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About Wicca:

The Wiccan Rede: evaluating the morality of an action:
Comments, history, possible origins, & application.

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See the preceeding essay for more information on the Wiccan Rede

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Some Wiccans' comments on the Rede:

Judy Harrow writes:

"The Craft, assuming ethical adulthood, offers us no rote rules. We will always be working on incomplete knowledge. We will sometimes just plain make mistakes. Life itself, and life-affirming religion, still demands that we learn, decide, act, and accept the results." 1

Robin Woodsong writes:

" 'Do as you will and harm none' is not an easy way to structure morality. We have difficult personal choices to make and hard decisions to follow. It would be much simpler if all aspects of our lives were regulated, and the rules and regulations written down and posted. No more thinking, no hard choices, no more struggling over ethical conflicts." 2

Following the Wiccan faith can be much more difficult than participating in one of the organized religions. Wicca does not include a list of compulsory actions and of forbidden actions. The member has to figure out which actions are moral for themselves.

Wren, writing for Witchvox, said:

"Unlike most mainstream religions, Witchcraft does not have a long list of laws governing our behavior. Witches generally adhere to what has become known as "THE WICCAN REDE" and THE THREE-FOLD LAW. These two principles contain the basics of what Witches define as ethical and moral behavior within the Craft and the society in which we live." 3

The http://blessedbe.sugarbane.com website states:

"The Rede ... expressly rejects the concept of sin outside of harm to oneself or to another. The Rede is only a guideline which the individual must interpret to fit each particular situation." 4

Erin Dragonsong writes:

"The Wiccan Rede is the only Wiccan law. If we can generalize to all Wicca. And if we can call it a 'law.' Actually, guideline might be a better term. It implies a standard of conduct rather than a rule imposed by some outside authority and carrying a threat of punishment." 5

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History of the Wiccan Rede within Wicca:

John Coughlin researched the writings of Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and Doreen Valiente (1922-1999). These are the two individuals who are generally regarded as the founders of modern Wicca. He found the first reference to a ethical guideline similar to the Wiccan Rede in Gardner's third book: "The Meaning of Witchcraft." 6 He wrote that Wiccans:

"...are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol [sic], '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'." 7

It appears that King Pausole was a character in a novel by a French writer, Pierre Louys, called "The Adventures of King Pausole," published in 1901.

Coughlin writes that:

"The first recorded mention of the Wiccan Rede in the eight-word form popular today, at least that I have been able to discover thus far, was in a speech by Doreen Valiente on October 3, 1964 at what may have been the first witches' dinner organized in modern history. The event was sponsored by 'Pentagram,' a quarterly newsletter and 'Witchcraft Review' [which was] started and published by Gerard Noel in 1964:"

"Demanding tolerance between covens as well as toward the outside world, Doreen spoke the Anglo-Saxon witch formula called the Wiccan Rede or wise teaching: 'Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil, An' it harm none, do what ye will'." 8

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Possible ancient origins of the Wiccan Rede:

The most ancient possible source of the Wiccan Rede that we have been able to find is contained in the writings of Augustine of Hippo. In Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John, Augustine wrote: "Dilige, et quod vis fac" in Latin. This can be translated as "Love, and do what you will."

A more recent source for at least part of the Wiccan Rede may have been by a 16th century novelist, François 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." 9

This concept appears to have been adopted by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) in his Law of Thelema which is contained in his 1904 book Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law). Many believe that Crowley received the text of the Law from an angelic entity named Aiwass:

"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." 10

Later in the Book of the Law is a verse which states:

"Invoke me under my stars! Love is the law, love under will. Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well! He, my prophet, hath chosen, knowing the law of the fortress, and the great mystery of the House of God." 11

Excerpts from these two verses are sometimes quoted together as two commandments:  "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."  "Love is the law, love under will."

Ellie Crystal writes:

"Most Thelemites hold that every person possesses a True Will, a single overall motivation for their existence. The Law of Thelema mandates that each person follow their True Will to attain fulfillment in life and freedom from restriction of their nature. Because no two True Wills can be in real conflict ...this Law also prohibits one from interfering with the True Will of any other person." 12

Crowley initiated Gerald Gardner into the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) in 1946. Gardner may have taken the phrase from Rabelais and Crowley: "do what thou wilt," grafted it onto a clear, unambiguous expression to do no harm, and produced the Wiccan Rede as we know it today.

An alternative explanation is that the Rede was extracted directly from the Wiccan Credo which some Wiccans believe was written circa 1910 CE by Adriana Porter.

