The Three-Fold Law

Part 5: Law of Return as Divine Justice

by John J. Coughlin

Although not usually taken to the point of literal divine justice, it is quite common today for witches seeking justice when wronged to take comfort in the Law of Return knowing that those who wronged them will eventually "get what they deserve." This is quite similar to Christians who would take comfort in knowing that anyone who seems to get away with an injustice now will eventually pay for it, if not in this life, then at their final judgment by God. This "fail safe" mechanism is carried over in the concept of karma shared by many Wiccans where one's future life is the manifestation of the working out of unpaid "karmic debt".

A very interesting association of the Law of Return as the working of the Greek goddess Nemesis, a form of Divine Justice, can be found in Justine Glass' book, Witchcraft, The Sixth Sense published in 1965. "The witches see eventualities of this kind as the outworking of Nemesis, or the law of come-back." [1]

In my book Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick, I briefly discuss Nemesis:

Nemesis: (Greek) Goddess of divine anger and daughter of Night (the goddess Nyx), Nemesis is the instrument through which the gods punished those who grew too proud through wealth and fame, or who angered the gods. Her vengeance is inflexible and inescapable. As time went on, Nemesis gradually was softened into a kinder goddess of destiny, known as Adrasteia, "The Inevitable One", whom no one could escape. Adrasteia would bring sickness to those who abused their body and destruction to those parts of the earth we did not treat appropriately. Nemesis is also the goddess of law and retribution, often portrayed as a winged woman carrying a sword or whip and riding through the air on a chariot drawn by griffins. [2]

I have only seen one other association of the Three-Fold law with Nemesis, and that was around 1973 when Dr. Leo Louis Martello first published his book Witchcraft: The Old Religion. In that book, he explains why he had chosen the Craft name "Nemesis".

I chose it [the craft name Nemesis] because it's the name of the Greek Goddess of retributive justice. All Witches claim to believe in Karma, and one of their tenets is "Do good and it will return to you threefold. Do evil and it will return to you threefold." [3]

In the case of Justine Glass, I am not sure if this association with Nemesis was her interpretation, or something that she had read elsewhere. Sadly her book rarely specified sources and was often worded in a way that made her knowledge of the Craft questionable. For example her use of the phrase "law of come-back" was not a common descriptive for the concept and may have been due to unintentional paraphrasing as an outsider who would not be familiar with the colloquialism of the Craft.

Doreen Valiente also mentions that Robert Cochrane had misled [4] Glass while consulting her in the writing of her book. "Cochrane pulled poor Justine Glass's leg unmercifully and shamelessly admitted to me that he had done so." [5]

Outside of Witchcraft, H. P. Blatavaski [6] related some aspects of Karma to Nemesis in the late 19th century but Blatavaski's influence is in Wiccan thought is more indirect being through the works of later occultists such as Dion Fortune. Blatavaski and her work in Theosophy were significant for bringing eastern thought (including concepts such as karma and reincarnation) to the west and attempting to present it in a way that western culture could understand.

In Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches, a book first published in 1903 which was of significant influence to Gerald Gardner and other early authors, a particular verse stands out as a possible relative to the Law of Return:

And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all. [7]

Although not very Wiccan sounding, this can be taken in a similar context with the working of Nemesis - both being forms of divine justice. In the case of the above quote from Aradia, however, the return is greater than the initial action, much like the three-fold law, but the retribution is done in the name of Diana instead of by the Goddess directly.

Patricia Crowther also connects the three-fold law as possibly being a form of divine justice in 1981:

"...if a witch did intentionally set out to harm anyone, he (or she) would not only be breaking a very strict law, thus incurring the wrath of the Goddess, but would also be putting himself (or herself) in jeopardy, as the magic performed would rebound on them three-fold."[8]

Although I have not seen it specifically referenced in books on witchcraft, Dion Fortune's belief in "The Watchers" as psychic police is worth exploration since, as it will be noted in the next section, her work has been extremely influential in the development of modern Wicca, not to mention other aspects of the occult.

