Upon Memes as Basis for the Threefold Law
Article ID: 12585
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Author: Grey Glamer
Posted: October 5th. 2008
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The Threefold Law is an integral component within many contemporary magical systems, and every aspiring Witch must eventually come to terms with the role that karma plays in their magical practice. Phrased simply, the Threefold Law states that your actions, whether good or bad, eventually will return to you threefold.
Some within the Neopagan community regard the Watchers, powerful beings that guard the magical realms, as the mechanism that revisits both boons and banes upon us. Others view karmic justice as more impersonal, basically a universal law, like gravity or magnetism. Some Witches, especially those with a bent for historical reconstruction, find scant support within the historical record for any multiplier, and instead endorse a Law of Return where weal and woe come back one for one. Our magical cousins who walk the Left Hand Path, on the other hand, eschew the concept of karma entirely, believing that there are no cosmic repercussions for our actions.
The manner in which we, as Witches and Heathens, incorporate karma into our conceptual frameworks inescapably shapes the morality to which we hold ourselves accountable. Most Neopagans hew to some variant on reincarnation, so there is neither the promise of paradise nor the threat of brimstone to dictate our decisions. Moreover, while many believe that every lifetime contains certain lessons to be learned, by my own experience most Witches expect karmic justice to occur within individual incarnations, rather than across multiple lifetimes.
This arrangement stands in marked contrast to Hindu and Buddhist theories of rebirth, where karma for one incarnation’s actions generally manifests during another, later incarnation.
More critically, the Wiccan paradigm often seems to contradict our basic sense of reality. In fact, everyday bad things happen to good people, and likewise good things to bad people, all without any apparent corrective action by the universe.
Contemporary Neopaganism certainly isn’t the first religion to struggle with the universe’s apparent indifference to injustice. Within Judaism, the Book of Job neatly illustrates the archetype of the just person upon whom the universe rains down calamity after calamity. The authors of Job found themselves hard pressed to accept that someone’s every action would be rewarded or punished during that someone’s lifetime. Everyday experience just doesn’t bear out that theory.
Neopagan beliefs about the afterlife, though, generally exclude Judeo-Christian formulations of heaven and hell, where someone earns their just desserts outside their own lifetime. Eastern theories of reincarnation, following the same tack, allow the karmic justice avoided during one life to manifest within the next, though the preceding lifetimes remain unknown and perhaps unknowable.
Neither theory is entirely satisfying to the Neopagan paradigm. The dualistic Judeo-Christian afterlife remains alien, and the Eastern variant on reincarnation strains at least my own sensibilities concerning fairness and responsibility. By the same token, to expect that the gods will unswervingly deliver blessings and curses to the deserving within this lifetime proves naive. After we eliminate the Judeo-Christian and Eastern responses, what remains? The Left Hand Path denies outright the very existence of cosmic balance, and then proceeds to craft its own individual-driven morality.
In light of the difficulties reconciling karmic theory with observed reality, this avenue of thought can be tempting, especially as an alternative to straightforward nihilism. Despite the looming specter of Job, though, I would contend there exists a certain justice to the cosmos, which plays itself out via more subtle means than we generally acknowledge. Moreover, I am prepared to argue that the Threefold Law actually comes closest to describing how our beautiful and terrible cosmos really works.
Before we can embrace the Threefold Law as something relevant within our magical paradigms, we first need to dispel certain misconceptions about the gods. From an early age, most people ascribe anthropomorphic traits to one or more deities. To borrow one example familiar to many raised within the Judeo-Christian paradigm, the young mind more readily embraces the concrete image of an old, bearded man residing among the clouds. When we grow older, we learn that such images are symbols for deeper realities.
That realization doesn’t negate the importance of such images; excepting the fleeting mystical experience, human beings approach the realm of the gods through signs. Catholicism and Vodoun especially both grasp the value of developing rich tapestries of symbols. Such symbolic webs teach us crucial lessons about the gods, lessons, which are best conveyed through storytelling. Hence, the signs and myths, which we retain as Neopagans, remain relevant, only deepening in meaning as we grow into our spiritual paths.
Whenever we engage the symbolic, however, we must be careful to refrain from idolatry. Doubtless many readers will question why a Witch would warn against idolatry, particularly since the Judeo-Christian proscription of idolatry has fueled both medieval and contemporary witch-hunts. Nevertheless, the core principle expressed by the Biblical injunction is the warning against valuing the symbol over that which the symbol represents. Without meaning to delve too deeply into the fields of semiotics or religious existentialism within an essay on the subject of magical ethics, the thrust of my argument is this: Karma is not human, however many times we may ascribe it human qualities. There isn’t some cosmic scorekeeper assigned to look over the Witch’s shoulder for every blessing, every curse. And with all due respect to the cultural weight exercised by certain egregores, that jolly fellow wearing the red suit doesn’t really know when you’ve been sleeping, or when you’re awake – at least, not literally.
I’m sure many readers are laughing now, but while you laugh, consider this: In function if not aesthetics, doesn’t the Threefold Law encompass everything we ask from Santa Claus? We want good acts rewarded, and evil acts punished, even as we face the reality that rain waters the fields of the just and the unjust alike. We want fairness, however skewed by ego our ideas of fairness may be. And until we confront the absurdity of the desire, we want a literal scorekeeper named Karma to fill in for Santa Claus from January through November.
