Modern Paganism embraces a wide variety of spiritual traditions. One of the challenges of these traditions is that in some instances they are not thoroughly considered. An individual tradition may leave out large swathes of concepts and limit themselves to small sections of reality. There is often the worship of deities, the practice of magick, divination, and healing, the celebration of festivals and holidays, but little else. As a result, for many people their spiritual tradition is merely a part-time practice rather than a way of living. (I wouldn’t limit this to Pagans, either.)
In fact, 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.”
Perhaps it was derived directly from one of these, perhaps indirectly, or perhaps it was just the founders of modern Wicca expressing their libertarian views. Whatever the source, as related to Wicca it first appears in a speech by Doreen Valiente in 1964. Various versions of it, including ones that are much longer, have appeared over the past half century, but the essence remains those eight words: An (Middle English for “If”) it harm none, do what ye will.
This seems like a magickal mantra for modern-day Objectivists and libertarians: As long as you leave me alone and don’t affect me in any way, do whatever you want.
The Practical Impact of the Rede
Unfortunately, unless you live by yourself and completely “off the grid” using no public services of any kind, actually following the Rede is not only impossible, it’s unethical.
- If you buy clothes of any kind, chances are they were made in third-world countries by people in terrible conditions. You’re hurting them.
- If you buy food in a grocery store, chances are the fruits and vegetables were planted, raised, and harvested by underpaid and overworked temporary workers. You’re hurting them.
- If you see a person such as a child or someone who is elderly being attacked or abused, you can’t use force to stop the attacker or abuser. That would be hurting them.
To completely follow the rede requires you to either raise your own foods or know where it came from during every step of its production, not buy any clothes that might have been made by workers who are laboring under horrible conditions, and certainly not use force to defend the health, safety, and well-being of the weak or powerless.
If you have a pet that is suffering intense pain from age or disease, the rede requires you to let them suffer until they die on their own. You could not euthanize them to prevent further suffering. And since the rede is usually associated with treating yourself well, if you’re suffering intense pain from some disease or other ailment, and there is no possible cure or way to alleviate your pain, making the conscious decision to end your own misery is not allowed.
Silver RavenWolf clearly understands the problem of actually following the letter of the rede. In Solitary Witch she writes that “if you lived by the ‘an’ it harm none’ rule to the letter, you couldn’t even work against disease!” Her workaround is to acknowledge that by not acting to stop someone from doing evil, you are allowing greater harm to manifest. Your goal should be to minimize harm to everyone.
Okay. That’s a way of working around the rede. But that’s what it is: working around the rede. 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.” This basically negates the rede and changes the context to following RavenWolf’s interpretation of limiting harm to all.
The Missing Part of the Rede
There is also something important missing from the rede that makes it irrelevant: the result of not following it. If you harm someone, what happens as a result? As written, there is no negative impact on you. You may as well say, “try to live a harmless life, but if you harm someone, well, YOLO. That’s the way it goes.”
So what is it that’s missing? Although not originally directly associated with the rede, Gerald Gardner first wrote about it in his Wiccan novel (1949) entitled HIgh Magic’s Aid. It’s later described as a “law” by Monique Wilson and was popularized as a law by Raymond Buckland. This is the “Law of Three” or “Three-fold Law.”
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).
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.
Some people refer to this as the “Law of Return” and state that the concept is valid, but it may not necessarily have a three-fold return. So does that mean if you murder someone you’re only going to be murdered 2 1/3 times? How does that work?
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?
The Reluctant Messiah
In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, author Richard Bach confronts the situation. A movie Dracula-like vampire asks to feed on the story’s protagonist. The protagonist refuses. His mentor points out that he’s hurting the vampire by not letting him feed. He leads the protagonist to understand that we are all free to do whatever we want. Period. But wouldn’t this ultimate freedom lead to pure narcissism and anarchy and not caring about anyone other than ourselves? Possibly. But there is an even older Pagan solution.
The Tantric Solution
Most people think of Tantra as being “that sex stuff.” In actuality, Tantra is one of the world’s oldest Pagan spiritual traditions. Tantra is the source of such concepts as the chakras, kundalini, acupuncture, the Tattvic Tides, a God and Goddess, etc. Some authorities (see, for example, Ann Moura‘s book on the history of Witchcraft) even believe that it was people from early India who came West into Europe where they became known as (or influenced) the Druids.
The ancient Tantrics also discovered the concept of karma. Most people reading this will have some idea of karma, and I describe it more fully here. Basically put, karma has nothing to do with intent. It only has to do with actions. If you do something, there will be a result. Your intent is irrelevant.*
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of karma is not to punish or reward; it is to educate. Once you learn the results of what you do, enlightened self-interest will encourage you to do good so that the response from the universe back to you will be good. This process will help you on your personal spiritual evolution. This traditional concept of karma makes clear that:
You are free to do whatever you want in life,
but you are responsible for whatever you do.
A karmic response to any action may come through the actions of friends and family, governmental organizations, or from the universe itself with new opportunities or a removal of positive things in your life. It may take several lifetimes for you to learn what you need to do to make your life the wonderful thing you want it to be.
However, you are free to do whatever you want. The ancient Tantric term for this is svecchacharya (pronounced svek-cha-car-ee-ya), Sanskrit for “The path of doing one’s Will.” You are free to do whatever you want, but you are responsible for whatever you do.
If I see a child being abused, someone weak or frail being abused, a woman being raped, someone being bullied, etc., I’m going to stand up to the bully, the abuser or the rapist. I’ll try to stop them without hurting them. However, if I must, I will use force. That will have a negative impact on my karma. But I’m aware of that and it’s my choice. In my opinion, freedom without the awareness of the results of that freedom is ethically worthless.
So what do you think? Is it time to abandon the Wiccan Rede and Three-Fold Law as unobtainable and unrealistic goals? Would moving to the concepts of svecchacharya make more sense? Share what you think in the comments section below.
* Some New Age writers disagree and claim that there are “Lords of Karma” who determine the degree of reward or punishment for an action based on some sort of mystical or clairsentient interpretation of your intent. There is no traditional source that holds this position, nor is there any traditional understanding of karma indicating that intent affects the karmic process.