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Origins Of The Rede-Concept
As researched by Shea Thomas
There are two primary versions of the Wiccan Rede. The first is a 26-couplet poem first appearing in
The Green Egg magazine in 1975, which is discussed separately in
The second is the last two lines derived from the larger poem
(the Rede-concept). This key phrase is:
"Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill - an' it harm none, do what ye will."
Today this is how the Rede-concept is most commonly expressed.
Origins Of The Rede-Concept
To begin at the beginning, the Rede-concept should first be measured against all the other creeds, codes, and ethic statements that have appeared throughout history. Reaching back millennia, many of these ethic statements served as both original source material and important counterpoint for later occult philosophies and writings. To evaluate some of the more prominent statements passed down through the ages, please see Other Golden Rules.
More recent and discernable history of the Rede-concept, which developed in the midst of this larger tapestry, likely involved (at least) four individuals; as well as all the subsequent movements and sub-cultures that later adopted their ideas. These four figures are François Rabelais, Pierre Louÿs, Aleister Crowley, and Gerald Gardner.
The Rede as Social Commentary
François Rabelais (1494-1553)
François Rabelais (zxor Rebelais) was a French physician, author, and satirist who wrote almanacs, poetry, and a series of vernacular social commentaries. A student at the University of Montpellier in 1530, Rabelais was also a classmate and contemporary of Michel Nostradamus. Rabelais' contribution to the Rede-concept flows from his 1532 book Gargantua in which the narrator used the phrase "Do as you wish" when describing the motto of an ideal and utopian "Abbey of Theleme."Footnote 1
As originally used, Rabelais' phrase was a satirical look at the existing culture and government. Rabelais' ideas are still used this way - often cited by modern anarchistic, counter-culture, and anti-establishment movements, including those that may have blended or contributed to other sub-cultures, including those of contemporary occult and craft philosophies.
The Rede as Sexual Ethic
Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925)
Pierre Louÿs was perhaps the first to pair the ideas of "do no harm" with "do what thou will." In a novel titled Les Aventures du Roi Pausole (The Adventures of King Pausole, Liveright Publishing Co., 1901). Louÿs told a humorous and risqué story about a king with a thousand wives who believed in sexual freedom for everyone.Footnote 2 As part of the story, King Pausole reduced an ancestral Book of Customs to a more understandable phrase by issuing a two-part proclamation: "I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor. II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest."
A lifelong Parisian and friends with several Impressionist artists, including the composer Claude DeBussy, Louÿs created many erotic works popular in England and France around the turn of the century, including Aphrodite in 1896 and Les Chansons de Bilitis in 1894.Footnote 3 Rife with feminine, natural, and Hellenistic imagery, the vivid themes in Louÿs books would strike familiar chords with any contemporary Pagan. Indeed, Gerald Gardner himself referenced Louÿs in The Meaning of Witchcraft (Aquarian Press. 1959) when attempting to illustrate witchcraft ethics, saying "[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol."
The Rede as Occult Philosophy
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Perhaps the most accomplished occultist of the twentieth century, Aleister Crowley was an extremely infamous character known variously as the "Laird of Boleskine," "The Great Beast 666" and (depending on who you asked) "the wickedest man who ever lived."Footnote 4 Originally an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley went on to found the Order of the Argentinum Astrum (Silver Star) and inspire several other paths including the Caliphate (Californian) O.T.O. A prodigious writer, Crowley left behind a body of work that continues to play a significant role in modern occultism.Footnote 5
Crowley's contribution to the Rede-concept principally flows from his use of the phrase: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."Footnote 6 Admittedly similar to the phrase used by Rabelais', Crowley's Law is significant to the history of the Rede-concept in at least two major respects: First, Crowley's heavy use of the phrase shifted the provenance of Rabelais' idea (previously a resident of social satire) thoroughly and forever into the occult arena. Second, both Crowley and his works were known, admired, and heavily cited by another influential character in Wiccan history - Gerald Gardner.
The Rede as Rule of Magick
Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964)
While Gardner is connected to the history of the Rede in several ways, his more profound role was the development of the actual Wiccan path. A former British civil servant, Gardner was also an accomplished occultist, archeologist, and author. It was Gardner who initially popularized contemporary witchcraft and set out the initial "four corners" of the Wiccan belief system, most notably through his book Witchcraft Today published in 1954.
Two principal works connect Gardner to the Rede-concept. The first (and oldest) is a document called The Old Laws (or Ordains) first proffered as part of Gardner's original Book of Shadows around 1953. The second, and most concise, was Gardner's citation of Louÿs in The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959:
"[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, "Do what you like so long as you harm no one." But they believe a certain law to be important, "You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm."
