Ethics in Wicca: The Wiccan Rede
In Wicca, it is unfortunate that the most popular resources do not give nearly as much attention to ethics and morality -- a basis for any religious lifestyle -- as they do to more irrelevant topics like crystals, tarot cards and faeries. I find that in the most popular websites and books about Wicca, the topic of ethics is either grossly oversimplified, or barely given much attention.
When it comes down to it, though, anyone can do magic, spells, practice divination or be interested in paranormal topics; it doesn't make them Wiccan. Anyone can be Pagan and worship Pagan Gods and Goddesses; it doesn't necessarily make them Wiccan. Anyone can have reverence for nature, love the Earth and honor life; it doesn't make them Wiccan.
So what is it that really does make us Wiccan? What is it that sets Wicca apart from other religions, other spiritual individuals who use magic and divination, other nature lovers and even other Pagans? It's a core of tenets and ethics that are central to our faith.
The Wiccan Rede -- An it harm none, do what you will -- is generally accepted as the basis for Wiccan ethics and morality. Is it, though?
What is the Wiccan Rede?
Let's Start with a Wiccan Rede Quiz
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Let's Do Some Diggin
History of the Rede
A Brief Timeline1
1534 - Francois Rabelais publishes novel Gargantua. A phrase in it later makes its way into the Rede:
- "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."
1901 - French novelist Pierre Louÿs publishes The Adventures of King Pausole. The main character expresses two sentiments that become the basis for the Rede:
- "Do no wrong to thy neighbor."
- "Observing this, do as thou pleasest."
1904 - Alister Crowley publishes The Book of the Law. He is familiar with the work of Rabelais and Louÿs. His book includes the Law of Thelema:
- "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."
1956 - Gerald Gardner publishes his book The Meaning of Witchcraft. In talking about Witches, Gardener states:
- "They are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, 'Do what you like so long as you harm no one.'"
It is unclear who inspired Gardner more: Louÿs or Crowley.
1964 - Doreen Valiente, Gardner's former High Priestess and partner in developing Wiccan liturgy, gives a speech. She is the first to utter the phrase as it is best known today:
- "Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, An' it harm none, do what ye will."
This phrase catches on for the first time among Wiccans. Later that year, Valiente's quote makes it's way into Pentagram, a Pagan newsletter.
1965 - Justine Glass publishes the book Witchcraft, The Sixth Sense. She slightly alters the phrasing:
- "The Wiccan Rede (i.e. Counsel or advice of the Wise Ones) is: 'An ye harm no one, do what ye will.'"
1965 - 1973 - The Wiccan Rede is picking up momentum, making its way into more books, newsletters and being repeated by well known Wiccans.
1975 - Lady Gwen Thompson publishes a long poem in The Green Egg magazine. It is called "The Rede of the Wicca" and it contains the quote attributed to Valiente
- 'Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, An' it harm none, do what ye will.'
Thompson claims that her grandmother actually wrote the poem, and that the Rede was actually handed down in her family line from antiquity. Her claim is dismissed by many, however, because of incorrect usage of archaic language throughout the poem.
1978 - Doreen Valiente publishes Witchcraft for Tomorrow, repeating her earlier statement:
- "Eight Words the Wiccan Rede fulfil: An it harm none, do what ye will. This can be expressed in more modern English as follows: Eight words the Witches' Creed fulfill: If it harms none, do what you will."
She incorporates the Rede into a longer work of poetry she titles 'The Wiccan Creed', which is still often confused with Thompson's poem.
- "And Do What You Will be the challenge,
So be it in love that harms none,"
Beyond 1978 - The Wiccan Rede has become a fixture in the Wiccan religion, and barely a work -- be it book, article or website -- has come and gone without mentioning it.
Examining the Rede
The Wiccan Rede: Looking at the Language
*Please note, in this article I am referring to the actual, 8-word Wiccan Rede: 'An it harm none, do what you will. I am not referring to the longer poems that over the years have been written around the Rede. The actual Wiccan Rede has no 'long version'.
