Exploring Modern Pagan Ethics Part I: The Threefold Law

Scourging of the Initiates into the Dionysian Mysteries.

Scourging of the Initiates into the Dionysian Mysteries.

This is the first of a three-part series exploring some ethics that are popular in modern Paganism. It will give me a chance (hopefully) to have some creative dialogue with people who may or may not agree with me. From there I will also be presenting how the Hellenic Mysteries construed their viewpoint of the Cosmos, and where this paradigm fits into the Ophic Strix teachings. When it comes to ethics and the Mystery Traditions, there are some long-held beliefs I have come to challenge. Just because it was handed to me, doesn’t mean I am going to accept it. I can’t. It’s in my nature to question and put to the test that which is given to me, whether it’s old-wives tales from my parents (anyone remember being told swallowing gum would stay in your tummy for 7 years?) to religious teachings (3-fold Law, Harm None, etc.). In this segment I am going to dissect the Threefold Law and find out what is really being taught here. More importantly, is it relevant? When it comes to occult practices, the question is always asked if what you are doing works. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, discard it. If it does indeed work, keep using it and find out how. So here we go:

Just what exactly is the Threefold Law (sometimes also referred to as the “Rule of Three”)? The word “Law” is there to imply that it is akin to some physics law like the Gauss’ Law of Gravity or the First Law of Thermodynamics. In other words, something that is quantifiable and has been observed to be a principle in action. But rather than being a scientific law, it belongs more in the realm of Metaphysics. But first things first: where in the hell did it come from? And what’s with the number “Three” in there?

The Leland Connection
As far as I have been able to ascertain, Gerald Gardner was a voracious reader of all things Occult. He was also very familiar with the writings of Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), an American folklorist who traveled extensively and studied subjects which were considered obscure. For example, he was one of the first Westerners to write about gypsies and the Myths of the Algonquin Indians. But perhaps he is more popularly known in modern Paganism for his Aradia, Or the Gospel of the Witches which talks about a 14th-century figure named Aradia who was sent to earth to teach witchcraft and the religion of the Goddess Diana. A lot has been written about the influence that Leland had on Gardner and the origins of Wicca, so I won’t go into any detail here. If you want any further information, see my reference list below. For this blog article what is particularly interesting is an excerpt in the first chapter when the Goddess Diana is giving instructions to Aradia. The Goddess tells her:

“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!”

What is particularly noteworthy is the command by the Goddess to inflict harm, and doubly so! That Gerald was familiar enough with this passage leaves room for little doubt when one looks at some of the influences that this writing has had on modern Wicca. For example, compare these passages from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows with those of Aradia:

“Whenever ye have need of anything, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall ye assemble in some secret place and adore the Spirit of Me who am Queen of all Witcheries. There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets – to these will I teach things that are yet unknown. And ye shall be free from slavery. And as a sign that ye be free, ye shall be naked in your rites. And ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love – all in my praise.” (Book of Shadows)

“Whenever ye have need of anything, Once in the month, and when the moon is full,
Ye shall assemble in some desert place,
Or in a forest all together join
To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana. She who fain
Would learn all sorcery yet has not won
Its deepest secrets, them my mother will
Teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead;
And ye shall make the game of Benevento,
Extinguishing the lights, and after that
Shall hold your supper thus.” (Aradia)

The Hellenic Connection
Gardner was a fan of Plato, of this there is little doubt. Gardner makes references to Plato in his Witchcraft Today. It is quite possible that Gardner was familiar with Plato’s The Republic which featured The Myth of Er.  The Myth of Er is an eschatological tale as recounted by the Greek Sage Socrates to a person named Glaucon. Socrates states that a warrior by the name of Er had a near death experience in which he woke up about to be burned on the funeral pyre but was able to recount his journey to the Underworld. In Er’s vision, some souls who had been just while alive had journeyed to the Upperworld where they found bliss, while the unjust souls went further into pits below the thrones of the Judges to meet their retribution. To recount the entire Myth in detail would be too long, but there is an interesting passage that Socrates tells Glaucon:

“The story, Glaucon, would take too long to tell; but the sum was this:—[Er] said that for every wrong which they had done to any one they suffered tenfold; or once in a hundred years—such being reckoned to be the length of man’s life, and the penalty being thus paid ten times in a thousand years. If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cities or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion [emphasis mine].”
-Plato, The Myth of Er, from The Republic, transl. by B. Jowett.

