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The Rise Of The Rede
As researched by Shea Thomas

A Change In Emphasis

The Rede currently enjoys an extremely visible role in Paganism. As of this writing, a browser search using the term "Wiccan Rede" will generate no less than 22,000 listings. Go to a specific Web site with a "basics of witchcraft" section, and the Rede is a nearly required element. Go to the local bookstore, and almost all the books on the witch-shelf will devote at least a few lines to the "wise-ones' counsel."

Considering this modern ubiquity, it's perhaps surprising to note that the Rede has not always enjoyed such prominence. In public literature published prior to the mid-1970s, the Rede (or concepts resembling the Rede) are remarkably absent or noticeably under-emphasized by today's standards. To give just one example, Hanz Holzer's book The New Pagans (Doubleday & Co.), published in 1972, devoted its entire first chapter to Wicca, yet made absolutely no reference to the Rede. This is a loud absence considering the prevalence of the Rede in today's writings.

So why the change? What happened in the mid '70s that so dramatically effected the prominence of the Rede in the Wiccan path?

It may, in part, only be a perceptual difference. The most relevant works explaining the tenants of Wicca prior to the 1970s were largely contained in individual books of shadows, and not necessarily in publicly available literature. In many ways, traditional Wicca is still a secretive path, which includes the practice (ostensibly for security) of destroying a book of shadows upon an author's death; or passing it on only to close members of the author's own coven. This by itself may account for the lack of public Rede-references prior to its most prominent "outing" in the Green Egg in 1975.

However, the more radical truth may be that the Rede was simply absent because it had not yet been articulated and/or widely incorporated into Wiccan thought. If so, the Green Egg publication of the Rede of the Wiccae may not only mark the popularization of the Rede language, but also the very starting point of the Rede's evolution into a central tenet of Wiccan ideology.

The idea of a more doctrinal and globally accepted Rede as "recent phenomenon" may be supported by at least two factors uniquely present in the 1970s. The first was that new technologies were allowing the easy and inexpensive distribution of written works. The second was that the numbers of Wiccans were growing, and growing in new ways.

A New Kind of Folklore

The actual mechanics of the spread of the Rede are intriguing and convoluted, and likely only a small part of the larger question concerning the transmission of Wiccan wisdom generally. However, one element unique to the Rede is the fact that its public debut in the Green Egg also coincided with a new emerging style of folklore. Kenny Klien hints at this in an article for Moonrise magazine (Winter 1991) when he writes: "...there was a phenomena I call the Great Pagan Xerox Chase. At this time, when initiates were xeroxing their books to trade for xeroxes of their friends' books, the Rede got added to many books of shadows."Footnote 1 Footnote 2

Electrostatic photocopying was invented by American physicist Chester. F .Carlson in 1938.Footnote 3 However, photocopiers (and fax machines) did not become more standard pieces of office equipment until about the time of the Rede's publication. To use the history of the most famous copy-machine maker (Xerox) as a rough indicator, it is interesting to note that the 1970s saw the introduction of the first portable fax machine (1970), the first electrostatic printer (1970), the first color copier (1973), the first automatic desktop fax machine (1973), the first high-volume copier (1974) and first laser, plain-paper fax machine (1975).Footnote 4

The widespread use of these technologies (and people's ability to access them) meant that an entire new kind of personal storytelling was possible. When the Wiccan Rede was first widely published in 1975, the infrastructure was already in place for it to be quickly re-typed, copied and faxed around the world. Indeed, this kind of decentralized sharing may account for some of the Rede's variant versions. Modern folklorists have noted a similar content-drift in modern myths and urban folklore, which is broadcast the exact same way.

The Internet, which began to take full flight in the '80s and '90s, could only accelerate this dynamic. Web access, email, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and an ever increasing ability of private individuals to create their own Web sites gave birth to not only a demand for information, but also a huge increase in the personal ability to share information.

Solitaires & Eclectics

Today, solitaires and eclectics are common. It is not that unusual to find Wiccans that have never joined a coven, nor studied under the aegis of a High Priest or Priestess. Prior to the spread of these paths, however, the only widely "accepted" means by which to study Wicca was to do exactly that, and initiate by degrees through a traditionalist coven. This began to change dramatically during the 1970s, in part when Raymond Buckland published a book called: The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (York Beach: Samuel Weiser 1974) which among other things suggested a form of witchcraft that did not involve joining a lineage group. This new idea was highlighted in a review of Tree Richard Ballard wrote for Amazon.com:

"If no local Coven exists or if the local Coven members' philosophies disagree with one's own, Seax-Wica contains a "Rite of Self Dedication" that allows a sincere one to initiate one self into the Craft as Priest/ess. The sincere one then may form a new Coven, and other Seax-Wica Covens will recognize the sincere one's initiation and the new Coven. The sincere one also may choose to enter Solitary Practice."Footnote 5

This is not to imply that there were no solitaires or eclectics prior to Buckland (there were). Neither is this to imply that solitaire and eclectic paths weren't on the rise anyway. Even Buckland is rumored to have created The Tree in part because he could no longer accept the sheer number of interested students. However, Buckland's book surely fueled these paths, even more so since its publication coincided with Wicca's early ascendancy (particularly in the United States).

