Monthly Archives: June 2014

Wiccan ethics

by Sarah Howe

With the interplay between the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law, Wiccan morality and ethics is a far more complex subject than a casual glance would have you believe.  Once the additional ideal of Perfect Love & Perfect Trust comes into play, it is obvious that the complexity of the issue of Wiccan morality and ethics can only increase.

“Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil.
An it harm none, do what ye will.”

The Wiccan Rede is an interesting concept and whilst simple at first glance, it is far more complex in practice, especially when you take into account that the Rede doesn’t mention the concept of unavoidable harm – the ending of an unhealthy relationship for example, which may cause harm to the person involved, but will prevent a greater harm in the long run.  A great deal of thought must be put into an action as to whether harm would be caused, whether it can be avoided and, if not, whether the harm caused will negate a greater harm.

This is very in keeping with Gardner’s own description of the Rede in explaining its origins.

“They [the witches] are inclined to the morality of Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”.  But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm”.  This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others”.

(The Meaning of Witchcraft – Page 108)

 In my experience, I have known many people on a variety of spiritual paths, to have taken the Rede to be a law (often seen shortened to “Harm None”); however it is clear that such a law would be impossible to follow.  The word Rede actually means ‘advice’ and it is therefore a more sensible approach to look at the Rede as a guideline and an ideal to strive for rather than a hard and fast rule.  I like to think of it like the bumpers you have down each side of a bowling alley.  The ball may veer off course but the bumper helps it back on track.  This is how I believe the Rede works:  as a bumper to keep us from veering too far from our paths.

The Rede is a positive way of thinking, giving freedom of personal morality rather than imposing a set of strict religious rules.  Quite often, when we are told we aren’t allowed something or are told we can’t do something, it makes us want it even more; as the saying goes – forbidden fruit tastes sweeter.  Where certain religious laws seek to suppress and contain those elements of human nature that they find distasteful or undesirable, the Rede gives freedom of personal expression in a healthy way.  So long as you are not causing harm to others or to yourself, then your morality and individuality are yours to express.

I have heard it argued that such freedom of personal expression would allow for the breaking of non-religious laws and criminal activity but I would argue that not only is the Rede intended for operation within the law (as would be common sense), but that there is no such thing as a victimless crime and that any such activity would constitute harm in any case.  Aside from this, I am of the opinion that any person given to break a law is going to do so regardless of any religious guidelines or commandments.

Vivianne Crowley makes a wonderful point in her book, Wicca:  A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World:

“This moral sense is developed by seeking to adhere to certain basic ideals of love, joy, truth, honour and trust, and making decisions which are in accordance with them.”

When you consider three of the main ideals within Wicca – The Rede, Threefold Law and Perfect Love & Perfect Trust – it makes sense to make your decisions both magically and otherwise based on the concepts cited by Vivianne.  That being said, we are also only human and not every decision we make will take all or any of these things into account.

The Law of Threefold Return

I have noticed a tendency to use the word “Karma” in conjunction with Threefold Law but it is often a westernised view of Karma, which is applied. In doing this the idea of Karma is interpreted as some sort of universal power that hands out punishments to those who do bad things and rewards those who do good things. The Eastern view of Karma, though, is simply that actions have natural consequences.  By being mindful of them, you can earn “good Karma” and thus earn a better future.  However, failing to take into consideration the results of your actions will earn “bad Karma” and lead to some sort of hardship as a result.

If the Rede has been (as often occurs) mistaken for a law and is applied to everything, in conjunction with Threefold Law in its misunderstood form (i.e. “westernised” karma), it would be difficult to see how a person could even get out of bed in the morning for fear of causing harm!

In my opinion, Threefold Law is actually closer to Karma as it was intended in the East or to the Biblical maxim “You reap what you sow”. It is an easier concept to accept if it is not looked at in terms of whatever you send out comes back to you times three, but instead is considered in terms of how our choices are made.  In numerology, the number three is representative of divine trinities and of completion (birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future).  This lends itself to the idea of Threefold Law representing a completion of our choices, i.e. Course of action decided upon, course of action taken, results of action taken.

Combined with the Rede, it is essentially a method of keeping us mindful of our actions and ensuring that we are fully aware of their potential outcomes and impacts.  This applies not only to our spiritual lives (such as when performing a magical working) but also to our daily lives.  It reminds us that whatever choices we make, there are repercussions and that we must take responsibility for our own choices and deeds.  There is no “big bad” to blame when things go wrong, we are responsible for everything we do, good or bad.