Again we ask: What remains? Why, being good for goodness’ sake, of course! To ask that Santa Claus, Karma, and the Threefold Law be (lower-case) true in the literal, physical sense overlooks the fact that such ideas can be (upper-case) True in the deeper, symbolic sense. Science may never locate that famous North Pole workshop, yet the impact Santa has on countless souls – little children and grown-up children alike – remains undeniable. Likewise, I suspect searching for evidence of karmic justice within the natural sciences will prove equally fruitless, though the pronouncement doesn’t really sadden me. I am far more interested in the search for Truth spelled with the capital, and for that, we must turn towards the softer, human-oriented sciences.
Contemporary Neopagans generally reject the dualism proposed by ancient Zoroastrianism. For most Witches, our cosmos isn’t divided into good spirit and evil matter. Rather, we dance between realms, honoring both the ghost and the flesh in due course. Magical energy, standing with one foot inside each realm, is morally neutral. We may offer moral observations upon the ends towards which that energy is deployed, but energy itself simply exists.
From Aikido, I’ve come to associate good, compassionate acts with free-flowing energy, whereas selfish or harmful acts reflect tangled currents that curve back upon themselves. Using the proper magical techniques, the Witch can transmute knotted, painful energy into open, healing patterns. In principle, the malicious magician can reverse this pattern, visiting harm upon an enemy. Either way, the energy itself remains the same.
The fact that magical energy is morally neutral becomes the proverbial thorn in the side of those karmic theories that seek validation within the physical sciences. Magical practice isn’t divided into good energy that brings the caster good fortune and evil energy, which reaps suffering. Therefore, any magical paradigm attempting to identify the mechanism behind the Law of Return must look beyond the species of energy, because there’s only one kind. Rather, one must consider the many possible configurations of energy, complex patterns that convey information.
In short, we must consider magical energy as the stuff from which symbols are made. Then can we turn our attention to where those symbols fall within the vast web of signs, and only then can we decide whether those symbols affirm or deny the life around us.
We now have the yardstick by which we can judge every magical act, yet no particular reason why the universe should care. In short, we’re back to the belief in Santa Claus. Or are we? A Witch’s spell is a symbol, and that symbol occupies some particular mental and emotional space, which can then be judged morally. Consider the possibility that the symbol also contains within itself the power to reward or punish the caster. Much like Victor Frankenstein’s benighted monster, the creation revisits the creator, imbued with benevolence or cruelty according to its origin. Spells inevitably return, because spells are actually memes.
In Postmodern Magic, author Patrick Dunn touches upon the theory of memes from the field of semiotics. In short, memes are ideas and behaviors that spread throughout the community in viral fashion. For a simple demonstration, visit a place with people, and make sure to smile whenever you speak with someone. (Be genuine about this project; creeping out bystanders wrecks the experiment!) Then watch what happens. Even the small act of smiling can brighten someone’s day; they pass along the smile to others, and pretty soon the whole room feels more inviting! It’s funny, how the simplest magical acts are the most fun.
Every spell you cast has the same viral quality. The act of casting the spell weaves energy together to form a symbol, which then proceeds outward – often via subtle means – to influence the world in accordance with the Witch’s will. Within the nature of memes, however, there lies the impulse to be fruitful and multiply; once cast, the spell naturally begins to replicate, drawing in ambient magical energy to weave identical or nearly-identical configurations of energy, which spread outward to begin replicating themselves. Like their biological counterparts, the viral symbols generated by magic change vectors and mutate. And just like one smile can have an effect upon the whole room, no Witch can hope to escape the memes they set loose upon the cosmos.
The Enlightenment philosopher Benedict Spinoza once hypothesized that a community composed of perfectly rational individuals would have no need for laws, because the perfectly rational individual naturally acts with compassion. Reason begets altruism, because the reasonable person seeks out a social order where they can freely pursue enlightenment, and that social order depends on everyone supporting everyone else.
To borrow from contemporary game theory, from Spinoza’s perspective constructing the social order constitutes a non-zero-sum game, wherein a “win-win” outcome is possible and often preferable, and where cooperative strategies can be perfectly rational. Benedict Spinoza lacked our postmodern theory of semiotics, of course, yet reflecting upon the influence of memes upon our environs only reinforces Spinoza’s central argument that any sane human being should offer compassion, not because there is some cosmic scorekeeper out there keeping tabs on everyone, but rather because they want to thrive within a compassionate world. Where there exists clear understanding, enlightened self-interest becomes virtually indistinguishable from enlightened altruism. Sadly, as Witches we often find ourselves surrounded by an irrational world, making all the more urgent our role as keepers of wisdom and charity.
Every spell you cast inevitably influences the world around you. Magic can spread love and laughter, or fear and suffering. Because I choose to live among the former, I endeavor to work spells for healing and encouragement. Mahatma Ghandi once observed, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Like the unbidden smile that warms the room, spells that promote compassion will eventually find their way back to you.
As Witches, we must look beyond the need for some literal cosmic scorekeeper, and instead take responsibility for our own world-shaping actions, both great and small. Only then can we construct truly human communities where we welcome and honor everyone.
Dunn, Patrick. Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age. Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
“The Santa Egregore.” 1996. Chaos Matrix. 2006. Ed. Fenwick Rysen. 10 May 2008. .
Spinoza, Benedict. “The Ethics.” The Rationalists. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.
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