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The Wiccan Rede
“An it harm none, do what ye will.”

By Raene, Sibylline Priestess, ©Raene 2001

Today the Rede is in a strange position as it finds itself being interpreted very strictly and edging into Dogma – a definite authoritative tenet – something that the Wiccan community likes to deny that it encourages.

In the 30 years or so since its been widely known, for many the Rede has become the defining feature of Wiccan belief, and following it is what makes the difference between a Wiccan and other types of neo-paganism, including other types of traditional and neo-pagan witchcraft. Throughout the pagan community there are a variety of opinions regarding the Rede. Some Wiccans have taken an almost fundamentalist approach to construing the Rede, claim dire Divine consequences for infringement of it, and use it to claim moral superiority over other pagan and neo-pagan paths. There is a great deal of debate about what each word means (there are only eight of them that matter), about when and how far it is "permissible" to stretch that meaning, and lots of misunderstandings or outright ignorance about its origins. On the other side, many non-Wiccan pagans consider the Rede to be a wimpy compromise, or something cobbled together by Wiccans for PR purposes. They say that the Rede is ridiculous in that its strictures are impossible to follow and impose an unacceptably passive perspective.

It's a suggestion.

Here's the thing – "Rede" means advise or counsel. As in a suggestion. It doesn't mean "Law". The term iteself is middle english but the Rede-concept itself is quite old and widespread, . See any of the various “golden rules” scattered throughout the world. Saying you follow the Rede is kind of like saying you think it's a good suggestion to try not to do nasty things. There doesn't seem to be a lot in there for Wiccan fundamentalists to get fundamentalist about, or for non-Wiccans to finger-point about. And while it's a good jumping-off place for the formulation of your personal ethics, it hardly expands into a complete ethical system. Nor was it meant to. Like all other short-form ethical statements it's a decision-making tool, a quick-reference. Being a suggestion, you don't even have to follow it.

We as Wiccans do believe (and we have this in common with most other pagans) that we live in a closed system. That the energy we put out will consequently affect us through our environment. That in itself is a good reason to try to limit the amount of nasty stuff you put out there. In that way, the Rede is a descriptive, rather than proscriptive statement. It just says “hey, don't pee in the pool you have to swim in.” Not because it's against the law, or because some god will strike you down, but because, as you know, you'll still be swimming in it.

So, in our war to reclaim the Rede from the clutches of Dogma, we've won the first battle. A Dogma is a definite authoritative tenet. And the Rede isn’t definite...

It's a suggestion.

Now, it is authoritative? Well, it certainly doesn't have the ultimate authority that other religious dogma has. It wasn't, and isn't claimed to be, divinely revealed. Like much in Wicca, it may be quite old, but in its present form can't be traced any further back than the 1960’s. It doesn't start calling itself “The Rede” until 1975 when someone (I'd bet my hat you've never even heard of) published a poem in Green Egg magazine... Lady Gwen Thomson, of New Haven, CT. Heard of her? I thought not. Another blow to “authoritative”. Nothing against Lady Gwen, though. I'm sure she is/was an impressive individual.

Moving on.

When Wiccans and others refer to the Wiccan Rede they generally mean the eight words listed above. But you may hear reference to the “long Rede” or the “full Rede” and by that they mean the Rede-poem, believed by many to have been written by the much more authoritative (in Wiccan circles anyway, sorry Gwen) Doreen Valiente. Most of ‘em think there's a long poem called The Wiccan Rede written by Doreen Valiente that ends with the 8-word couplet we think of as the Rede...

They're wrong.

In 1975 Lady Gwen Thomson published a poem called The Rede of the Wiccae, which she claimed was handed down to her from (or possibly written by) her paternal grandmother, Adriana Porter, who died in 1946. Presumably, the poem was written before that date. Its final couplet did, indeed, become the short-form Rede-concept we're all familiar with. In 1978, three years later, Doreen Valiente published her Witchcraft for Tomorrow in which she included a poem called The Witches Creed, which also includes a Rede-concept, somewhat differently-worded, in the last few lines.

Prior to 1975, researchers have only been able to find few references to the ethical statement we think of as the Rede-concept being referred to as "The Rede". Certainly the concept itself has many precursors (see any number of “golden rule” concepts scattered throughout any number of religions) and in fact the wording of what has come to be "our" Rede has its own history as well. Gerald Gardner makes a reference, in his An ABC of Witchcraft Past & Present, to the writings of the French author Pierre Louys (1870-1925), who has a royal character issue the following proclamation: "I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor. II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest.” And in Gardner's own Book of Shadows the "Old Laws" or "Ordains" specifically require that the witch "harm none"–although the justification is practical rather than moral and aimed at avoiding prosecution. It also applies only to magickal acts.

There's certainly some evidence to tie Aleister Crowley into the chain of evolution of the Rede, as well. See the Rede Project's “Rede Timeline” for more details.

Basically what we have is a couplet taken out of a poem that may not have been written any earlier than 1975, although it is claimed to be a vintage 1946 or earlier. Doreen Valiente reportedly mentions that couplet in a speech in 1964, which, if true, is telling, since she was an English Gardnerian and Lady Gwen was a Celtic traditionalist in the USA. It seems as though they would have had little opportunity to share information, unless – and this bears more investigating – Lady Gwen and Doreen had been in touch, as, at that time, Doreen was not actively practicing Gardnerian Wicca any longer, and was becoming quite interested in traditional witchcraft.

It's also interesting to note that the Rede-poem in its original form (there have been many different forms since, many with only minor changes – people like to get ride of the “werewolf” line, for example) used the phrase “Wiccan Rune” – a poem/chant many people attribute to Doreen and so could claim either a connection between the two or a pre-existing tradition known to both. Doreen, however, wrote something called "The Wiccan Chant" that another, unknown author slightly revised and called The Wiccan Rune. This bears more investigation as well. Was the Wiccan Rune something that Doreen borrowed from? Or was it an alternate version of her original?

It all makes it very difficult to argue that the Rede is “authoritative”, doesn't it?

My argument is that the Rede isn't dogma and we need to stop treating it at such. The Rede-poem, in all its alternate versions, is a part of our liturgy. The Rede-concept is our version of the golden rule, and speaks to our understanding of the way the Universe works. But a “definite authoritative tenet”? Nah. We need to stop beating ourselves up with it, and stop beating other people up with it as well. It annoys them.

It's a suggestion.

Finding out more about the Rede's history and ethical implications:

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