Like anything else we do, there are some useful safety notes. (And I’m sure, looking at this list, I’ve forgotten some, and will continue to come back.) I talk about safety considerations in beginning group work on its own page.
It’s a good plan to have the following handy - I hope you won’t need them, but if you do, better to have it nearby:
- Knowledge of how to deal with common issues. (Think through what you’d do if something fell off the altar and broke, if something caught fire, if someone – including you – felt ill, etc.)
- Fire extinguisher
- Basic first aid kit
- Potholders or something else suitable for handling hot candles, cauldrons, etc.
- Dustpan and handbroom (in case something drops on the ground and/or breaks)
- Scissors or some other way to quickly cut something. (A sharp knife will also do, if you’re confident in using it.)
- Awareness of how to reach emergency services (probably 911, but do you know where your phone is, does it have a charge, etc.)
Don’t do stuff you don’t fully understand. That includes understanding what might go wrong, and what you can do to avoid that or fix it. Build up to ritual techniques that may change awareness or focus. (For example, try meditation in simple ways before getting more advanced.)
Know yourself. When planning ritual, try planning for about 80-90% of your normal capacity in your plans, so that you will have energy to deal with the unexpected if it happens.
If you have chronic medical conditions, mental health concerns, allergies, or any other limit, know what you can and can’t do comfortably. Know where the gray areas are, that depend on other things (your overall level of health, stress, energy, etc.) Be responsible about taking steps to handle those conditions (medication, lifestyle choices, whatever). Ignoring them is not a good move.
Double and triple-check the effects and precautions of anything you’re planning to eat, drink, inhale, apply to your skin, or otherwise get near your body in multiple reliable and recent sources. (We’ll come back to this one: it’s that important.)
Don’t be stupid about fire or candles. The sacred fire extinguisher, the sacred smoke alarm (and the sacred carbon monoxide alarm) are all good ideas, but learning the best ways to place and hold your candles or cauldron is even better.
Really think hard about any lasting or major decision or commitment before you make it. Ritual experiences can be incredibly moving, but they can also lead us to get carried away. Go for short-term (a month, three months, a year) commitments before making longer ones, whether that’s to a deity, a group, or a particular goal. Or take time to sleep, reflect, ask opinions about, etc. before you make it.
Just because you hear something from divination, a deity or other entity doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s always okay to take time to think about it, and to seek out other opinions or apply common sense. Would you trust this if a friend said that to you? Why or why not?
Apply common sense. If something would worry you or be a problem in a non-ritual or non-magical setting, that’s a good time to be cautious and figure out why you’re worried or nervous or uncertain.
Seek out a place where you can ask questions of other experienced people. It’s always good to have a place you can cross-check any concerns. Find at least one place – whether that’s a mailing list, a web forum, a face to face group, or something else of the kind which includes a number of significantly experienced people with the kind of practices you’re interested in.
Fire – and candles – can be very effective in ritual. You do need some basic safety precautions.
Know where your fire extinguisher is. Make sure it’s current and easy to get to. If you’re doing group ritual, more than one person should know where it is.
Follow common sense about placing candles. Don’t put them anywhere near draping fabric or where something flammable can easily fall into the flame. Don’t put them right on the edge of a table. Don’t put them in places where a cat, dog, or small child can reach them.
If you do need to fudge on this, make sure you or someone else is *always* watching for tails, paws, and other bits of feline, canine, or child. That means you can’t close your eyes to meditate unless you do something with the candle.
Hot things need time to cool down: Make sure to allow time for things to cool before you plan to pack candles away or move a cauldron that’s hot to the touch. Potholders can help.
If you’re in an space where where you can’t have candles, or you don’t want to take the necessary precautions, LED candles can be a great substitute. You can even get LED candles you can blow out. (Take a look at this set from ThinkGeek)
Don’t leave a candle burning unattended. If you want to burn a candle over multiple days, you can:
- Put it in your sink (ideally in an inch or three of water).
- Put it in your bathtub (maybe in a pan with water)
- Put it in an old aquarium (in an inch of water: do we see a theme here?)
- The idea with the water is that if the candle tips, it will probably go out in the water. If it doesn’t, it’ll still be in a flame-resistant container, and probably go out shortly.
- Otherwise, you can light it when you’re home (and awake) and snuff it at other times.
If you are creating a fire in a cauldron, make sure:
- The cauldron has sufficiently long legs (otherwise, you will burn whatever is under it).