Another work that Gardner might have been familiar with was written by the playwright Aeschylus, who wrote the play The Oresteia. This Greek trilogy weaves a tale of endless cycles of family vengeance and bloodshed. The family featured, the House of Atreus, was founded by Tantalus who had offended the Gods when he cooked his own sons and fed them in a banquet to which he had invited the Gods to eat. Other stories of child sacrifice and murder are given, which arouse the Erinyes (the Furies), whose function under the order of the Titans was to call for exact retribution. In other words, blood for blood, an eye for an eye. However, the main character of the tale, Orestes, is given a fair trial in Athens where the Deities Apollon and Athena are present. Orestes is acquitted, and the Erinyes are pacified by Athena, who calls an end to the old order of cyclic bloodshed and karmic vengeance and replaces it with the laws of the state and the institution of civilization.

Early References
Before the Witchcraft Act was repealed in England (thanks to the efforts of the Spiritualists), Gardner wrote a fiction novel titled High Magic’s Aid. It carried a lot of Occult principles, and some have suggested that Gardner was trying to put into print teachings and rites that he was familiar with from the New Forest coven of which he was a member. During an initiation ritual, there is a moment when the newly initiated Witch, who is given the Craft Name Janicot, must bind and scourge their initiator. The initiating Witch, named Morven, tells Janicot something interesting as the latter binds Morven:

Learn, in witchcraft, thou must ever return triple. As I scourged thee, so thou must scourge me, but triple, where 1 gave thee three strokes, give nine, where seven, give twenty-one, where nine, give twenty-seven, where twenty-one, give sixty-three. (For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard). Jan was nervous but she insisted, and at last he gave her the required number, but struck very lightly. Then [Morven] said; Thou hast obeyed the law. But mark well when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold.” (High Magic’s Aid).

Unlike the words of the Goddess Diana who encouraged the witch to do double harm upon the priest, in this passage Morven warns Janicot to be aware that whatever intent and energy is sent out, it will return back onto him. But more than that, the Witch is obliged to return positive intents threefold when good has been done to them. In a way this admonishment behaves much like the concept of Pay It Forward. In this sense, then, what we have is a positive way of viewing how to interact and behave with the world rather than a “Thou Shalt Not” of negative commands. The admonishment and reminder of how this concept works is exemplified in the initiation ritual so that it becomes part of tactile memory: do not strike hard, for you will be struck likewise in return.

Why the Number 3?
While this concept is easy to grasp for many modern Pagans, the fuss enters the picture when it comes to the number “3.” This is usually where people get confused, and all sorts of writings are out there detailing the various ways that the Threefold Law is interpreted literally. There are those who say that your energy will come back and affect you mind, spirit, body. There are those who say it will literally come back three times so that you are affected three times the amount (personal mathematical calculations ensue). There are more, and everyone debates about it. Personally, I think the point is missed in the usage of the number 3. If you read High Magic’s Aid, you will quickly see the number 3 throughout the book: 3 people, 3fold law, 3 strikes of the bell, 3 knots, etc. Again, Gardner knew his Myths and Occultism. 3 is a sacred number, and always has been among Indo-Europeans cultures. Frequent examples of the number 3 can readily be found such as the Three Fates, the Three Graces, Triple Goddesses, 9 Muses (3×3), 9 Worlds (3×3), Three Realms, Three Roads (a crossroad), etc. Indo-European cultures frequently held a tripartite view of the world in which society was divided up into 3 major classes (i.e. Priests/Nobility, Warrior, Worker). Examples include Celtic, Roman, Greek, Iranian and Indian cultures (The Trinity and the Indo-European Tripartite Worldview, 1999).

It has been suggested that perhaps our Indo-European ancestors at one time might not have been able to count beyond the number 3, and that everything revolved or was an extension of that number (The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics). Stanislaus Dehaene writes:

The Indo-European root of the word “three” suggests that it might have once been the largest numeral, synonymous with “a lot” and “beyond all others” – as in the French tres (very) or the Italian troppo (too much), the English through, or the Latin prefix trans-. Hence, perhaps, the only numbers known to Indo-Europeans were “1,” “1 and another,” (2) and “a lot” (3 and beyond).

