Harm None

I’ve written about my distaste for the Wiccan Rede before:

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.

One of the problems I see with this is that this kind of equivocation can be used to denounce any action. Any act, especially a magical one, will have larger impacts down the road that cannot often be seen. But in setting them in motion, you have some responsibility in them.

I didn’t really discuss the issue as related to the Rede, but I did talk about the effects of magical action a while back:

I guarantee that a significant number of my readers have done a love spell at some point.

Now, I’m not talking about the “I want this person to fall in love with me!” spell, although I’m sure some people have tried that at some point. But even the generic, “safe” version of the love spell, which goes “I wish to meet a person of X, Y, and Z qualities, who will make a suitable lover for me.”

So, who does this impact?

Well, the other person, obviously. And their families. And their friends. And your friends. And your families.

Oh, you’re dating now? Take time off work? It affects your job. It affects their job. Maybe school. Maybe other people in school. Maybe you innocently miss one class and aren’t there to assist another student having a hard time, or to take notes that someone else might need to copy.

And you’ve attracted a new lover. What about the mate that person was destined to meet? Or the person you were destined to meet but won’t now? And the children you would have had with that person, that now won’t be born?

Okay, that’s getting pretty far down the slippery slope.

Let’s say you did a spell to get a better job. And it works.

What about the person who was supposed to get that job but didn’t now? What about their family? So you’ve got a job that is more fulfilling, but what if they were unemployed?

The collective impact of all of these small factors can build up to major effects. Like that butterfly that changes the weather across the planet.

And you were responsible. It was all your fault. Jerk.

Oh, magic doesn’t work that way? The universe provides? Bullshit. The universe has to get it from somewhere.

When you use magic to create a magnificent feast, someone has to be the turkey. Be responsible. Pick it out yourself ahead of time.

Any act of magic impact other people in a way that can be twisted to be negative. It’s not a matter of taking something from someone so much as adjusting their probabilities and opportunities, but they can easily see it as a loss, as harm. Even things that are good for others can cause “harm” — a breakup may be for the better in the long run, but still causes immediate emotional pain.

“Life is pain, highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.”

— Dread Pirate Wesley

And this changes the emphasis to being as careful as possible, and pondering just how your actions will affect those around you. And that makes sense. But a blind dictum to “Harm None” does not emphasize that subtle point, does not focus so much on the responsibility, does not take into account relative perspectives or conflicting goals. It leaves it open atop a very slippery slope of smug condemnation.

I bring all this up because of a conversation I had with a friend last night. She didn’t go into much detail about her idea, just the gist of it, so I may be premature in writing this, but I think she’s going somewhere good with it.

The Wiccan Rede in its short form, the dictum to harm none, is intended to limit a witches’ power. And that may seem obvious, because it’s intended to limit the power to do harm. But it’s more than that. It is intended to limit personal power. It is intended to limit foresight and responsibility. It is intended to limit agency to act.

It is not a rule that is designed to limit “harmful” or “dark” magic, but to limit all means of magical action and thought. It is a philosophical hobble that keeps you from acting magically to improve your own situation of those of others, for fear that you will incur some threefold return or the Wrath of the Goddess. As Lady Abigail inadvertently demonstrated, the practical application of the Rede is to limit what you work magic upon very severely, on the presumption that you don’t know what you’re doing enough to be responsible, and that you need to submit to the Goddess (or at least your coven leaders) for help in dealing with most of your life.

And given the fact that Wicca is a direct descendent of an Abrahamic tradition that tends to condemn practical results magic in favor of abstract mysticism, I think my friend is one to something.

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4 responses to “Harm None

  1. Pingback: Harm None | Practical Pagans

  2. Annie on her “MirthandReverence” youtube channel has a video discussing The Rede (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJWTa4OGVcA), giving her views on it based on her coven experience. It helped to give me a better understanding of what it means by “harm none.” Her views are similar to what you’ve mentioned about bringing uncertainties before the coven, and by allowing the group to work magic on behalf of the individual, you are reducing the amount of harm done than if the practitioner was left to their own devices. It’s really amazing how many different interpretations there are of this simple statement.

    I think that the purpose of the Rede in Gardnerian Wicca was exactly as you’ve said, to limit a witch’s use of magic. If it was used as a filter before ever performing an act of magic, the statement “harm none” would seem to stop anybody from ever performing magic unless in an extreme circumstance that it was the last resort. That’s a very noble cause, but the problem I have is that how the hell do you learn to do magic unless you PRACTICE? If we wait until a circumstance comes around that we need to use magic, but because our fear of harming none stopped us from every practicing, then how can we expect to have the proficiency to perform when it’s really needed? Doesn’t make any sense to me.

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