by David Petterson
Copyright (c) 2002 David Petterson
May be recirculated as long as this information is included

Part 1: The Problem

We’ve all seen Covens fall apart, or larger umbrella organizations torn by internal strife. Sometimes, this is simply part of the natural cycle of creation and dissolution, an outworn group dissolving to make room for new growth. But at other times, a group with much promise can be damaged or destroyed while seemingly still young and healthy. And not only are groups destroyed, but vibrant and dedicated Elders can find themselves disillusioned, wounded perhaps beyond healing. They go into self-imposed isolation, and their potential gifts to the Craft are lost forever.

The process by which this happens sometimes seems mysterious and incomprehensible. At times, it’s impossible to clearly see what went wrong. Looking at the tragedy after the fact, it seems as if everyone did everything right. There were, perhaps, misunderstandings and miscommunications. But most of the people involved honestly and sincerely tried to understand everyone’s point of view, and they did all the correct conflict-management and conflict-resolution kinds of things. But somehow, everything they tried simply made matters worse. And the people who were the most ethical, the most dedicated to finding a win-win solution, the most patient and understanding – these were the people who got burned the worst, the ones whose strength was sapped, the ones whose idealism was destroyed, the ones who wind up walling themselves in and cutting off their ties to the community.

It’s almost enough to make you paranoid, and wonder if there’s a cowen plot to break the will of our most dedicated and ethical people.

A while back, Isaac Bonewits published a review of a book which explored this subject. The book is called, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict, by Kenneth Haugk (Augsberg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1988). Isaac highly recommended this book, in spite of it being written from a Christian perspective and intended for a Christian audience of ministers and lay leaders. He claimed the book makes clear much which otherwise seems mysterious and confusing. He was right.

For a modern Witch or Pagan, reading Haugk’s book frequently gets tiresome, because Haugk honestly views conflicts within Christian groups as ultimately being the work of the Devil out to destroy the True Church. But putting aside the Christian apologetics, there’s an amazing amount in there which is useful and incredibly insightful. If you’ve ever seen the sorts of destructive conflict described above within a Coven or other Pagan group, Haugk’s book will provide an illumination beyond hope. The book needs to be re-written, though, from a Pagan viewpoint (a project in which I am currently engaged), because there are strengths and problems peculiar to Paganism and the Craft which don’t impact the Christian audience Haugk wrote for.

Here’s a very important insight: Such conflicts don’t “just happen.” The really destructive ones, the really vicious fights which tear apart Covens or larger groups, conflicts which break the spirit of the most dedicated Elders, these conflicts aren’t accidents, and they aren’t the consequence of simple misunderstandings or miscommunications. No; they happen because particular individuals made them happen. There is a class of personality traits which makes certain individuals crave conflict. There are people who need conflict the way most people need food. When one of these folks gets going, no form of conflict-resolution process is going to work, because such a person is not interested in resolving conflicts. Indeed, the more understanding and patient you are, the worse things will get, because such a person uses your patience and understanding as opportunities to prolong the conflict.

Fortunately, such people are few and far between, and they can usually be recognized before they start causing damage. The personality traits they possess can be identified, and their techniques can be thwarted or rendered ineffective. To handle them properly takes prior knowledge and preparation, however. It also requires a willingness to take firm action, and to freely exercise your legitimate authority as a Coven Leader. Unfortunately, unless the problem becomes recognized on a wider scale and is appropriately dealt with in the Pagan community at large, damage can still be done in wider arenas. You can make your own Coven or Grove almost immune to people like this. But keeping such people from tearing apart larger umbrella organizations, or spreading malicious rumors through a local or regional community – that’s quite a lot harder.

In a series of articles, I’ll describe the personality traits involved, ways to recognize them, warning signs to watch for, and techniques which do and don’t work in dealing with them. Future articles will give reasons why Pagan groups can be particularly attractive targets for such people, and what can be done to make your group less targetable. Since this is a religious context, I’ll also give some thoughts on the theology of it all. Regardless of how Haugk views the matter, as Witches we needn’t see it as a conflict of good vs. evil, but rather as a case of treating the people around us in the ways which are appropriate to each individual person. Nor is it a case of a cowen plot, but rather of processes which are entirely natural, though discomforting – in the same way a plague or a flood or an earthquake is entirely natural. Though the Gods of Nature throw such disasters at us, we needn’t stand passively and merely accept the destruction. If you live on a floodplain or geologic fault, you can, and should, make proper preparations to minimize how badly you’ll be hurt.

Take all this merely as advice. If you know of better ways to deal with the problems explored here, by all means, use them – and share them with the rest of us!

By Any Other Name…

A future article will provide a list of warning signs and telltale personality traits. But to start with, let’s begin with a basic understanding of what we’re dealing with.

Really destructive conflict is caused by people who are driven to engage others in unwinnable contests. Such people generally have very low self-esteem, little regard for those around them, often a rather loose grip on consensual reality, and frequently possess a fair measure of paranoia. Their low self esteem makes them want to tear others down, in order to make themselves look better by comparison. Having little or no regard for others, they won’t care about the damage they cause, and frequently won’t even recognize they’ve caused any. Being unable to distinguish reality from their own rich inner fantasy lives, they will be very convincing liars, because they honestly believe the incredible things they say. And their paranoia is often justified; when they act on their inner drives, they start causing damage, and people stop liking them. Paranoiacs frequently do have many enemies, and few friends.

All this makes them very guarded and closed-off and secretive, though they’ll frequently hide behind a carefully-constructed mask of outward friendliness. One such person was overly fond of the most famous quote from Machiavelli: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” That kind of deceit and duplicity is something to look out for.

The word Kenneth Haugk uses for these sorts of destructive people is “antagonists.” The word was chosen to remind his Christian readers of the antagonism between Satan and the biblical god. In a Pagan context, it wouldn’t be appropriate to use this imagery of Eternal Conflict. We’d do better with an image more in keeping with Pagan myth and symbolism.

Something like “Shiva” or “Kali” would be an improvement. After all, destruction is a natural process, though one which we don’t want to stand too close to, if we can help it. But then, destructive people get most of their strength from the fear and worry they can inspire in their targets, and putting on them a label like “Kali” gives them far too much power. Better still would be a term which, while not minimizing the danger, doesn’t give them more respect than they deserve. The Books of Raoul say, “Every ecosystem needs maggots,” and so I’ve heard the term “maggot” used effectively, though that seems to go too far the other way. A word I’ve chosen to use is “troll.”

In much of European mythology and folklore, giants, trolls, and ogres are embodiments of the forces of Chaos, natural forces which often batter at the walls of civilization or even at the orderly forms which Nature Herself creates. Chaos is not an “evil” force. It’s simply the flip side of the creative impulse. Seeing destructive people as chaotic rather than as evil helps to place them into a useful and meaningful Pagan context. Of all these chaotic embodiments, trolls are sometimes among the strongest – yet they also have an unintentionally comic side, as we’re reminded by fairy tales such as the “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” or modern stories such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Trolls can be easily outwitted, if you know something about them, for sunlight turns them into harmless boulders. An understanding of the true nature of destructive people is the sunlight which renders them impotent and ineffective.

Inner Drives

Trolls can’t help being trolls. It isn’t that they want to be destructive, exactly, any more than a plague-carrying flea wants to cause death, or a flood wants to destroy a town. It’s just in the nature of the thing. Floods simply spread over the plain, and if you happen to be in the way, well, too bad for you. Nothing you did either caused the flood, or could have prevented it. In the same way, destructive people have inner drives which make them act as they do. No action you take will make them behave differently. The best you can do is to not be around when the dam breaks.

Frequently, trolls are unaware of the damage they’re causing. A cornered mongoose doesn’t really want to rip you to pieces; it just wants to get away. So too, a destructive person will usually deny wanting to cause pain. Such people really want something else, usually the things which all people want and need: self-fulfillment, validation, a feeling of security, and so on. It’s just that trolls have extremely unhealthy ways to go about getting these things. And when they do get them, their insecurity convinces them it won’t last, so they’d better get more. This is the key in a nutshell: trolls are not healthy people, so they can’t be expected to act in mature and healthy ways. And treating them as if they were mature and healthy is like treating a cornered mongoose as if it was a beloved housecat. The results are not pretty.

A mongoose or a plague-carrying flea is not likely to change into something else. Neither is a troll. Unless you are very, very skilled as a counselor, nothing you can do will help a troll get healthy. In fact, things you’d normally do to help other people will just make matters worse. If you are understanding and patient in response to a troll’s dishonest or destructive acts, what troll learns is: dishonesty and destructiveness is rewarded by patience and understanding. This encourages the troll to continue being dishonest and destructive.

Trolls need conflict, the way healthy people need food. If people are responding to them in any way at all, this provides them with a feeling of having an impact on the world around them. Since they have very little self-esteem, any reaction at all is far better than none. And since fear and hate are powerful emotions, if they can inspire fear and hate, this makes them feel powerful and effective. Further, being hated feeds their paranoia (“See? I was right! People really don’t like me!”) and encourages more of the acts which inspired the fear and hate in the first place (“… so I have to get them first!”). But being loved and embraced won’t stop those actions, since what they crave is excitement and conflict, not love. And being somewhat paranoid, they’ll think your acts of love are intended to fool them into feeling safe and comfortable; they’ll be convinced your kindness is part of an elaborate trap. (“I know people don’t like me. So why are you pretending you do? What are you up to?”)

Because trolls need conflict, they are very practiced at it. Experience is a good teacher, and most trolls will have had an enormous amount of experience by the time they are old enough to join a Coven. If you wind up being the target of a troll’s attacks, fighting back is not a good idea. Trolls are very, very good at turning any frontal assaults to their advantage. They are even better at finding and manipulating more subtle responses. One of the most powerful defensive tricks they have is pretending to be the victim. Once you respond – in any way, regardless of how measured and controlled your response is – they begin telling everyone they know about how mean you are, and how cruel and vicious and vindictive you’re being. It’s a good way to turn your own friends against you, and begin making you feel isolated and paranoid. This tactic has the additional advantage of turning attention away from whatever unethical acts the troll was doing in the first place.

For a healthy person involved in a misunderstanding, a careful explanation of what went wrong can go a long way toward resolving the tensions. But this doesn’t have the desired effect if the person isn’t healthy. Don’t explain things to a troll. If you sit a troll down and say, “This act led to this damage; this statement caused that argument; you misunderstood me in this way, which caused this difficulty,” it verifies for the troll exactly what worked and what didn’t. Such an approach tells the troll precisely which strategies can be used to prolong the conflict. If you say, “We can resolve the problem by doing this,” you’ve told the troll what to avoid. Trolls are willing to make any promises which are needed to lull you into a sense of unwariness; then they’re good at finding justifications for breaking those promises, or finding ways around them, so the conflict will go on. Particularly if other people are involved, they are also very good at deflecting any discussion away from the central issues involved – such as the troll’s own actions.

So, patience won’t help; retaliation won’t help; love and support won’t help. Explaining the situation won’t help, and neither will proposing solutions or compromises, nor will mediation or engagement in any sort of dialogue. If you wind up in any dispute or argument with a troll, doing any of these things will simply make matters worse, and will probably result in incredible pain. Yet these are exactly the approaches you should use with most people who are not trolls. Most people are healthy. Trolls are not, and should not be treated as if they are. Trolls are not healthy; they won’t get healthy, they don’t want to get healthy, and keeping them near you will eventually let them harm you.

