Ethical Traditions: The Rede and the Threefold Law
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Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: March 1st. 2009
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Even in a community as fiercely independent as contemporary Paganism, guides to behavior exist and flourish. These ethics are not mandatorily imposed, nor are they accepted by all, but they do exert strong influence. And for many, they help us in times of difficult decisions. Today I'd like to discuss two of the most prevalent ethical traditions: The Rede and the Threefold Law.
Both of these come from traditions variously identifying as witchcraft, Wicca, or the Craft (for the sake of brevity, hereafter simply "Witchcraft, " though debates about the appropriateness of such labels are acknowledged) . The influence of these traditions is felt everywhere in the Neopagan community. Whatever your community may be, it is useful to be familiar with these ethical traditions.
The Rede is known in many forms, of which a common one is:
"An it harm none, do what ye will."
In modern English, that would be "If it harms none, do what you will." It is a counsel condoning actions, which do not cause harmful consequences.
Date and Authorship
The Rede is commonly attributed to Doreen Valiente, in a poem from 1978, but this publication was actually preceded by another Rede poem by Lady Gwen Thompson in 1975. Both of these were preceded by a long and complex tradition. John J. Coughlin's invaluable work has brought to light the Rede's history. It is illuminating, so we'll go into it in some depth, following Coughlin.
One of the earliest related passages in a work on Witchcraft was Gerald Gardner's 1959 work, The Meaning of Witchcraft:
[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary 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 to anyone, 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.
Gardner refers to a character in The Adventures of Good King Pausole, a 1901 story by French novelist Pierre Louys. This king, albeit fictional, espoused a similar ethic:
I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor.
II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest.
Thus we find what is apparently the ancestor of the Rede. But Louys may not have been Gardner's only influence. Many point to Aleister Crowley's 1904 work, Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law) :
Who calls us Thelemites will do no wrong, if he look but close into the word. For there are therein Three Grades, the Hermit, and the Lover, and the man of Earth. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
On the one hand, these lines appear to be the Rede without the "harm none" clause. On the other hand, many believe that "harm none" is already implied. This argument is supported by Crowley's likely inspiration, the 1534 novel Gargantua by Francois Rabelais:
DO AS THOU WILT because men that are free, of gentle birth, well bred and at home in civilized company possess a natural instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice. This instinct they name their honor.
In other words, the will of the fully cultivated person is naturally virtuous, so that "harm none" is already implied. Further mention would be redundant.
The actual extent to which Crowley influenced the Rede is a matter of debate, but that he and Gardner had connections is well known. Suffice to say that Crowleyan inspiration is not impossible.
Further statements developing the Rede tradition were made in the 60's and 70's by Doreen Valiente, Leo Martello, and Alexander Sanders. Then in the mid-70's two poems were published. Lady Gwyen Thompson's The Rede of the Wiccae was the first, in a 1975 issue of Green Egg. Doreen Valiente's poem, called The Witches' Creed, followed in her 1975 book Witchcraft for Tomorrow.
Following the publication of these poems, the Rede exploded into widespread usage.
Note also that not all traditions of Witchcraft stem from Gardner and those that followed. There are also hereditary, traditional, ceremonial, and other types of Witches. For these traditions, development and application of the Rede, if any, may vary from the history presented here.
Historical and Cultural Context
Contemporary Witchcraft developed in the West, under the predominance of Christianity and scientific rationalism. This is not without consequence. In some respects the Rede can be seen as asserting itself in contrast to traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. In 1973 Valiente wrote in An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present:
Witches do not believe that true morality consists of observing a list of thou-shalt-nots. Their morality can be summed up in one sentence, "Do what you will, so long as it harms none." This does not mean, however, that witches are pacifists. They say that to allow wrong to flourish unchecked is not 'harming none'. On the contrary, it is harming everybody.
In other words, Valiente stresses that the moral codes instilled in so many from childhood, the "thou-shat-nots", are not the only viable options. The Rede provides an alternative, even in a complex world where sins of omission are just as likely to result in harm as sins of commission. In fact, the simplicity of the Rede, "summed up in one sentence, " seems a counterpoint to the heavy law books of scripture. The 60's and 70's were, after all, decades of widespread spiritual experimentation, with droves seeking freedom from what some viewed as oppressive traditions of the past.
But religious climate was not the only factor influencing the Rede. Another was public relations. The development of the Rede occurred in stages alongside growing public awareness of Witchcraft. Coughlin notes that in the early years when covens were still largely hidden from public view, emphasis on the Rede was somewhat limited. Furthermore, the 1959 passage from Gardner refers only to the use of magic.
In contrast, growing public awareness in the 60's and 70's brought about a change. To assuage public suspicions, high-profile Witches began to point to the Rede (and Threefold Law) as proof that Witchcraft was not "evil." As a result, the counsel which originally applied only to magic gradually became a generalized ethic applicable to all walks of life.
