Ethics in Wicca: The Threefold Law
The Threefold Law
In a previous article, I discussed at length the Wiccan Rede. Now I’d like to tackle another major tenet of Wiccan ethics and morality: the Threefold Law. This has also been referred to as the Law of Return, the Rule of Three and has been linked to karma.
The Threefold law simply states that whatever you do will be returned to you, times three. A more poetic way that it is commonly put is:
Ever Mind The Rule Of Three
Three Times Your Acts Return To Thee
This Lesson Well, Thou Must Learn
Thou Only Gets What Thee Dost Earn1
Another way of putting, quite simply, is that anything you do- good or bad—will return to you ‘times three’. This is actually a Wiccan doctrine that is hotly disputed by Wiccans and non-Wiccans alike, and whatever your opinion you can find a lot of interesting perspectives on this topic. Let’s delve in, shall we?
History of the Threefold Law
I wish I could trace back a long and rich history for the Threefold Law, but that’s not actually the case. About the closest you’d find in any books on any kind of magic or esoteric studies was the sentiment that what comes around, goes around, or you reap what you sow.
The first time anything remotely resembling the Threefold Law seems to appear anywhere is in Gerald Gardner’s book, High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949. Gardner wanted to write about Witchcraft^ but the anti-Witchcraft laws of England had yet to be repealed, so Gardner disguised the information in a work of fiction. In it, he writes:
“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold."(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.)2
After that, you pretty much don’t find it anywhere until the 1970s, when it began to appear in a handful of books about Witchcraft^^. In fact, it was Raymond Buckland who began expressing it in articles and books:
There is no need for a Hell, or Final Judgment, in witchcraft because of their belief in retribution in the present life. It is thought that whatever you do will return three-fold.3
After Buckland, this idea began popping up in one form or another in just about every major book on Witchcraft, by such well-known authors as the Farrars, the Frosts, Dr. Martello and it was even in Margot Adler’s groundbreaking thesis, Drawing Down the Moon.4
To look at the timeline, it seems pretty clear that this is not some ancient notion, but more of a modern concept that caught on, but was inaccurately identified as ‘ancient wisdom’^^^.
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Interpretations of the Threefold Law
The Threefold Law is not just something exclusive to Wiccans. Many people in the magical community are very familiar with the terms, there are various interpretations of the Threefold Law that are very different.
Some people take the Threefold Law as a form of Divine intervention. Usually the people who believe this are not Wiccan (perhaps Christo-Pagan, New Age, etc.) or they are very new or very young Wiccans still coming from a perspective that a God’s job is to sit in moral judgment of humans.
It’s very uncommon for Wiccans to believe in systems of punishment and rewards designed by the Gods. True, we work with our Gods and occasionally they see fit to thwack us on the head with a clue-by-four when necessary to get a lesson through, but this is not exactly the same thing as Gods making a list and checking it twice like some cosmic Santa Clause trying to decide who gets the candy and who gets the coal.
For some, the Threefold Law is a universal law in the same way gravity is a law. It’s simply pre-programmed into the universe, like the law of attraction. Everything we do—all our actions, even all our thoughts—are forms of energy. The belief is that whatever energy you put forth is exactly what you’re attracting back to yourself.
This is more of a common school of thought found among some Wiccans. The real division among people of this school of thought has to do with the math. Some would say that the energy is indeed amplified—tripled—through natural forces. Others would say that the multiple of three does not hold up; that it’s just poetry that brought the ‘threefold’ aspect into this doctrine.
Simple Cause and Effect
Finally, there are those who don’t really believe in a return of anything by any deliberate means, and definitely not by any specific mathematic equations.
The belief here is that the Threefold Law is really just a fancy way of dressing up the very natural process of cause-and-effect. Our actions have not mystical but natural consequences. When you do magic to harm others, to be selfish and controlling, you are allowing yourself to wallow in very negative emotions, and that’s going to take its toll on your life and bring you down. Likewise, those who “keep pure” their “high ideals”5 are in a more positive frame of mind, have a more positive outlook and more positive perspective, therefore they will experience more positive things in their lives.
This goes not just for magic, but for everything you do. People who are dishonest will be mistrusted while people who are honest will usually gain a better reputation. People who are lazy will lose out on opportunities, while people who are conscientious and hard-working will snap them up.