The only effective way to handle trolls should be obvious. It’s also very simple, in theory at least. Don’t associate with trolls. And if one gets into your Coven, he or she needs to be ejected as soon as you recognize that it really is a troll you’re dealing with. And you don’t want to get involved in detailed discussions with the troll, explanations of why you’re taking the action you’re taking. You want to just do it, and be done with it.

But obviously, you don’t want to treat a healthy person this way, someone with whom you’re simply having a genuine disagreement or misunderstanding. So the trick is not so much in how to handle a troll. It’s in how to recognize one.

Part 2: Trollspotting

In the previous article, I described some of the attributes of destructive people, the kind who are driven to tear Covens apart, and to break the spirit of people in leadership positions. Really destructive conflict is caused by people who are have a need to engage others in unwinnable contests. Such people generally have very low self-esteem, little regard for those around them, often a rather loose grip on consensual reality, and frequently possess a fair measure of paranoia. Such people are not healthy, they won’t get healthy, they don’t want to get healthy, and keeping them near you will eventually let them harm you. Treating them as if they were healthy just makes matters worse. For instance, if you respond to such a person’s destructive acts with patience and understanding, he or she will learn you respond to destructive acts with patience and understanding, and this will encourage more destructive acts.

I’ve called such people “trolls,” using the mythic and folkloric image of chaotic forces which are natural, but often destructive. It’s an image well-rooted in European symbolism. The word conveys some of the sense of danger, but also carries a comic side, as depicted in Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” and in a myriad of children’s stories. Most of the power which destructive people wield comes from the fear and hesitation they can inspire in others. If their comic side is kept in sight, much of this power can be nullified.

The proper way to deal with a troll is to simply eject such a person from your group. Small Pagan groups, such as covens or groves, are fortunate in this way. The typical coven or grove is run by one person, or by a couple, who are empowered to make such decisions as who can and who can’t be a member. This is in contrast to larger religious organizations – churches or synods or even Pagan umbrella organizations. Once a Coven Leader realizes there’s a troll in the midst of the coven, all that needs to be done to get rid of the troll is to tell him or her to go away. There doesn’t need to be any red tape or formal hearings or anything of that sort. Trolls love red tape, and can usually tie up a whole organization in such a proceeding for months, or even years. Trolls need conflict the way healthy people need food, and a formal hearing – even one whose purpose is an attempt to eject the troll – is exactly the arena in which they thrive.

So, in a nutshell, that’s the best way for covens to handle trolls. Just kick them out. All things in nature should be handled in the way appropriate to each kind of thing. You wouldn’t allow a tarantula or scorpion to wander about in your sock drawer. This doesn’t mean the tarantula is “evil”; it just means that humans don’t find a sock drawer to be a convenient place to allow a tarantula to live. Similarly, you want a troll to take his or her destructive tendencies somewhere else, and keep them away from you and your group. The way to do that is to tell such a person to be gone. Don’t bother with ceremony or explanations. Such things only provide more opportunities for the troll to engage you in further conflict. They also tell the troll exactly what worked to cause you damage, and what didn’t. There’s no reason to help trolls improve their trollish skills.

But you wouldn’t kick a pet hamster out into the woods, and you wouldn’t want to treat a healthy and helpful person the way you’d treat a troll. This means it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a healthy person and a troll, just as it’s wise to know the difference between a hamster and a tarantula.

Recognizing the Wild Troll

Here are some common characteristics of trolls. Use this list as a guide and as warning signs. But be a little bit cautious. Even healthy people will display some of these traits some of the time. Being Pagans, we’re not dualist absolutists here. (As the Books of Raoul say, “Dualism is bad!”) If someone displays a couple of these traits every now and then, it could just be a fairly reasonable person on a bad hair day. Use some common sense.

Conversely, there are very few trolls who will display all of these traits, or even a majority of them. One or two bad days, every now and then, does not a troll make. Nor does the absence of several traits necessarily mean the person is really a hamster (or even a wise and productive Covener!) What you’re looking for in a person is a pattern. If someone reveals several of these traits, and shows them consistently – or if the person shows only three or four, but shows them to excess – then you’re dealing with a troll.

  • Amazingly Likeable. Trolls often have the ability to be liked almost immediately. They can be very ingratiating, and seem incredibly open and friendly. It isn’t necessary to be suspicious of someone who gives a very positive first impression. Some wonderful people also have a great deal of personal charisma. Instant, karmic connections can happen (and, in Paganism often do); but coupled with other warning signs, this could indicate an attempt at manipulation. Trolls tend to be likeable – it’s what keeps them from being immediately recognized. It probably kept them from being beheaded at a young age.
  • Gushing Praise. This is related to being Amazingly Likeable. Does the person seem to be trying to butter you up, to identify your insecurities (everybody has some) and to play on them to give you strokes and lull you into acceptance? Does the person give gifts out of proportion to your level of intimacy and acquaintance?
  • Gotcha. Does the person seem to find joy in pointing out other people’s errors or slips, mistakes and goofs, faults and bad habits? Does the person seem to imply these mean he or she is smarter or better suited to be a leader than is the one who goofed? Does the person sometimes ask questions he or she already knows the answers to, just to see if you know?
  • Coven Hopper. Does this person have a history of moving from Coven to Coven, usually (or always) leaving on bad terms? Does he or she have nothing but negative things to say about the leader(s) of previous groups? Does the person exhibit a dislike of Pagan Leaders in general?
  • Name Droppers/Initiation Collectors. Does the person expect you to be impressed by the people he or she has met, or the number of groups or Traditions he or she has worked with? Is there frequent reference to his or her marvelous and unmatchable experiences, skills, and knowledge? (Real sages can let their light shine without constant boasting.)
  • Excessive Rulehating. Many Pagans are very independent people. However, if someone is going to work within an established group, they need to be willing to follow whatever guidelines that group has, however loose or restrictive those guidelines might be. Trolls hate such restrictions. Healthy people who dislike a given group’s rules are willing to admit that particular group may not be right for them, and to look elsewhere without animosity. Trolls will be angry at you personally for running a group which does not suit them.
  • Echoes and Re-runs. Is this person frequently involved in arguments and destructive conflicts? Do conflicts seem always to occur and re-occur when this person is around? Does the person accept responsibility for his or her role in previous disagreements, or are these problems always blamed on someone else?
  • Unnamed “Others”. Are “others” always to blame for this person’s problems? Do “others” always agree with this person’s concern? Does the person carry tales told to him or her by “others”? Is this person always vague about just exactly who these “others” are?
  • Living One’s Religion. Does this person exhibit unethical or dishonest and destructive behavior in other areas of his or her life? A destructive person won’t stop being destructive in Circle, and trolls object to having you look at other areas of their lives. Someone who is destructive or dishonest in their personal lives will be equally destructive and dishonest in their Craft lives.
  • Liar. Is the person often caught in outright lies? Are there excuses and slick explanations always at the ready? Excuses can get pretty imaginative. A common technique is to frequently claim to have misunderstood or misremembered the conversations in question. One troll even invented the condition of “aural dyslexia” to “explain” his frequent false statements.
  • Note Takers and Journal Keepers. Trolls like to write things down – slanting the record, of course, to make themselves look good, and to make everyone else look bad. They’ll pull out their journals from time to time to “prove” how mean someone else was, or to back up their own incredible claims. Of course, even healthy Pagans often keep magical workbooks and notebooks, so simply keeping a journal – even a highly subjective journal – doesn’t make one a troll. But does the person sometimes use these subjective personal accounts to back up a claim? Are these accounts filled with extreme adjectives and intimations of others’ imagined states of mind? Does the person seem unable to realize that their journal is subjective testimony, and not an objective and accurate, proven account?
  • Excessive Sarcasm. A ready wit is a good thing. A consistently sarcastic and caustic wit, which constantly belittles others, is not. Does the person seem unable to comprehend the painful and destructive effects of his or her own sarcastic statements?
  • Pests. Is the person constantly calling with questions, suggestions, personal problems? Does he or she expect you to be willing to drop everything to deal with any and all concerns? Is he or she offended and angry if you can’t?
  • Causes. A social conscience is a Good Thing, and many Pagans are very active politically. But great social causes can also be a mask for selfish demands, or for a desire for personal power. Does the person heap scorn on those who don’t have an equal zeal for the same causes? Does the person use these causes as excuses to start fights – even when it’s time to settle down to other work?
  • Bad Losers/Bad Winners. In arguments or disagreements – or in games and leisure activities – does the person react well to resolutions? What kind of impression does the person give about past conflicts? Is there excessive gloating when the person wins, or harping and whining when he or she loses? Are personal disagreements often depicted in terms of winning and losing, rather than as attempts to resolve differences? Does a loss provoke retaliation? Does the person use various forms of intimidation, or passive-aggressive techniques, to get what he or she wants?
  • Excessive Privacy or Secrecy. Information management is one of the most powerful tools of a troll. Be wary of anyone who tells you too many things “in confidence,” or who warns you away from talking to people he or she knew formerly, or people involved in his or her tales. Of course, this does not apply to legitimate Oaths taken in a religious context. Many paths require Oaths of secrecy, and respect for the privacy of others. However:
  • Oathbreakers/Braggarts. Is the person only too happy to tell you all the secrets of some other group or tradition? He or she will also treat your privacy with just as much contempt. Is the person inordinately proud of knowing Secrets which other people are not privy to?
  • Projection and Inconsistency. “When you complain about something, it’s malicious gossip; but when I do, it’s just sharing feelings, or warning someone about something.” “When I call you nasty names, it’s just an accurate description; when you talk about me behind my back, it’s slander.” Trolls are unable or unwilling to apply the same standards to themselves which they apply to other people. They will violently criticize others for actions they engage in themselves. Does the person seem to have an inability or unwillingness to consider other viewpoints?
  • Change Your Focus. If a new person joins your group, does he or she insist on having a better way to do things? Does the person always want to bend the rules of your group, or do away with them? Remember: Paganism is big, and you have no responsibility to provide for the needs of everyone who comes to you. If your group isn’t to the liking of a potential member or a new member, there’s nothing in the least wrong with insisting that person seek fulfillment elsewhere.
  • Inappropriate Application of Pagan principles, such as the value of love and trust, or the Rede, subjective realities and creating your own realities, “going with my feelings,” following one’s own sense of ethics, 12-step “recovery,” and so on. Does the person use Pagan ideals and Newage jargon as excuses and covers for unethical behavior?

This last point is a particularly important one. Trolls love to use vital Pagan principles inappropriately to cover their own destructive actions. This technique is often quite effective, because it can make their actions sound reasonable, even to their victims. This makes it harder to justify ejecting a troll from your group, even when the troll is blatantly tearing everything apart. These problems are particularly troublesome in larger umbrella organizations, where you have to use formal procedures to kick out a troll. A troll can manipulate Pagan principles to get a few people actually defending the troll’s actions, and cause dissention and outright warfare within the group of people who are trying to figure out what to do.

Because this particular trollish technique is so important, I’ll devote the entire next article to it. This will also illustrate some of the reasons why Pagan groups are such attractive targets for trolls. Understanding our vulnerabilities will lead to being able to construct effective defenses. There are ways of making your group less attractive to a troll, and there are was of making a troll’s impact less damaging. But it’s necessary to first understand where our weak points are.