Whatever the wellsprings, the ever-increasing numbers of solitaires and eclectics had several potential effects on Wicca, not least of which was a huge increase in the number of people researching (and practicing) Wicca on their own. Because of this, there were many individuals operating without the benefit of coven-specific teachings, and instead searching for, and relying upon, whatever public sources of information they could find. One readily available source during this period, thanks to the Green Egg, was the Wiccan Rede.

It's conceivable that in developing their own path, this new generation of Wiccans adopted the Rede as their own and made it a central part of their paths in ways that would never have happened if they had relied solely on non-public sources. Thus solitaires and eclectics may have played an important role in expanding the prevalence of the Rede by making it a more central tenet in their own version of Wicca, and by changing the ratios of the Wiccan population, creating more self-taught (and potentially Rede-reliant) Wiccans in comparison to the traditional.

If it turns out that the solitaires and eclectics (often a non-traditional bunch) did in fact play a role in propagating the Rede, then there may also be room for an interesting irony. Gwen Thompson, who first published the Rede, was herself a Celtic traditionalist.

Wiccans, Wiccans, Everywhere

By some measures, Wicca is now the fastest growing religion in the United States. According to the American Religions Identification Study released by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in June 2001, the number if individuals self-identifying as Wiccan has increased nearly seventeen-fold (1675%) over the last 11 years. If Wiccan, Pagan, and Druid categories are combined, these numbers currently translate to about 0.15 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 practitioners for every 2,000 Americans.Footnote 6

As the number of Wiccans has grown, so too has the amount of contact between Wiccans and non-Wiccans. This ever-increasing contact may also have contributed to the rise of the Rede since the short ethic statement proves to this day an extremely useful tool when explaining to non-Wiccans (in eight words or less) exactly what it is that a witch believes.

In a related way, as Wicca has become increasingly established, so too may have grown the idea that Wicca should be afforded the same institutional rights and privileges enjoyed by mainstream faiths. No longer satisfied with the need to hide their beliefs, Wiccan advocacy groups have emerged as have legal efforts to establish Wicca as a recognized religion. In this context too, the Rede has played an important role in explaining in both public and legal forums how the modern practice of witchcraft is both a concrete and benevolent faith.

Coming Full Circle

Pagan literature has long been an important component of Wicca. Indeed, the initial popularization of Wicca is not usually tied to Gardner's initiation into the New Forest Coven in England in 1939, but more often to the publication of his book "Witchcraft Today" in 1954. It is no accident that the speaker-lists at Pagan festivals almost always include a healthy dose of authors. In a non-revealed religion with a strong tradition of self-discovery, occult writers have from the beginning been one of the more influential classes in explaining (and sometimes even shaping) Wiccan wisdom. Because of this, it may not be entirely farfetched to give the Green Egg (through Gwen Thompson) dual credit for both the articulation, as well as the starting point of the Rede proliferation.

As time passed, subsequent books and magazines have also begun to mention the eight-word adage, further entrenching the literary impact of the Rede. In several modern texts, including Nevill Drury and Gregory Tillett's The Occult: A Sourcebook of Esoteric Wisdom (Saraband Inc. & Barnes & Noble Books 1997) the Green Egg version of the Rede is cited verbatim as a neatly codified Wiccan tradition.

"...the majority of witchcraft groups would describe themselves as "white" (that is, as using their knowledge for good), in accordance with the Wiccan Rede, "An' [if] it harm none, do what ye will..."

Thus it may be said that the Rede has come full-circle: starting out as an entry in an individuals' BOS, going to publication via the Green Egg, being circulated again by individuals, and then finally coming to be re-published in later literature as one of the most universal and wide-spread of Pagan ideas.


Footnotes (some old links have disappeared):

  1. "The Wiccan Rede," citing Kenny Klien, Moonrise Magazine, Winter, 1991, http://www.mylittlecorner.com/wicca/topic2.html,
  2. While this quote was taken verbatim, please also note that the term "xerox" is not a generic noun or verb, but a proper (and trademarked) name referring to Xerox company.
  3. Matthew Flenley, History of the Photocopier, 2000, http://home.vicnet.net.au/~twt/photocopier.html
  4. Xerox Corporation, 2000
  5. Richard Ballard, a review of "The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft" by Raymond Buckland.
  6. The Graduate Center at the City University of New York, "American Religious Identification Study", June, 2001.