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A Partial Analysis of the Wiccan Rede

Brock Miller writes:

I have listened to too many people mindlessly rattle on about," and it harm none, do what thou wilt".

The actual wording of the Wiccan Rede is "An it harm none, do as ye will." "An" is an archaic version of "if", as in my favourite snippet of Shakespearian dialogue (from As You Like It, I think):

"I take it the gentleman is not in your good books?"
"No, an he were, I would burn my library."

Both the conditional nature of the statement and the plurality of the latter part are essential keys to understanding the meaning of the Rede, I think.

The oft-misquoted version "Do as ye will and harm none" (thank you, Mr. Cunningham) is in fact a completely different statement. The "harm none" in the original is part of a qualifying clause, not an imperative. To state that the individual has freedom to follow his or her will (the precise definition of "will" in this context is another issue, and one that I do not intend to get into here) if that course of action harms none is not the same as simply saying "harm none". The former statement does not forbid acts which cause harm; it simply asserts that if harm is involved, the actor no longer has complete freedom. Within the Wiccan worldview, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things, it is not possible to harm one part of a system without affecting the whole system, including yourself -- an insight which is also a key part of the modern science of ecology.

Concerning the question of singular vs. plural: This may seem like a nitpicky detail, but I think it may be more important than it appears. The version you (mis)quote appears to be based on Crowley's "Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law", in which the "Wilt" refers to the pursuit of the individual's "True Will", analogous to the "Great Work" of the other ceremonialist orders such as the Golden Dawn. Many have speculated that the Wiccan rede was based on, and perhaps in part a response to, Crowley's dictum. If this is indeed the case, then we need to examine the possible reasons for the shift from singular to plural.

One of my Wiccan students with whom I recently discussed this feels that the change may have been intended to emphasize the intersubjectivity inherent in the Wiccan worldview: whereas Crowley tended to emphasize a highly individualistic, libertarian point of view, Wicca has a more community-based focus which explicitly acknowledges the agency and subjectivity of others. Thus, the Rede is addressed to a community of followers, rather than to one individual, reinforcing the emphasis on interconnectedness implicit in the qualifying "an it harm none". It is, in short, a refutation of the atomism of Crowley's philosophy.

Now, we could also get into the various possible definitions and implications of "harm", "none" and "will", but this really isn't the place. Those who are interested can follow up on IDIR.

That to me is the oath of a gutless person looking for spirituality in a can.

Aside from the rather obvious fact that the Rede isn't an "oath", it was rather amusing to read this, having just recently had a six-hour discussion on this topic with the student I mentioned above, who is, like me, a grad student with a penchant for analyzing philosophical and theological topics in depth. Let me just say that in my nineteen years of practicing Wicca, I haven't reached the boundaries of the "can" yet, nor do I expect to do so in my lifetime.

...if I am made to endure another fluffy warm fuzzy Scott Cunningham-esque barage of wiccan no brainerness, I will projectile vomit pentacles from here to the otherworld.

That sounds like fun. Can I sell tickets? :-)

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet)

P.S. In case it interests you, which I'm sure it probably doesn't, most serious Wiccans of my acquaintance are no more impressed with Cunningham's work than you are...


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