAG and a sign of mind-emotional control (see the BITE model above for more info)
The members of our OO FaceBook group wanted to add a few red flags that they’ve seen personally:
- When the coven has an overarching dogma that doesn’t allow its members to question or think for themselves
- If the coven or group requires initiates or members to engage in sexual activities or any other activity that feels uncomfortable or humiliating to the individual
- If the coven or group requires its initiates or members to attend meetings nude
- Asking for monetary donations (tithing) that are over and beyond what’s necessary to keep a coven’s meetings afloat. If the leader is directly benefiting from these contributions
- If the group doesn’t allow members to leave freely or responds to “dropouts” in an aggressive manner
- Long retreats that don’t allow the attendees to leave easily or at all
- No cap on a membership in the coven. Traditionally a coven is 13 but a coven of 24 teeters on a congregation not a coven
- When the coven structure looks more like an LLC (business) than a spiritual group
- Covens that allow minors without parental supervision or expressed permission
How to Identify Cults Based on Red Flags & YOUR Intuition (Wrapping it up)
Honestly, I’ve remained solitary the majority of my life because I shy away from organized religion in general. I feel that religion can be a way of manipulating and controlling people, and I have seen it happen in my own family with the Pentecostal Church. I am a rebel at heart and will likely never join a coven or a church of any kind for these reasons. I don’t like being told what to do and I tend to buck back when someone even gives suggestions when it comes to spirituality.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that ALL covens and pagan groups are bad or should be feared. There are plenty out there that are good and sound and only want to come together to grow and learn in the craft.
My best advice to you is this – if you’re feeling the “ick” with a certain group or coven try to identify if there are red flags. If there aren’t any obvious red flags, just go with your gut. If your gut is telling you something is “off” or doesn’t feel right, TRUST it! Your instincts will not lie to you.
My hope is that this article will arm you with the tools to be able to recognize if a coven or group is ultimately safe or unsafe. And, if you have read this article and realized you might already be a part of an unsafe group or even a cult, I would like to list helpful resources below to guide you to a safer place.
Resources for those who want to leave a cult or high demand group:
FIRST, if you are being held against your will, your life is being threatened, or you are in immediate danger of any kind, please call your local authorities to receive help.
- International Cultic Studies Association: here is their list for support groups
- The Cult Education Institute’s Directory of Cult Recovery Resources
- BetterHelp: Professional Therapy (note: not every therapist is trained in cult recovery so be sure you research before choosing a therapist)
- Domestic Shelters will aid you in finding a shelter in your local area
- This WikiHow page is actually quite clear with instructions on steps to take to leave a cult or high control group
- Here’s the Psychiatric Times article I referenced in this post that describes the BITE Model to its fullest