These eight words are believed by many non-Wiccan folk to be the entirety of the Wiccan rede – the moral system by which Wiccans abide. Actually, this one liner is just half of a rhyming couplet which is itself just the end of a far larger piece. However, small excerpt or not, even a large proportion of practising Wicca see these eight words as the best summary of their beliefs and the crux of Wiccan ethics – to harm none.
The origin of the Wicca rede is a topic of hot debate among Wiccans and scholars. Only one thing is universally agreed on – the rede’s first recorded mention is in a famous speech made in 1964 by Doreen Valiente – the High Priestess of Gerald Gardner. Prior to this, Gardner – the man who is widely recognised as responsible for laying the foundations of modern Wicca – only made passing reference to rede-like beliefs and the ‘harm none’ idea. (Author and occultist John Coughlin has undertaken extensive research on the subject of the rede’s origin. The results of this can be viewed at www.waningmoon.com (if you like to learn more) Despite the uncertainties and gaps in the history, many Wicca folk believe the rede’s origins to be ancient and passed down through heredity lines.
Interpretations of the Wiccan Rede: A Raging Debate
As is the case with all religious and spiritual belief systems there is typically plenty of scope for interpretation among its followers and the Wiccan rede is no exception. Attend almost any Wiccan gathering or pop into one of a hundred online Wiccan forums and you will see that the subject of what the rede truly means and how it is supposed to be applied crops up over and over. At times it can be hard to believe that so few words can give rise to so many varying ideas and discussions about their meaning while continuing to give food to a debate which has existed throughout the modern Wicca era.
Translating the language
The archaic language of the rede and subsequent translations of that into modern English present the first issue. The literal translation would equate to ‘if it doesn’t harm anyone then do what you want’. But from here Wiccans start to disagree. ‘If’ can become ‘as long as’ or ‘only if’ which might sound the same but have very different meanings. Most Wiccans believe the rede to be intended as wise counsel and not as a commandment – this latter being anathema to many Wiccans. ‘Only if’ is, some argue, a prohibitive command and Wicca is about the freedom to choose.The language translation issue is a complex one with far more implications than there is room to discuss here. If you’d like to delve into this a little further you might like to read this essay by David Piper which goes into the complexities in greater depth.
Interpreting ‘harm none’
One of the main bones of contention for Wiccans focuses around the words ‘harm’ and ‘none’. Nowhere is there any guidance on quite what constitutes ‘harm’ and although most Wiccans have a fairly standardised idea of what this means it does of course vary from person to person and depend on the circumstances involved.
‘Harming none’ is an almost impossible piece of advice to follow under certain circumstances. For example, some-one you know/know of is doing something wrong according to either the laws of society or morality. Putting a stop to the perpetrator’s actions will prevent them from harming some-one further but in so doing will harm the perpetrator themselves. Strict adherence to the ‘rules’ according to some interpretations would mean whichever course of action you choose will put you in direct violation of them.
For most Wiccans this moral and spiritual dilemma has no one-size-fits-all answer. Each situation must be weighed up on its own advantages and disadvantages allowing for personal freedom to decide and act as long as the individual accepts the consequences of those actions. There is yet another angle to this particular issue. ‘Harm none’ is also generally taken to mean yourself as well as all others. Although this technically leaves it wide open to abuse and misinterpretation most Wiccans with any shred of true belief are unlikely to take this to mean – if I don’t get my husband back with a love spell it will be harming me most of all, for example.
Interpretation in connection with other Wiccan beliefs
Although the rede forms the keystone of Wiccan ethics there are other parts of the craft which must be factored in to explain why the rede is interpreted in different ways. There is the issue concerning consent. According to the beliefs of many Wiccans, before sending out a spell of any description even if it is intended to heal or enhance, consent should be obtained. Interfering with some-one’s free will without consulting them is considered by some to constitute ‘harm’. Wiccans vary on how they apply this rule. For example what would you do if the person you wished to help was lying unconscious and couldn’t therefore give the necessary consent? Would you do nothing and potentially leave that person open to further ‘harm’ or would you act? The consent factor is why many Wiccans are so against performing the type of love spell which brings an errant lover back to his/her grieving partner.
An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will
The other ‘law’ which influences Wiccan action is the ‘threefold law’ or the belief that any harm or good sent out by an individual comes back to them magnified by three. In reality – Although Wiccans will probably argue and debate the true meaning of the rede for evermore, for most Wiccans the spirit of the rede is taken to be far simpler – to do as much good for yourself and others as is possible.
As a last word on interpretation and an illustration of quite how high it can stir emotions in individuals take a look at this two-way debate online between a Wiccan Priestess and a spiritual minded author. It makes for entertaining and thought provoking reading.
The Value of the Rede in Everyday Life
The Wiccan rede at its simplest and with its most commonly interpreted intended meaning, of living your life without intentionally hurting others, is a moral basis which has a value for Wiccans and non-Wiccans alike. Other spiritual belief systems and religions, at their best, also counsel or command adherence to such a simple rule and many of us would like to believe that we constantly strive to apply the spirit of its message anyway. At the risk of sounding naïve and over-simplifying complex issues, how much better the world would be if each of us could take the rede and apply it as much as possible. Of course strict adherence is at best difficult and at worst impossible with a thousand and one situations which take us out of the black and white and into the grey areas. How about deciding whether or not to have a well-loved pet put down because he is suffering terribly in this life? We are very definitely intentionally harming here but with a view to doing greater good overall.
The bottom line is…
…that well-functioning society relies on each of us utilising our own moral compass whether we are living out our everyday life or practising Wicca magic. For Wiccans, the rede is simply a reminder.
And how about this for a thought……if the wiccan rede does only date back to Valiente’s speech in 1964 maybe this was a form of elaborate PR exercise. Perhaps it was simply an attempt to enable witches and Wiccans to come into the open and the accepted light of society after a history of violent ostracisation; to show the world at large that Wiccans were not the baby sacrificing, evil doing devil worshippers that many would believe but actually a group of people trying to do good things. Just a thought………..
BTW, do you make you use crystal gems already ?
Picture originally by Eithin CC-BY-2.0. Thanks!
Edited by me
Additional sources: Full Rede Text
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