The term Rede, or Wiccan Rede, refers, apparently interchangably, to either the long poem I have provided a link to or, more accurately I believe, to the eight-word form below;
“An it harm none, do what ye will.”
If you’ve read any modern books on Wicca, or searched the internet for it, you’ll probably have found both versions repeated quite often. The Rede is the cardinal rule in Wicca, but half the websites present its text without exploring its origin or meaning.
The idea behind the text can be traced back to Gerald Gardner, acknowledging an influence from Aleister Crowley. Crowley initiated Gardner into the Ordo Templi Orientis (“O.T.O.”) in 1946, and the Gardnerian craft laws – introduced in the late 1950’s and finalised by the early 1960’s – do give reference to a law;
“And for long have we obeyed this law, ‘Harm none’.”
Interestingly, given the context – Gardner refers to how people used to cry witchcraft whenever misfortune befell them, – this law sounds more like a way to avoid trouble, rather than anything to do with ethics. Considering where this ‘long obeyed’ law may have originated, and based on the known connection between Crowley and Gardner, many people believe the Rede to be a reworked version of Crowley’s Law of Thelema, in his Book of the Law;
“Do as thou wilt be the whole of the law.” – Chapter 1.40
The connection between this line, and the quote of ‘Harm none’ is tenuous at best. There’s a distinct difference between harming none, and doing as you will. The book continues to say;
“Love is the law, love under will.” – Chapter 1.57
“There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” – Chapter 3.60
This sounds less and less like the Wiccan Rede. Gardner does however offer a possible alternative source in his 1959 book, The Meaning of Witchcraft;
“[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, ‘Do what you like so long as you harm no one’.”
King Pausol was a character in Pierre Louÿs’ 1901 novel, The Adventures of King Pausole, and this line may have been mutated into the form we know we know today by Gardner directly or by someone else. The Rede wasn’t actually published in its popular form until 1964, when the newsletter Pentagram sponsored a witches’ dinner – Doreen Valiente, an initiate of Gardner’s, made a speech from which the well-known quote is taken, with no evidence of earlier occurences in the same form.
This version seems to tie the first two quotes together, mentioning both the ideas of harming none, and following your own will. This is slightly different from the King Pausol version which uses the word ‘like’, as Crowley intended the word ‘will’ to mean something deeper than a trivial whim for one thing or another. Crowley believed that to live in harmony with the universe you had to understand and act on your ‘true will‘, bypassing mundane desires so as to achieve your grand destiny in life.
The word ‘an’ at the beginning of the Rede actually means ‘if’, and the whole line can be interpreted as, “If it causes no harm, you’re allowed to do it.” Notice that it tells you what you can do in certain circumstances, but it doesn’t forbid action in other circumstances. Even if the Rede is based on an older law, it’s not a hard and fast rule about how you live your life. The word ‘rede’ actually signifies this – it is derived from an Old English word meaning ‘to guide or direct’. The Rede simply confirms that if you know an action will cause no harm, then you can do it. The most that can be read into it is that you should know what you are doing, and be willing to take responsibility for your actions, and any consequences they have.
There’s also a fair amount of doubt over whether the Rede is a remnant or derivation of an older law. The longer poem, linked to at the top of this page, is attributed to Adriana Porter, by her granddaughter Lady Gwen Thomson, and was first published in the Ostara 1975 issue of Green Egg magazine. Interestingly enough, Porter died in 1946, well before either the short or long-form Rede actually appeared in writing, and before the Gardnerian craft laws were finalised. The poem that is thought to have been written by her, ends with a line that is far too close to Valiente’s quote to be a coincidence. If Porter died (1946) before Valiente’s quote (1964), and Valiente made that speech before Porter’s poem was published (1975) then that raises the question of how the identical wording arose. Perhaps Porter wrote it, and Thomson embellished it after hearing Valiente’s speech. Maybe Valiente had access to the poem before it was actually published.
Considering that the longer Wiccan Rede makes reference to both the Gardnerian idea of harming none, and Gardner’s threefold law, it is possible still that Garder and the author of it possessed knowledge of earlier works on both subjects. Given the lack of evidence for any similar law (excluding literary fiction) predating Garder and Crowley however, it is more probable that either Garder in fact is the author of the Rede, or that the author was familiar with Gardner’s works. Either way, the Wiccan Rede is a purely Wiccan invention. Its origins can be traced back as far as the 1950’s, and although there’s some debate about its true author, there’s no evidence for it being a sacred law passed down through the ages, even in a bastardized form.
The Wiccan Rede is a beautiful piece of poetry, but it’s not a reason for abstaining from certain kinds of action. Somehow the words have had a new meaning attached to them, a meaning that can’t be found anywhere in their past. The Rede should be thought of as guidance and advice, not a ruling from on high. It means taking responsibility for your actions, not avoiding the responsibility of making the choice to do what needs to be done. It doesn’t prevent you from causing harm, to other people or yourself, but it does encourage you to really consider the consequences of your actions and to only continue if you’re honestly happy, both with what you’re doing and with the consequences it may bring.
Wiccan Rede – Wikipedia
The Wiccan Rule of Behaviour – Religious Tolerance
The Wiccan Rede – Waning Moon
Wiccan Ethics and the Wiccan Rede – The Pagan Library
The Wiccan Rede – Wicca: For The Rest Of Us
The Wiccan Rede and The Art of Persuasion – Llewellyn Journal
Problems With The Wiccan Rede – The Cauldron