Exploring Modern Pagan Ethics Part II: The Wiccan Rede

Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

In my last blog post I talked about the Threefold Law and its relevance in modern Paganism, and how I do believe it has its place in Wicca especially. I guess I should clarify: many Pagans claim the word “Pagan” and yet do not follow Wicca or Wicca-inspired paths (e.g. Neo-Wicca). So I guess I should have changed the above to “Modern Wiccan Ethics,” but there you go. If I did, my OCD would have started clawing at my screen because the first part – already published – is called “Modern Pagan Ethics.” Oh well…I don’t give a shit. It’s my blog, and we’ll just keep going, shall we? On this second part, I’d like to dissect the Wiccan Rede a bit further, and see if it has any relevance to practicing Occultists, particularly those who follow Wicca or a Wicca-inspired path. In addition, many new Pagans start off their education by coming to Wicca first. Everyone comes up to the Wiccan Rede sooner or later, just like the Threefold Law. As a practicing Occultist, I constantly question everything: is it relevant? Does it work? Why do we have this creed/practice/belief? What is this based on? Questioning is never frowned upon, or should never be in any case. It’s a healthy part of Occultism, and allows us to evolve systems. Before you read my take on the Wiccan Rede, there are a couple of other pieces I think are informative. The first was written by Donald Michael Kraig, author of Modern Magick and Modern Sex Magick, and you can find the link here. In response to his blog post, respected Gardnerian High Priestess Deborah Lipp (author of The Way of Four and other books) wrote her own thoughts on the matter here. I encourage you to read these posts before reading my own. On Don’s blog you’ll even see my own response, which is the first one. In fact it was reading those pieces that made me want to go back, study, and then blog my own thoughts on the matter, which led to this three-part series. So let’s start with the basics: just what is the Wiccan Rede?

The Wiccan Rede
Pick up any book on modern Wicca or Wicca-inspired practices, and undoubtedly in the “Witch Ethics” section you will find mentioned the Threefold Law and the Wiccan Rede. Typically, the definition is given that:

“Rede” means ‘Counsel.’ It counsels a witch to harm none but do what ye will.”

More or less statements follow along those same lines of thought. The admonishment is that when you cast spells and work magick, you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone in the process. As an encouragement for apprentice witches to be sure they don’t, they are encouraged to study some healing modality. After all, we wouldn’t want to give people a reason to persecute us, now would we? I mean, we don’t want to practice “Black Magick” so-called, right? That’s evil. (If you cannot sense the snarkiness in my tone, please be assured I am being sarcastic). The Wiccan Rede perhaps became even more popular thanks to modern pop culture shows such as Charmed, where the Rede is quoted in the first episode (even though the Halliwell Sisters end up doing a lot of major harm throughout the series). The Rede itself is usually found in the form of an eight word rhyming couplet, which is:

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

Origin Story
Following the popularity of his first book on Witchcraft, in 1959 Gerald Gardner published The Meaning of Witchcraft, his final volume before his death in 1964. In this book Gardner went into a bit more detail on his personal experiences and practices within the Witch Cult of the New Forest. His purpose, probably since the publication of High Magic’s Aid, was to ensure the revival and, thus, survival of the Witch Cult that he was a part of. Of course, after Witchcraft Today, Gardner discovered that there were other groups in existence around England. Whether they were fragmented survivals from the Middle Ages or before, or else inventions spurred by the English Occult Revival of the early 20th century, is moot at this point, and I’ll post my thoughts on the matter in another blog post. Our purpose here is to find the origins and relevance of the Wiccan Rede. In his book, Gerald makes the following statements:

“John Calvin’s [ortho]doxy (a most ill-favoured hag) was embodied in his favorite dictum, ‘All pleasure is sin.’ … Witches cannot sympathise with this mentality. They are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, ‘Do what you like so long as you harm no one.’ But [Witches] 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.’ This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage, and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others.”   -The Meaning of Witchcraft, p. 127

Here is the first recorded instance, as far as my own research will allow, that demonstrates Gardner contrasting the dogma of Protestant Christianity and that of Witchcraft as he knows it. He quotes “Good King Pausol,” and then goes on to elaborate what he feels it means when it comes to the “harm no one” dictum. Who is this Good King Pausol?

