“Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil. An it harm none, do what ye will.”
The Wiccan Rede and accompanying Threefold Law are interesting concepts. At first glance they can appear very simple, however this could not be further from the truth.
Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic Law was not, as many think, the inspiration for the Wiccan Rede, though it does bear similarity to it. But when we look beyond the simple surface text, it is clear to see that the meaning of Thelemic Law and that of the Wiccan Rede are fundamentally different:
“An it harm none, do what ye will.”
“Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will.”
The first would appear to be elegant in its simplicity and can virtually be taken at face value, i.e. you are free to do whatever you choose as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But whilst simple at first glance, it is far more complex in practice, especially when you take into account what the Rede doesn’t mention the concept of unavoidable harm – the ending of an unhealthy relationship for example, which may cause harm to the person involved, but will prevent a greater harm in the long run. When this is taken into account, then a great deal of thought must be put into an action as to whether, if harm, could be caused, whether it can be avoided and, if not, whether the harm caused will negate a greater harm.
Thelemic Law is quite different. It is not suggesting that you can do whatever you choose according to your own desires. What it suggests is that you must discover what your true will is and then live according to that, ignoring any false will that may be imposed upon you. Crowley believed that each person’s true will was in harmony with every other person’s true will and thus conflict and disharmony only occur when people do not discover and live by their true will.
The root of Crowley’s law is essentially the same idea as that of the maxim “Know Thyself” inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi. Crowley’s law in this sense is by no means a new or groundbreaking concept.
So in seeing the difference between the Rede and Thelemic Law, we can now look to Gardner’s own words, to see the real origin and the intention of the Rede:
“They [the witches] are inclined to the morality of Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”. But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm”. This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others”. (The Meaning of Witchcraft – Page 108)
In my experience, I have known many people, particularly those following a Wicca-inspired pagan path, to have taken the Rede to be a law (often seen shortened to “Harm None”); however it is clear that such a law would be impossible to follow. The word Rede actually means ‘advice’ and it is therefore a more sensible approach to look at the Rede as a guideline and an ideal to strive for rather than a hard and fast rule. I like to think of it in terms of the bumpers you have down each side of a bowling alley. The ball may veer off course but the bumper helps it back on track. This is how I believe the Rede works: as a bumper to keep us from veering too far from our paths.
For the Rede to be considered a law, every single person would have to apply the same set of ideals and beliefs to themselves. The Rede is not a string of laws, commanding “Do Not” but rather a more positive way of thinking, giving freedom of personal morality rather than imposing a set of strict rules.
Quite often, when we are told we aren’t allowed something or are told we can’t do something, it makes us want it even more; as the saying goes – forbidden fruit tastes sweeter. Where certain religious laws seek to suppress and contain those elements of human nature that they find distasteful or undesirable, the Rede gives freedom of personal expression in a healthy way. So long as you are not causing harm to others or to yourself, then your morality and individuality are yours to express.
I have heard it argued that such freedom of personal expression would allow for the breaking of non-religious laws and criminal activity but I would argue that not only is the Rede intended for operation within the law (as would be common sense) but that there is no such thing as a victimless crime and that any such activity would constitute harm in any case. Aside from this, I am of the opinion that any person given to break a law is going to do so regardless of any religious guidelines or commandments.
Vivianne Crowley makes a wonderful point in her book, Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World:
“This moral sense is developed by seeking to adhere to certain basic ideals of love, joy, truth, honour and trust, and making decisions which are in accordance with them.”
When you consider three of the main ideals within Wicca – The Rede, Threefold Law and Perfect Love & Perfect Trust – it makes sense to make your decisions both magically and otherwise based on the concepts cited by Vivianne. That being said, we are also only human and not every decision we make will take all or any of these things into account.
It is also worth mentioning at this point that the word “An” is a rather archaic way of saying “If”. This means that the Rede gives a great deal of freedom of choice in actions where no harm will be caused, but, as I said before, doesn’t actually say anything about what you should do in actions where harm may be caused. This is where the guiding concept of Threefold Law comes into its own.
The Law of Threefold Return
Another stumbling block I often come across is in relation to The Law of Threefold Return. We in the west have a tendency to use the word “Karma” in conjunction with Threefold Law but it is often the westernised view of Karma, which is applied in this context. To give a brief summary of the differences between the westernised view of Karma and the eastern concept:
Western Karma: The idea that Karma is some sort of universal power that hands out punishments to those who do bad things and rewards those who do good things.
Eastern Karma: The idea that actions have natural consequences and that by being mindful of them, you can earn “good Karma” and thus earn a better future. However, failing to take into consideration the results of your actions will earn “bad Karma” and lead to some sort of hardship as a result, whether in this life or the next.