Part 3: Troll Philosophy

This series has been exploring how to deal with destructive people in Pagan Covens. There is a class of people who are driven to tear others down and to break apart the things which others build. I’ve called these people “trolls”, utilizing the very powerful and very old European image of these destructive chaotic forces. Destructive and powerful, yes – but easily outwitted, and almost comic, once you understand what drives them, and where their weak points are.

Trolls love to use vital Pagan principles inappropriately to cover their own destructive actions. This technique is often quite effective, because it can make their actions sound reasonable, even to their victims. This makes it harder to justify ejecting a troll from your group, even when the troll is blatantly tearing everything apart. These problems are particularly troublesome in larger umbrella organizations, where you have to use formal procedures to kick out a troll. A troll can manipulate Pagan principles to get a few people actually defending the troll’s actions, and can cause dissension and outright warfare within the group of people trying to figure out what to do.

There are aspects of Pagan philosophy which trolls find it easy to manipulate to their advantage. Once trolls are uncovered, they often will defend themselves with inappropriate recourse to concepts such as subjective realities, perfect trust, the Wiccan Rede, running one’s own recovery, constructing one’s own ethical code, counter-accusations of authoritarianism, and so on. The excuses trolls come up with can sometimes sound very convincing. They can be convincing to other Coveners, to other members of the local Pagan community, and to other members of larger Pagan umbrella organizations. They can even sound convincing to you, as their target. They can cause you to hesitate or to be unsure of yourself at a time when what you need is self-confidence.

Twisting Principles

Here are some sample strategies which trolls will use, some examples of the way trolls twist Pagan thought to defend or explain away destructive or unethical behavior:

  • Catch a troll in a lie, and the troll will go on about subjective realities, and how things “felt” a certain way to the troll, and you have no right to impose your personal perceptions of reality upon those of the troll. Don’t Pagans value the subjective perceptions of all people?
  • You’ll also be told not to impose your ethics upon the troll. Don’t trolls have as much right as you do to create their own sense of ethics? Don’t Pagans value the idea of encouraging individuals to construct their own ethical guidelines, their own means of contact with Divinity?
  • If you’re reluctant to accept the word of a troll who’s lied to you in the past, you’ll be accused of not approaching that troll with the level of love and trust you really should have. Don’t these ideals mean you must accept what the troll tells you? Don’t they mean you must forgive and forget?
  • Consider ejecting a troll from your Coven, and you’ll run afoul of the Rede’s admonition to “harm none.” How dare you do such a dreadful thing to a poor troll? Aren’t you causing harm, and interfering with the will of another person?
  • Some trolls are well versed in the language (but not the meaning) of 12-step programs. Tell a troll to desist in destructive behavior, and you’ll be told not to “interfere” in the troll’s “recovery program.” Aren’t Pagans tolerant of all paths?
  • Tell a troll that certain destructive behaviors are simply not tolerated in your Coven, and you’ll suddenly become authoritarian and inflexible and overcontrolling. Pagans are opposed to authoritarianism, aren’t they?
  • If you express an opinion the troll doesn’t care for, you’ll be labeled a One-True-Wayist and possibly even compared to an Inquisitor or Pope or some such. Pagans are opposed to enforced dogma; how dare you push your ways onto others?

Of course, in all cases, the troll uses these Pagan principles as excuses and as ways to avoid accepting responsibility for his or her own behavior. (Isn’t the troll trying to avoid the consequences of the Threefold Law?) Such arguments are used merely to distract you (and whoever else is involved) away from the real, central issue – which is the actions of the troll, the actions which the troll is trying to mask behind an inappropriate appeal to misapplied principles.

In no case should you argue these points with a troll. It will serve no purpose. Once you are completely convinced that it is a troll you’re dealing with, arguing these things will accomplish nothing. In fact, it only plays into the troll’s hand. Arguing about matters of principle – rather than paying attention to the troll’s actions – is exactly what the troll wants you to do, because it is a distraction. Besides, the troll can use your arguments to claim you are opposed to these very common and very basic principles of Pagan philosophy. If there’s anyone listening to the conversation, it will, inevitably, make you look bad.


Here are some counter-arguments, which you can use within yourself. Again, don’t bother to make these counter-arguments to the troll. Use them to encourage yourself to take the actions you know must be taken. Use them to shore up your confidence. Use them to shut out the distractions which the troll is trying to raise.

  • If the troll claims privileges based on subjective realities or personal ethics, or any of the other Pagan principles which rely on the sanctity of the individual, always keep in mind: those principles apply to you as well. The perceptions of the individual matter, and are valued, and each person must act in ways consistent with that person’s sense of ethics and of contact with the Gods. Which means you, too, have the right to act upon your perceptions and ethics. If you perceive someone as dishonest and untrustworthy and destructive, then act in ways appropriate to those perceptions, and to the ethical principles you value. Do not let the troll dictate perceptions or ethics to you.
  • The love and trust we’re “supposed” to feel toward each other is not supposed to be blind. It needs to be appropriate, and precisely in keeping with the nature of whatever you’re dealing with. You may have perfect love and trust for a rabid mongoose. That doesn’t mean you’ll treat it as you would treat a housecat. It means you’ll treat it as a perfectly rabid mongoose, and take the steps which are perfectly appropriate in dealing with it. You’ll trust it to act like a mongoose. If someone lies to you repeatedly, you are being cruel – to yourself, to your Coveners, to your Gods, and, ultimately, to the person – if you refuse to treat that person as a habitual liar.
  • The Rede says to “harm none” – and that includes you. By allowing the lies and manipulations of a troll to damage you, you’re actively participating in the harm being done to you, to your Coveners, to your Tradition, and to anyone else being affected by the troll. If you refuse to eject a troll from your Coven, you are responsible for the harm done to your Coven from then on.
  • By allowing the troll to continue harmful actions without consequences, you’re engaged in what 12-step programs call “enabling”. Sometimes, someone addicted to drugs or alcohol is protected by friends and family members – they might make excuses for the person at work, or bail the addict out of jail, or, through a sense of love and loyalty, they might try to protect the addict from the harmful effects of his or her own actions. But this only encourages self- (and other-) destructive behavior to continue. And that does more harm. Yet you don’t really want to impose your will on others else by attempting to control their actions. The solution is straightforward: “You can act however you want – but not around me.” If a troll tries to spring 12-step jargon on you, just invoke “tough love” and tell the troll to take his or her recovery program elsewhere.
  • Is this authoritarian? Certainly not. No one is required to stay in your Coven. People who are there, are there by choice. Consenting adults and all that. As a Coven Leader, you have every right to run your Coven however you feel is proper, and other people have the right to participate or not, as they feel is proper. Authoritarianism can only happen where there is some means of compulsion. There can be no authoritarianism where there is assent, and no one stays in your Coven unless they personally choose to do so. You don’t have the right (or the power!) to control others. But as a Coven Leader, you do have the right (and the responsibility!) to set the ground rules for your Coven. On the other hand, a troll has no right to force you to allow the troll to remain in contact with you, or with your Coveners. A troll has no right to dictate what behavior is acceptable in your Coven, and what behavior is not. Those are rights which you hold.
  • Are you a One-True-Wayist simply because you express an opinion? Of course not! Charges of authoritarianism or One-True-Wayism are simply absurd in any Pagan context. We have no way of enforcing belief, nor of compelling practice. Any Pagan who doesn’t like the beliefs of practice of someone else is always free to go elsewhere, or to stop associating with the person with whom they disagree. A person who makes public accusations of authoritarianism or One-True-Wayism is, beyond doubt, a troll who is simply trying to stir anger toward a target. Ignore such tactics when directed at others, and when they’re directed at you, don’t give them a thought. Charges of One-True-Wayism are made simply in an attempt to embarrass you and get you to shut up. Indeed, they are examples of the troll trying to force his or her opinions onto others. The troll is trying to silence a point of view with which he or she disagrees! Who is the actual One-True-Wayist here?

Healthy Self-Doubt

It is healthy and it is important to question yourself. A Coven Leader who never doubts his or her own actions and decisions is a dangerous person whom it would be wise to stay away from. But a Coven Leader who allows self-doubt to prevent effective and necessary action is equally dangerous. Yes, re-examine your understanding of ethical issues, frequently and deeply. Don’t assume you’re always right, lest you cast yourself into the role of an infallible Pope willing to burn others for mere disagreement. (In fact, a refusal to question oneself is one of the hallmarks of a troll!) But equally, don’t refuse to make decisions, just because others might disagree with them.

Coven Leaders have the responsibility to take what steps are necessary to protect their Covens. That’s one of their primary jobs. Coveners rely on them, and expect them, to do this. It is not a power seized unjustly or arbitrarily; it is a power granted by the Coveners, by virtue of them asking to join – and to remain in – the Coven. If you let a troll manipulate you by playing on your self-doubts, you’re falling down on your responsibilities to people who have trusted you with their spiritual growth. Indeed, this inappropriate manipulation of healthy self-questioning is yet another example of trollish misapplication of important Pagan principles!

What you need here is to be clear on these principles in your own mind. Give careful thought to these issues, and do your best to understand them thoroughly. But the time to engage in such introspection is not during a period of crisis. Solve these questions in your own mind before they become issues argued by a troll. “Solving” does not mean you never come back to them. It’s useful and productive to come back to these issues again and again, and to let your view of them expand and grow as time goes on. But when there’s someone actively tearing your Coven apart, it’s time for direct action, action based on preparations and understandings you’ve already achieved. Afterwards, there’ll be time to reassess and improve your understandings further. People grow by making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. Don’t be afraid to let yourself make some mistakes. Take the actions you feel are right, and then learn from them.

Have frequent discussions within your Coven about matters such as this, so your Coveners understand the issues as thoroughly as you do. If a troll begins to present misapplied principles as excuses for unethical behavior, you want your Coveners to see through those tactics as well. Again, don’t argue these points with the troll. In a Coven situation, that only prolongs the pain. Get rid of the critter, and then afterward you’ll have all the time you need to de-brief with your Coveners.

In larger settings – formal churches and umbrella groups – things get a little more complicated, because you usually have to present a case to some council or governing board in order to get rid of a troll. There, it’s possible for the troll to bollix up the works by raising these issues, and insisting they get argued out before an expulsion vote is taken. Handling his situation is a topic for anther time; for now, just keep in mind that any Pagan organization should 1) discuss these issues long before a crisis takes place so they’re already thoroughly understood, and 2) have rules of procedure in order to stay on topic during discussions about possible disciplinary actions.

Next time, I’ll talk about some aspects of Paganism which make Pagan groups particularly vulnerable to trolls, and particularly attractive targets for destructive people. It’s important to understand our weak points, because these are the very places where troll attacks are likely to come.

Part 4: Why Trolls Like Covens

This series explores how to deal with destructive people within your Coven or Pagan group. There is a class of people who are driven to tear down things which others have built. Sometimes such people can get into, or come into contact with, your Coven. I’ve called these people “trolls”, making use of the very powerful and very old European image of forces which are destructive and chaotic – yet easily outwitted, if you know a little about their ways.

The problem of trolls has been endemic in Paganism for decades. Looking back at tales and correspondence and other evidence from as early as the 1950’s, one can detect the peculiar scent of trolls wafting up even then. What is it about Paganism and the Craft which seems to attract trolls so irresistibly?