Perfect Love and Perfect Trust

 I feel that when it comes to Wiccan morality and ethics, this concept is often greatly neglected.  But what really happens if you incorporate into your life the “highest ideal” of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust?

It is easiest to apply this concept to our coven mates, and it is reasonable that this should be the case; after all, it is with our coven that we first experience perfect love and trust, in the form of initiation.  Their trust that we are the right person for their group and the love everyone bears for each other as friends and as part of the wider Wiccan family.  Then there is the trust and love that we ourselves express in putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with them, by undergoing initiation itself.

We could even apply the concept to our family (however you define that) with whom we share a bond of unconditional love and trust.  It is sometimes possible to apply it to friends and lovers, although here, love and trust may not be unconditional.  Often, trust must be earned and love is given but not without a certain amount of fear of betrayal or rejection.

So, the question becomes, should the concept of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust be applied outside of the coven environment?  Is it even possible to apply it those people we don’t know closely?  Perhaps we leave ourselves open to all kinds of mundane and spiritual problems if we try to define our morality further by including this idea away from the environment where it is most often encountered.

Is it even possible to have any love or trust for people whose motivations we don’t actually know, let alone perfect love and trust for them?  It becomes a little like the commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  It’s a nice idea in principle, but does it actually work in practice or does it become something unachievable, which we still strive for?  Perhaps the best step we can take is to be good people and to treat others with respect and in turn, earn respect through our actions.

In summary, it very difficult anticipate the outcome of any decision we take but by being mindful of our actions and accepting of their consequences, we can take a great step towards living our lives according to the ethical principles of Wicca and to strive ever onwards towards our highest ideals.  I believe this quote from Fred Lamond’s book, Fifty Years of Wicca serves to best sum up what I have attempted to discuss here in his direct quote from Gardner:  “If you concentrate on helping others, your spiritual development will take care of itself”.

Sarah Howe, 2008

What do we have in common?

by Keith Galapas

As an initiated Gardnerian I am restricted on what I can say about my chosen path in any public medium. I made a promise back in 1976 that I would not discuss the specifics of what we do in in the Gardnerian craft. This means that I am oathbound. There is really no one who enforces this except myself and my own definitions of ethics and honour. It is something I have done my entire adult life. This shows the first two things all Gardnerians share.

1) We have been initiated. It takes a Gardnerian to make a Gardnerian.

This is not limited to our tradition. Many occult and Pagan groups work on the model that it takes one to make one. For Gardnerians, the authority to initiate starts after second degree. Many covens feel that a third degree needs to be there are well. Others view the third degree as optional and a personal choice of the individual.

2) We are bound by oath. We all have made a similar promise.

While we may have different views on what that promise covers, we have all made it. I see it as covering the details of what takes place in the circle. Who was there and what we did. It is clear to me that mentioning the legal name of a witch who has not declared themselves to be one publicly is breaking that promise. When it comes to passed lore, there are more disagreements. Selling a copy of our BoS on Ebay is generally frowned upon. If I were to do so, most others of my tradition would no longer work with me or socialize with me. I would no longer get invitations to visit other covens or to attend workshops. So while we do not have central authority, there are predictable reactions to some behaviours. These take place on a person to person level.

3) We have no central authority.

For the most part, covens are autonomous. Some are more independent than others. That is usually by choice. The leadership in a coven can vary. It has always been my experience that in ritual, it is the High Priestess who is in charge. Outside of the circle the most common model is that it is the High Priestess is in charge as well or has the final veto. But this will vary from coven to coven. Some coven or coven members prefer a more hierarchical structure both within a coven and between covens. Others prefer more of a collection of equals. This is very much a matter of coven fit.

Another aspect of this is that there is no one who speaks for all of us. I personally resent it when anybody goes out and claims to speak on any issue for all Pagans, all Wiccans or all Gardnerians. I may or may not agree with their view. I think it hubris or presumptious to assume that their view is mine because I am one of the above. I will listen with respect and consider the views of anyone who has walked the walk for a decade or more. They may convince me, but cannot order me. Any authority or rank I have ends outside of my circle. Only if my views have merit in others’ eyes will they be adopted.

4) We have a lineage.

We know our lineage and can trace who initiated who back to Gardner. The format of those lists will vary in different areas. Some are by public Pagan names only. Others are by legal names. So for some, stating that lineage is not oathbound is correct (if Pagan names are used). All will agree that giving out legal names is considered oathbreaking.

5) We do not charge for training or participation.

This is one of the most common red flags on an invalid Gardnerian group. That they charge for training or charge for participation in the circles. If a group is meeting at a place, such as a camp-ground, there may be a site fee for the camping.