So interaction with those outside the Witch community shaped the direction of the Rede tradition. At the same time, development has also been stimulated from within the community. Numerous challenges have arisen as Witches try to apply Rede ethics to their lives. Responses to those challenges have been equally numerous.
Many difficulties revolve around interpretation of the Rede's terms. They may seem simple on first glance, but closer inspection reveals complexity. For example, what counts as "harm?" Is only physical harm meant, or is mental and psychic harm also implied? What about harm in self-defense? And what if one fails to a report a person's abusive tendencies, refraining from harming their reputation, only to see that person go on to abuse ten more people? Are such sins of omission also indicted as "harm?"
One can ask similar questions regarding nearly every term in the Rede: does "none" include animals and plants, or only people? Does "will" refer to any urge or desire, however fleeting, or only to what you would actually will in your most clear-minded moments? The list goes on.
Some responses to these questions have already been seen in the passages quoted. Yet these are by no means the only interpretations, much less the authoritative ones. Indeed each Witch is called to interpret the Rede anew.
Because the Rede's terms are so open to question, the Rede has given rise to wildly contradictory ethical positions. For example, some claim the Rede suggests we should be pacifists and/or vegetarians. Others claim no such thing. The only conclusion that seems clear is that to apply the Rede practically, some form of further interpretation is needed.
But the critique can be carried still further. Many have concluded that the Rede is actually impossible to follow to the letter. Human living always has consequences harmful to some entity or another. We must eat, so we must harm a food source. We must have shelter, so we must harm the wildlife whose habitat is destroyed to make room for housing. Therefore, the Rede cannot be followed literally. Rather, it is an ideal to strive toward.
Not everyone agrees with this conclusion. David Piper, for example, argues that such a conclusion misunderstands the "original" meaning of the Rede. He points out that people have tended to re-arrange the syntax in order to bring the Rede more fully into modern English. The first part, "An it harm none, " is put after the second, "do what ye will." The result is something like "Do what you want if it doesn't harm anyone."
Piper claims this re-arrangement changes the meaning. The Rede becomes a negative injunction, as in "It's not okay to do anything that causes harm; other than that, do what you want." In contrast, the original arrangement only provides an affirmative counsel: "It's okay to do a thing that doesn't cause harm; other than that, no advice is hereby given."
Regarding things that do cause harm, the Rede is silent. For those things, presumably one must use one's best judgment, using harm as a criterion for evaluation. Thus, for Piper, the Rede is entirely possible to follow in its original form. Only in its re-arranged syntax does it become an impossible ideal.
Given the varied history of the Rede, one wonders about calling any version the "original." Nevertheless, his is an innovative attempt to overcome an important stumbling block in contemporary Rede ethics.
An important consideration that many point out in this debate over the realism of the Rede is the word "rede" itself. The Middle English word refers here to advice or counsel. This is distinguished against familiar "Thou shalt/not"-type commandments. In other words, the Rede is not meant to be an absolute commandment with regard to harm. It is a counsel, general in tone, and therefore exceptions are to be expected. Extreme situations need not invalidate what is meant only as general advice.
Whether or not the Rede is finally realistic in theory, it has found wide acceptance among Witches as a practical ethical guide. Forces both within and without the Witchcraft community have shaped it into what it is today. The Rede advises a kind of responsible freedom, based on considerations of harm.
The Threefold Law
Also called the Law of Three, or Law of Threefold Return, this is a concept often paired with the Rede. Basically, the idea is that the beneficial or harmful effects of your actions will return to you. "What goes around comes around" is a colloquial equivalent. In the realm of magic, an obvious implication is that one ought to do the math before cursing another.
The Threefold Law is not as widely accepted as the Rede. Coughlin calls it "one of the more controversial aspects of Wiccan ethics, " and some high-profile figures such as Valiente have expressed doubt about it. Still, it is quite prevalent, and merits attention.
The word "threefold" is open to interpretation. Some say it literally means effects will return three different times, others in threefold intensity. Still others say a number cannot actually be placed on it, and the word "threefold" only expresses emphasis.
A more general version subtracting the "threefold" bit is widespread, even beyond Witchcraft. The idea that you get back what you send out, or that like attracts like, is a basic occult principle. Arguably it is at the root of magical thought the world over. This more general version we'll sum up as the "Law of Return."
Date and Authorship
In a 1997 speech quoted by Coughlin, Doreen Valiente states of the Threefold Law "I have never seen it in any of the old books of magic, and I think Gerald invented it."
Coughlin locates the first hint of the Threefold Law in the 1949 book High Magic's Aid, written by Gardner under his pen name Scire. In it, the second degree initiation into the "brotherhood" calls for the initiate to be scourged, then to scourge the initiator three times as much, "For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard."