Trolls look for particular traits and situations which they can use to their advantage. There are common aspects to Pagan groups which make them attractive targets for trolls, and which make it difficult for such groups to respond to troll attacks.

For one thing, as discussed in the previous article, there are aspects of Pagan philosophy which trolls find it easy to manipulate in their favor. If uncovered, trolls will defend themselves with inappropriate recourse to concepts such as subjective realities, the Wiccan Rede, running one’s own recovery, constructing one’s own ethical code, counter-accusations of authoritarianism, and so on. The previous article discussed ways of dealing with these misapplications of Pagan principles. Here are some more weak points which Paganism presents to trolls:

  • Small groups. Trolls like small groups. It’s relatively easy to become a big fish in a little pond. Since trolls are driven to feel important, a group of a dozen or so people is ideal.
  • Anti-authoritarian. Pagans have a natural distrust of authority, and a great deal of independence. Trolls can use this to breed suspicion of a group’s leaders, suspicion which a troll can feed and nurture.
  • No bureaucracy. Often, there are no checks and balances within a Coven structure, and very few within larger Pagan organizations. For example, there often are no formalized rules of evidence or fairness. This means trolls can start unsubstantiated rumors, and can often be believed without ever being asked for any kind of proof.
  • No ethical standards. There are very few Pagan elders’ councils or ethics committees. There is no centralized place to whom to bring complaints about trolls. There is no body with the power to stop, or even impede, their activities. And, since Pagans dislike authority, if there was such a body, most Pagans would go somewhere else!
  • Tolerance. A tolerance of differences is one of the hallmarks of Paganism (or at least, that’s one of its goals). Trolls can present themselves as simply being “different” from other people. They can present themselves as being “picked on” because of those differences. They can accuse others of being inflexible for holding to opinions which differ from theirs. They can generate a great deal of sympathy this way.
  • Self-help. Many Covens are set up to assist the personal growth of their members. If caught in their dishonest and destructive actions, trolls can pretend to acknowledge personal problems, commit to dealing with them, and then simply continue doing what they’ve been doing. After all, you wouldn’t kick someone out who had promised to try to do better, would you?

These are some of the points which make Pagan groups vulnerable and attractive to trolls. These are things which are very deeply embedded in Pagan culture and the structure of Pagan groups. We’re not likely to change most of these: Pagan groups are not suddenly going to become ten or twenty times larger, we’re not going to start trusting authority, no one is going to construct a PanPagan Ethics Council in the foreseeable future – and if any of these things did happen, Paganism wouldn’t be Paganism any more. So we have to find ways of dealing with trolls in spite of the weak points. What would be better still is to turn these weak points into advantages, and use them to strengthen a Coven rather than make it vulnerable.

Some Helpful Features

Paganism also has some strengths which make it possible to respond effectively to trolls. In fact, many of the aspects mentioned above also make it easier to deal with them:

  • Small groups. Working in a small group make it more difficult for trolls to stay hidden for long periods of time, especially if the people in a Coven work together closely and often. In larger organizations, it’s easier for trolls to get lost in the crowd, or to hide their true nature, and so to spread rumors underground.
  • Anti-authoritarian. Though a Pagan distrust of authority often makes for a receptive audience for trollish attacks on Elders, this also makes it a bit more difficult for trolls to gain the power they crave for themselves. Even becoming a Coven Leader is seldom very satisfying for a troll.
  • No bureaucracy or ethical standards. Though the lack of checks and balances or ethics councils means you can’t call upon wider authorities to help deal with a troll, this also means you as a Coven Leader have much more of a free hand. You don’t need anyone else’s permission to take the steps you feel are needed, and you don’t need to deal with any red tape or formal procedures. Trolls tend to burn their bridges and then move on fairly rapidly.
  • Tolerance. Though trolls can use Pagan tolerance to defend themselves, this goes both ways. The unjustified slanders which trolls level at other people really won’t generate as much hatred toward their targets as the trolls like to think. Few people will really care, writing it off as “differences,” even if they believe the trollish tales.
  • Self-help. If a troll tries to use a Coven’s “self-help” orientation as an excuse to avoid changing, the Coven’s Leaders can just as easily call upon the concept of “tough love.” You don’t condemn an addict for backsliding; but you also don’t enable the addiction.

And in dealing with trolls, there is at least one aspect of Pagan theology which gives us a great advantage over some other religious paths. Pagans do not feel there is any need for “salvation,” and we feel no requirement whatever to see to the “health” of other peoples’ souls. Some other religions discourage ministers from ejecting parishioners, believing that people who don’t follow their sect will go to Hell – or will be subject to some other impediment. They also feel that a person ejected is a soul lost, and kicking someone out marks a failure on the part of the minister. It is a very serious thing to be separated from such a church, and it may be nearly as serious for a minister to resort to these steps. Excommunication is really much less common than one might think.

Pagans, however, don’t have this handicap. There is no doctrinal reason to avoid getting rid of troublemakers. Pagans do not believe you have to belong to any particular sect or Coven in order to be “saved,” nor do we believe there is any particular advantage in associating with people who want to harm you. Ejecting someone from your Coven does not count against you in the Race to Save Souls, since we don’t run in that race. And being ejected from a Coven does not condemn a person to the Christian Hell. It merely gives them the opportunity to find a path elsewhere which is more suited to their own goals and temperament. This is a Good Thing.

Oathbound Aspects

In general, I’ve been dealing with general Pagan groups and Pagan topics, and not with topics specifically connected to Oathbound traditions. That’s because the problem of trolls is a general Pagan problem. Most of the features of trolls, most of the ways they cause damage, and most of the techniques for handling trolls, are common throughout Paganism. The concerns and patterns apply in nearly any Pagan environment, and that includes the Oathbound trads. There are some specific problems and opportunities, however, within tightly-knit and Oathbound Traditions. Here are a few thoughts on that.

One of the things which draws trolls to Oathbound groups in general is a trollish love of secrecy. The game of “I know something you don’t know!” is almost irresistible to a troll. It may well be that Oathbound trads get more than their fair share of trolls for this reason alone. Add to that the mystique which some of the big-name Oathbound trads seem to have among the general Pagan populous, and it’s probable that established Covens in these Traditions become targets of trolls more often than most any other Pagan path.

A fear in kicking someone out is that the person may no longer feel bound by Oath. Members of Oathbound traditions are very protective of their Secrets, and the idea that a former Covener might publish or otherwise spread sensitive material around is a very real fear. But in general, the tendencies of a troll are to hurt people, not institutions. Few trolls see any advantage to Oathbreaking, especially since revealing Oathbound material means they can’t play their secrecy games anymore. Besides, most traditions have ways of handling Oathbreakers; if yours does, don’t let the fear of someone saying too much prevent you from ridding yourself of a troll.

One advantage the larger and longer-lived Traditions have today is their stability, which allows them the luxury of being cautious. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Craft was hard to find, and seemed on the verge of dying out. No more; today, the number of Covens and active Elders is great enough that there need be very little fear of Witchcraft dying out any time soon.

These long-lived Trdaitions can begin to be a lot more picky about whom they train and how they train them, and they can take a lot more time in assessing someone’s suitability for their Path. If it’s made plain that someone has to wait years before they can even think about being a Coven Leader, a lot of trolls will get bored and move on – the power they crave won’t be handed to them for a long time. And if Coven Leaders move people along slowly and take the time to get to know them well, a troll will find it very difficult to keep his or her trollish features hidden.

On the downside, this very stability makes the established trads into attractive targets in another sense. Trolls are forces of chaos. They instinctively hate and fear anything which looks firm and stable, and they’ll examine such a structure closely for any possible weaknesses. A Tradition’s Elders who have been around for a while are particularly juicy tidbits, and a troll would consider it quite a coup to bring such people down. Remember, troll attacks are generally directed against people, not groups. The groups end up being hurt because Pagan and Craft Covens are usually built around the Coven Leaders. But the trolls set their sights on the Elders and Leaders, and their hatred of authority figures means that if someone has been active long enough to be respected, that’s exactly the sort of person a troll would want to hurt.

This means Craft Elders are people against whom trolls often direct their attention. This means it’s vital for Elders to learn how to handle trolls. Learn to recognize trolls for what they are; learn to respond to trollish activities with decisiveness and surety. Your confidence will shake the troll’s confidence. Trolls like impressive targets, but only ones which they think they can hurt. Throwing themselves against a brick wall makes them look silly, and that robs them of all their power. That’s a death knell for a troll; most of their strength comes from intimidation, and it’s hard for someone who looks silly to seem intimidating.

Large and established Traditions have another potential advantage. They tend to be close-knit and clannish, they gossip and talk amongst themselves. They have the potential to allow Elders to lend each other confidence and advice. When someone is being targeted by a troll, it’s an incredibly painful and draining experience, in ways which someone who hasn’t been targeted may find it difficult to understand. It would be very useful to form a Society of Survivors of Trolls (SSoT) to give aid and comfort to those in need. The support of one’s peers is the best source for the confidence which is needed to handle a troll.

Such a group could also help to inform others in the Tradition about the dangers of trolls, and the techniques for handling them. This sort of general education in the theory of trollhandling would be of enormous value. According to legend, sunlight turns trolls into harmless lumps of rock. Throwing light on trolls renders them powerless. Knowledge and forewarning is the light which robs trolls of their ability to cause damage.

A few years back, our Coven had the misfortune of having to deal with a troll, but without the benefit of knowing very much about them. As experience is by far the best teacher, the lessons we learned are etched deeply. From that perspective, it was a valuable thing to live through. Still, there were people who had dealt with this particular troll before, and it would have been nice to have had a strong warning. Another possible function of a SSoT would be to warn others about specific trolls.

There’s a danger here, though. Trolls become very skilled at manipulating the rules of any organization to their advantage. They are very good at causing factionalization and argument, very good at getting people to stop communicating with each other, and very, very good at making spurious accusations against their targets. Any group such as our theoretical SSoT might well itself fall prey to trollish attacks. Trolls would be only too happy to use such a group to savage one of that group’s own members. That is, a troll would eagerly join any SSoT and use it to start rumors about other people.

This is part of a more general problem of handling trolls in Pagan organizations larger than a single Coven – legal Pagan churches, umbrella organizations, festival committees, even trolls who go public on the Internet or in published books. I’ll explore some of those issues in the next installment.

Part 5: Trolls in Groups

This series explores how to deal with destructive people within your Coven or Pagan group. There is a class of people who are driven to tear down things which others have built, usually by making unfair and unreasonable attacks on those in leadership positions. I’ve called these people “trolls”, making use of the very powerful and very old European image of forces which are destructive and chaotic – yet easily outwitted, if you know a little about their habits.

Previous installments of this series have given hints and techniques for identifying trolls, warning signs to watch for and ways to recognize the sort of person who is going to thrive on causing you trouble. The basic technique in dealing with trolls is to simply get rid of them. Trolls who ask for membership in your Coven should be firmly turned away. A troll who stays disguised long enough to become a Coven member should be told to leave once unmasked. Handling trolls can be uncomplicated, if done early enough, because in a Coven, the Coven Leaders have the unquestioned authority to take action.

