A Deeper Look at the Wiccan Rede

“An you harm done, do as thou wilt.”

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? As long as you don’t hurt anybody or anything, then do whatever you feel like doing. The Wiccan Rede, the one and only hard and fast rule in Wicca, is short, sweet and to the point. Don’t be fooled by the brevity of the Rede, though – it’s got very deep implications.

The second part of the Rede is the one that gets the most attention. It’s all about freedom of choice, of doing what you feel is right. That freedom is probably what drew most of us to Paganism in the first place. But where does your freedom end and the freedom of other people begin?

The answer is in the first part of the Rede. It’s a clearly stated ethical standard. But what constitutes harm?

Injury is an obvious form of harm. If your spell is designed to make someone fall down the stairs and break his neck, that’s not cool. If you’re trying to magickally give someone herpes, that’s also unacceptable. There are less obvious forms of harm, though.

Love spells are one of the most commonly cast forms of magick, but they’re ethically problematic. They are a direct violation of the Rede, because they deprive the spell’s subject of his or her free will. This is domination and subjugation, and very clearly a form of harm. You can’t force someone to love you. If you try, you’re enslaving their will, and they don’t actually love you, anyway. The love you think you’ve created is a false construct of your own vanity.

It is absolutely vital when you are doing spell work that you consider your motivations very carefully. What are you really trying to accomplish? What are the mechanics of the spell in terms of how you reach your goal? Sending healing energy to someone to try to help them overcome an addiction is a healthy and valid form of spell craft. Casting a binding spell to stop a person from taking the drug he’s addicted to is a violation of free will and is therefore in contravention of the Rede.

When you’re considering whether or not you’re doing harm to someone, consider how you would feel if you learned that someone had cast the spell on you. Would you feel romantically energized to know that someone had used magick to compel you to accept her as a lover, even though you really weren’t interested? Probably not. That’s tantamount to rape, to be honest, and that’s a very big piece of harm.

Any spell that gives instead of takes is probably safe, as long as the thing that’s given is positive. Any spell that is intended to take away is a violation of the Rede, because it’s theft, and it deprives another person of her property or personal choices.

You can probably get a feeling for the ethics of your spell intention by paying attention to your emotions when you’re preparing to cast. Are you in a place of peace and love? Then you’re probably doing the right thing. Are you angry, bitter, jealous or annoyed? Proceed with care. Spell casting from that standpoint is almost always destructive.

I’ve heard several witches and Pagans talk about how they feel justified in casting hexes and curses along with spells, because they consider themselves “gray workers”. That’s their choice, obviously, but it’s not a choice that’s in line with the Wiccan Rede. To be fair, most of these people don’t consider themselves Wiccan, and they’re therefore free of the obligation of following the Rede. Most magickal systems have a similar rule, however, so it’s possibly they’re still in violation of some standard even if it’s not a Wiccan one.

Hexes and curses are not gray work. They’re dark work. Any magick that is intended to hurt, harm, control, subjugation, dominate or overpower another person is, under Wiccan ethics, wrong. We are called to do our work in the light, to use our gifts and our power in a way that adds to the beauty and the safety of the world. We’re meant to be helpers, not destroyers.

The people who cast curses are setting themselves up as judge, jury and executioner. They’re applying what they think is justice to a situation in which they or someone they love has been harmed. They’re not seeking justice, though – they’re seeking retribution. That’s not our place. If someone is to pay for the negativity they’ve created, then the karmic wheel will see to it, and the Gods and Goddesses will make sure that the balance is maintained. That’s not our job as human beings.

Consent is a significant issue in life in general, but especially where spell work and magick are involved. It is a violation of the Rede to cast magick on someone without their knowledge or consent. If you want to cast healing magick for someone, ask the person first if they’re open to such a thing. Some people don’t want healing magick for reasons all their own – either they feel that their energies are not compatible with the potential caster, or they’re already involved in some spell work of their own that might be unbalanced by energy coming in from the outside. Also, consider that what you think is right for another person might not be right for them at all. Let’s say you have a maiden aunt who has never had a boyfriend, and you think it might be nice to cast a spell to send love in her direction – without realizing that she’s had a girlfriend all this time and really isn’t looking for anything. Any potential suitors you send her way could be annoying, or they could become stalkerish, and your maiden aunt doesn’t need that noise. You could have avoided complicating her life by talking to her first.

I learned about this the hard way. When I was younger, I was friends with someone who was in a complicated and dysfunctional relationship. My friend asked me to cast a binding spell on her husband to force him to stop saying abusive things to her and her children, and to compel him to attend marriage counseling with her. I set up my altar, called upon Hecate, and did my ritual and my spell … and he became three times worse than before. Meanwhile, my own relationship took a dark turn, and I ended up alone.

Three times worse. I paid the price for my interference.

