Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Other Rede

The baby bird is lying broken on the ground, dying. Its parents, perhaps detecting some weakness in it, have pushed it out of the nest.

Clearly, it's suffering. What do you do?

“Don't do what you want to do,” wrote Robert Cochrane, father of the contemporary Old Craft movement. “Do what needs to be done.”

Cochrane is critiquing the Wiccan Rede here. “Do what you want to do” is his sneering version of “Do what ye will.”

Old Craft ethic is different from Wicca's. It's tribal at heart, concerned with life together and the obligations that social existence entails.

Now, I don't have anything against the Wiccan Rede, although it strikes me as not really very useful. I've never seen much point to counsels of impossible perfection. And what not to do is only half of the ethical dilemma.

What people seem to forget is that a rede is not a law. In the old Witch language, rede means “counsel, advice.” King Ethelred was Unready because he was “un-reded,” un-counseled. A wiccan rede is “wise advice,” no more.

As such, the Rede does its job reasonably well. As a general rule of thumb, it's no bad idea to avoid harming others.

But as a guide to social behavior, it's a non-starter.

“Do what needs to be done.” Frankly, to me this sounds like a good job description for “witch.”

In a world in which so many people want to duck decision and shed responsibility, it's up to the witch to make the hard calls, the awful decisions that no one should ever have to make. The sad fact is that someone needs to make these decisions, because if no one does, the outcome will probably be that much the worse. So the witch is the one who steps in.

“Do what needs to be done.” There's a context here, and a world of wider responsibility.

There's a baby bird lying there on the ground, and it can't be saved. It's suffering.

Do you harm none, walk on past, and let it dree its own wyrd, suffer out its own karma?

Or do you do what needs to be done, however unpleasant, and end its suffering?

The choice, of course, is yours.

But I know what I would do.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Diotima
    Diotima Friday, 17 June 2016

    Oh, gosh, I think the Wiccan Rede is vastly more complex than "do what you want".

    "An' it harm none, do as you will" requires a great deal of thought and consideration. First, one has to determine -- as in the case of the baby bird -- what constitutes "harm". This can be exceptionally difficult, as we don't have a very wide perspective through time and space, and I think we all probably have been through periods in our lives when we felt that we were being harmed, but when we look back, realize it was one of the best things that had happened to use. And vice-versa of course.

    Then there is the question of what the ultimate outcome of our actions will be, which of course, we cannot know, as the consequences ripple out through time and space, far beyond our ability to perceive. So how do we determine harm?

    The answer, of course, is that we can't -- but we can give it careful thought and consideration, and act in the way we think will cause least harm. Those who work closely with the gods may find those interactions to be helpful as well.

    So, first I have to think long and hard about my personal values and actions.

    Then -- "do as you will" is not the same as "do whatever you want". Now I have to think about what my true Will is -- what I want to create in this world, and how I can act in a way that fulfills my will. Every morning, I think about what I want to create today -- because I am a creator, as we all are, and what I will matters.

    No, it's much more complex than Cochrane's shallow interpretation. The Rede is a guide that has served me well, and I'm sure it will continue to do so.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 18 June 2016

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Diotima. I agree that Cochrane's reading doesn't even begin to plumb the depths; Cochrane had a knee-jerk aversion (rooted, I suspect, in envy) to anything Gardner-related.
    If anything, the rede could be read as a call to compassion, as the responsibility to mitigate suffering. If we can't do no harm, it's at least impingent to do the least that we can.
    And any call to act thoughtfully seems a net ethical gain to me.

  • Diotima
    Diotima Friday, 17 June 2016

    I also find Judy Harrow's "Exegesis on the Wiccan Rede" to be of considerable interest. You might too.

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