In the 21st century, we may still quote the Rede in the archaic language to which it was given to us, but this very language has confused more than young, budding Wiccans than it has helped. It's important to consider the words of the Rede and try to translate them into modern terms before it can be interpreted.
Wiccan Rede Words
The very first word that causes people to stumble over the Rede is the first word itself. The word 'an' here does not actually mean 'an', nor is it short for 'and'. It has a more specific meaning: in this case means 'if' or 'as long as'.
referring to whatever you are doing.
generally accepted to mean any act of harm, not just physical infliction. Wiccans consider mental, spiritual and emotional harm the same as physical harm. Further, harm is often extended to more passive means that could result in hurting someone, such as manipulation or coercion.
generally accepted to mean persons or things, including animals, plants, the planet itself, or possessions that don't belong to us.
go ahead and act, after having given thought to the caveat 'An it harm none'.
the thing you wish to do.
ye or you:
plural form of 'you', meaning applicable to all Wiccans.
This word is interpreted in two ways: 'will' meaning 'want/desire', or 'Will' from Aliester Crowley's definition of 'Will', or your 'grand destiny in life'.
Modern Rephrasing of the Wiccan Rede
So we come down to the more modern rephrasing of the Rede here:
As long as you're not hurting anyone or anything, go ahead and do what you want
or, for Crowley fans:
If you're not doing any harm, pursue your life's purpose/highest ideals.
I wish I could say I was brilliant enough to have put together this timeline of the Wiccan Rede, but the credit must go to Mr. Coughlin. I present here only a fraction of his research and and work. His book, Ethics of the Craft, should without a doubt be on the shelf of every Wiccan, and should be considered a per-requisit read for new Wiccans.
Interpreting the Rede
There are many Wiccans who can take this interpretation to extremes. Some see the Wiccan Rede as a commandment of sorts-- a mandate to never, ever do harm. It's even been used in this context to support stances like veganism and pacifism. It's also been turned on Wiccans in this context to call us hypocrites for not being able to live up to our moral ideals.
The problem, of course, with this interpretation of the Rede is that it's impossible to live without doing harm-- weeding the garden, taking medicine to kill a disease, clocking a rapist in the head, etc., are all acts that do harm. in this context, the Rede becomes an impossible standard to which no one will ever measure up.
The very word 'Rede' means 'wise council'. This definition rules out that it is any type of mandate or commandment. It was not given to us by Gods, but by other humans who trod the path before us. It's advice; wise advice. But like all wise advice, it's meant to be applied with wisdom.
Generally, the Wiccan Rede is a fairly simple philosophy: as long as what you're doing isn't hurting anyone or anything, go ahead and knock yourself out. Don't feel guilty; don't hold back; don't let someone talk you out of it-- you're not hurting anyone or anything, so there's no reason to feel inhibited.
Notice It does not actually say anything about what to do if we are hurting someone or something, or if our actions do call for harm2.
The Inevitablility of Harm
Doing harm is just inherent in living. Sometimes harm is inevitable. Breaking up with a guy who is in love with you is emotionally hurtful, yet absolutely necessary if you don't feel the same. To plant my garden, I had to turn up the Earth and get rid of the grass and weeds that were already growing there- but I knew the organic produce and herbs would in the long run be better for my family's health (financial as well as physical). A rat could hurt my children, so you're darn right I lay down traps or poisons if one gets into the house. There I am-- deliberately doing harm. Doing things that a multitude of other Wiccans have done and continue to do-- and have no intention of stopping: harmful acts.
- Sometimes, we cause harm.
- Sometimes, it's the best choice.
- Sometimes, there is no choice.
The Rede actually neither promotes, nor prohibits, harm. It only says we should do things freely when we know no harm is involved.