- You have a lid (very handy if you need to smother a fire quickly.
- You have a way to pick it up if it is not fully cool when you need to pack up. (A handle, pot-holders, etc.)
- A heat-safe cutting board or square of wood can be a good thing to put the cauldron on for a more even and heat-resistant surface.
- Don’t experiment with the proportions for chemical fires (rubbing alcohol and epsom salts). Be aware that if you pour more liquid in, the flame may travel back up the poured liquid. Put any extra rubbing alchol in a fire-safe container (metal or glass pitcher, for example, rather than the plastic bottle it comes in) that will keep your fingers well away from the flame.
Things you put in or on your body:
Research everything. Look for the common cautions, but be extra careful to cross-check any medical conditions (for you or other people using this), medication interactions (ditto), and run everything by your common sense. (Huge amounts of smoky incense is probably not great for asthmatics, even if they don’t have a problem with the actual ingredients.)
In general, commercial products from widely-used suppliers (i.e. not someone who just started doing this last week) are probably safe unless you know you have an allergy or bad reaction, and as long as you don’t go overboard in how much you use. (Drink a cup of tea, not a quart, until you know how you react to it. Burn a stick of incense, not 5 at once. More is not automatically better).
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Things you eat (that you haven’t eaten before without problems)
- Things you drink (that you haven’t drunk before without problems)
- Things you breathe (incense )
- Things you apply to your skin (oils, bath additions, soaps, etc.)
- Any uncommon culinary herb, plant, or other material.
But if you’re making stuff yourself, or you’re using something from someone who doens’t necessarily have wide experience, be extra careful.
Culinary herbs are generally safer than non-culinary herbs, but even culinary herbs in large quantity can be a bad thing. (And, of course, some people are allergic to some culinary herbs or spices: I know people who are allergic to both cinnamon and lavender.)
Essential oils are highly concentrated oils made from masses of plant ingredients. (So much that you really can’t make essential oils at home without a huge amount of very specialised equipment.)
Essential oils should always be diluted into a sizeable amount of carrier oil (jojoba, sweet almond, and olive oil are all good choices, depending on what you’re doing with it.) When I say sizeable, that means you might put 5-10 drops into an ounce of oil, or 5-10 drops into an entire bathtub. With some oils, you would only use a drop or two. Double check warnings carefully – because the oils are so concentrated, there are a number that are not a good idea during pregnancy, and there are some that can aggravate other conditions.
Check herbal warnings in a recent, up to date source. Cunningham’s Magical Herbs book has a lot of great magical information, but depending on which edition you look at, the herbal safety information ranges from non-existent (the first one) to dated (the second one) to becoming somewhat dated (the third and current one). Double check in a recent source.
I find the information at Mountain Rose Herbs to be a good starting place, though depending on what I find there, I often dig more deeply. (Look up the herb in question, and you’ll see links for either more information, or both contemporary and folklore information. The folklore sometimes mentions magical uses, but for safety info, you want the contemporary link.)
You need to be even more careful if you’re taking medications – many herbs and medications interact. Sometimes they make the medication more effective, sometimes less effective.
Some traditions believe the athame should be a sharp blade. (Others don’t).
If yours is sharp, be very thoughtful about when, where, and how you draw it. Don’t take it out unless you’re about to use it, and in group ritual, check first to see if drawing it is appropriate. (Small spaces often make it a bad idea.)
Take good care of your blade. A somewhat sharp blade can actually do more damage than a highly sharpened one. Even dull blades can do damage, though, if they catch someone’s eye, mouth, or other sensitive area, so don’t be careless just because your blade isn’t really sharp.
Know how to prevent other people from drawing it without your knowledge, or walking into an area where you’re about to draw. (This usually means giving some warning, or everyone knowing there may be live blades).
The question of safety around sharp blades comes up a lot in medieval recreation organizations like the Society for Creative Anchronism. You might find the advice here (under General Behavior at Events) useful, and there’s more here on another site.
If you are leaving tools on an altar, be extra careful if small or unfamiliar hands can reach them. (Your grown up friends might not know about how to handle a sharp double-edged dagger…)
If you plan to do ritual outside, you have a whole bunch of other considerations – too many to go into great detail here, but consider the following.
Physical safety: Is it a safe space for you to be in (especially if you’ll be alone?) Is that true at the time you’ll be there? (Some parks, for example, are fine during the day, but not so great at night.) Don’t go out in an isolated area without telling someone where you’ll be and when you expect to be back.
