Eight Words The Wiccan Rede Fulfill: An It Harm None Do
What You Will
The Wiccan Rede is the Wicca's core statement about how to live one's life.
Meditation upon the Rede and what it means is something the wise will
spend alot of time on. Eighteen years after Initiation, I still
meditate on what it means and how to accomplish it.
One of the favorite tactics of Wicca's detractors is to construct scarecrow
arguments concerning the Wiccan Rede and then tear them down. While
sometimes this is a matter of malice on the part of the attacker,
often it is a matter of ignorance instead. Some people who come to
Wicca have not yet shaken the habit of expecting religion to hand them
all answers on a silver platter. Such people expect an ethical code
to be a list of do's and don'ts, and it is beyond them to comprehend a
system in which they are given the axioms and expected to do the math
themselves. Some of these people have an epiphany when presented with
tools and expectations, while others run away from it.
A lesser mistake is looking at the Rede and thinking it's
only about ethics. It's not. It's about living one's life in an
adept fashion, allowing the natural processes of the world to assist
oneself instead making them into obstacles.
"Rede" means "Counsel." That's advice. That's not a set of rules.
Rules are something you will have to come up with for yourself.
Wiccan Rede (Counsel of the Wise Ones) was first published in
Green Egg Magazine, Ostara 1975. It is attributed to Lady Gwen
Thompson, who attributes it to her Grandmother, Adriana Porter. Since Porter died
in 1946 we may infer that the Rede is older than that. It is
frequently credited to Doreen Valiente, and as soon as I dig up my
copy of The Rebirth of Witchcraft, I'll update the page to
indicate whether she makes the claim herself. The "Eight
Words" couplet was first mentioned in public by Doreen Valiente in
Guidance to the Student for Consideration
The first thing to bear in mind when considering the Rede is that
Wicca is an occult religion.
The second thing to recall is that it is
poetry. If you're expecting to understand it with a surface or
literal reading, you're not going to understand it.
The third thing to remember is that the traditional lore is the
beginning of wisdom, not the end. It is presented with the intention
that the Student will meditate upon what is being taught, rather than
accepting it at face value -- especially when face value doesn't make
These guidelines will serve the Student well not only when
considering the Rede, but the rest of Wiccan teaching as well. For
that matter, delving into the true meaning of something is a good
practice in general.
Exegesis and Close Reading
"An It Harm None Do What You Will" is an awfully small sentence to
hang an entire ethical practice on... unless the words are packed
rather densely with meaning. They are. The first key to
understanding the Rede is to understand the words that make it up.
||"An" means "If." When considering future acts, it is rarely
possible to be able to foresee all possible outcomes. The point of the
Rede is not that if you inadvertently do harm some sort of punishment
is going to fall on you. You are expected to think about what you're
doing. You are expected to take responsibility for what you do.
Omniscience is not part of the bargain.
||"Harm" is not hurt. Living for one day, let alone a lifetime,
without killing is not possible. If you live, something dies. Even
the most conscientious Vegan kills to live every single day. And one
day something will kill you, and by that death something will live.
This is part of the Mysteries.
"Harm" in preventing someone from enacting their Will.
It is no one's Will that they be exempt from the cycle of life an death, such a
Will could not manifest as a living being -- the cycle is inherent to
our construction. Rather, participation in the cycle can only be a
living being's Will.
It is no one's Will that they Harm you -- the Wills of our full
selves work in harmony with one another. For this reason, self
defense is not Harm -- someone against whom you need to defend
your is either acting out of accord with their Will or their Will
involves learning about the futility of seeking to Harm.
||Think through the effects of your actions. "None" is a broad
term. It includes yourself. It includes the world. It includes your
dinner. To strive to Harm none, strive to understand all.
||"An It Harm None" is a phrase which sets the scope of the phrase
"Do What You Will." Do not construe
the Rede to forbid every action that might harm anyone or anything, because that
will lead you to the twin errors of framing the Rede as a rule instead
of advice and of espousing a rule that is impossible to obey. That is
a trap for the foolish to reveal themselves so that the wise may avoid
||Contrary to popular belief, life is not what happens while
you're making other plans. There is a time and a place to be passive.
Sometimes the skillful tactic is to let the natural processes of the
universe work themselves to your benefit. Often the skillful tactic
is to take action. Action need not be drastic or dramatic -- the most
advanced Aikido masters can send an attacker flying with the barely
perceptible twist of a finger. But action is a deliberate choice.
||You are an agent in the world. It is all too easy to allow the
agendas of other agents take your time and energy, even for the best
of reasons. There is a subtle difference between your Will being
aligned with another and the two of you (or two thousand of you)
acting in accordance because you are of a like mind; and your working
someone else's Will instead of your own.
||"Will" is not want. Also notice the capitalization. The most
common misunderstanding of the Rede is the belief that it is a
statement of license. It's not.
It is not purely random happenstance that you live. It is random
happenstance that the body you inhabit was created where and when it
was, but it is not random that yours is the soul that entered it.
Before you were born, with the perspective that being fully unified
with your entire self (More on the Selves that make the whole in
another essay), the choice was made to enter that body at that place
at that time. There was a purpose driving that choice. It is unusual
that while living we achieve more than a glimpse at what that
purpose is, though striving for an understanding of it is itself a life's
work. This purpose is your Will, the Will that initiated your entry
into the world this time around.
Having delved into the meaning of the words, we now see that a less
occult (and less compact) way of expressing the Wiccan Rede would be:
You have a Will. Determine what it is and Do it. A good way to
check your search for your Will and your plan to Do it for errors is whether or not it
interferes in someone else's Will. If it does, you are unlikely
to have a correct understanding of your Will. When it is difficult to
tell whether an act will Harm is an excellent time to examine your choices
to see if another course would be wiser.
Your work to understand the Rede is still not finished. This is an
introduction to the Rede, intended to point the Student towards
further meditation on the words and their meaning. Also,
before you lies the quest to understand your Will, to learn how to
determine when your plan for implementing your Will is leading to
Harm, how to prevent others from Harming you...
Resources for further study
discusses the Rede a bit on WitchVox
Coughlin has a work in progress on the evolution of
Wiccan ethics that includes a good history of the Rede.
has published an exegesis
of her own on the Rede. It should be not hard to see that it informs
The Wiccan Rede
Project is chock full of good stuff on the topic.