The Principle of Magnification
So, putting it all together, what are we talking about? What does the Threefold Law really encompass? If we examine carefully the thread of our studies and the references cited, what we are seeing is an old concept akin to Karma. Many people today are familiar with the concept of karma, thanks to the New Age explosion of the 1960s. But unfortunately the word has devolved into meaning some things which don’t equate with the actual concept. Karma, in popular Western culture, has come to mean simply “bad fortune that you deserved.” I hear it all the time. “My ex’s car won’t start, and he just got laid off. That cheating bastard now knows: karma is a bitch.” Have you ever heard that? “Karma is a bitch!” When I hear it, I shake my head. These people have no concept of what karma actually is. To them, karma is simply another word for “Payback” or some imagined Cosmic Retribution system where Luck/the Divine favors that individual over another. Simply put, Karma means “Action.” Behavior equals consequence, and those consequences can either be positive or negative. They can affect you and your immediate surroundings. In Occultism, everything has a vibration. All choices, actions and behaviors create a ripple effect. It’s like the world around us is a big pond, and every one of us is a pebble waiting to be dropped into the pool. When we make a choice or act upon a decision, we are the pebble which drops into the pool. Ripples ensue. But then other pebbles are also dropping: other people are making their own choices everyday. Some are far from us, and others are nearby. But no matter what, we will be effected in some way by these actions. And if you’ve ever seen a ripple in a pond, you know that the ripples wave out and get bigger. They magnify.

The number 3, in my personal opinion, may not be meant to have been taken literally. I think the number “3” in “Threefold” means that our actions go above and beyond ourselves, that our actions don’t just impact us alone. Lots of people make ill-advised decisions, thinking that their actions only affect them. But they don’t; it’s an illusion. An illusion of separateness rooted in selfishness and confirmation bias. We want a sense of independence that states we can do whatever we want without consequences, and if there are any, only we will be punished. We’ll deal with it, because it couldn’t possibly hurt anyone else. It’s interesting to me that when we are positively rewarded for making affirmative choices, we feel the need to share our glee with our family and friends. Everyone shares in our triumphs and successes, and everyone benefits in many ways. But when it comes to our negative decisions, many times we do the obverse and feel that our consequences will have no ill affects on anyone. Strange, isn’t it?

What the Threefold Law does, as hinted in High Magic’s Aid, is that Initiates and Witches are invited to actively participate in the Cosmos. Our rituals of scourging and binding are stark reminders that what we do does have a real potential affect. We are no longer a witch alone: we are a community. We are part of something bigger, a Cosmos alive and eager to play with us. Yet, the message through the scourging and binding is also meant to remind us that we are in control of our choices. When we are given an opportunity to enact (strike), we must do so with careful forethought, because our actions will reverberate and magnify, and at some point they will return to us. Like the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory in miniature, forethought and active participation in our lives is what is being admonished. To take our personal power, because we as Witches understand that we have a responsibility with the Magic(k) we hold. We don’t have to have a list of “Thou Shalt’s” and “Thou Shalt Not’s.” No, we have gifts of Reason and Conscious. We have personal power that should not be lightly surrendered to others. We have responsibility we must take for our actions, and we can blame no one but ourselves. The relevancy of the Threefold Law is not only in its recitation, but in the principles embodied during the Initiation Rites. This is something to contemplate, I believe, and understand just why certain principles are there. But I’ll cover that in another blogpost. For now, I think we have enough here to contemplate. But I’ll end with a saying in my temenos that I think carries weight with the Threefold Law:

“Never surrender your personal power.”

Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)


Aeschylus. Transl. by A. Shapiro and P. Burian (2003). The Complete Aeschylus: Volume I: The Oresteia.

Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics.

Gardner, G. (1949). High Magic’s Aid.

Gardner, G. (1954). Witchcraft Today.

Grimassi, R. (1995). Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe

Leland, C.G. (1899). Aradia, Or the Gospel of the Witches of Italy.

Plato. Transl. by B. Jowett. (2008). The Republic

Porter, A.P. (1999). The Trinity and the Tripartite Indo-European Worldview. Budhi, III. nos 2-3; pp. 1-28.