“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold.”
This idea is also present, in a more elaborate form, in the Wiccan Rede;
“Mind the threefold law ye should, three times bad and three times good.”
An alternative interpretation may be closer to a code of honour; a sense of obligation to repay what has been done to you, be it bad or good. This certainly makes more sense when considering the first quote – that sounds like a guide for what you should do in response to another’s action, not a rule regarding what response your own actions wil be met with.
Another explanation for the ‘threefold’ factor would be that you work with energy in three forms; physical, mental and spiritual. Maybe the Threefold Law is simply reminding you that any action you take will have physical, mental and spiritual aspects – and possible consequences.
On a final note regarding the origins of the Threefold Law, while it can be traced in its popular form to Gerald Gardner, and was undoubtedly accepted as part of the Gardnerian teachings, it wasn’t then seen as being as important as it appears to be today. Most Gardnerians, outside of those taught by Lady Owen or Raymond Buckland, believed in a more general law of return or form of Karma. Doreen Valiente, an initiate of Gardner’s, never referenced it at all in her early work, and expressed her doubts as to its validity to FireHeart journal;
“Personally, I’ve always been skeptical about it because it doesn’t seem to me to make sense. I don’t see why there has to be one special law of karma for Witches and a different one for everybody else. I don’t buy that.”
It’s interesting to see how both the importance and the meaning of the threefold law have changed over time. Now it’s generally accepted as a central idea of Wicca, and it’s often citied as one of the two main ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ in the religion, the other being ‘An it harm none, do as ye will’. When reading online about the Threefold Law, it’s common to come across quotes like this;
“The Three-fold law states that any good that a person does to another returns to themselves, magnified three times. Any harm also returns in the same ratio. This heavily motivates Wiccans to behave ethically, and to avoid harming others.” – Religious Tolerance
Firstly, that seems to say that we need motivation to behave ethically. At the worst you can find quotes along the lines of, ‘We can’t do bad spells, the Threefold Law says we mustn’t.’ You’re doing yourself a disservice if you imply that you only act in an ethical manner because the Threefold Law says you’ll get rewarded if you do, and punished if you don’t. You should be able to decide for yourself what behaviour is, and is not acceptable, and accept the responsibility of making the right decision.
That decision has to be made personally, because everything that we do magically or mundanely has repercussions, and they’re hardly ever all-good or all-bad. Chances are that in some small way, there’s going to be a negative consequence to what you do. The problem is deciding whether the good outweighs the bad. In most cases, the negative consequence is so trivial that there’s no question of the good outweighing the bad, but it’s still a decision you have to make.
Wiccan author, activist and attourney, Phyllis Curott is quite passionate in her opinion of the Threefold Law;
“That’s not ethics, that’s expediency. Really what it is, is a remnant of Biblical patriarchial thinking. It’s a rule based on punishment and fear. What it says is, if I do something wrong, I will be punished, and therefore I will behave. Expediency, self-interest, and this is the weak cousin of an ethical norm. It’s bad morality and it’s not the basis upon which we should conduct ourselves and our lives and our spiritual practices.”
The Threefold Law supposedly says that any positive or negative energy you send out will be returned in kind, three times as strong. The energy used is natural, raised during magical workings and sent out to achieve your goal. It is generally accepted that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form, so it should not be possible for it to be magnified three times and returned to you, unless it can somehow escape those laws when it’s used in magic. I suppose it may be possible, but I don’t understand why natural energy would behave differently when used in magic.
Additionally, there’s nothing intrinsically good or evil about energy. There are good and bad results, but if the energy itself has nothing that makes it ‘good’ or ‘bad’, then even if it was multiplied by three, it still wouldn’t return “three times bad and three times good.” Compare it to flipping a switch – you can turn off a ventilator or turn on a light; the act itself has no moral value attached to it – it’s the result that we think is bad or good.
A more realistic way for the energy to return to you is far more mundane. If you’re a positive person you’re likely to attract other positive people. The kind of person you are will affect the way people respond to you, and if you’re a negative person, you’ll have more negative experiences. The Threefold Law may give you advice that you would not have otherwise considered, but there’s no reason to think of it as more than a warning that the way you approach the world will affect the experiences you have.
“I think old Gerald cooked it up in one of his rituals, and people took it terribly literally.” – Doreen Valiente
Wiccan Terminology – Religious Tolerance
Rule of Three – Wikipedia
The Three-Fold Law – Waning Moon
The Threefold Law – Witchvox
The Law of Return – Wicca: For The Rest Of Us
A Conversation with Phyllis Curott – The Monthly Aspectarian