The Origins & Meaning of The Wicca Rede
From various sources
Most believe that Lady Gwen Thomson, an American witch and author, introduced the Rede to the Craft in 1975. However, Doreen Valiente, a British author and Wiccan, presented the Rede in 1964 and again in 1966 in the publications "Pentagram" and "The Waxing Moon". But the circulation of these newsletters was low and so few were aware of it. Then in the 1970's interest in Wicca exploded. So, in 1974 Doreen Valiente published her 26-line poem of the Rede, titled "The Wicca Rede", in “Earth Religion News”. And in her book “Witchcraft for Tomorrow” she quotes the phrase as being “Eight words the Wicca Rede fulfill; An it harms none, do what ye will”. Yet, Lady Gwen Thompson's published works were given the recognition as the origin. Lady Gwen Thompson, an American author and Witch, titled it "The Rede of the Wiccae" and is a much longer version which she published in 1975. Though Lady Gwen Thompson's and Doreen Valiente's poems differ, both end with a phrase for you to do “no harm”.
The Wicca Rede that we most know that Lady Thompson wrote is often called the long version. It has had significant influence in the Wicca culture. It seems to be the source of the phrases “In perfect love and perfect trust” as well as “Merry meet and Merry part” that are very popularly used by Wicca and some Pagans.
However, we should look a bit further into the history of the Rede. Doreen Valiente was familiar with Aleister Crowley's works. In 1904 in Crowley's published work "The Book of the Law", he states "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law". Stated as a response to his statement "Love is the Law, Love under Will". It is believed that Crowley adopted this statement from Francois Rabelais who wrote in 1534 "Do as thou wilt because men are free, of gentle birth, well-bred and at home in civilized company possess of natural instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice. This instinct they name their honor." And Gerald Gardner also inspired Doreen Valiente with his quote of Good King Pausole : “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”. This seems to be where the true influence came from.
The Wicca Rede is an ethical ideal of personal social responsibility. As it is written, it allows for personal interpretation. This is because Wicca as a religion is itself a personal experience and practice. However, the meaning of the word "Rede" needs to be understood. It is a Middle English word meaning "to advise" or "give counsel" and thus does not mean law or commandment. Wicca is non-dogmatic and thus its ethics keeps with the religion's practice of being flexible and the fact that it calls for personal responsibility. Yes, there are those that say that The Wicca Rede is a law and not optional for others to follow, but one needs to understand that first, it is a Wiccan phrase and there are many who are not Wicca who feel they don’t need to follow it, and second, we all have been granted free will and sadly sometimes, we are free to do as we wish though it be harmful. However, I feel that The Wicca Rede should be followed not because it is a tenant of Wicca but because it is simply the right thing to do.
As for the suggestion to harm none, you may find that as you try to live by it that it is harder to do than you would have originally thought. The mere act of living our daily lives causes all sorts of harm. We cause harm with our simple act of eating or when we accidentally step on an ant. There is no way to not cause harm as long as we live. Even the act of doing nothing can cause harm. So how do we apply this "advice" to our daily lives? By simply striving to cause as little harm as possible. That means to not, through conscious thought and deed, cause harm when it can be handled by a different action. Though we may not always be able to take time to contemplate in depth what our actions or non-actions will do in the light of harm, still, with a steady practice to seek the lesser of harms, this will come easier.
"Harm None" also doesn't mean to let others walk all over you, to not protect yourself and others. If you let harm come to yourself or anyone then you are breaking the Rede. The Rede works all the time. As Wicca, it is our duty to step in if we see harm or if we see anyone being harmed. "Harm None" means just that, not just you harming another person but by others meaning to harm you or anyone else. Everyone has the right to protect themselves and anyone else, especially someone they love. Just remember Free Will.
Now let’s take a closer look at each word in The Wicca Rede. The words are "pseudo-archaic" but makes excellent use of several of these words as they have no real equivalents in our modern English language.
An : This word is many times mistranslated as "If", this isn’t so. It translates more accurately as "Just So Long As".
It : This pronoun refers to whatever it is you are thinking of doing.
Harms : This refers to anyone, whether you or another, who is affected by the "It" just previously named and would be in regard to pain, discomfort, loss, invasive, damage, or prevention, in relationship to the situation before the "It" was done. If it interferes with free will then you have done harm.
None : This should be self-explanatory. "None" is an all-exclusive word. If you cause harm to yourself, anyone or anything then you have caused harm to "some" not to "none". However, it can be extremely, if at all possible, to achieve.
Do : To perform whatever working contemplative by the "It".
What : This means "whatever" and refers to forward.
Ye : This is the archaic word for the plural "You".
Will : This means to exercise your decision-making power to determine what your action will be that you feel is best. "Will" has little to nothing to do with your "want", "wish" or "desire". It is not inclined to your feelings or emotions. It is achieved through reasoning and your best judgement to make a decision.
The first section of the Rede, "An it harm none," is to put it first and foremost in your mind. If "Do what ye will" came first, then you or others might take it into your mind to forget "An it harms none". Thus, you or another might very well take it into your head to do whatever you think you can justify doing. So, "An it harms none" comes first to set the tone of what is intended.
The second section of the Rede, "Do what ye will" then, in light of the first section, is not a blanket statement to do anything and everything you can think of justly doing. Remember "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Since real magic can accomplish real goals in the real world, then we should have a restriction on our power to do harm.
Many Wicca take the meaning of "Harm None" to mean that we shouldn't eat meat, and some go so far as to avoid the use of all animal products due to how animals are treated in much of the farming community. I also abhor the treatment animals get in conventional farming, but I personally feel that by choosing carefully where you buy your meat and animal products from, as in from farmers who treat their animals in a humane way, then you are causing the lesser of harm. I personally believe that consuming animal meat and products is natural for humans. But I am careful as to where my meat and animal products come from. However, I don't believe we need to consume large amounts of meat or animal products and I also do not believe in wasting what I have. Waste is just another form of harm and should be avoided. Another point is that it has been proven that plants scream when cut. Do we also give up eating them as well? But in the end the choice is always yours as to whether or not you eat meat or animal products.
Something else you need to remember is to be careful as to how you word your spells. Money spells come to the foremost of my mind, though this will apply to other kinds of spells as well. For example, you may do a spell for money, but forget to say that you don't wish any harm to come to anyone for you to receive this money. Suddenly you inherit a large sum. Your aunt or even your parents, died suddenly and that is how you received the money. Thus, in your doing of this spell, you may have caused grave harm. Was it your intention to cause a death for that money, I think not. Did your spell actually cause that death? Who knows for sure, this example is in the extreme. But it is best to be extremely careful as to how you word your spells. Magic has a habit of working in a literal way, so keep your intent clear.
Remember to avoid fundamentalism, as it never ends well with any religion. Balance is the key. So where does this leave us when we think of The Wicca Rede? As I said before, we should strive to cause as little harm as possible and to always be sure of our intent.
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