I’ve probably covered this topic in every iteration of blog I’ve ever kept, including my short stint as a paganism subject matter expert on an About.com-type knockoff website. But it’s perennially topical due to the continual flood of both new pagans and new paganism 101 books to the community.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m so far from newbie that I found Wicca during an entirely different age in the evolution of modern neoPaganism. I bought my first book on Wicca in 1996, Scott Cunningham’s “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner”, at a Waldenbooks that no longer exists. (It’s currently a Famous Footwear in a mall that’s sort of half a strip mall, but I digress.)
In 2000, I was introduced to the woman who would become my High Priestess and teacher. In 2002, I was initiated into her coven, which is part of a family of covens in an eclectic Wiccan tradition. I’m to become an Elder Second Degree at Midsummer. This means that not only am I an initiated priestess, but I’m qualified to teach our tradition and I’ll be one massive step away from being able to become a High Priestess myself, if/when I choose to do so.
To unpack all that jargon… our Tradition is not descended from one of the original strains of Wicca. The founding priestess, who is still involved in the tradition, was originally trained in a Dianic coven (a women-focused tradition). She started her own coven as a co-ed group. So we’re eclectic in that we aren’t formally bound to any other early strains of Wicca (e.g. Gardnerian, Alexandrian, 1734, etc).
But as we were initially founded in the 1980s, much of our work is taken from the published materials and training of that time. If you’ve not read the works of Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner, Raymond Buckland, Dion Fortune, Stewart and Janet Farrar, and Starhawk, I highly suggest you do. The Wicca and witchcraft they wrote about and practiced is vastly different from the 101 books you’ll pick up from Amazon today (or your local pagan shop, if you’re fortunate to have one).
The earliest Wicca was coven-based and initiatory. It’s highly influenced by preceding occult movements of the early 20th century, such as the Golden Dawn. Or even earlier movements such as the Druid revival of the 19th century. In many places, it’s highly ceremonial and structured. The language of the ritual scripts and poetic invocations is full of archaic thees and thous and thys.
And then comes the publishing boom of the 90s, with authors like Scott Cunningham and Silver Ravenwolf teaching little witchlettes like me (I was 18 in 1996) that you could be a solitary and initiate yourself and “harm none!”
As empowering as all that was, ultimately I think it was a bit wrong. Not so much the solitary aspect… I was a solitary myself for the five years before I found the coven, and I was most certainly kludging my way through Wicca as I saw it from the books I had. Not even so much the initiation aspect — you don’t need to be initiated into a group to experience the Mysteries, but it’s certainly easier with an experienced teacher to guide you.
What bothers me is how the central tenet of Wiccan morality, if you will, has been boiled down to a non-threatening, sound-bite-ready “Harm None!”, ready to stitch on a pillow to appease your conservative mother-in-law that all this witch stuff is really just harmless white light personal empowerment stuff.
From where I sit, from where my foundations were built, it’s so very much NOT.
(Full disclosure: my mother-in-law, while Catholic, is pretty damn cool and fine with her son and daughter-in-law being Wiccan. But I digress.)
The Wiccan Rede is a piece of poetry from the earliest days of 20th century Craft. It’s many couplets long, and lays out a lot of witchy lore and instructions for how to be Wiccan. The couplet most folks know by heart, and the one at the heart of this post is the final one:
“Eight words the Wiccan rede fulfill, an it harm none, do what you will.”
There’s the archaic language I warned you about. The word “rede” means advice. And “an” in this context means “if”. So the advice given is that if “it” doesn’t cause harm, do what you will. Of course, this still doesn’t unpack what “it” we’re referring to, what exactly “harm” is defined as, and what’s “will”.
But let’s step back for a second. For all intents and purposes, Wicca traces itself back to Gerald Gardner and an England that had anti-witchcraft laws on the books until the 1950s. Uncle Gerald was also a naturist (aka a nudist). In a highly structured, conservative society, saying things like “if it doesn’t hurt anyone, go right ahead” is very revolutionary. Go ahead and worship nude. Go ahead and be sexually promiscuous. Go ahead and venerate a Goddess on the same level as a God. Go ahead and believe in many Gods.
“An it harm none, do what you will” frees you from the strictures of your society that are antithetical to the way you want to live. It’s still valid today. You want to engage in consensual non-monogamy? Do it! Want to build a commune? Go ahead! Worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster? All hail his noodly appendage!
But wait, you say, what about that “harm” part? And what happens if “it” does cause harm?
Well, the rede doesn’t specifically say “don’t do it if it causes harm”. Why? I suspect one reason is that this poetry came from an initiatory Mystery occult tradition, and the specifics of harm and why or why not was taught orally after one’s initiation into the group. Or even as part of one’s training prior to initiation. Early groups often had oath-bound material that the uninitiated (often referred as the Outer Court) were simply not privy to.
Or perhaps our Wiccan forebears figured people would be raised to understand how not to be an asshole.
I’ve seen so many people get into mental gymnastics about spellwork and “harm” over the past 22 years. You know what? You know what harm really is. Witchcraft is a tool like any other tool. You can use a hammer to build a house, or you can use a hammer to murder someone in cold blood. Which one is harm? Yeah. You know.
But wait, you say, what about killing someone in self-defense with that hammer? Great question. No, the rede doesn’t cover that in the couplet under discussion. I think it mentions the “rule of three” somewhere earlier in the poem, which is a fancy way of stating “what goes around comes around”. Or in other words, you should always be willing to accept the consequences of your actions.
So if you use witchcraft for self-defense, or even outright cursing someone, you’ve gotta be willing to accept the consequences. Just as you’d have to if you smashed someone in the head with a hammer. Even an accident can be considered manslaughter in a court of law, depending on the circumstances and the jurisdiction.
And that’s about it, really. Don’t be an asshole, accept responsibility for your actions. There you go. The secret to Wiccan ethics.
“Harm None” is a cop-out for people who are too scared to accept responsibility for themselves. It’s a nice sound-bite for people who are scared of witches. “Oh, I don’t curse people! I’m a good witch! Harm none!” In the end, that’s just bullshit.
If you’re scared of your own ability to be an ethical person, if you’re terrified of wielding the power of the Craft, then you don’t belong here. That’s true personal development, learning how to be your own complete person, solid in your understanding of your fears and motivations. That’s the Mystery, the transformation you’ll undergo as you walk this path. You have to confront your shadows. You have to know where the line is that you will not cross.
And truly, that’s where group training is so beneficial. Provided your teacher has a clue what they are doing, you walk a slow path of discovery and learning. No one expects you to build a house the first time you pick up a hammer, after all. And sure, you can learn construction from DIY videos online, but you’ll learn faster and be more sure of your skills if you’re apprenticing to a master carpenter.
So there’s my long diatribe on the Rede. And since I know you’re wondering, yes, I’ve done what folks of the “harm none” persuasion would consider to be black magic. I had lots of well-thought-out reasons for doing what I did, and yes, I accepted whatever consequences fell my way. And you know what? I’d sure as hell do it again if I had to. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to finish the fight that you didn’t start. But that’s another story, best told over some beers. Blessed be!