It would make no sense for the Rede to prohibit something impossible to avoid. A key tenet of Wicca is finding a healthy balance in all things-- why then would our central core moral philosophy promote not only an extreme, but an extreme impossible to uphold? It's a little too in line with the Christian idea that man's true nature is sinful for me to mesh well with Wicca. Arbitrary mandates don't make much sense within a religion that teaches principles like balance and personal responsibility. We see the world in shades of gray, not black and white.
Interpreted as a "never do harm" mandate, the Rede becomes contradictory to the rest of Wicca. But taken as advice to do what you want when it's done responsibly and with consideration to the consequences, the Rede makes perfect sense.
This is why the Rede makes a good Golden Rule as such, but should not be considered the be-all, end-all final word in Wiccan ethics and morals.
Web of Life
The Rede Beyond the Circle
When many Wiccans invoke the Rede, they're defending magic and spell casting. You can barely navigate an interfaith message board without seeing Wiccan protests that we don't curse or hex people, we don't cast love spells on people or practice 'black magick' or call up 'evil spirits'.
That's a given, I grant you. I wonder how many of us think about the Wiccan Rede in when making mundane choices in our daily lives, though.
For example, on a simple trip to the grocery store, how many of us think about the Rede? How many Wiccans remember that they put themselves and others significantly more in harms way when they speed, or talk on the cell phone while driving? How many of us get arrogant enough to assume the laws should not apply to us, or that somehow we are so superior a driver that we can't make a mistake (a mistake that can cost a life, mind you)?
Do we think about the Rede when we choose chemical- and sugar-laden foods that we know have already taken a toll on our health? What about buying tobacco products that will ultimately be smoked in a home where children live?
Do we give in to impulse buys for unnecessary things-- such as make up or a 12-pack of beer-- even though we know it means being late paying the back rent owed to the landlord? Are we violating the Rede by hurting ourselves, and our landlord, with an irresponsible choice?
What about the environment when it comes to purchasing disposable diapers that will take up space for centuries in a landfill? Or using paper and plastic bags rather than bringing reusable canvas grocery totes? Does harming the environment for convenience violate the Rede?
What about when we snarl and say an unkind word to the poor minimum-wage earning grocery store clerk who would not take an expired coupon (because she did not want to risk a mark against her that might result in losing her job, or being denied a raise)? What if that cashier gives out the wrong change-- should one walk out knowingly, and gleefully, pocketing an extra ten bucks? Even with the possibility of a new, young cashier losing his job over that $10? Is that somehow better than hexing someone into poverty?
I'm not casting moral judgements here. Goddess knows I am guilty of my share of moral compromises. I would just like to point out that Wicca is an entire religion by which we live our lives-- not just a hobby we do on the full moon. Yes, there are times when we will have tough choices. Yes, there are times when the right choice isn't going to be very clear, and we'll have to do the best with what we've got. And yes, there are going to be times at which we all fall short of our ideals. As such, ethics and morality-- particularly the Wiccan Rede-- should be applied to our lives full-time.
Wiccan Rede Meaning
Wicca Beyond the Rede
The Wiccan Rede serves as a good though simplified Wiccan ideal. It makes a good 'golden rule' of sorts, by which Wiccans can live their lives, both inside and outside of the circle.
As a complete ethical code, however, the Wiccan Rede is lacking. It should be considered neither the beginning, nor the end, of Wiccan morality. It is not the final word, nor the only word on the matter.
There are additional sources of Wiccan moral and ethical guidelines to consider, such as the Threefold Law (which you can read about here) or the Charge of the Goddess. We might think about how they are applied and how they interplay to give Wiccans a more complete moral framework.
- Coughlin, John J. Ethics and the Craft: The History, Evolution, and Practice of Wiccan Ethics. New York: Waning Moon, 2009. Print.
- For an excellent, excellent essay on interpreting the Wiccan Rede, please see Wiccan Ethics And The Wiccan Rede by David Piper.