...the watchers, that curious section of the occult hierarchy which is concerned with the welfare of nations. A certain section of their work is apparently concerned with the policing of the astral plane. Very little is actually known about them.... [some text skipped]... whenever black magic is afoot, they set to work to put a spoke in its wheels. [9]

Fortune was not sure if these Watchers were still human (physical beings) or if they existed only on the astral plane, but she sensed their workings and influence on several occasions against those who worked black magic. (Fortune had a penchant for portraying this sense of an ongoing battle as also being waged secretly between black lodges and white lodges. In fact just as there was much overlap of her occult studies into her fictional novels one can argue the reverse as well.)

In The Witches Way (published in 1981) and later The Witches Bible Compleat [10] (1984), the Farrars make an interesting point to the question of how a witch, adhering to the maxim of "harm none", can avoid the fate of being taken advantage of by the less scrupulous. Interestingly the response (the use of a binding spell) not only eloquently portrays the witch's stance of protection without harm but also hints to an external equalizing force associated with Karma.

The very specific purpose of a binding spell is to render the evil actions powerless - not to harm or punish the wrongdoer; punishment can be safely left to the Lords of Karma [11]

The reference of "Lords of Karma" is not common in witchcraft, although it can found in the works of Dion Fortune on the subject of Karma. The idea of an external intelligent agent was the Farrars' way of incorporating general occult theory, such as Dion Fortune's concept of the Watchers and the Lords of Karma, into a more Wiccan context. As will be seen in the next section, Stewart Farrar often sought to associate general occult theory with Wiccan beliefs.[12]

We have spoken of karma as an almost impersonal process, set in train by the inexplicable laws of cause and effect. And that is its basic principle in action. But that does not mean there is no intervention or that what are sometimes called 'the Lords of Karma' are mere observers. Higher entities of many kinds do exist and function on the non-material planes, intermediate between humankind and the ultimate creative force as every religion. [13]

Part 6: Law of Return as Occult Principle

[1] Glass, Justine, Witchcraft, The Sixth Sense, 1965, page 135
[2] Coughlin, John J., Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick, 2000, page 162
[3] Martello, Dr. Leo Louis, Witchcraft: The Old Religion, 1973, page 270
[4] It should be noted that in the early 1970's many authors who were not witches began to publish books on their experiences with witches during their research process and that many publishers, wanting to cash in on this growing interest in the occult, were quick to encourage their authors to do so. These authors did not always understand the nuances of the practice (Holzer for example referred to the garter used by some witches as a sign of status as a garter belt in his book The Truth About Witchcraft) nor could they always clearly delineate the various "types" of witches (such as Gardnerian as apposed to hereditary witches) from each other. It was also quite easy for such uninitiated authors to be mislead by the personal agendas and egos of those they interviewed, not to mention for the author and/or publisher to only include that information which best fit what they wanted or expected.
[5] Valiente, Doreen, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, 1989, p121
[6] Blatavaski and her work in Theosophy were significant for bringing eastern thought to the west and attempting to present it in a way that western culture could understand.
[7] Leland, Charles, Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches, 1968, page 5
[8] Crowther, Patricia, Lid off the Cauldron, 1981, page 6
[9] Fortune, Dion, Psychic Self-Defence, 1999, page 155
[10] A Witches Bible Compleat contains the full text of both Eight Sabbats for Witches and The Witches' Way.
[11] Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches Bible Compleat, 1984, volume 2, page 141
[12] Upon re-reading Stewart Farrar's books after recently researching Dion Fortune's works, it would not be an exaggeration to state that Stewarts version of Witchcraft was based on the Gardnerian Book of Shadows and filled in with the work of Dion Fortune. Fortune was clearly a significant influence in Stewart's beliefs and her work is reflected in Stewart's writings more than any other Wiccan author.
[13] Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches Bible Compleat, 1984, volume 2, page 123

Part 6: Law of Return as Occult Principle

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