Of course, there are those who think the entire Threefold Law or any variation of it is pure nonsense. Doreen Valiente (known as the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’, Gardner’s original High Priestess who helped him form Wicca) was known to have accused Gerald Gardner of making the whole thing up, and has been quoted as saying she doesn’t believe it6. Author Gerina Dunwich has been quoted as saying that the Threefold Law is in direct conflict with the law of physics.7
Not believing in the Threefold Law at all doesn’t mean a lack of ethics. Indeed, they more often would take the position that ethics are not something you must do out of fear of retribution, but something you should do because it is the moral thing to do.
A lot of non-Wiccans don’t believe it at all, particularly those who follow more traditional, pre-Gardnarian paths (hereditary Witches, folk magicians, ceremonial magic, etc.) or those who follow what they deem the “Left Handed Path.” They argue that they see absolutely no evidence of magical consequences, as long as you know what you’re doing and don’t make any obvious mistakes in your working to screw it up. Magic for manipulation, revenge, to force others to do your will, to attack your enemies or those who stand in your way, etc. is seen as completely fair game.
They see this philosophy of any ‘law of return’ as the weakness, guilt and fear of magic put into Wiccans and other such ‘white-washed’ religions as an influence of Christianity, and scoff at it heartily. The way of nature, as they see it, is survival of the fittest.
Karma Beliefs Vary
Sometimes the Threefold Law is mistakenly thought of as karma, but in the strictest sense that would be inaccurate. Karma is an Eastern philosophy originally from Hinduism, but has also been embraced by Buddhism. The word ‘karma’ means ‘action’. The idea behind karma is that your good actions will be rewarded and your bad actions will be punished, and it’s seen as a natural built-in universal system.8
From its original sources, karma is something that would not play out until your next life. Hindus believe in a caste system—that you’re born into your station of life and there is no upward or downward mobility during life. It’s your karma that determines whether you move up or down in your next life, depending upon your behavior in your past life.
Wiccans (and indeed, Westernized Neo-Pagans in general) will sometimes inaccurately throw around the word karma almost synonymously with the Threefold Law. The difference is that the Threefold Law is something that is seen to take effect fairly quickly, while karma is something that won’t play out at all until the next life. Karma is also not seen as a punishment nor a reward, but more like being in school and getting left back or skipped ahead—it’s all about going to the place you need to be to learn lessons you need to learn.
Where Does That Leave the Threefold Law?
Like all things in Wicca, nothing should be taken as law—even if it’s called a law. You can certainly take the phrasing with a grain of salt, but it does remind us of one major point: in Wicca, ethics are a complex issue, and it’s our duty to take them seriously and think them through.
Whether you believe in divine or universal justice, natural consequences or just in the fact that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to behave ethically, this is what Wiccan liturgy teaches us: we all contribute, for better or for worse, in shaping our lives and the world in which we live.
Footnotes & References
^Or, more accurately, what Gardner thought was Witchcraft at the time. The theories on the “ancient Witch cult” have long been discredited by reputable historians and sociologists. There is absolutely no evidence that Gardner got this idea from any ancient source.
^^ This is still before anyone used the term “Wicca” for the Gardner-founded religion. Now, four decades later, a distinction is often made between Wicca and Witchcraft. See my article Wicca and Witchcraft: Which is Witch, What's What?
^^^ This was a time when Neo-Pagan religions were being attacked as invalid for being ‘new’. Unfortunately, the community got defensive, and sought to prove their worth by claiming roots in antiquity. They were trying so hard to connect to pre-Christian religions that they would accept almost any nice idea in print that claimed to be ancient wisdom. They used each other as sources, liberally quoting each other, without ever really checking credible sources to see where these nice ideas actually originated. These myths and romanticized fabrications to this day plague the entire Pagan community, leaving many people misinformed when they rely on NeoPagan books, which still more often than not perpetuate the myths.
- Original author undetermined
- 2. High Magic’s Aid; Gerald Gardner; p.188
- 3. Ancient and Modern Witchcraft; Raymond Buckland; p.141
- “Charge of the Goddess”; Doreen Valiente