The Wiccan Rede and 3-fold Law

For me, a discussion is when a group of people sit down and talk a point through, probably at the end of it understanding the topic a little better than when they started. A debate is when each side has a point of view, which they attempt to justify whilst the others listen. A slanging match is a bit like a debate, but neither side listens to the other's point of view. Many people think that they're 'discussing' the 'Wiccan Rede', but the vast majority of such 'discussions' I've encountered in pub-moots, at gatherings and on the Internet, have actually fallen into the 'slanging match' category.

So What's all the Fuss About?

'The Wiccan Rede', or sometimes simply 'The Rede', is a sort of catechism, if it's okay to borrow that term for a moment. It tries to summarise the tenets of the Wiccan faith, or at least one small branch of it. There are several versions around, but the one most people mean when they blithely say 'The Rede' is the verse version which starts "Bide the Wiccan Rede ye must; in perfect love and perfect trust" and ends "eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil; an' it harm none, do what ye will". Opinions differ as to whether it's a "nice piece of poetry" or a "poorly written piece of doggerel". Regardless of viewpoint, 'The Rede' has become sacred for many people and as such, I think it's important to understand how or why.

It's been fairly clear on several occasions that some of the people who sound off about it (both pro- and anti-) haven't actually read the whole thing: there are plenty of accessible copies around, including this one that I believe is the most commonly quoted. Please note that this 'Wiccan Rede' is not the original from Gardner or Valiente, although it draws thereon. If anyone has a copyright-free version of the 'original', I'd love to be able to post it.

'The Rede' is, for many Wiccans and for some pagans who are not Wiccans, a major framework for guidance in matters of ethics. Often quoted is the 'Three-fold Law'...

"Mind the threefold law ye should,
Three times bad and three times good;"

...the idea being that good which you do to others is repaid three-fold and that bad also rebounds three-fold. Wiccans in the main emphasise the worship aspects of their belief system rather than concentrating on the magical aspects. Nonetheless, the three-fold law is frequently mentioned in discussion of whether it's permissible to work magic on behalf of others without their permission, or to wish for harm to someone in the cause of greater good, whatever that is.

Detractors of the whole thing, often on the basis of just the three couplets I've quoted, say things like:

"you've rejected the concept of the devil: all you're doing is putting the three-fold law in his place, as a bogeyman to scare people into behaving".

Believers say things like:

"in some matters there's no right or wrong answer beyond one's own heart or conscience."

Those whose belief involves following the law to the letter frequently feel threatened by such viewpoints and either drop the topic or become defensive:

"how dare you insult my beliefs"

(All three are direct quotes from emails or web pages.)

So, what's the basis of Gardner and Valiente's published work?

Most people agree that at least part of what Gardner and Valiente published derives, directly or indirectly, from Leland's Aradia (1889). How that happened, and indeed how genuine Aradia actually is, is irrelevant to a discussion of the 'Rede' today, but for anyone who doubts that the two documents are related, compare the start of what is nowadays normally called 'The Charge' from Aradia and the first published copy of Gardner's Book of Shadows (and yes, I do know that's not the original title).



When I shall have
departed from this world,


Whenever ye have need
of anything,

Whenever ye have need
of anything,

Once in the month,
and when the moon is full,

once in the month,
and better it be when the moon is full,

Ye shall assemble in some
desert place,
Or in a forest all together join

then shall ye assemble in some
secret place

To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana...

and adore the spirit of me,
who am Queen of all the witcheries...

There's much more, but I suspect that the point is already made. All this stuff is readily available in books or at the click of a mouse, but there are many versions around. I'd hate to be partisan and suggest just one in case you think I'm leading the witness - just visit your local bookshop or fire up your favourite search engine.

So, what about doing bad things?

Aradia is quite explicit:

And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!

Note that although there are many cases of "threes" in Aradia, the exhortation here is for "double the harm".

This exhortation is not totally unreasonable given the political and religious context from which the material comes, but it's not exactly the version from the Rede:

"Mind the threefold law ye should,
Three times bad and three times good;

"eight words the wiccan rede fulfil;
an' it harm none, do what ye will".

To be fair, the 'Three-Fold Law' as implied in the verse Rede doesn't actually appear in Gardner either, although it's alluded to at the end of the scourging bit in the second-degree initiation.

"Eighth the scourge: for learn, in witchcraft you must ever give as you receive, but ever triple. So where I gave thee 3, return 9; where I gave 7, return 21; where I gave 9, return 27; where I gave 21, return 63.

"(Use, 9, 21, 27, 63; i.e., 120 in all [kiss])

"Thou hast obeyed the law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold."

The verse version of 'The Rede' uses this "return threefold" in a significantly different context, and the normal usage of the term 'Three-Fold Law' is that one gets back evil three-fold. Aradia suggests that it's reasonable to give back evil for evil and what is being received in Gardner is scourging, which isn't exactly 'evil' in the context, although one could argue that it?s a cipher. Scourging isn't part of the Aradia system, nor of many others. The argument as to whether Gardner or someone else invented it, or whether someone took it from elsewhere, is interesting but once again not really relevant to this discussion.

In the absence of any other verifiable text, the weight of evidence points to the 'Three-Fold Law', as commonly quoted, not having been a part of any 'Wiccan' tradition on which Gardner's original work may have been based.

That doesn't mean to say that 'The Rede' or 'The Three-Fold Law' are invalid as tenets to live by. Most people prefer to have a basic framework on which to base ethical thinking - unless you make a living as a philosopher, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to reason every case from first principles. It does mean a couple of other things, however. It's wrong to quote it out of context or without recourse to an understanding of where it comes from and whether it's relevant to your own system. But equally, there's no reason for a Wiccan to see criticism of the Rede as an attack on their belief system, either.

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