Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
The Wiccan Rede: Whose Line Is It Anyhow?
Decades ago, I sat in a college classroom, listening to my beloved mentor, Professor Shaw, lecturing about Shakespeare. We were talking about Julius Ceasar I believe, and quoting some well known line, when from the back of the room, a young woman asked "why did Shakespeare write in so many cliches?" I giggled a little: Professor Shaw, hardly missing a beat, simply said "they weren't cliches when he wrote them," and moved right along with Ceasar. Now just bear with me, and keep this little tale in mind for a while.
Last week my lovely GF Lauren wrote me an email. She had seen something on a Facebook group (Pagan News Now) and wondered if I knew anything about it. It was a document which the poster claimed was the Wiccan Rede. Here is what Lauren sent me:
"Hear now the word of the Witches, the secrets we hid in the night,
When dark was our destinys pathway, That now we bring forth in the light.
Mysterious Water and Fire, The Earth and the wide-ranging Air,
By hidden Quintessence we know Them, and we will keep silent and dare.
The birth and rebirth of all Nature, the passing of Winter and Spring,
We share with the life Universal, rejoice in the Magical Ring
Four times in the year the Great Sabbat, returns, and the Witches are seen,
At Lammas and Candelas dancing, on May Eve and old Halloween
When daytime and nighttime are equal, when sun is at greatest and least,
The four lesser Sabbats are summoned, again Witches gather in feast.
Thirteen silver moons in a year are, thirteen is the Covens array,
Thirteen times at Esbat make merry, for each golden year and a day.
The power has passed down the ages, each time between woman and man
Each century unto the other, ere times and the ages began.
When drawn is the Magickal circle, by sword or athame of power,
Its compass between two worlds lies, in the land of shades of that hour.
Our world has no right to know it, and the world beyond will tell naught,
The oldest of Gods are invoked there, the great work of Magic is wrought.
For two are the mystical pillars, that stand at the gate of the shrine,
And two are the powers of Nature, the forms and the forces divine.
And do what thou wilt be the challenge, so be it in love that harms none,
For this is the only commandment, By Magick of old be it done.
Eight words the Witches Rede fulfill:
If it Harms none, Do what Thou Will!"
Now this is, indeed, a poem. But is this the Wiccan Rede? I suppose the PC answer would be, it is to someone... but it certainly puzzled me as much as it did Lauren.
When I entered the Pagan community in the late '70s, things were perhaps a little more clear cut than they are today. We didn't have the Internet, and we had very few books; maybe this was bad in terms of finding other Pagans. But it was good in terms of fact checking. There were about five Books of Shadows floating around: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Mosian, Al/Gard (a combination that sounds just like it is), Blue Star, and the various BoS materials of the Chicago and Philadelphia Pagan Way classes (which were later published by New York Witch entrepreneur Herman Slater). Most initiated practitioners of the Craft had some, most, or all of these books. So fact checking was a breeze. Is in it Gardner's book? Is it also in Sanders' book? Is it different? Is it the same?
It's much more confusing now. Everyone has a BoS. I've seen a dozen "Wiccan Redes" that seem to have very little resemblance to the Wiccan Rede I first learned. So what is the Wiccan rede, and whose is it? Is there a "real" Wiccan Rede?
Many people will tell you that the Wiccan rede is a single line, or a rhymed pair: "If it harms none, do what ye will." Some add "In these eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: If it harms none, do what ye will." Now this is neither correct, nor accurate. Notice the first of the pair of lines: "In these eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill." To fulfill something, you have to have something to fulfill. You fulfill an order by shipping merchandize: fulfillment simply means that you go through the process of shipping the thing you've sold. It's the same with the WR: to fulfill the entire WR, you observe this one final line.
And the final line is often badly misquoted. It should read "An ye harm none, do what ye will." "An" is an archaic form of the word "if."
Doreen Valiente circa 1960.
The eight word Wiccan Rede can be traced back to 1964, when it was spoken by Gerald Gardner's Priestess Doreen Valiente. In 1974, two widely read Pagan print magazines, Earth Religion New, and Green Egg, both published Lady Gwen Thompson's full WR:
Bide ye Wiccan Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live and let live, fairly take and fairly give.
Cast the Circle thrice about to keep all evil spirits out.
To bind the spell every time, let ye spell be spake in rhyme.
Soft of eye and light of touch, speak ye little, listen much.
Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out ye Witches' rune.
Widdershins go by the waning moon
chanting out ye Baneful rune
When the Lady's moon is new, kiss ye hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then ye heart's desire seek.