Like Rabelais, Louÿs, and Crowely -- Gardner's use of the Rede-concept also seemed to have a fairly contextual meaning. In both his Ordains, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner's use of the Rede-concept is specifically tied to the use of magick rather than behavior in general, and (at least in the Ordains) for the highly pragmatic reasons of avoiding the notice and persecution of the mainstream religion.
While centered on themes of Goddess spirituality, most accept the fact that Gardner's Wicca is not a precise recreation of a pre-Christian religion. More accurately cast as an amalgam, Gardner's particular brand of witchcraft began with the supposed rituals of a hereditary English coven, and further incorporated elements from the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O), Theosophy, Eastern philosophy, and many others.
Whatever may have been Gardner's sources, it cannot be denied that Gardner had a strong and ongoing influence in occult circles, both within and without traditional Gardnerian covens. If nothing else, Gardner's successful popularization of witchcraft gave him a uniquely influential voice when explaining (and shaping) the modern understanding of witchcraft.
Even though the two most definitive articulations of the Rede (by Gwen Thompson and later by Doreen Valiente) were made by others, the tremendous impact of Gardner's works continue to make him one of the most likely suspects when attempting to identify the well-springs of today's Rede-concept.
The Rede as Unanswered Question
This somewhat linear history of the Rede-concept is the one most often expressed, and in the end, may be the most likely. However, it would unfair to end here. This particular view of Rede raises several additional questions, especially when trying to discern the strength of the connections between these various players, and the exact role other sources may have played in the Rede's development.
To start, there is still a fair degree of uncertainty regarding the ultimate strength of the connection between Crowely and Gardner, at least as it may apply to the Rede. While Gardner did borrow from Crowley, Crowley was not Gardner's only source of material. In addition to Gardner's penchant for borrowing from diverse sources, it can also be pointed out, on a purely facial level, that almost all short-ethic statements bear a striking resemblance to one another regardless of source (See: Other Golden Rules). Because of these two related and overarching factors, any kind of etymological Rede research, especially when it comes to Gardner, remains generally problematic.
Assuming for a moment that the Crowely/Gardner Rede-connection is accurate (and primarily through Crowley, the connection to Rabelais), a secondary question then immediately arises concerning the connection between Gardner and Louÿs. Gardner directly cited Louÿs in 1959 when explaining witchcraft ethics, and the Louÿs phrasing is striking in its similarity to the full and formal Rede. For this reason alone, it could be argued that Crowley was not a major source, if a source at all, of a Gardnerarian Rede-concept. However, it is equally true that Gardner's citation may have been part of a deliberate pattern de-emphasizing Crowley. Such an attempt would not have been completely out of character. Indeed, when Gardner allowed Doreen Valiente to edit his original Book of Shadows six years earlier to produce the more authoritative Gardnerian Book of Shadows, part of Valiente's goal (with Gardner's consent) was to remove/modify those original elements that were seen as too Crowley-esque.Footnote 7
To move further down the chain, questions may also persist as to how an assumably Rabelais/Louÿs/Crowley/Gardner concept showed up in the writings of a Celtic Traditionalist. Neither Gwen Thompson nor Adriana Porter (the stewards of the original Rede-poem origins) were directly related to Gardnerian traditions. Similarly, The Witches' Creed, which was published by Doreen Valiente three years after the Thompson/Porter poem, was also by an author who had (at that time) broken off from Gardner and focused almost exclusively on traditional witchcraft.Footnote 8
The fact that the two most famous articulations of the Rede were by traditionalists (and not Gardnerians) also raises intriguing questions about the possible prominence or importance of traditionalist witchcraft in the etymology of the Rede. While the idea of a more traditional source bears discussion, it should also be stressed that both Thompson and Valiente (while not Gardnerian, or in Valeinte's case - not Gardnerian at the time) were both extremely knowledgeable individuals, and had ample opportunity to become familiar with ideas promulgated by Gardner.Footnote 9
Finally, there are also remaining questions as to precisely when (or how) the Rede-concept finally evolved beyond its contextual understandings into the broad and universal ethic statement that it is today. Indeed, it could be that this logical extension of the Rede into general ethic (rather than mere social commentary, sexual moral, occult theory, or rule of magick) may be one of the most significant (and unsung) contributions of Thompson and Valiente to Rede-concept history.
Obviously, there are parts of the tale of the Rede that remain to be told, and several areas would benefit from further discussion and investigation. In the end, this is perhaps as it should be. As the full history of the Rede unfolds, it will most certainly make an interesting story, which of course (in the oldest sense of the word) is one of the best definitions of "Rede".
Footnotes (some old links have disappeared):