The Rede of the Wicae

There is an old joke floating about the internet that equates various pagan groups to the different races and organizations found in Star Trek. First on the list are Wiccans, who are equated with the Federation:

The Federation means well. They let just about everybody into their little social club, so long as they agree to play nice. They don’t talk about rules much, but keep referring to one Prime Directive that all other laws are based on. That said, they frequently violate that rule when the need suits them. Often heard speaking in various UK accents, even though they’re not from the islands

I’ve observed that central dig on many occasions. There’s really only one rule, and it’s ditched whenever people feel they can justify it. Which happens a lot.

Yeah, I’m about to tear into the Wiccan Rede.

A little while ago, Don Kraig wrote a piece on the Wiccan Rede, implying that it isn’t really that ethical.

for many Pagans, when asked how their spirituality flavors their lives, they have little to say, often responding not based on their spiritual paths but according to their sociopolitical beliefs. Some other Pagans—even those who do not identify themselves as Wiccans—fall back upon the Wiccan Rede:

Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill,
An it harm none do what ye will.

The source of the rede (rede is a Middle English term meaning “counsel” or “suggestion”) is highly questionable. Some date it back to Bible (Romans 13:10 can be interpreted as similar to the rede in concept),  Saint Augustine of Hippo (“Love, and do what you will”), John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle,” French author Pierre Louÿs’ 1901 book, The Adventures of King Pausolus (“Do not harm your neighbor; this being well understood, do that which pleases you.”), or Aleister Crowley’s famous “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

[…]

The rede doesn’t say act to limit harm to all; it is an instruction to you not to do harm. Period. You can choose not to follow the rede and work to limit harm to all. That might be a good solution. However it should be made clear that you have abandoned following the rede and are replacing it with something that allows for what I would consider to be a more ethical response to the real world. Fully following the rede in our current culture is simply not possible. You would have to act like those who follow the Jain religion in India, living a life where they even avoid stepping on an insect. Some Pagans simply add a clause to the eight-word rede to cover modern reality: “An it cause harm, do as you must.”

Kraig goes on to discuss the role of the so-called Law of Three-Fold Return in adhering to the Rede:

Simply put, this “law” states, “whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times” (Wikipedia).

Really?

So if you break someone’s arm, does that mean you’re going to get your arm broken three times? If you trip someone does that mean someone is going to trip you three times? If you kill someone does that mean you’re going to be murdered three times? How could that work? It would have to imply a belief in reincarnation and multiple lives. So isn’t it great, then, that you have your own murder to look forward to? I don’t think so.

[…]

And if we follow the Law of Return, do we need the Wiccan Rede at all? Others have different versions of this “law.” One older version is usually presented, “As you sow, so shall ye reap.” That comes from Galatians in the Bible. So are the ethics of Wiccans, Pagans, and magickal people who follow the rede ultimately based on the Bible or is there another alternative?

Kraig’s suggestion that the Rede may have its roots in Galatians may have merit. I’m more inclined to believe that it is an appropriation of Crowley’s dictum, although Crowley’s reference to Will was a different concept of what the Rede implies. But given the fact that Gardner was (briefly) a student of Crowley’s, and most of his source material for Wicca was taken from the Golden Dawn, a Biblical influence is probably not too far off.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Because we’re discussing the Wiccan Rede, and we’ve only looked at the last two verses of it.

What’s that, you say? You didn’t know it had verses? Well, it does.

See, it’s a poem. And there are two versions of it, a long and a short. Both were published in different newage magazines in the ’70s, each of which claimed it to have ancient origins that are very unlikely.

The long version explicitly mentions the Threefold Law. The short version does not. But both are full of rather specific rules that most people who call themselves Wicca may not follow. (We’ll ignore the incorrect usage of archaic language for now.)

What interest me more is that fact that a lengthy charge that supposedly contains the central tenets of a religion is abbreviated to the last couplet, which in itself is very vague.

Harm None. An’ it harm none, do as ye will. Harm who? Harm how?

As Kraig asks, does this mean we must all be vegans who sweep the ground to avoid stepping on bugs? Does it just mean to avoid harming other people? Just physically, or does psychological harm count? No harsh words or criticism? Temporary harm for longer term relief? Is inflicting the pain of setting a bone acceptable?

We don’t know. Wicca proudly lacks any central authority to tell us what this means, and any attempt to pin it down is uprooted by all of the other Wiccans who disagree. A hundred people can all claim to follow it while undertaking actions that violate everyone else’s definitions of it. And any number of those can find a justification for breaking even their own definition if they need want to.

(And don’t even get me started as to how laughably absurd all of this is when considered next to the claim that this represents the religion of the ancient Celts.)

Forgive me for saying so, but it seems to me that the Wiccan Rede is an artifact of the hippie-inspired peace movement that so thoroughly penetrated early neopaganism. It embodies permissiveness while implying (but not demanding) responsibility, presents a rule without strictness, and essentially a doctrine that White Witches could point to as a defense from accusations that they practiced Black Magic. (“No, we don’t do curses! Our one rule is ‘Harm None!’ Those who don’t follow our traditions are the Black Witches!”)

And most significantly, the Wiccan Rede is a rule for Wiccans. And this is really my main reason for even bothering with it: because so many Wiccan seem eager to assume that other pagans must follow their rule. (Laugh at that, other pagans, as you warn me to beware of karma.)

I’m not going to fisk the Rede myself. Not out of respect or anything, but because Obsidian has already done a fantastic job if it.

If you’re Wiccan, and the Rede means something to you, fine. I’m glad it works. But please understand that 1) It is really vague, and unless you can elaborate upon it to build an actual ethical doctrine, referencing it will be meaningless to me; 2) I’m not Wiccan, and I don’t follow it, so please stop advising me to do so; and 3) Actually follow it. Don’t give lip service to it and then justify breaching it with some linguistic maneuvering or vaguery because you really feel that you can do whatever you want, but just want to sound moral.

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4 responses to “The Rede of the Wicae

  1. YES! THIS! Two small points: you left out Rabelais, who “invented” Thelema 343 years before the Lesser Feast of the Greater Beast; and Gardner himself mentioned King Pausolus as a cover story in one of his books (Witchcraft Today?)

  2. This obscurity found within Wicca is pretty much the reason I have pulled away from it. In regards to the Rede itself, it’s been my experience that most people use it as a means to somehow prove Wicca is a peaceful religion and only serves the use of so-called good magick, whatever that may mean. I also feel that it’s people still trying to find a way to fit in with other religions because of the fear of persecution, i.e. “if your religion harms none, and ours harms none, we can get along!.” I love the symbolism and mythos found within the religion but the more I discover it’s actual roots through my study of the Golden Dawn teachings, it bothers me that many Wiccans have absolutely no knowledge of their true heritage.

  3. Pingback: Magical and Pagan Virtues | Blacklight Metaphysics

  4. Pingback: Harm None | Blacklight Metaphysics

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