What is the Wiccan Rede?
The Wiccan Rede is the foundation for the moral system used by people in Wicca and other neopagan practices and related witchcraft-based faiths. The Rede states:
Bide the Wiccan Laws ye must in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.
Live an’ let live – Fairly take an’ fairly give.
Cast the Circle thrice about to keep all evil spirits out.
To bind the spell every time – Let the spell be spake in rhyme.
Soft of eye an’ light of touch – Speak little, listen much.
Deosil go by the waxing Moon – Sing and dance the Wiccan rune.
Widdershins go when the Moon doth wane, an’ the Werewolf howls by the dread Wolfsbane.
When the Lady’s Moon is new, kiss thy hand to Her times two.
When the Moon rides at Her peak, then your heart’s desire seek.
Heed the Northwind’s mighty gale – Lock the door and drop the sail.
When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss thee on the mouth.
When the wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.
When the West wind blows o’er thee, departed spirits restless be.
Nine woods in the Cauldron go – Burn them quick an’ burn them slow.
Elder be ye Lady’s tree – Burn it not or cursed ye’ll be.
When the Wheel begins to turn – Let the Beltane fires burn.
When the Wheel has turned a Yule, light the Log an’ let Pan rule.
Heed ye flower bush an’ tree – By the Lady Blessèd Be.
Where the rippling waters go, cast a stone an’ truth ye’ll know.
When ye have need, hearken not to others greed.
With the fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry meet an’ merry part – Bright the cheeks an’ warm the heart.
Mind the Threefold Law ye should – Three times bad an’ three times good.
When misfortune is enow, wear the Blue Star on thy brow.
True in love ever be, unless thy lover’s false to thee.
Eight words ye Wiccan Rede fulfill – An’ it harm none, do what ye will.
The word “rede” means “advice” or “counsel” and derives from Middle English. It is also closely related to the German rat, meaning wheel, or Scandinavian råd, meaning advice. “An’” is an archaic Middle English word used to connect clauses or sentences and translates to “if.” “Ye” is also an archaic or dialectal form of “you.” Therefore, the last can also read, “If it harm none, do what you will.” Basically, informally it means as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, do whatever you want.
History of The Wiccan Rede
Doreen Valiente is given credit for the wording of the Wiccan Rede in a 1964 speech. Most of Gerald Gardner’s ritual material for the Bricket Wood coven was written by Valiente in the 1960s. While no one knows the exact inspiration for the Wiccan Rede, there are two schools of thought on where it derived from historically.
The first is Thelema. When speaking of his own religion of Thelema, Aleister Crowley is quoted as stating, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” in his 1904 work The Book of the Law. However, this is only the first half of the statement. The response to this is, “Love is the law, love under will.” Researchers and historians believe that Crowley modified this from the French Renaissance writer and humanist François Rabelais. In 1534, Rabelais wrote, “Do as thou wilt because men that are free, of gentle birth, well-bred and at hoe in civilized company possess a natural instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice. This instinct they name their honor.” To further this perspective, Crowley himself admitted he was influenced in his writings by St. Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of St. John.
The second is a French play from 1901 called The Adventures of King Pausole. In the play, the main character, King Pausole, directs his subjects to always avoid harming their neighbor, but they can otherwise do what pleases them.
Of these two schools of thought, most historians lean towards Aleister Crowley because of his overarching influence on Gerald Gardner. During their friendship, Crowley made a huge impression on the development of Gardner’s own religious leanings. But the other side often impresses the idea of Gardner’s comparisons between the words of King Pausole and Wiccan morality. Whatever the history or where the inspiration derives, the Wiccan Rede has resonated with Wiccan and neopagan practitioners for generations, making it the cornerstone of Wiccan moral philosophy.
The Wiccan Rede is best known for the final eight words of the couplet. However, these eight words have morphed since being quoted by Valiente in 1964. The original wording is “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, an’ it harm none do what ye will.” Beginning in 1974, published versions of the 26-line poem, such as in the neopagan magazine Earth Religion News and the Green Egg, changed the wording of the last short rede couplet. The word ‘it’ was changed to ‘ye,’ then others such as Lady Gwen Thompson changed ‘will’ to ‘wilt,’ ‘ye’ to ‘thou,’ or ‘what’ to ‘as’ when the long Rede was published. There is much debate surrounding the origins of the Rede. Thompson claims the long Rede was passed down from her grandmother Adriana Porter, but researchers and historians conclude that the wording does not match the geographic location and time in which certain Wiccan concepts were outlined. Basically, there is no scholarly evidence to back up her claim. Again, regardless of the minor grammatical changes or the addition of various verses, the sentiment of the Wiccan Rede remains the same – do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm other people.
Why the Wiccan Rede it matters
To Wiccans and many neopagan practitioners, the Wiccan Rede is viewed as a way to evaluate the morality of a decision. Just as the diversity of pagans spans the gamut, so does the application of the Wiccan Rede. For some, it is law; for others, a rule to follow. Still, others see it as advice by which to live their lives. What the Wiccan Rede does is ask practitioners to consider and review all of the possible choices, including the benefits as well as consequences in a situation, prior to making a decision. After carefully analyzing the possibilities and potential outcomes, a decision can be made freely. It is the hope that the chosen decision will bring about the least amount of damage, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. By choosing the action that avoids harming others, morality is upheld.
But not all Wiccans follow the Wiccan Rede. It is merely a guideline because there is no universal set of rules or ethical standards in Wiccan or neopagan religions. In some Gardnerian covens, which is now considered a sect of Wicca, practitioners follow the Charge of the Goddess as their moral guide. They utilize the lines, “Keep pure your highest ideal, strive ever towards it; let naught stop you or turn you aside, for mine is the secret door which opens upon the door of youth.” The Charge of the Goddess is used as a maxim instead of the Wiccan Rede for moral dilemmas.
People will often note the similarity of the Wiccan Rede to the Golden Rule in Christianity. But there is a debate within the neopagan and Wiccan community as to whether the Wiccan Rede is simply advice to live by in your life or a commandment much like the Golden Rule. While Abrahamic religions focus on the prohibitions and consequences of conduct within the Ten Commandments, the Wiccan Rede provides a guideline for conduct that must be adapted and individualized for each specific situation. It is not an overarching dictated law with strict penalties. The Wiccan Rede can be interpreted and applied differently by different practitioners depending upon the circumstances. Therefore, the concept of ‘do no harm’ is open to interpretation.
Most Wiccans believe that the Rede should be used to actively do good for other people, our fellow humans. But different groups of practitioners feel differently about different words. For some, the word ‘none’ means the self, for others, it’s all of humanity, and still, for others, it encompasses all living things – animals and plants. Again, regardless of the interpretation, the Wiccan Rede encourages practitioners to take personal responsibility for their actions in all situations to minimize harm to themselves, the environment, and the Earth herself. The words ‘harm none’ encompass the core part of Wiccan morality.
For starters, not all pagans are Wiccan. In fact, it is quite unreasonable to assume that all pagans will follow the Wiccan Rede. And even amongst those who identify as Wiccan, there is a lot of interpretation in this religious path. That’s one of the reasons many people choose it, the ability to design and create a spiritual space that fits with their individual beliefs. And while there are no standardized doctrines or laws governing behaviors, there are guidelines for moral and ethical behavior, even though these may vary.
This article is from our Samhain issue of Wicca Magazine. Click Here To View What’s Inside our current issue.