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Applying the Wiccan Rede:

The Rede is not necessarily an easy guide to practice. Sometimes it is not even a practical method of reaching a moral decision. Consider some possible complications:

  • Sometimes, all of the possible options would harm a person to some degree. A literal application of the Rede is then not possible. One might then decide to take no action; however under some circumstances to do nothing will also cause harm. Many, perhaps most, Wiccans substitute "harm least" for the Wiccan Rede's "harm none" in this case. They would then take whatever action would minimize harm to others. This necessitates the Wiccan evaluating the degree of harm each option is liable to cause.

  • Sometimes, one must consider engaging in self defense by manipulating or controlling an attacker -- or perhaps even injure them. Many Wiccans use spells and other magical techniques to bind another person so that the latter cannot initiate an aggressive act.

  • The Rede says to harm none -- that is, to harm no person. It is not necessarily clear to what "none" refers. Clearly, a newborn, infant, child, youth, adult, or senior citizen should be protected from harm. However, there is no consensus on when human personhood begins. A human ovum and spermatozoon are usually considered a form of human life because they are alive and contain human DNA. But both of them are not usually considered a actual human person. A substantial percentage of people believe that human personhood begins at some time during the process of fertilization after one very lucky spermatozoon and an ovum fuse. Others specify that it happens when the blastocyst is implanted in the inner wall of the uterus, or when blood starts to flow within the embryo, or when the embryo's heartbeat can be detected, or when the embryo loses its gill slits and tail, or when its higher brain functions turn on for the first time and the fetus becomes sentient, or when it becomes able to survive outside of the womb, or when the fetus half emerges from the woman's body, or when it is fully delivered, or when the umbilical cord is cut and the newborn is separated from her or his mother. Since there is no general agreement on when the pre-embryo, embryo or fetus attains personhood, the Wiccan has no reliable way of knowing when the Wiccan Rede becomes applicable.

  • Another consideration is whether "none" would also include non-human species of animals or even plants.

  • A very strict interpretation of the Rede would limit a person's options severely; many actions would not meet the requirements of the Rede. For example:

    • Watching television, listening to a radio, etc. consumes electricity which, in North America, is partly generated by coal-fueled generators. The total pollution caused by such power plants kills thousands of people each year in North America. "Clean coal" is an oxymoron.

    • Driving a car generates exhaust gasses, some of which contribute to climate change. The resultant global warming and the increases in drought, floods, excessive heat, etc. hurt every person on Earth.

  • Another very strict literal interpretation of the Rede might provide some wiggle room to those who wish to do harm. The Rede says that an action can be taken if it harms none. However, it could be argued that the Rede does not specifically prohibit an action even if it does result in harm.
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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Judy Harrow, "Exegesis on the Wiccan Rede," Harvest, Volume 5, #3. Online at: Real Magick: http://realmagick.com/
  2. Robin Woodsong, "A view on the Wiccan Rede," Real Magick, at: http://realmagick.com/
  3. Wren, "The Wiccan Rede," Witchvox, 2000-JUL-16, at: http://www.witchvox.com/
  4. Anon, "The Wiccan Rede," at: http://blessedbe.sugarbane.com/
  5. Erin Dragonsong, "The Wiccan Rede," at: http://www.wicca-spirituality.com/
  6. Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, (Reprinted 1982), Page 127.
  7. John Coughlin, "The Wiccan Rede: A historical journey. Parg 2: The Early Years," Waning Moon, 2001-2002, at: http://www.waningmoon.com/.
  8. John Coughlin, "The Wiccan Rede: A historical journey. Part 3: Eight Words...," Waning Moon, 2001-2002, at: http://www.waningmoon.com/.
  9. François Rabelais, "Gargantua," (1534).
  10. Aleister Crowley, "The Book of the Law," Chapter 1, Verse 40.
  11. Ibid, Verse 57.
  12. Ellie Crystal, "Aleister Crowley," at: http://www.crystalinks.com/
  13. Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, (Reprinted 1982), Page 127.
  14. John Coughlin, "The Wiccan Rede: A historical journey. Parg 2: The Early Years," Waning Moon, 2001-2002, at: http://www.waningmoon.com/.
  15. John Coughlin, "The Wiccan Rede: A historical journey. Part 3: Eight Words...," Waning Moon, 2001-2002, at: http://www.waningmoon.com/.
  16. François Rabelais, "Gargantua," (1534).
  17. Aleister Crowley, "The Book of the Law," Chapter 1, Verse 40.
  18. Ibid, Verse 57.
  19. Ellie Crystal, "Aleister Crowley," at: http://www.crystalinks.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-AUG-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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