But trolls can find their way into larger Pagan organizations, where the authority is more diffuse, and where there are procedures and red tape. Trolls also delight in throwing hand grenades into conversations in a magazine’s letters-to-the-editor column, or on Internet newsgroups or e-mail lists, where it may be impossible to easily get rid of them. There is also the question of how to handle trolls on a Tradition-wide basis, or within the large and growing Pagan community as a whole; what’s to prevent a troll from simply going down the street and mucking up the Coven next door?

This installment will talk about dealing with trolls in Pagan organizations. The next one will have a discussion of online trolls and some suggestions for community networking. Even if you’re not a member of a large Pagan organization, some of the information here might be useful, for it describes principles which can be applied to other situations as well. Any data about how a troll is likely to act – or about how to effectively react to a troll – can wind up being valuable elsewhere.

An Organizational Procedure

The following bits of advice are based on real-life cases, examples taken from observing actual Pagan organizations trying to deal with trolls – and, usually, failing. Be warned; these things really do happen.

By far the most important and useful way to deal with trolls is to insure the organization’s members understand the issues and know what to look for. Have workshops and discussions on trollspotting and trollhandling. Perhaps run an annual refresher course on the subject. You want the organization’s members to recognize trolls and trollish scams. If and when a troll gets in and starts operating, you want the critter to be recognized. But, education, while necessary, is not enough. You also need ways to handle the things.

Before you join or start up any Pagan organization larger than a single Coven, be certain there’s a procedure for handling ethics violations. Sooner or later, a troll will target someone in your Pagan organization. You will need a way to deal with it. If you don’t have a procedure, you’re really asking for trouble. In one national organization, a troll managed to get elected to high office; as one of the troll’s first official actions, the organization’s rules for handling ethics complaints were repealed. The organization was utterly destroyed and dissolved within six months. You must have rules and procedures for ejecting people for defamation of character, for unethical activities inconsistent with the goals of the organization, and for violation of the organization’s rules. The organization must be willing to exercise those provisions, and to actually eject people who really need it.

Any system for handling complaints must include safeguards, because trolls are very good at manipulating rules. In addition to having procedures which allow you to kick a troll out, you also needs shields to prevent trolls for abusing those very procedures. Trolls have two common ways of manipulating the complaint process. The first way is to foul up the process when a complaint is filed against them. The second is to abuse the process by filing a complaint themselves, against someone they wish to target. Any process for dealing with complaints against an organization’s members has to take both of these possibilities into account.

In most cases, a complaint will be filed by someone who feels he or she has been harmed by the person named in the complaint. Emotions are bound to run high, and trolls will do their best to play on those emotions, regardless of which side of the matter they’re on. This is why any procedure must have strict rules, carefully followed, and enforced almost mechanically: strict procedures are harder to manipulate. So make sure your complaint process takes all this into account. Here is an example of a complaint process which should work pretty well; adapt it to your organization’s needs:

  1. Filing. A member of the organization may file a written ethics complaint against another member. The complaint must state what specific actions are being complained about, and must provide details (what exactly happened, where, when, who was present, and so on). The complaint must also include a brief explanation of why the particular action should be of concern to the organization.
  2. Preliminary hearing. The complaint is given a preliminary hearing by the organization’s governing board. The board needs to determine whether the complained-about action really does represent a violation of the organization’s ethics rules, and whether the accuser has provided or can provide reasonable evidence or testimony showing events to have actually occurred as described. If the complaint does not describe unethical actions, or if the accusations appear to be unsupportable, the complaint is dismissed. Otherwise:
  3. Presentation and response. A small panel (three or four people) is appointed to process the complaint. This panel is charged with delivering a copy of the complaint to the person accused, and then obtaining a written response from that person, within a firm and set time frame. Thirty days is a good maximum period to give the panel to do its work. During this time, other written testimony or documentation can also be provided to the panel by either party, subject to the Rules of Evidence (which are discussed below).
  4. Delivery. If the person accused refuses to submit a reply within the allotted time, the complaint is declared “proven by default”. Otherwise, at the end of that time, all of the written evidence is distributed to the organization’s governing board. The board is given a specified period – two weeks is probably sufficient – to read and become familiar with the evidence.
  5. Consideration and resolution. At the next regularly-scheduled meeting of the organization’s governing board, the complaint is considered in detail. Both sides may present witnesses and additional testimony, subject again to the Rules of Evidence. If the accused refuses to participate, the complaint is declared “proven by default”. Otherwise, the board takes a vote (according to whatever voting procedures the organization uses) to determine whether the complaint has been proven.

Rules of Evidence

Trolls love to distract complaint procedures by bringing in all kinds of irrelevant details or imagined slights from months – or years – before. Don’t let this happen. The panel processing the complaint should accept all written testimony presented to it, but should declare irrelevant anything which doesn’t directly apply to the matters dealt with in the complaint. Any testimony deemed irrelevant should afterwards be made available to the governing board, to insure nothing was withheld improperly. When oral testimony is presented to the governing board, there should be a chairperson who is empowered to rule evidence to be improper or inadmissible. There are five important areas to watch for:

  • Focus. Both written and oral testimony must pertain to the actual matters dealt with in the complaint. Don’t allow unrelated bitching to distract you from the matter at hand.
  • Verification. Hearsay and unnamed sources are disallowed. In general, limit a person’s testimony to things which that person actually saw or participated in. It’s okay for a witness to describe things he or she was told; but be sure to find out who did the telling, and verify it with the person named. Trolls love to invent tales like, “Well, someone told me Zelda did this and that; no, I can’t say who told me about it, because I promised to keep their name in confidence.” If a witness is unwilling to provide the source of testimony, then the testimony itself should be disallowed.
  • Specificity. Insist on examples and specifics. If a witness says, “Edgar was mean and hurtful,” demand specific examples of Edgar being mean and hurtful – if it’s relevant to the complaint. If not, ignore it. If there are no details to be had, such statements are meaningless and inadmissible.
  • Manipulation. Whether accusing someone else, or defending themselves, trolls appeal almost exclusively to emotion, and will do everything they can to get you angry at the other party. Disallow attempts at emotional manipulation. Concentrate on what really happened.
  • Attacks. When accused of wrongdoing, trolls will frequently respond with an counterassault upon their accusers, charging senseless malice or spite or jealousy. Trolls have even been known to use the existence of the complaint itself as evidence of malice against them! Don’t fall for this sort of ploy. Simple name-calling is also disallowed; trolls like to defend themselves by insisting the accusers are just being petty or “mean-spirited,” or characterizing the other party with violent and ugly labels. Pagan trolls love to invent charges of “One-True-Wayism”, and to compare others to Inquisitors. Ignore that nonsense.

All of these ploys are used to hide the fact that the person using them really has nothing tangible or reasonable to say. They are all simple manipulation. If either the accuser or the person accused insists on violating these rules repeatedly, it should weigh heavily against them in a determination of the believability of their position.

Commentary on Procedure

This commentary is numbered in parallel to the steps in the procedure above.

  1. Filing. Ethics complaints are always a bit problematic. They are often very subtle things; they seldom involve obvious or direct violation of an organization’s rules or procedures. Ethics can also be individual, and an act which one person considers to be unethical may be seen as reasonable by someone else. Things which one organization might consider unethical might not be seen as unethical by some other organization. In the heat of the moment, someone may feel wronged, but may really need just to calm down. There even are occasional misunderstandings which get blown out of proportion. On the other hand, genuine unethical acts should not be tolerated, particularly not by a spiritual or religious organization. All this is why a complaint must describe specific actions in detail, and why an explanation must be provided for why the organization should consider the complaint at all. The organization’s constitution and bylaws should list some general guidelines and examples of actions it will not tolerate, and it should also make plain that the guidelines and examples are not exhaustive.
  2. Preliminary hearing. The complaint must be about actions, not motivations. Trolls will accuse other people of doing something which is really pretty reasonable, but for ugly or sinister motives, and then they’ll expect others to be upset about those bad motives. But if an act is not unethical in and of itself, then it’s not unethical. And unless a person can prove infallible psychic powers, any intimation of someone else’s state of mind (i.e., motive) is irrelevant. As examples: One troll complained about being kicked out of a Coven, alleging all manner of petty or ugly motivations on the part of the Coven Leaders. Another troll bitterly complained about not having been given some of a tradition’s written material, and claimed this was done merely because the Coven Leaders disliked her. Yet Coven Leaders are, in fact, empowered (even required!) to make exactly these sorts of decisions. Ejecting someone from a Coven is not an ethics offense, and neither is handing out or refusing to distribute a Tradition’s private material. Trolls have viciously criticized other people for the way they said “good morning,” or for the kind of birthday parties they throw. If the act specified in a complaint is not, in itself, a violation of the organization’s ethics guidelines, then the complaint should be dismissed as being frivolous. Don’t try to crawl into anyone’s head to determine motive, and don’t let an alleged motive be the basis for an ethics violation.
  3. Presentation and response. Make sure there is more than one person involved in handling and processing ethics complaints. If this responsibility falls upon one person alone, that person will be targeted for a troll’s manipulative schemes. Picture this scenario: Zelda realizes Edgar has been spreading false rumors and otherwise engaging in generally destructive behavior. So Zelda files a complaint, and Fred is the person appointed to do the paperwork and such. Edgar immediately cozies up to Fred, and insists Zelda’s charges are founded merely on petty personal disagreements. In order to protect poor Edgar, Fred loses the paperwork and manages to stall the process in every way he can. Meanwhile, Edgar continues his behind-the-scenes attack on Zelda. More than one Pagan organization has been torn apart under circumstances like this. Once they’ve taken sides, people processing complaints have been known to edit, distort, withhold, or solicit evidence in order to prove or disprove the claims of one side or the other.Some of these dangers can be lessened by having a small group of people – three or four, beyond that it gets clumsy – who are jointly responsible for making sure the complaint process proceeds properly. They can each serve as reality checks for the others. The responsibilities of this small panel must be carefully defined and limited. They should have particular dates by which complaints and responses must be filed, and they must operate in the open with no hidden agendas or secret investigations. If given too free a hand, they will be too easily distracted from their duties. If the panel does not perform its duties properly and in a timely manner, there should be stiff consequences for the panel members, such as immediate and automatic revocation of organizational membership.
  4. Delivery. Someone accused of an ethics violation should not be allowed to stall the process merely by refusing to cooperate. Trolls are good at coming up with reasons why they can’t attend meetings, or don’t have time to respond. Don’t let this slow things down. Organizations have been known to grind to a halt under this kind of manipulation. Now, if a complaint is filed by a troll, the target may want to refuse, on principle, to grace it with a response; but if the processing panel keeps things calm and steady, there’s no need for such a drastic reaction. Of course, someone can choose to resign from the organization rather than respond to a complaint, in which case the matter would be dropped. But if a response is simply not forthcoming – even if excuses are made – the governing board should assume the worst, and unceremoniously revoke the membership of the person named in the complaint. (There may be exceptions to this, but they’d have to be pretty extreme – such as if the person is in a coma.)
  5. Consideration and resolution. Detailed consideration of the complaint should take place at a regularly-scheduled meeting. This makes it harder to manipulate the process by holding special sessions in which one party or the other is excluded. It eliminates excuses about either party not knowing when or where the meeting was going to take place, or not having sufficient warning. It avoids the atmosphere of panic and emergency which will always accompany special sessions and emergency meetings. You want the whole process to be carried out very matter-of-factly, which makes it harder for a troll to play on the emotions of the participants.

