The Wiccan Rede and the Law of Threefold Return

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RWS_Tarot_05_HierophantSome modern Wiccans have decided to not include the Wiccan Rede and the Law of Threefold Return in their philosophy. Some even argue that statements like the Threefold Law aren’t Wiccan at all[1]. The usual arguments are that the Wiccan Rede, “An’ it harm none, do what you will” is too simplistic and is impossible to follow, and the Law of Threefold Return is a Christian concept that is punishing in essence.

Both of these arguments are based on rather shallow interpretations and aren’t supported by historical documentation about Wicca, at least as Gerald Gardner promoted it. Modern Wiccans are free to abandon or adopt philosophies into their practice as they see fit, but should take responsibility for these choices rather than trying to justify them based on weak arguments.

The word “rede” means “advice” – it’s not a commandment like the Christian ten commandments are supposed to be absolute. It’s a guideline, a suggestion, about how a Wiccan can try and live their life. There is no punishment implied for a Wiccan who fails to live up to the advice.

The essential lesson of the Rede is all about being responsible for your own actions or lack of actions. Yes, choosing to not act is an action too! It means that we should take responsibility for what we do in our lives as much as possible, and accept responsibility for the consequences of what we do or through inaction fail to do.

That means that when we act in a mundane or magickal way we have to think about what it is we’re doing and how it affects the web of everything that is touched by our actions. Everything is connected so what we do affects all sorts of things. Acting mindlessly is irresponsible by the standard of the Rede as acting mindlessly means we haven’t considered the harm that could be involved.

Just being alive means we’re doing harm to something, as many critics of the Rede have noted. Microbes die as we breathe, and as our bodies’ white blood cells attack other microscopic life forms that are invading our bodies. Insects die when we walk around. Plants and animals die so we might eat. It’s all about trying to be conscious of the impact we have on everything else, and making decisions about how we will live and act.

The Threefold Law (or idea that “for every action there is a reaction”) is not the same thing as the Wiccan Rede, but the two ideas are closely intertwined. The Threefold Law is a variation of the scientific law “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” or the ecological understanding that everything is connected. When we act the impact of our actions will come back to us somehow. We can’t do things maliciously towards others (like magickal cursing) and expect to not suffer some fallout from our actions. While it’s not necessarily possible to quantify what is sent out comes back three times or more, the ecological understanding that all is connected ensures the results do most definitely come back to affect the originator in some form.

Both the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law are attributed in some form back to Gardner. As the founder and initial popularizer of what we know today as Wicca, to say that the Wiccan Rede or Threefold Law is not Wiccan is to betray a lack of historical knowledge.

Gerald Gardner mentions the idea of the Wiccan Rede (“harm none” and “do what you will”) in his book “Witchcraft Today.” Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner’s early High Priestesses, discusses the origins and development of the Rede at some length in the chapter “Witch Ethics” of her book “Witchcraft for Tomorrow.” Janet and Stewart Farrar also discuss the Rede at some length in their chapter on ethics in “A Witches Bible.” Raymond Buckland, who was initiated by Gardner’s High Priestess Monique Wilson (“Lady Olwen”) also insists that the Wiccan Rede is a central point of Gardnerian philosophy in his “The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism.”

The Threefold Law is also identified as a Gardnerian teaching by Raymond Buckland in “The Witch Book.” There is clear evidence of this in the second degree initiation ceremony from the core Gardnerian Book of Shadows. In this ceremony, it is explained to the initiate that everything returns threefold, and as a symbol of this, the initiate scourges their initiator three times the number of strokes administered in the first degree initiation. The one who administered the first degree scourging therefore receives it back threefold.

The Threefold Law isn’t a Christian philosophy, but more likely borrowed from Hinduism where it is usually known as the Law of Karma. Despite the claim that it is a punishment and therefore a philosophy of deterrence, it is described more in terms of ecological unity – everything is connected, so what is sent out will undoubtedly come back in some form. This is not a philosophy of punishment but one of unity. If one sends out peace and love, the expectation is that peace and love will come back in some form.

The Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law can be a sophisticated basis for a religious philosophy for those who examine it in some depth. It is not necessarily a philosophy for everyone. One of the greatest strengths of the modern pagan community is that there is room for lots of variety and difference. While the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law do not have to be part of all Wiccans’ philosophy, they are very much part of historical Wicca despite claims to the contrary.


[1] Phyllis Curott in an excerpt from chapter seven of her book “Witch Crafting,” on the web at