It is easy to read a moral statement into this, but as Coughlin notes it could alternatively symbolize that the initiate was now on equal terms with the initiator. A link to a general law of magical ethics is not necessarily implied.
However, it seems that many who came after Gardner did see a link. Coughlin finds evidence in the traditions of Buckland and Lady Olwen. Stewart Farrar writes in 1981:
".. the ritual using of the cords and the scourge is the occasion for dramatizing a lesson about what is often called 'the boomerang effect'; namely, that any magical effort, whether beneficent or malicious, is liable to rebound threefold on the person who makes it."
This sounds more confidently like the Threefold Law of today. Note that Farrar specifically refers to "magical effort." As with early references to the Rede, a generalized ethical code is not necessarily implied. Indeed, Valiente seems to assume it applies only to magic when she says in an interview with FireHeart Journal:
Personally, I've always been skeptical about it because it doesn't seem to me to make sense. I don't see why there has to be one special law of karma for Witches and a different one for everybody else.
So the ethical implications of the Threefold Law might be limited to magic.
Historical and Cultural Context
The Threefold Law stands at the intersection of numerous strands of thought: occult principles, karma, divine justice, and the Golden Rule. The whole phenomenon of contemporary Witchcraft, Gardnerian or otherwise, emerged within a milieu of these notions. Coughlin notes that Occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) spoke of “magnetism" where good people attract good to them, and bad people bad to them.
The notion of karma was disseminated as West encountered East, especially via Theosophy in the late 19th century. The idea of divine justice of course needs no introduction, and likewise with the Golden Rule. Suffice it to say that although the specific threefold formulation may have been peculiar to Gardner's fold, it was very much in the spirit of its times.
In the context of Witchcraft, the Threefold Law is often paired with the Rede, considered an elaboration of the Rede, or even thought redundant in light of the Rede. But while similar in some respects, they are quite different in others. The Rede only suggests what to do (or not do) in the abstract. The Threefold Law, on the other hand, asserts the reality of consequences.
The mechanics of how these consequences come about is not specified. Only the inevitable effects are asserted. Many see the Threefold Law worked out by the impersonal force of karma, others by divine justice, and still others by occult principles such as "like attracts like." There is room for interpretation.
Of course, the Threefold Law can also be followed independently of the Rede. Whether or not one believes harm is morally wrong, one may still believe that harm will incur consequences. The question then is whether those consequences are dire enough to dissuade one from a certain course of action.
In fact, seen in this light, the Threefold Law is perhaps not an ethical statement at all, but rather a metaphysical or theological speculation. The statement "put your hand in the fire and it will get burned" is a declaration of fact, not an ethical judgment. In the same way, the Threefold Law places its emphasis on a reality. Yet ethical implications are commonly read into it, just as with the colloquial proverb "Play with fire and you're bound to get burned."
Many locate the Threefold Law within the Golden Rule tradition. Broadly, it compares with other golden rules known the world over. However, it also contrasts in some ways. Many golden rules are a kind of thought experiment. For example: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31, King James version) . Here, one is enjoined to ponder consequences, but that you will actually suffer those consequences yourself is not implied. One is to base decisions not on what would actually happen, but on what one would desire to happen if in another person's shoes.
In contrast, the Threefold Law does not engage in such self-referential thought experiments. It only asserts consequences that are real, and encourages decision-making based on those consequences. Furthermore, unlike many golden rules, the Threefold Law is not specific to dealings with people. It is presumably open to application to interactions with animals, plants, and inanimate things. Thus, there are important differences between the Threefold Law and other versions of the Golden Rule.
This article has explored two of the most prevalent ethical traditions in Neopaganism: the Rede and the Threefold Law. Their history as well as some of their implications and difficulties have also been investigated.
These are not, of course, the only ethical traditions around. Of comparable importance are virtue-based traditions, such as the Nine Noble Virtues of the Heathen community. Innumerable other ethical traditions exist, even within Witchcraft. But the Rede and the Threefold Law are two of the most prevalent, so it is helpful to be familiar with them.
It is a wonderful thing to be part of a community that is fiercely independent. It also a wonderful thing to have wise counsels to fall back on when you need it. The Rede and the Threefold Law are two such counsels.
Coughlin, John J. The Evolution of Wiccan Ethics.
Crowley, Aleister. Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law) . 1904.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. A Witches Bible Compleat. 1984.
Gardner, Gerald. High Magic's Aid. 1949.
Gardner, Gerald. Meaning of Witchcraft. 1959.
Louys, Pierre. Adventures of Good King Pausole. 1901.
Piper, David. Wiccan Ethics and the Wiccan Rede.
Rabelais, Francois. Gargantua. 1534.
Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. 1973.
Valiente, Doreen. Interview with FireHeart Journal. 1991.
B. T. Newberg
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