Seasonal considerations: Ritual can involve a lot of exertion – not just during ritual, but getting things there, setting up, and cleaning up after. Follow any guidelines for the weather, and be extra careful of heat exhaustion, exposure to cold, and other things like that.
It is very easy to get quickly chilled in certain kinds of fog or rain, even if the temperature is still fairly warm. Make sure you dress for the weather, and have a quick and absolutely reliable way to get warm. (A car that can take you to a cozy warm restaurant works.)
Natural hazards: Could you trip, stumble, get lost, or anything else like that? Are there local wildlife you need to be aware of? Bears? Mountain lions? Coyotes? Poisonous snakes or spiders? (This can also involve keeping an eye on the news: while mountain lions aren’t very common locally, we’ve had times in the past when former exotic pets (including mountain lions) have been found in the metro area – and because they’re former pets, they’re not afraid of people.)
Mosquitos and ticks: These days, more and more areas are in places where West Nile (and other mosquito-borne diseas) and Lyme disease (and other things carried by ticks) are a concern. Know what’s important for your area.
Be informed: Know the risks for your area, for what you’re likely to be doing, and for anything that you’re more susceptible to. Information is powerful! Consider taking a basic CPR/First Aid course, but there are other good ways to learn, too.
A good place to start is from a favorite blog of mine, where one of the posters, a wilderness EMT, has written up a wide range of posts on medical topics on the blog Making Light. The ones of particular interest to Pagan ritual use are the ones on hypothermia and hyperthermia/heat stress but you might also find the ones on burns and carbon monoxide, lightning strikes, and poisons of use too. (Some of them can be a bit gory in description, but there are warnings for the bits most likely to cause difficulty for people. The comments are also very helpful – lots of people with a wide range of experience.)
Be prepared: It’s a lot easier to deal with many things if you take some basic steps to have useful tools along. I also recommend the post from that blog on go bags, and encourage you to consider putting together a Pagan-related one to bring to group rituals or other times when you’re away from home doing ritual.
Ritual and magic things:
Don’t do stuff you don’t fully understand on your own. That means knowing:
- Where the practice comes from.
- What you’re hoping to get out of it. (And why this thing will help you get there.)
- What background, materials, or precautions are commonly used (and why)
- Common advice (and warnings)
- How you’ll know if it’s going right.
- What might go wrong (the most common ways it might not work, in other words.)
Working with a group or teacher changes these a little bit. They’re still good questions – but depending on the specifics, some of the answers may not be as easily available quickly. On the other hand, you will have multiple people who are experienced with that ritual method or technique, and for whom it presumably works reasonably well.
That said, if they say “We’re going to try something totally new today…” that’d be a good time to ask more questions. (What’s the new thing, why are they trying it, etc.)
Give yourself time to come back. Don’t plan to finish a meditation, hop in your car, and go somewhere. Give yourself at least 15-20 minutes (and 30+ is better) before you need to go anywhere. If you’ve been doing meditation, or any ritual work that is unusual for you, make sure you’re well grounded before you move onto the next thing.
Eating is a quick and simple way to do this. (Something dense: protein and significant carbohyrdates work well. Sugar is not so good. Caffeine really won’t help.)
Long sleeves are pretty to look at, but not so good around fire (and that includes candles). Consider having some way to tie them back or pin them up easily.
Long skirts can trip you and other people up. Some people are comfortable in long skirts (I’m one of them, but I wear them regularly, both in and out of ritual, and I loop them up if there’s dancing, usually by tucking the hem into the waistband on one side.) If you’re not, keep your skirts at the top of your ankle or shorter. (Be extra careful when going up or down stairs, too.)
Clothing material can matter. If a spark catches on cotton, linen, silk, or wool, it will burn fast and cause minimal damage. (Or smoulder, if it’s wool.) If a spark catches on synthetic fabrics, they melt. Consider this when picking materials for ritual clothing, altar cloths, and other such things.
Consider privacy: think before posting identifying or personal information online. Consider using a psedonym, and being general about things like your location (nearest big city, not a small town, for example.) Think about using something other than a direct photo as an avatar/icon image.
Think about technology in circle: Some people avoid it entirely (as they feel that circle energy is not compatible with technology). Others will use it for specific reasons. Either way, a lot of the stuff we use in circle (food, drink, candle wax, incense remains, etc.) is not necessarily good for your technology if they get too close.
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[last edited January 8, 2011]