The French Connection
France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a haven of Bohemian art, lifestyles and literature. This fragile time period is known today as La Belle Epoque (“The Beautiful Era”). The country had literally become tired of wars and internal struggles between rising and falling governments that swung between monarchies and republics. Thousands of lives were lost in a maelstrom of poverty, useless border wars, and revolutionary struggles that seemed to end in failure. France was attempting to find its place in the world, which was a growing economy of Western powers setting foot and claiming foreign territories as their own. Western European colonies were the political trends of the time, along with the burgeoning growth of industrial power. Yet the French people fought to make great strides by mostly electing left-wing, pacifist candidates for government positions during the Republic eras. Paris became a cultural center with the famous works of the late Vincent Van Gogh, new Expressionist styles of art, along with Art Nouveu and Impressionism. Although this was still a significant dark period for many underclass workers and rampant struggles between Church and State, nonetheless France’s literary, medical and artistic circles flourished. One of the prominent literary and progressive voices at the time was a gentleman by the name of Pierre Felix Louis (1870 – 1925). Although heterosexual, he was routinely welcome into homosexual circles due to his progressive stances, being friends with Oscar Wilde. He wrote on lesbian erotica and Pagan themes since the age of 18. Intrigued by Classical Greek thought on homosexual and lesbian love, he changed his last name to Louys, substituting the “i” for “y.” This means little to some people, but in French the letter “y” is known as the “Greek i.” In 1901 he wrote a novel called Les Adventures du Roi Pausole, souverain paillard et debonnaire (The Adventures of King Pausole, the bawdy and good-natured sovereign).

The novel takes place in the fictional utopian kingdom of Trypheme, where Good King Pausole rules a land with free love. He has a large harem, and has sex with  a different concubine everyday of the year. On page 4, the Code of Trypheme is given as :

“I. – Ne nuis pas a ton voisin.
II. – Ceci bien compris, fais ce qu’il te plait.”

(My translation):

“I. – Do not harm your neighbor.
II. – This well understood, do what pleases you.”

The author continues to elaborate on this code which runs the entire kingdom:

“Il est superflu de rappeler au lecteur que le deuxieme de ces articles n’est admis par les lois d’aucun pays civilise.
Precisement c’etait celui auquel ce peuple tenait le plus. Je ne me dissimule pas qu’il choque le caractere de mes concitoyens.
Pausole se reservait le plaisir quotidien de sauver par ses arrets quelques libertes individuelles.”

(My translation):

“It is unnecessary to remind the reader that the second of these articles is allowed by the laws of any civilized country.
It was precisely that which the people wanted the most. I do not conceal from myself that this shocks the character of my fellow citizens.
[King] Pausole retains the daily pleasure of saving judgement due to some liberties.”

Essentially, what we have is a novel that is written exploring the concepts of free love and law by Conscience, rather than Rule by Law (or Church Law for that matter!). Keep in mind that many European countries were having struggles between the power of the Roman Church and that of the state. Many utopian novels at the time explored these utopian themes, and French literature wrote it on quite a bit. It’s easy to see that one of the major influences on Louys’ book was Francois Rabelais (1494 – 1553). Rabelais was a French Renaissance humanist, Greek scholar and a monk who poked fun at religion. In The Complete Works of Francois Rabelais it’s said that “[Rabelais] has so many French and Anglophone admirers that space only allows for a minute sampling; in France Jules Renard, Anatole France, Pierre Louys…” Rabelais also had an admirer in the person of Aleister Crowley, who most likely adopted the “Do What Thou Wilt” dictum from Rabelais.

A Case of Synchronicity
Gardner knew many Occultists in his time, being a member of several groups, which is not unusual. Hell, I love joining and celebrating with many groups so I can study the systems, history and lore and in order to further network with other Occultists as well. Wisdom comes from many wells, after all. Sometimes separate sources can give a person inspiration to further their own Work, and in the case of Gardner I think he found it with Crowley as well as the works of Pierre Louys, both of whom were greatly influenced by Rabelais. By the time Wicca came to the public, in Occult circles Crowley’s “Thelema” and its maxim of “Do what thou wilt” was well-known. Whether Gardner knew that Rabelais was the prime influence upon both of these people we will probably never know (unless we conjure his spirit and ask his opinion), but it’s clear that the dictum of “Do what thou wilt and harm none” was enough for him to adopt it into his version of the Craft. At first, it was probably oral lore, since as far as I have been able to ascertain it is not written down in the actual Book of Shadows. Yet, Doreen Valiente was familiar with it enough to quote in a speech. In November 1964 a private newsletter titled Pentagram had a copy of Doreen Valiente’s lecture before 50 Witches and Occultists, and part of it was:

“I think we have earned the right to proclaim the old teaching of tolerance and freedom, and mutual respect, which is contained in the saying called the Wiccan Rede. ‘Wiccan’ is the Anglo-Saxon plural of ‘wicce’; and ‘Rede’ means counsel or teaching:  Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: and it harm none, do what ye will. This is a simple, positive moral code; and it could make the world a much happier place.” – Doreen Valiente, November 1964.