In determining whether the complaint has been proven, rely on the believability of the evidence and the credibility of the sources. Remember: you’re not going to be incarcerating anyone, or depriving anyone of life, limb, or property. At most, the organization will be able to restrict someone’s membership benefits, or curtail someone’s membership in the organization. This is not the end of the world, so don’t be afraid to exercise these options if the complaint seems to be reasonably proven.

Frequently, a complaint of this type will come down to the word of one person (or small group) against that of another. Ask yourself: whose story seems to hold together best? Who gains by lying? The stories trolls tell will frequently seem to be missing something, or to not quite make sense. Actions will be alleged all out of proportion to the supposed provocation. One dispute revolved around the claim of Person “A” that Person “B” had provided an Initiation of a specific type several years before. “B” denied having done so. “A” insisted “B” was just mad about an argument they’d had involving literary preferences. Who’s telling the truth here? It’s not clear why anyone would believe “A’s” story; “B” has nothing to lose either way, whereas “A’s” version is classic trollish misdirection into motive rather than action, and a classic trollish tale where the supposed motivation has no reasonable relationship to the alleged actions, or to the real issues.

Generally, an organization will want to have both more and less severe consequences depending on the nature and seriousness of the unethical actions, beginning with a restriction of privileges, up to and including revocation of membership. If a complaint is considered to have been proven, it may be desirable to have a second vote to determine the seriousness of the response. But trolls have been known to foul up this process as well, so be certain there is a minimum level of consequence in the case of a “guilty” verdict. Even if found guilty, a troll can sometimes walk away with no consequences whatever, merely by preventing a final vote. So the default action should be ejection from the organization; votes should provide lesser levels of sanction (but never should reduce the sanction to zero). That way, there is no incentive for a troll to interfere with or to postpone this vote.

Finally, after all is said and done, the governing board should examine any evidence which the processing panel had ruled to be irrelevant. If anything improper is found in the panel’s rulings, the board’s decision can be reconsidered. This holds true in general as well; if more information on the matter later becomes available, the decision can be rescinded. That’s the nice thing about not depriving anyone of life or limb; any errors made can actually be corrected. So don’t be afraid to proceed, and don’t hesitate to take the actions which seem to be necessary and appropriate.

Trollish Strategies

When a troll files an ethics complaint, it’s usually baseless, unsupported by evidence, irrelevant to the organization and its purposes, or centered around the imagined motives of the complaint’s target. That’s why the suggested procedure includes a way of considering the appropriateness of a complaint before the process itself gets started, so frivolous complaints can be dismissed (and, from then on, the person who filed such a complaint should be watched for further signs of trollhood). In considering any complaint, carefully distinguish between non-issues and genuine ethics violations. Trolls are very good at making other people’s most innocent actions or decisions seem scandalous and sinister. Examine behavior, not alleged motives. If an alleged act itself is not an ethics violation, then it’s not a valid complaint.

But in general, trolls are not really very likely to file ethics complaints, because if you demand evidence, it is usually difficult to prove someone committed an unethical act if they didn’t really commit one.

Trolls, however, do have imaginative ways of defending themselves from ethics charges made against them. The two most common methods are to countercharge simple malice on the part of the accuser, or to play with the rules for processing ethics complaints.

When a complaint is filed against a troll, the troll’s initial reaction will probably be to insist the complaint was filed just because the accuser is “mean.” In most cases, an ethics charge against a troll will be made by a person the troll has been targeting with rumors and innuendo, someone the troll has been attacking for several months already. Thus, the troll will have no shortage of examples of the accuser doing or saying things the troll objected to, even things the troll had to make up. Almost invariably, the troll will insist the complaint was made because of some silly personal disagreement, and will try to present the whole thing as a manifestation of the accuser’s malice and pettiness. Don’t be distracted by this detour into motivation. The real issue is the alleged unethical actions on the part of the person accused. Unethical acts are still unethical, even if the accuser is supposed to be making an accusation for the wrong reasons.

Be sure to stick to the timetables and procedures which are established for dealing with complaints. Carefully-constructed procedures and an atmosphere of impartiality will go a long way toward protecting everyone. Don’t allow a troll to call special sessions, postpone meetings, instigate investigations into the motives of the other party, or interfere with other business of the organization while the complaint is being processed. In one case, a troll responded to a complaint by making a violent series of threats and demands, and submitting voluminous innuendoes and slanders against the accuser. Such violent and angry reactions and attempts to derail the process should set off alarm bells indicating the presence of a particularly nasty troll; the processing panel should insist all the more on following the established procedures.

(This is one sort of case, by the way, in which testimony which is irrelevant to the complaint itself should actually be considered – though not in the way the troll intends. Threats, demands, slander, and name-calling should be taken as evidence of further unethical actions on the part of the person making them. After all, such things are usually considered unethical, no? Indeed, a reaction like this is itself a rather blatant ethics violation, and it provides its own ironclad proof. Anyone so abusing the testimony process should immediately be ejected from the organization without appeal.)

Sometimes, a well-meaning person will insist it’d be too cruel to eject someone. Shouldn’t we just forgive and forget? Shouldn’t we move past this petty bickering and get on to What We’re Really Here For? Indeed we should; but we needn’t allow trolls to damage us while we do it. The whole point is to treat everyone in ways appropriate to who and what they are. Though it may be cruel to refuse to tolerate the presence of a rabid mongoose in your house – particularly in the middle of winter – letting it stay would be even more damaging to yourself and to your loved ones. The Rede’s injunction to “Harm None” includes you. If you allow a troll to remain within your organization, unchecked, you’ll have to devote increasing amounts of time to cleaning up after the darn thing, which will most certainly interfere with What We’re Really Here For.

Part 6: Networks and Networks

There is a class of people who are driven to tear down Covens and Pagan groups. Their usual approach is to make unfair and unreasonable attacks on those in leadership positions. I’ve called these people “trolls”, making use of the very powerful and very old European image of forces which are destructive and chaotic – yet easily outwitted, if you know a little about their habits.

Previous installments of this series have given hints and techniques for identifying trolls, warning signs to watch for and ways to recognize the sort of person who is going to thrive on causing you trouble. As a brief reminder: Trolls can’t help being trolls. They don’t want to be destructive, exactly. They just can’t help it. Like a hurricane or a plague, it’s simply part of their nature. You won’t change them, and you can’t stop them. The best thing to do is to get out of the way. The best way to handle trolls is to recognize them, and to not associate with them; don’t let them into your Coven, and if one manages to get in, kick the critter out as soon as you realize what you’re dealing with.

This installment provides some hints on dealing with trolls in a variety of other contexts – online, in letter exchanges in a magazine, or in networking situations in a larger community: how do you handle a troll who isn’t in your Coven? But first, it’s important to recall why trolls need to be treated pretty strictly. The way you treat a troll would seem cruel if it were any other kind of person. But it’s important to treat all things in Nature according to what they really are. That is the essence a Nature religion.

Are Trolls Really All That Dangerous?

Trolls often tend to have a very different view of reality from those around them. Pagans in general often work with the concept of personalized realities, and with the validity of one’s own perceptions, even if those perceptions differ from so-called “objective” or ” consensual” reality. What makes a troll a troll is not merely a difference in reality-perception. What makes a troll is if that difference leads to a dark and dangerous world in which the person constantly feels threatened and endangered. This is neither Good nor Bad (Witchcraft has no theological concept of a struggle of Good vs. Evil). It simply is, and others who have to deal with such people need to be aware of it.

A troll lives in a personal reality which is dangerous and threatening. The technical term for this is “psychosis”. Trolls are psychotic. They can be very convincing liars, because they really believe the dark fantasies they tell. This kind of fearful psychosis leads to a deep-seated paranoia, a conviction that The World Is Out To Get Them. The funny thing about paranoia is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy; there is some truth to it. People really don’t like someone who’s paranoid. A paranoiac acts in ways which other people find offensive. Paranoiacs frequently lash out at those around them, in an effort to Get Them before They Get Me. So yes, paranoiacs often find themselves being disliked and isolated, or find others responding negatively to the damage they cause. After a while, there really are lots of people out to get them. Trolls feel disliked because they often are.

A combination of paranoia and psychosis frequently leads people into an anything-goes attitude in order to defend themselves. The desired end – being defended – justifies any conceivable means, regardless of the safety of others, or of any social conventions. The technical term for a person like that – one for whom the rules of society are irrelevant – is a “sociopath”. These traits – paranoia, psychosis, and sociopathy – make for someone very dangerous to be around, or even to engage in conversation.

Humans are social creatures. We all need contact with other humans. Not even a troll can live happily out on a lonely island somewhere. Since they have been isolated and disliked in the past, trolls are driven to pursue further human contact. But because of their paranoia, the only forms of contact which trolls are really comfortable with are various forms of deception, double-dealing, and conflict. Trolls need conflict the way the average person needs food or affection. With a healthy human, a good dose of personal acknowledgement and validation is necessary now and again – “Am I okay?” “Yes, you’re okay, you’re a good person, and I like you.” For a troll, this acknowledgement and validation comes through conflict: “Am I powerful, and do I have an influence on the world around me?” “Yes indeed, for you have hurt me terribly.”

These are all problems which your average Witch is not equipped to handle in someone else, and shouldn’t try to. You won’t change a troll. You won’t turn one around. You won’t argue one out of his or her paranoia or psychosis. You won’t force one to conform to social restrictions or to rules of reasonable behavior. Being friendly and loving and helpful just makes you an easy mark. You will be lied to, and your own honesty and openness will provide the troll with information about you, information which will later be twisted and turned against you. The troll will use you to gain access and introductions to other people. These people will be the ones to whom the troll will tell ugly fantasies about you, and will also be the troll’s next victims after you’ve been used up.

Trolls are dangerous. They are not creatures you want to have running around your house. Not because they’re “evil”, but just because of their internal drives, drives which neither you nor they have control over. Don’t try. It’s like inviting a family of sharks for dinner. Guess who is the dessert.

Trolls pick individuals as targets. Writer Kenneth Haugk calls such people “antagonists,” and defines their role like this:

“Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of nonsubstansive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.”

Trolls attack particular people who they see as community leaders. They become very good and very practiced at it. Their attacks can be devastating.

But unfortunately, trolls don’t wear name-tags: “Hi! I’m Xelda, and I’m a troll!” Nor can they be recognized by distinguishing marks – hairy elbows or tusks or something like that. In fact, trolls are very, very good at disguise. They have to be, for self-preservation. If they were instantly and easily recognized, people would stay away from them, and they’d starve. Trolls can be amazingly likeable – when you first meet them. They can even keep this up for quite some time. What do you do?

A previous installment of this series gave a list of trollish traits and warning signs. But even to use those, it requires a fairly long period of observation. You don’t want to make a false diagnosis, in either direction. You don’t want to treat someone like a troll if they’re not one, and you don’t want to be open and trusting and helpful to someone who’ll rip your guts out at first opportunity. Nor do you want to spend your life viewing everyone with suspicion, and looking for signs of trollhood behind every friendly smile. Is there a shortcut to recognizing trolls?

Yes there is, but it’s seldom used to its potential.