If the Rede has been (as often occurs) mistaken for a law and is applied to everything, in conjunction with Threefold Law in its misunderstood form (i.e. “westernised” karma), it would be difficult to see how a person could even get out of bed in the morning for fear of causing some harm!
So, in my opinion, it is incorrect to liken Threefold Law to the Westernised misconception of Karmic Law. I think though, that it is actually closer to the maxim “You reap what you sow”, which in turn is akin to the true, Eastern concept of Karma, both in terms of every day application and in the context of reincarnation.
I believe it is an easier concept to accept if it is not looked at in terms of whatever you send out, good or bad, comes back to you times three but instead is considered in terms of how our choices are made. In numerology, the number three is representative of divine trinities and of completion (birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future). This concept, rather than linking Threefold Law to Karmic Law (however tenuously) actually lends itself to the idea of Threefold Law simply being a completion of our choices, i.e. Course of action decided upon, course of action taken, results of action taken.
This idea also works well with the concept of Wyrd, which has a similar rule of three: That which has gone before and has led to where you are now; that which is currently occurring and must be handled as it constantly changes, and; that which must occur as a result of all these things.
It is essentially (particularly when combined with the Rede) a method of keeping us mindful of our actions, and ensuring that we are fully aware of the potential outcomes and impacts. This applies not only to our spiritual lives (such as when performing a magical working for example) but also to our daily lives. It reminds us that whatever choices we make, there are repercussions and that we must take responsibility for our own choices and deeds. There is no “big bad” to blame when things go wrong, we are responsible for everything we do, good or bad.
With the interplay between the Rede and Threefold Law it is clearer to see that Wiccan morality and ethics are a far more complex subject than a casual glance would have you believe. Once the additional ideal of Perfect Love & Perfect Trust comes into play, it is obvious that the complexity of the issue of Wiccan morality and ethics can only increase.
Perfect Love and Perfect Trust
I feel that when it comes to Wiccan morality and ethics, this concept is often greatly neglected. It is easy to see where the other two ideals fit in, but what happens when you also incorporate the “highest ideal” of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust?
It is easier to apply this concept to ourselves in terms of our coven mates and with fellow Wiccans, and it is reasonable that this should be the case in the first instance, after all, it is with our coven that we first demonstrate love and trust, in the form of initiation. Their trust that we are the right person for their group and the love everyone bears for each other as friends and as part of the wider Wiccan family. Then there is the trust and love that we ourselves express in putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with them, by undergoing initiation itself.
It is even easy in some regards to apply the concept to our immediate family with whom we share a bond of unconditional love and trust. It is sometimes possible to apply it to friends and lovers, although here, there is no such bond of unconditional love and trust, nor is there the bond of shared spirituality in many cases. Often here, trust must be earned and love is given but not without a certain amount of fear of betrayal or rejection.
So, the question becomes, should the concept of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust be applied outside of the coven environment? Is it possible to apply it, in conjunction with the Rede, to situations involving those outside of our coven, or those people we don’t know at all? Perhaps we leave ourselves open to all kinds of mundane and spiritual problems if we try to define our morality further by including this as a tenet of it away from the environment where it is most often used and where we feel the safest in using it.
Is it even possible to have any love or trust for people whose motivations we don’t actually know, let alone perfect love and trust for them? It becomes a little like the commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”. It’s a nice idea in principle, but does it actually work in practice or does it become something unachievable, which we still strive for? Perhaps the best step we can take is to be good people and to treat others with respect and in turn, earn respect through our actions.
It is very difficult to summarise the concepts I have just discussed, particularly when I have barely scratched the surface of a topic that could be discussed and debated for years; and probably will be! Suffice to say; when it comes to taking any form of action we know will have an effect on people, including ourselves, it is better to consider the possible outcomes carefully and make sure that we are willing to accept the potential consequences of our actions. I recall a conversation with a friend several years ago as we were driving home. We were discussing the ethics of spellcraft and she made a passing comment, which I think fits in very well here. If you cast a spell to attract money or to get that perfect job you want so badly, how do you know that someone you love wont drop dead and that you will get money through inheritance, or that you will get that job but at the expense of someone better suited to it? And I have to agree, it’s very difficult to know these things, but by being mindful of our actions and accepting of their consequences, we can take a great step towards living our lives according to the ethical principles of Wicca and to strive ever onwards towards our highest ideals.
Copyright Sarah Howe 2008
Spunky Brewster (a.k.a. Goddess of pimp smack) 2nd degree high priestess of Gardnerian Wicca