“You Lied!” Some Thoughts on Honesty and Pagan Practice
Author: Bronwen Forbes
When I first began to formally study Paganism, it was drilled into my head over and over: “A witch is only as good as his or her word.” In other words, there is a direct relationship between the quality and effectiveness of your magick and how good you are at telling the truth and keeping promises.
Which makes sense, when you think bout it, because say, for example, you are doing a working to find a new job and you promise Hestia that if you get a job you will volunteer so many hours a week a the local soup kitchen in Her name. Then suppose you promise your friend that you will meet her for lunch and something better comes up and you break your promise to your friend. Why, then, if you don’t keep your word to your friend should Hestia have any reason to believe you’ll keep your promise to her? Odds are you won’t get that new job if Hestia has anything to do with it.
This is partly a matter of will. If magick is, as some say, “change in accordance with will, ” this implies t hat a person’s will is pretty important. And a major component of will is the strength to do what you say you will do – no matter how hard that may become. If your word is good, chances are your will and your magick will be pretty strong.
I was also taught that it’s okay to lie if it’s a matter of life and death. I would say: evaluate the situation very carefully before choosing to lie “for the greater good.” Let me give an example. About eight years ago I was a very busy volunteer with a local no-kill animal rescue organization. I was also – and still am – totally, utterly and completely smitten with beagles.
So when I saw a miserable shy little beagle on our town’s high-kill Humane Society’s web page, I leapt into action. I tried to adopt Joe the Shy Beagle, stating openly that I was a volunteer with the no-kill rescue group. The folks at the Humane Society wouldn’t let me have him, stating that they were afraid I’d just turn around and adopt him out to someone else. We went back and forth on this issue for a few days while Joe cowered in the back of his cage. Meanwhile, the clock ticked down to the day that Joe was scheduled to be euthanized. And since no one wants to adopt a dog that’s literally paralyzed with fear (except me, apparently) , I was running out of time if I wanted to save Joe’s life.
So I lied.
I told the staff at the Humane Society that my husband had completely fallen in love with Joe and we now wanted to keep him. And a day later I brought Joe home. Within a month I’d sent him to live with my mother after he freaked out because the neighborhood kids had gone a little overboard with Fourth of July fireworks. He’s been with my mother ever since.
Did I do the right thing? On the surface, yes I did. I deliberately lied – and made my husband lie – in order to save an animal’s life; an animal, I should add, that my mother loves very much. For years I used this example to teach my students to think about their actions and the ethics of those actions. I was actually proud of the fact that I’d saved Joe’s life and cited the whole incident as an example of “harm none; all life is sacred.”
Except there’s more to the story. My family currently lives with my mother, which means we live with Joe. Beagles are, in general, cheerful, outgoing, friendly, cuddly, happy little dogs. Eight years after I pulled him out of the back of his cage at the Humane Society, Joe is still none of these things. He cowers, snarls at the other dogs, and (most disturbingly) if startled by motion four or five feet away, snaps at my five-year-old daughter (who was raised with dogs and knows how to behave around them) . It’s only a matter of time before he bites her. Joe is also slowly dying of stress-related health issues.
Had I not lied to the Humane Society staff all those years ago, Joe would have lived a few more days and been humanely euthanized by a painless overdose of barbiturates. But I did, and now I get to watch a desperately unhappy dog take years to die by inches – and possibly do serious damage to my child before he goes.
Did I ultimately do Joe any favor? In my opinion, no. Have I done him harm? Absolutely. And that, gentle readers, is bad magick.
There are also less painful, more practical spiritual reasons to keep your word and live as truthful a life as possible. For example, if you aspire to join a British Traditional or a British Traditional-based coven, you’re going to be expected to swear at least a few oaths. And these groups take these oaths pretty seriously. In other words, if you’ve developed a reputation in the community for being flaky about commitments or gossiping (breaking your word) spreading wild stories or inventing training/lineage credentials (lying) or you’re just generally an all-around unreliable person, you’re not going to be invited to join an oath-taking group. Of course, even if you’re not interested in joining a traditionally-minded group, it would still be nice not to have a bad reputation in the community, wouldn’t it?
On the other hand, and completely tongue-in-cheek here, the “white lie” rules that apply outside the Pagan community apply here, too. In other words, if anyone of any gender asks you, “Does this robe make me look fat?” your best option is, of course, to say no!
But in all seriousness, being as truthful as possible can only make you a better practitioner, a better covener, a better community member, and an all-around better person. We need more of those. I think Joe the Beagle would agree.