Trolls tend to wander from place to place, looking for new food. One of the signs of a troll in a Pagan context is the person who can’t seem to stay with a single Coven or other group for more than a year or so, maybe only a few months. Of course, this could be just someone who hasn’t found the right group to work with yet, so all by itself, moving around may not be a sure sign. But if the person has always – or almost always – left on bad terms, if there’s a wake of damage and pain left behind – well, then there’s little doubt.

In most Pagan communities – particularly within the most tight-knit Traditions – people talk to each other. It is possible to check with previous groups, and find out what kind of impression a person has given. Listen to what you’re told. Don’t take it non-critically, but do pay attention. If HP or HPS “Abc” has more experience with Xelda than you do, maybe they know what they’re talking about.

Form networks of people whose opinion you respect, whose judgment you trust, people whom you know to be level-headed and of reasonable intelligence. Discuss these issues, and discuss some of the experiences you’ve had in the past. Listen to their recommendations, and carefully consider any warnings they give. You might be tempted to think, “Well, even if Edna and Marvin had trouble with Xelda, I think I can do better.” That’s a mistake. Unless the troll has changed, you won’t do better. Trolls are not healthy; they don’t want to get healthy, and you can’t make them healthy. The warnings passed along a reliable network really should be heeded.

But – as said, you don’t want to make a false diagnosis. That’s why it’s so important for a network to be reliable. It’s one thing to ignore unconfirmed rumor and vague noises – after all, the person who started the rumors might actually be a troll! But it’s quite another thing to shrug off the warnings of people whose judgment and experience you trust, particularly people who have had direct contact with the person in question. And particularly if you can get confirmation from others.

But what if a troll has changed? Suppose the past four Covens all had bad experiences with Xelda, but she presents herself as being a Changed Person who has Done a Lot of Growth. Do you trust this self-assessment of positive change?

This is an easy one. Take a lesson from addiction recovery programs. If Xelda really has changed, that means she’s recognized the damage she has caused in the past, and she’s done all she could to repair past hurts. It’s up to her to contact those previous four Covens, and then to apologize – with no excuses or shifting of responsibility onto others. And then it’s up to her to work – hard – to make amends. If Xelda isn’t willing to take these steps, then she hasn’t changed. In fact, if she hasn’t already taken these steps, before she even comes to you, then she hasn’t changed. If Xelda has changed, then you would no longer be hearing warnings from past victims. You’d be hearing amazed tales of real transformation. If you’re still hearing warnings, then Xelda hasn’t grown much.

Should you warn others about the trolls you’ve dealt with? From my experience, people don’t generally listen to warnings. Sometimes they do, but not very often. Witches take pride in being independent and capable, autonomous and resourceful, anxious to make their own judgments. So, don’t go out of your way to publicize your experiences with particular trolls. It’ll just make you look mean and ill-tempered.

There are also dangers in networking. It’s possible for a person to be unfairly blackballed. But the possibility of that is drastically lessened if the people in the network are all seasoned to the issues involved. Get together whenever you can, work together closely and often. Unfair blackballing is done by people with a personal axe to grind, people who have a pattern of being unreasonable in other ways, too. The better you get to know someone – or a group of someones – the more you’ll know how far to trust their judgment.

It’s also possible for a network of Old Friends to be set up – Old Boys or Old Girls, or just Old Witches – with the purpose of creating in-groups and out-groups. This is why it’s necessary to network with people you know and trust. If you find yourself within a network where political games and one-ups-manship are the rule, get out of it, and begin assembling your own network. If there is a network of reasonable people, then someone who’s in it for power games will be found out after a while – and will be, appropriately, treated themselves as a species of troll.

Keep in close and frequent contact with the people in your network. Get to know them as well as you can. Start relying on them for support. Provide support to them. If any of them are targeted by a troll, they’ll need reassurance and strength. The experience is incredibly draining. Be there for them. What they need, more than anything else, is grounding and a shoulder to cry on.

A network is a good idea anyway. How often have you heard about forming a strong “Pagan community”? Here’s your chance to begin that process, and it’s a very good justification for getting it started.

Trolls Online

here is a subspecies of troll which delights in causing trouble in online conversations, such as on the Internet, or in letters-to-the-editor arguments in magazines. They can disrupt conversations for months at a time, and cause otherwise reasonable discussions to degenerate into petty squabbles. The following thoughts about such trolls are based on years of observation and experience, and on quite a lot of experimentation to find what works and what doesn’t. (Experimentation is relatively easy to do, and you can do it yourself, if you want. Find an internet discussion group and wait for a troll to surface – don’t worry, it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait long, as they seem particularly common online. Once you see a troll go after someone, get involved, and try different ways of responding. Be aware, though, that trolls have a knack for making you feel belittled. If you’re going to do this sort of experimenting, expect to get flamed pretty fiercely while you’re doing it. If you’ve got a thin skin or high blood pressure, you might want to avoid this pastime.)

The Internet is a unique medium, which seems to collect a really incredible number of trolls. Probably, this is because it is really easy to lie about yourself online. You can pretend to be anything or anybody you want, and it is very difficult for anyone to really check. Trolls who have been found out in their real-world life will find cyberspace a very compelling place to be. Besides, on the Internet, you have a potential audience of thousands – maybe even millions – of people. However satisfying it may be to muck up a Coven, it is infinitely more exhilarating to humiliate someone before potential millions of onlookers.

Sometimes, a troll may be difficult to spot at first. Because it is easy to lie about yourself online, trolls will use this feature to present themselves as reasonable and charming. And trolls can be amazingly charming when the need exists. They’ll engage their targets in conversation, gathering data which they can twist into attacks later. But once they’re ready, they can be vicious. And they are very tenacious.

A troll will misinterpret and mis-state almost everything the target says. In the midst of a conversation, in which the troll is fiercely attacking someone, if reasonable questions are asked of the troll, or if good and effective responses are given to a troll’s arguments, the troll will either take offense, or will ignore these things completely. And, in any case, will go on attacking his or her target in really nasty and belittling ways. Point out an inconsistency in a troll’s statements, and ask for clarification; the troll will simply not respond at all, or will find something else to criticize in you. If you take offense at the troll’s misstatements and name-calling, the troll will suddenly switch gears, complain about how nasty and mean you are, and do everything possible to present him- or herself as an innocent victim. Trolls love to claim victimhood.

Trolls will sometimes pick on irrelevant details of someone else’s writing, and might criticize misspellings, improper grammar, a misused word – anything other than the actual topic, and any ruse to avoid actual points the other person might have made. Trolls will accuse others of being unreasonable, mean-spirited, intolerant – simple name-calling designed to belittle others and to distract the conversation away from their targets’ valid arguments. Pagan trolls love to make accusations of One-True-Wayism. That’s probably the most sure sign there is of an online troll.

So, how do you handle this? The goal of an online troll is to make you feel attacked and insulted. If you attack back, that’s all to the good, as far as the troll is concerned. The troll wants to be the center of attention, and wants to cause damage while that’s happening. Remember: trolls need conflict the way healthy people need food. Being attacked back tells the troll that the current strategy is working. Being the object of any kind of attention – even anger and negative attention – makes the troll feel validated and acknowledged. It’s far better than being ignored. And if the troll can actually cause pain, that makes him or her feel powerful and successful.

How do you respond to this kind of attack? First and most importantly – realize that the troll really has no power to harm you. Troll attacks come out of the troll’s feelings of helplessness and fear. What the troll wants is to inspire that helplessness and fear in you. But whether you let yourself feel those things is up to you, and is not in the power of the troll.

It is really, really difficult to respond in any uniformly reasonable way. The hints and advice below are good general principles, but you won’t be able to follow them all the time. Don’t expect perfection from yourself. Remember that you’re only human. Sometimes, you’re going to respond in anger or frustration. Sometimes, the troll’s jabs and mis-statements are going to be so outrageous that you’ll feel compelled to respond. Do so when you need to. Then do your best to get yourself centered again. (One technique which helps is to write a response, then wait a day before sending it to make sure it really is something you want to say. But few people have the self-control to do that consistently. I sure don’t!)

When being attacked in public, it’s easy to get defensive, and to worry about what other people will think. It’s easy to respond with anger. But remember that what seems unreasonable and nonsensical to you will seem equally unreasonable and nonsensical to most other healthy people. The troll’s irrational attacks – comparing a fellow Witch to an Inquisitor is a favorite one – will seem irrational and overblown to most everyone else, too. You needn’t defend yourself against silliness like that. In fact, getting upset about such obvious irrationality will just make you look irrational yourself. Ignore the insults. If you care about what other people think, be aware that by rising above that kind of name-calling, you will look far more respectable and level-headed. It also makes the troll look silly, and that robs the troll of most of his or her power.

When a troll twists and mis-states things you’ve said – or misrepresents a position you hold and dearly believe in – should you respond? You have a decision to make there, depending on the nature of the forum. If you’re in a place where most everyone is pretty experienced and knowledgeable, the best way to handle a troll is to ignore the nonsense completely. State your position clearly, and ignore the troll’s mischaracterizations of it. The unfairness of the troll’s twisted misstatements will be obvious to everyone, and will require no response. You really don’t want to get drawn into a back-and-forth argument with a troll, who will do everything possible to undermine your self-confidence and self-respect. If a troll’s misrepresentations do make a more rational person wonder about whatever the topic is, that person will provide a more rational question or discussion point. Respond to that instead of to the troll.

The situation may be different if you’re in a forum with less experienced people also, people who might not be aware of all the issues and ramifications of whatever subject you’re discussing, and who might, therefore, be misled by the troll’s misrepresentations. In such a situation, you can respond – but keep your response calm and reasonable. Respond to the troll’s actual debating points, not to the name-calling and the digs which are intended to provoke you. The more reasonable you sound, the less reasonable the troll will sound – and the less reasonable the troll’s arguments will sound.

The troll wants you to get angry, and wants you to feel hurt and defensive. Deny that to the troll, and eventually, the troll will go away and find more promising targets. Remain polite, and ask polite questions, politely point out the troll’s inconsistencies. The troll’s inability to answer reasonable questions won’t be lost on many thinking people, nor will the troll’s tendency to answer politeness with insults, reason with hyperbole, calmness with violent misrepresentation. The troll will begin to look incredibly silly, without any help from you.

The difficulty with this approach is that trolls – especially online trolls – tend to collect followers and secondary trolls, the way sharks travel with remoras. When a troll is starting to look silly by contrast with someone reasonable, the remoras will jump in, and start complaining about how awful and mean the troll’s target really is. You can tell the difference between these remoras and people who are genuinely defending someone who is being unfairly attacked. Remoras are nasty about it. Honest defenders of honest people tend to be strong in their defense, but usually don’t resort to name-calling of their own. When the remoras show up, it’s a good time to back off; you’ve won the day, because the attacks of the troll’s minions let you know just how absurd and helpless the troll is beginning to look to everyone (otherwise, the remoras wouldn’t be jumping to the troll’s defense). Push the point much further, and you actually will begin to seem mean. Besides, anyone still following the conversation runs the risk of getting bored by the flaming.

And above all, maintain your sense of humor. A troll, after all, is only a troll. If you don’t take the troll’s insults seriously, few other people will, either.

Part 7: Keeping Trolls at a Distance…
or Remote Con-Troll

In this series, I’ve described some of the dangers trolls represent, some ways of recognizing them, some descriptions of what works and what doesn’t in trying to handle them. Here are some closing thoughts – a summary of how to deal with trolls, and some descriptions of what you can expect from them after they’re gone.