A Positive, Moral Code
If you notice, there is a difference in how Gardner quotes it in his Meaning of Witchcraft as opposed to how Doreen says it. It’s no secret that Doreen was an accomplished poet, and rewrote the original Book of Shadows to include lots of poetry that flowed more beautifully in rhyme. Personally, I believe it was Doreen who came up with the eight word couplet, putting into verse something that might have, as I already stated, been oral lore in Gardner’s reworking of the Craft. Wanting to make Witchcraft public and with as little controversy as possible, I think the “harm none” saying was a way for Gardner to help new Witches be guided in their moral compass when working magick. But wanting a break from the old rulebook of Ten Commandments, Occultism instead admonishes those walking the Arcane Arts to follow their own conscious (call it what you will: Higher Self, Agathos Daimon, Holy Guardian Angel, Inner Light, etc.). Instead, it was something which covens could use when working together. Since the increase in solitary practitioners away from a coven setting, I think that the Wiccan Rede has received a bad reputation of ridicule. Many solitaries, not experiencing the workings of coven magick, work independently and take the interpretation of the Rede way too far. They treat it as an inviolable command by the Great Goddess. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Many Witches, myself included, are in the medical field. We are trained in knowledge which has the potential to kill a human. Yet that knowledge is necessary so that we know how to help facilitate healing the body as well. Psychologists are trained in the inner workings of the mind and have the potential to really induce mental and emotional breakdowns if they wanted to. Yet these trappings are again necessary. Many of the old herbals admonish the use of toxic herbs in the use of healing, such as digitalis for cardiac problems, henbane for anesthesia, and belladonna for certain respiratory disorders.* I get irritated when I have to inject needles, wrap a cast, or cause some sort of discomfort and ignorant Pagans are yelling at me that I am “harming!” I also became irritated when I used to go shopping at the store for meat and some Pagans with a politically-vegan bent berated me that I was breaking the “Harm None” rule to animals. Everyone who yells about this has totally missed the point about the maxim in the first place.

Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill…
The Wiccan Rede, according to Gardner, was placed so that a coven working magick could agree on the outcome. In coven settings, a group mind is necessary. Everyone has to be “in one accord,” in a unified agreement as to the purpose of the Working. Part of an apprentice Witch’s training in a coven setting is to become used to the symbols and associations unique to that coven so that when certain tools and symbols are pulled forward, everyone knows EXACTLY what they are doing. Discussion and preparation are accomplished beforehand so there is a mutual harmony. Everyone’s focus is imperative to the success of the Work at hand. So the Rede, in and of itself, is a compliment to the Threefold Law. Both are encouragements for Witches to rely on their own critical thinking skills, and not on the laws of some sacred book deemed hallowed by the Saints of Witchdom. A Witch must use their own powers of Deductive Analysis and Reason, and then be prepared to bear responsibility when it comes to the consequences of their actions. As I stated in my last blog post, consequences can be positive or negative. “Harm none,” however, is NOT a commandment. It is simply a neat rhyming couplet to help us with our decision-making. The root of this dictum comes from the utopian dreams of French novelists, where people are admonished to follow their conscience and characters have a living of free love away from the leering eyes of judgmental people. Humans, in the eyes of the Craft, already have notions of right and wrong within us. This was a total break from the Roman Church and its Protestant offshoots, which insist that man is born sinful and is prone to bad behavior from the onset; humanity, via the laws of the Church, must be guided to do what is right. This kind of mindset then creates a struggle between fundamentalist Christians and others when laws are being proposed which outlaw victimless crimes (like smoking marijuana), or keep certain ways of living illegal which are ludicrous to outlaw in the first place (such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage, adultery and bigamy to prevent polyamory, etc.).

Most covens won’t take anyone under the age of 18, and it is hoped that by then you have some semblance of right action. If not, then you need some serious help (and I don’t mean that sarcastically; many people grow up in very abusive environments and it takes us many years – decades even -  to adopt positive behaviors and better notions of right and wrong). In the Craft, your personal experiences mean something, and you are treated like a capable adult who is old enough to make their own decisions. No one needs to hold your hand. No one needs to sit over your shoulder like a reprimanding angel. In the coven setting, there does need to be agreement for mutual harmony, but in the solitary life we are all admonished to follow what we already know. If people can sit and understand how freeing the Rede is, and how much empowerment the Craft can give us, then I think it truly would be a better world indeed.

Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)
~Oracle~

*WARNING: Do NOT ingest these toxic herbs, as they are potentially lethal and very unsafe for human consumption!

Sources:

Gardner, G. (1959). The Meaning of Witchcraft.

Julian, P. (1982). La Belle Epoque.

Louys, P. (1901). Les Adventures du Roi Pausole, souverain paillard et debonnaire.

Rabelais, F., transl. by Donald Frame. (1991). The Complete Works of Francois Rabelais.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Modern Pagan Ethics Part II: The Wiccan Rede

  1. […] Exploring Modern Pagan Ethics Part II: The Wiccan Rede (caveoforacle.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] for my next blog entry. While I have discussed some of the misnomers about the Law of Three and the Wiccan Rede, it seems that many in the Neo-Wiccan camp insist on interpreting both principles as inviolate […]

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