Wiccan Ethics And The Wiccan Rede
By: David Piper, Sat 21 May 94 12:16
Part I: What Sayeth The Rede?
The "archaically worded" construction "An it harm none, do what ye
will," rendered into modern English is literally, "if it doesn't harm
anyone, do what you want."
Many modern Wiccans "reverse" the construction, however, taking the
first part and putting it after the second to read: "Do what ye will an
it harm none," or in modern English "Do what you want if it doesn't harm
Many people give the word "an" or "if" a value of "so long as" - which
is acceptable substitution, because it doesn't alter the meaning of the
Rede itself. However they then proceed to read "so long as" as "only
if," and that is *completely different*, because the Rede has ceased to
be a "wise counsel" [anyone checked the meaning of "rede" in the
dictionary lately?] and become an injunction: prohibitive commandment,
rather than permissive advice.
In other words, the original archaic construction actually says "if it
is not going to hurt anyone, it is ok to do" - this is *not* the same as
"if it hurts anyone it is *not* ok to do."
What is the significance of the change? A larger one than you might
see, at first glance.
The "actual construction Rede," or AC Rede, says it is ok to do
something that won't harm anyone, but it *does not say anything* about
those things which do cause harm, except to set an ethical standard of
harmlessness as the criteria to judge by.
The "modern reconstruction Rede" or MR Rede, explicitly says that any
and all actions that cause harm are forbidden.
The two constructions do *not* mean the same thing at all. And it
should be obvious that this has implications on our thinking, and
discussions of the possibility of "obeying" the Rede.
Most of you will have heard or read, as I have, people saying the Rede
is something to strive to live by, even though mundane reality makes it
very difficult, if not impossible, to do so to the letter. *This is
only true of the MR Rede, not the AC Rede!* As examples, they cite
situations such as self-defense; *this violates the MR Rede*. Period.
But it does *not* violate the AC Rede. Period.
Earlier, I stated that the AC Rede does not rule on actions that do
cause harm - and this is true. It only rules on those actions which do
not, by saying that they are acceptable. This is relevant to "victi-
mless crimes" for example - civil "crimes" may in fact be "ethical," by
the judgment of the AC Rede.
What the AC Rede *does* do, in terms of actions that cause harm, is
state an ethical value by which an individual must judge the results of
her/his actions before acting. In other words, by stating that a
harmless action is ethical, the AC Rede sets harmlessness as the
criteria for evaluation. Acting to prevent greater harm - but in the
process causing lesser harm - may then be ethical, if there is no
harmless, or more harmless, method of preventing that greater harm -
because *not* acting to prevent harm is to *cause* it, by an act of
*omission* rather than *commission*.
In short the difference between the AC Rede, and the MR Rede, is that
the AC Rede is a perfectly-obeyable ethical standard, but the MR Rede is
not, as so many people have pointed out. Do we take as our ethical
standard a "counsel" which *can* be obeyed, or one which *necessitates
rationalizing in some instances*? Which is truer to the Wicca, and to
the *real* Rede?
"rede: n. [Middle English rede < Old English raed < base of
raedan, to interpret] [archaic] 1. counsel; advice 2. a plan; scheme
3. a story; tale 4. an interpretation"
(from Webster's New World Dictionary)
Part II: "Do good, an it be safe..." (from the Ordains)
The MR Rede is the most common interpretation in Wicca today; so much
so, that not only do many Wiccans not realize there's a difference in
the two constructions, but they *deny* it when it is pointed out to
them, holding firmly to the MR Rede as what the original has always
At first the change of language was only an attempt to bring the
language up from archaic, to modern English; but in doing so - especial-
ly with the public relations campaign, to convince people that Wiccans
are "not black magick/not devil worship/not evil nasty curse-casters"
the "harmlessness" aspect of the Rede was stressed, over the personal
responsibility aspect. And in essence Wiccans became the victims of
their own PR campaign.
An additional result is the injunction that one may never work magick
for others, even to heal, without their knowledge and consent. Of
course, we are allowed by this injunction to ask "Can I pray for you?"
as a means of obtaining the consent. From "a love spell aimed at one
particular person is unethical because it violates their will only to
serve our lust" we've moved to an extreme: to the prohibitive injunction
against ever doing any magick for another without permission, since it
violates their free will. Does anyone *really* believe the Gods will
judge them ill, for attempting to heal someone?
What of the case of an unconscious accident victim and family unavail-
able to ask - are we forbidden to work? No, of course we're not - but
we *do* have to accept the karmic consequences of such acts. Do you
really think that a neurotic who uses an illness as a crutch wouldn't be
better healed of that neurosis as well as the illness? Of course that
may call up some karma if the person isn't strong enough to give up that
crutch yet. Once again the real criteria is *personal responsibility*
and consideration of the consequences of one's actions *before* one acts
rather than the "thou shalt not" prohibitive commandment.
There is however another reason for the "prohibitive form" of these
redes - one which has some validity. The teacher bears a karmic respon-
sibility for the student. There was a group whose teaching was, "No
magick may be done for another, even to heal, without their consent; any
exceptions may be decided only by the High Priestess and the High
Priest." The point of this is that a student is not yet experienced
enough, not yet wise enough (since wisdom is the harvest we reap of our
experience and knowledge), to have that kind of decision, and the
resulting karmic burden, left to rest fully upon her/his shoulders -
hence, some teachers and some Trads do not allow neophytes to have
responsibility for that kind of decision-making.
It is far better, however, to teach a student the essential importance
of personal responsibility, the need to look ahead for possible
consequences before they act, than to lay "thou shalt not's" upon them
despite Wicca's insistance that we have none.
I received a comment about the last sentence in part I, paragraph 3,
that said "Ack! Welcome to the One Wiccan Commandment! Any 'thou shalt
nots' lurking around?" Food for thought, my fellow Wiccans! Food for
Next: Charge of the God 1 and 2 (Siobhan)