Basic Troll Handling: A Summary

The theory of trollhandling is really very simple:

Learn how to recognize trolls. Once you are convinced that a person is, in fact, a troll, the actions you should take are straightforward.

  • If you recognize trolls before they join your Coven, don’t let them in.
  • If they fool you for a while and get in anyway, once you realize what you’re dealing with, kick them out.

If someone seems to be exhibiting troll-like behavior: Go over in your mind the trolls you might have met, your interactions with them, and the kinds of trollish behaviors they displayed. Review the earlier chapters on how to spot trolls. If you become convinced that a potential Coven member is a troll, tell that person, “Our Coven is not really a good fit for you. Paganism is a big place. I’m sure you’ll find a group more to your liking elsewhere.” For a current Coven member, use this same speech, and end it with, “Just to be clear: you are no longer a member of this Coven.”

Be firm and uncomplicated. There is no need to be sarcastic or cruel. The troll will probably accuse you of being cruel anyway, but you know the difference between firmness and cruelty, so don’t let yourself become hesitant. Being firm, straightforward, and to the point tells the troll you are not afraid, and you have no question about this being the right decision. Trolls, like guard dogs, can smell fear and uncertainty a mile away, and will try to use your own fears and uncertainties to intimidate you. But there is no need for hesitation at this point. You know what to do, you know it’s necessary, and you are fully capable of doing it.

Do not bend over backwards to be understanding or gentle. Don’t couch your words in polite euphemisms. Don’t be subtle – trolls will ignore or misinterpret subtlety when it suits them.

The troll will ask for justification or explanation. Don’t get into a recitation of reasons. You’ll be given excuses and misdirections, tales of misfortune or misunderstandings, victimizations and “subjective realities”. Instead, just repeat: “Our Coven is not a good fit for you. I’m sure you’ll find a group more to your liking elsewhere. You are no longer a member of this Coven,” or, “… You are not going to become a member of this Coven.”

After that, insist the troll stay away. Don’t try to “settle your differences” with the troll. Don’t try to make him or her like you. Don’t even try to explain your decision to the troll. In general, from that point on, treat expelled trolls as if they don’t exist.

Trying to have any sort of relationship with expelled trolls – or even allowing them to have further contact with you or with your Coveners – will be seen as vulnerability. Trolls will interpret such actions as invitations to try again, opportunities to resume or continue their manipulative and destructive behavior.

On the other hand, firmly cutting off contact tells a troll that you don’t play trollish games, and won’t be sucked into one. It sends the message that you can’t be manipulated, and can’t be frightened into engaging in defensive behavior.

Don’t bother to answer letters from an expelled troll, or to return phone calls. It will serve no purpose. But if a troll calls you and catches you at home, don’t just hang up, for this will be interpreted as fear, and will invite accusations of rudeness or something worse. It’s far better to be confidant and firm – and unhurried.

Learn a few simple phrases, and practice repeating them like a broken record, firmly but calmly: “Our association has ended. We really have nothing to discuss.” If the troll asks whether he or she can call you back at a better time, answer, “Our association has ended. We really have nothing to discuss.” If you’re asked why you’re being so hard and cruel, answer, “Our association has ended. We really have nothing to discuss.” If you’re asked some other question – How are you these days?, or Did you see the latest Kevin Costner movie? – answer, “Our association has ended. We really have nothing to discuss.” Then say, “I’m very busy right now, so I’m going to hang up. Good-bye.” And then hang up. You don’t need to wait for the troll to say goodbye. Chances are he or she won’t.

The word “association” is much better than “relationship.” Don’t say, “Our relationship is over.” You don’t want to give the troll an opportunity to play upon any implied intimacy of a past “relationship.” An “association” is a much more vague concept, more impersonal, less intimate. Describing your past connection as an “association” is likely to make the troll pause at least a bit.

Online Afterwards

Do not respond to emails from a troll. Most importantly, do not allow an expelled troll to engage you in online conversation in email lists or newsgroups. A troll who has attacked you in real life is even more likely to do so online, before a potential audience of millions. It is likely that some public posts addressed to you from a troll may be polite and even interesting, or curious about some point. You may be tempted to imagine that the troll has changed, and can be trusted to engage in civil behavior in public. Don’t be fooled. The troll will use a couple of polite emails to draw you into saying something which the troll can twist into an attack. Trolls are incredibly tenacious. They will come after you again if you leave an opening, and the medium of the internet is much too attractive a place for them to pass up.

If an expelled troll addresses a post to you on a public email list, you really have no good option. The best response is probably to simply ignore it. Pretend the post was not there at all. Conversations on email lists generally move past quickly enough that any specific post will rapidly be forgotten. It the troll insists on repeatedly attempting to engage you, continue to ignore it. Any public response at all will play into the troll’s hand.

If someone asks you why you’re ignoring these particular posts, you can respond in private email, with something like, “I prefer not to respond to contacts from an expelled member of my Coven.” It is a very unusual list in which the participants understand the dangers and techniques of trolls, so, in most cases, any public statement of why you’re declining to answer will usually be seen by others as an attack by you upon the poor troll, and the troll will have no trouble portraying you as being mean and vindictive. Until there is a general acceptance and recognition of the existence, techniques, and attitudes of trolls, you can’t reliably or effectively explain what’s really going on. Depending on the nature and usual tone of that particular list, you can try a short and simple public response. A fairly gentle reply might be, “We have private issues between us, and I want to insure they don’t come up here.” You can try much stronger responses also, but be aware that the stronger your response is, the more heat it will generate, so you have to really know your audience well, and hope they know you. In any case, keep the reply to one or two very short sentences, and end with, “That’s all I care to say about it in public.”

Trolls will go online and say or imply nasty and false things about you and about their experiences in your Coven. Do your best to ignore that as well. The people who know you will know those things are false. Being drawn into an online argument about it will make you seem defensive and worried and weak, and will invite further attacks.

Expelled trolls will use the precious things you taught them to become liked and respected by people as far as electrons can reach. Trolls will portray themselves as charming, sincere, knowledgeable, helpful, and all-around wonderful people. They tend to gather good-sized followings of people online who will think the world of them – most of whom will never meet them face-to-face. It is galling in the extreme to see trolls blithely chatting away on the internet, gaining friends and using their incredibly effective trollish charms to earn accolades and praise for themselves, when you know what they’re really like. There’s really very little you can do about that. This may be one of the hardest things to deal with in the aftermath of a troll’s attacks. View the troll as a plague which passed through your Coven, and which may, sadly, affect others later, an impersonal force which you can’t stem and for which there is no good form of protection or inoculation. View it all as potential learning opportunities for the people who are taken in by the troll’s charms.


At some later date, an expelled troll may call you to ask for help. The kinds of help requested could be anything, from the most mundane to the most occult. The troll could need money, or could be convinced he or she is under psychic attack, or could be in the throes of another conflict with someone else. In any case, you really don’t need to know about it, and you really don’t want to get involved again. Helping the troll out of some tight jam is not your responsibility. It won’t generate any feelings of gratitude or obligation on the part of the troll. It won’t convince the troll that you’re not really such a bad person. All it’ll do is get you tangled up again, and make you once more vulnerable to the troll’s manipulative behavior.

The troll may try to guilt you into becoming involved. “I know we’ve had problems in the past. But I really need help now. Couldn’t we put aside those petty differences?” Or, “It’s been (months, years, whatever). Can’t you get past what happened so long ago? Or, “You know, holding on to your anger really isn’t healthy. Can’t we grow beyond all that?”

People can change, you might think. It has been a while. But unless you already have very, very strong evidence to the contrary, bear in mind that trolls generally do not change, not without a really radical cause and intensive therapy, which you probably would have heard about. Your proper answer, to all the troll’s questions, is, “My energies are now going where I need to have them go. Our association has ended. I’m sure you can find what you need elsewhere.”

“But no,” the troll might answer. “You are the only one I can turn to,” followed by a hint at your particular skills, accomplishments, attributes, knowledge, whatever the troll thinks would make you feel flattered and respected.

You answer, “My energies are now going where I need to have them go. I’m sure you can find what you need elsewhere.” Then, “I’m very busy right now, so I’m going to hang up. Good-bye.”

Most people are reluctant to act in such a cold and harsh manner. But politeness and concern are wasted on a troll. Such things will be used against you, to prolong a conversation, in the hopes of manipulating you again. Remember, all things in Nature must be treated according to their innate properties. You do not submerge a canary under water any more than you would try to balance a goldfish on a perch. Providing concern and politeness to a troll is no more appropriate than keeping a goldfish in a birdcage.

In the same way, you’d normally not invite a raccoon into your home, no matter how cute its eyes are. Raccoons have very strong teeth and very short tempers, are completely untamable, and will feel no gratitude for your hospitality. Raccoons are not that different from trolls.

Outliving a Troll

Someone once said, “The best revenge is a life well lived.” The worst thing you can do to a troll is to live a long and healthy, happy life, unaffected by the troll’s best efforts. They hate that.

But of course, you can’t be entirely unaffected. Every experience you have in your life helps to shape you, to shape your consciousness and your ways of reacting to the world. You can’t really prevent a troll’s vicious and irrational attacks from affecting you in one way or another. What you can do, though, is to choose what you do with the experience.

Nietzsche once said, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger,” and there’s some truth to that. Even uncomfortable lessons are lessons nonetheless, and some of the most uncomfortable are the most valuable. Many Traditions in the Craft include symbols of this Great Truth. As Witches, we are asked if we’re willing to suffer to learn.

Nature isn’t always kind. Ask any doe caught in a forest fire. Nature can’t always be controlled. Ask a farmer wiped out by a draught. Some difficult truths can’t be changed. Ask anyone who’s lost a beloved partner.

So, what is a good way to react to trolls? Use them to help build community, and to help build networks of people you can trust. Use them to strengthen Pagan organizations, making them more flexible and more able to face challenges. Use them to help cultivate in yourself more of a sense of serenity and acceptance of the world as it is. When faced with a troll, call your friends and loved ones, accept their help and support. Call on your Gods, and let yourself be enfolded in Their warmth. When a friend is being targeted by a troll, offer your ear and your love.

In a way, trolls serve a valuable purpose (The Books of Raoul say, “Every ecosystem needs maggots”). They’re a reminder that, even as Witches, there are some things we can’t change, some aspects of the World we can’t control, some facets of life which are going to be painful, some pains which must simply be borne. Trolls are an opportunity to learn and to grow despite obstacles – no, because of obstacles. They’re an opportunity to accept the existence of destructive, as well as creative, aspects of the Gods. They’re a reminder to lean on your friends and loved ones, and to rely on the peace and strength which the Gods provide. So there is a sense in which the existence of trolls is beneficial.

But that doesn’t mean you have to actually talk to them.

Much more could be said about various techniques of trollhandling and trollspotting. Other Coven Leaders may have come up with their own surefire methods of recognizing trolls, or of ridding themselves of the critters, or avoiding them in the first place. This is another possible benefit from networking: the chance to draw on the experience of others. Start conversations on the topic. Next time you find yourself dealing with a troll, you’ll be glad you did.

Copyright (c) 2002 David Petterson
May be recirculated as long as this information is included