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
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.
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...
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
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”,
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: