Wiccan Ethics And The Wiccan Rede

by David W. Piper (Dianis)

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 anyone." 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 by which to judge. 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 "victimless 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)


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 meant.

At first the change of language was only an attempt to bring the language up from archaic English to modern English; but in doing so - especially 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. 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 unavailable 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 - that the teacher bears a karmic responsibility 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 and 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 thought!

[copyright (c) 1994, David W. Piper]