Doing What the Book Says: A Cautionary Tale
Author: Bronwen Forbes
I was young, I was a shiny new Pagan, the Internet – which made contacting my fellow religionists as easy as calling my mom – was about ten years away from being invented, and by gosh I was going to perform this solitary sabbat exactly as The Book told me to! (And no, I’m not going to tell you which “The Book” it was. It would only embarrass me further and wouldn’t do the now-deceased author’s reputation any good. Okay, okay I’ll give you a hint somewhere below) : By the time I’d finished my ritual, I’d nearly burned the house down – a house that included my dog, four cats, and my born again Christian (now ex) husband.
But I learned a valuable lesson that night, a lesson that I see more and more new Pagans ignoring these days:
Books (and now the Internet) are no substitute for practical, hands-on experience with a group of like-minded people. But allow me to continue my illustration:
The Book said I needed a cauldron for this ritual, so I found a really cute brass one at Pier One – it even had soldered-on brass feet which I thought was particularly important – it’d be up off the hideous pumpkin orange shag carpet in my den because Gods forbid I scorch the hideous pumpkin orange shag carpet. The Book said to pour about an inch and a half of rubbing alcohol into the cauldron. And light it.
And, Gods help me and my now ex-husband who was sleeping – oblivious to the ritual and the fire – in the next room and the dog and the cats, I lit it.
The Book didn’t say (or maybe I missed that part) that this ritual had been designed to be performed outside. Outside where, theoretically, a six-foot column of flame shooting out of a brass cauldron wouldn’t be quite so much of an issue. Naturally, The Book didn’t say anything about having a pot lid or sand nearby to smother the flames, so I had no way to douse the tall bonfire that was pretty much the same shade as the hideous pumpkin orange shag carpet.
The Book also didn’t say that the cauldron would, ideally, be cast iron, and not soldered brass bits. Any intelligent, experienced ritualist could have told me that, but I didn’t know any other ritualists yet – intelligent or otherwise – so I was on my own. And it finally dawned on me that I was in big trouble when the solder attaching one of the cauldron legs melted from the heat, causing the pot to tip sideways.
I now had about four feet of flame at about a forty to forty-five degree angle from the floor. I’m just damn lucky it didn’t tip so far that the alcohol poured out onto the aforementioned lovely orange shag carpet. As it was, some of the individual threads were a little black and crunchy if you examined them too closely.
Eventually, the inch and a half of rubbing alcohol burned itself out. Subdued, I finished the rest of the ritual as quickly as possible, put my things away, and crawled into bed beside my still-sleeping spouse. All that was left to deal with was the interesting conversation the next day.
Him: How did that black stuff get on the ceiling in the den? It looks like soot.
Me: I have no idea, dear.
Him: And the carpet looks like it’s singed or something.
Me: Really? I hadn’t noticed.
Funny? Yes. Stupid and potentially lethal? You betcha. However, the incident made me understand the contemporary wisdom of the old phrase, “You cannot be a witch alone” and I started circling and studying with the nearest group before the next sabbat. (Nice to know I’m not as dumb as I look!)
I am not saying that being a solitary practitioner is a bad thing. Far from it, whether you choose to be so for personal or geographical reasons. I am saying, don’t leave your common sense in the back pocket of your other pants whenever you open a book of Pagan rituals or click on a Pagan how-to website. It’s not common sense to wear a short, sleeveless tunic at an outdoor ritual in January. In Wisconsin. It’s not common sense to fast if you have any sort of blood sugar issue. And it’s sure not common sense to try to set your den on fire just because The Book said to do something a certain way. If I’d been thinking, instead of slavishly following, I’d have had one heck of a less exciting evening – to my benefit. And yes, these are all examples of bad advice I’ve seen in books and online.
If some faceless Pagan authority (me included) writes that you should do something and your gut tells you it’s a bad idea, listen to your gut. Better yet, go find someone who’s actually been in ritual with other people and ask them – and their friends. If, through Witchvox, you can’t find someone in your neighborhood, well, it’s better to go online and ask around rather than suffer frostbite – or burn your house down. Better yet, see if you can spend a few holidays in ritual with them, ask questions, learn how rituals are — and are not — supposed to go.
I’m on a lot of online Pagan forums, and I can’t even begin to count how many posts go something like, “I tried this ritual with my friends last night and now I feel sick and I have the worst headache. What did I do wrong?” Well, did you ground and center beforehand? “No, the ritual didn’t say to.” Did you check to see if you might be allergic to whatever you burned as incense? “Um, no.” Did you eat anything beforehand? “Um, no.” Five minutes asking about these sorts of basics beforehand, either online or at a local Pagan meet up would stop most, if not all, of these sad posts.
I’m also a print journalism major, and my professors are always cautioning me that if something, no matter how preposterous, is written down, people will believe it. This includes you. So we future newspaper reporters need to be extra careful about making sure our stories are as accurate as possible. How do we do that? We confirm through other sources anything we’re told as “fact.”
I cannot advise you too strongly to do the same.