The number three in this example is important, because it points to the Rule of Three, which is a close companion of the Rede. The Rule states that whatever a person puts out into the universe, whether it be positive or negative, it will return to the person three times over. If you’re casting abusive spells, like the one I tried to do, then you’ll receive three times the abuse you dished out. It’s karma, and it’s an object lesson in humility.

Now, the Rule of Three isn’t literal. It doesn’t mean that if you cast a spell that makes your target break his ankle that you’re going to break your ankle in three places. It means that something negative and painful will come into your life in response to the negativity and pain you wished on your target. (Even the word ‘target’ makes it clear that we’re not talking about a friendly action here.)

The Rede, as I said before, sounds very simple on its face, but it’s really very complicated. There have been reams of papers and books written on the subject, and attitudes toward the Rede range widely. Some interpret it as a strict prohibition to never, ever do any harm of any kind to anyone, which is very difficult to do if you ever have any contact with other human beings, either directly or indirectly. Others interpret it as a loose suggestion to try to do your best, but if you hurt someone, at you can say you tried. To me, the Rede is actually somewhere in between.

My interpretation of the Rede is this: There will be times when you have no choice but to take an action that will hurt someone, somewhere. There are other times when the only good choice you can make will hurt someone else (i.e., euthanizing a suffering pet). There are other times when you do the best you can, and you try to act without negative impacts, but negative impacts happen anyway.

There’s a concept called the Inevitability of Harm. It’s a philosophical puzzle, but it’s also very real. Let’s take a few examples.

Your coven wants to grow its own herbs for use in spells. That means that you’re going to set aside a corner of your yard where you’re going to put in a garden. You’ll till the soil, plant seeds, water the plants that sprout, and harvest the herbs when they’re ready. Sounds good and positive, right? Well, what about the grass that was in that corner. You’ve killed it. Isn’t that harm? What about the insect and earthworms who ran afoul of the tiller? That’s harm. So have you violated the Rede?

To my mind, no.

Whenever you touch anything in this world, because of the way all beings and all life is interconnected, there will be negative ramifications. It is virtually impossible to do anything without hurting someone or something else. What matters is intention. When you chose to till the soil and set up your herb garden, your intention was to grow plants for the health and benefit of your circle and the people around you. You didn’t go into the project with the gleeful intention of killing worms and ripping out grass. Your intention was good.

Now let’s take another example. You’re starting a new metaphysical book shop in your town, one where your coven will be meeting for esbats and Sabbat rituals. Your coven’s activities will depend upon the profits that your store makes, and the store is your material livelihood. It’s in everyone’s best interests for your store to be a success. There’s a complication, though, because there’s already a metaphysical book store in town, and only so many Pagans in the area. You want to attract some of the other store’s clients so that you can some of their business, too. Nothing wrong with that. So far, so good.

Here’s where it gets dodgy. Instead of doing mundane work to get your store more attractive and to get more advertising, you decide to do spell work to amplify your sales. Again, nothing wrong with that. Prosperity magic has been around since the prehistory. Your ethical considerations come into play, and the Rede needs to be consulted, when you start thinking about how you’re going to do this.

You have two different spells to cast. One gives your shop a special magickal pizzazz, a little glamor. You’re asking the Goddess to make your shop sparkle and to bring clientele through the door. You’re asking Fortuna to bless you and to make your profits grow. You’re casting your spell with hope and with thoughts of growth and good things.

Congratulations. You’re following the Rede.

Now, the other spell is a little different. This spell focuses on your competition. You do spell work that’s designed to give them problems – a failure of their computer system, or a lost contract with a supplier. You’re using your magick to penalize your competition, to make their business fail and to make their customers turn on them in favor of your shop. You cast a spell that results in a water main break on the competitor’s block, and that in turn makes them lose more than half their stock. Their business can’t recover from the losses and they go belly up.

Your spell worked, and now you’re the only metaphysical store in town. Congratulations, I guess. You’re in complete violation of the Rede. Your spell was cast with malice, and malice and wrongdoing that shadow your shop now. The more sensitive of your customers will be able to tell that something dark is afoot, and it may be that instead of coming to your store, they choose to drive twenty miles to another town for their metaphysical needs. People in the community whisper about you behind your back, and people speculate that your competition came to grief because of something you did. Other Pagans start to steer clear of you, because now you have a reputation as a dark worker, and that makes you a little scary. Your clientele starts to melt away, and soon you’re left with only those people in the area who are just as unethical as you. They’re probably shoplifters.

That’s an extreme example, and it’s played a little heavily, but I think you get the point. It’s not wrong to want your business to succeed when you’re in competition with someone else. It is wrong to want to succeed through your competition’s failure.

So, to sum up my take on the Rede, you are free to do as you wish but there are consequences for your actions. Freedom to act is not freedom to act without responsibility. Keep your intentions and motivations in mind whenever you’re about to do magickal work and try to stay in the light. Put that light out into the world, and watch the light come right back to you.

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