Heed the North wind's mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.
When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss ye on the mouth.
When the wind blows from the West, departed souls will have no rest.
Nine woods in ye Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Elder be ye lady's tree, burn it not or cursed ye'll be
When the wheel begins to turn, soon ye Beltane fires will burn.
When the wheel has turned a Yule, light the log, the Horned One rules.
Heed ye flower, bush, and tree, by the Lady blessed be.
Where the rippling waters go, cast a stone and truth ye'll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.
With a fool no season spend, nor be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part, bright the cheeks and warm the heart.
Mind ye Three-fold Law ye should, three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is anow, wear the star upon your brow.
True in love ye must ever be, lest thy love be false to thee.
In these Eight words ye Rede fulfill: An' ye harm none, do what ye will
This is the Rede I grew up with, and follow to this day. I still accept this as the 1974 Wiccan rede, common to Gardnerian and Alexandrian practice.
It was by the late 80s that I started to see weird "Wiccan Redes" floating around, especially in occult shops. I saw one "Rede," printed on computer paper, that was only six lines. It ended with the familiar couplet, but had lines like "Ever mind the rule of three, lest in thy self-defense it be." What???
I think that like the girl in the back of the Shakespeare class, the Rede had circulated through the Pagan community enough, had been quoted and misquoted enough, that it had become cliche. Everyone "knew" the WR by 1990... yet often no one seemed to actually know it. They knew the cliches they had heard: "rules of three," "Threefold law," "Perfect Love and Perfect Trust," "If it harms none." As time went on, it seems the actual Rede gave way to the cliche lines. In much the same way it seems like everyone knows the line from Romeo and Juliet that wonders "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" yet no one seems to know what it means! (Juliet, believing herself to be alone on her balcony, asks Wherefore: "why are you Romeo?" meaning 'why the hell did I just fall for the one guy in all of Italy that mt dad hates?' She has no idea that Romeo is listening, and is in no way asking where Romeo is). That's the way it is with cliches.
So who owns the Wiccan Rede? Is there even a consensus as to what is the true WR? To me, it is the 26 line poem published in 1974, the one above, the one in my Blue Star BoS (the Blue Star BoS originated in about 1973 in Philadelphia, based largely on the Al/Gard B0S). But I am quite certain that whoever published the WR on Pagan News Now thought she/he was publishing the REAL WR. And I'm sure to the people who bought the six line WR at the occult shop, that's the real thing, absolving them from doing harm in "self defense."
I have no answer. other to say that mine is older, and common to Gardnerian and Alexandrian practice, which were the first widespread neo-Pagan traditions to come to America, so mine is probably at least closest to the source (which seems to be Gwen Thompson). But you might disagree. After all, the thing we learn first, whether factually right or wrong, tends to be the thing we hold on to and defend as right, for in our brains that was the blueprint. But I think going to the source, and asking yourself which sounds "truest," is a good strategy. Remember that as prolific as Gardner, Valiente, and Thompson were, they were pretty terrible writers: the 26 line Rede from my BoS is about in keeping with the writing skills of that ilk (Vogon poetry). It also seems to contain the truest approximation to the beliefs of that generation of Wiccans: these lines had not yet fallen into cliche use among Pagans. Look at the first line:
"Bide ye Wiccan Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust."
With the cliche version of this sentiment, I often hear Pagans say "you must enter the Circle in perfect love and perfect trust." But the Rede says nothing of the kind. If I'm going to an open circle, or a public ritual, I don't know everyone there: I'm certainly not going to love or trust them! But the Rede says to love and trust the Wiccan laws, the two hundred and something Laws Of The Wiccae that Gardner laid out in his original BoS. These are the laws that govern our covens and our rituals, so are the laws that allow us to come before our Gods. Now to modern Pagans, maybe that sounds archaic and foolish. "There's laws about how you do Paganism? Isn't Paganism whatever I want it to be?" Well in 1974, no, it certainly wasn't, and yes, there were laws. So which is the true Rede? In my mind, the one that references the beliefs of the Wiccan movement of the '50s-'70s.
"But I don't believe in that stuff," you say. "That was a different generation." Then for you, the Rede may be the first one I quoted, or the six line Rede, or the one sentence Rede. That's fine. As Jason Mankey always points out to me (usually to make me feel like a moron), you cannot copyright words: the Craft is what the Craft is for the person practicing it.
Me, I'll stick with Gwen. She's done me well these thirty years. But if you'd like to show me the merit of your Rede, I'm all ears.
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