The Three-Fold Law

Part 6: Law of Return as Occult Principle

by John J. Coughlin

The initial books on witchcraft were primarily geared towards dispelling some of the myths about witches and concentrated on history and some of the basic beliefs if the craft. As authors began to delve deeper into the practice many took the liberty of elaborating on the details of their beliefs. Sadly the few books that mentioned the Three-Fold Law, or one of its variations, did little more than claim that it was something to which witches abided.

Between 1969 and 1971 many accounts of modern witchcraft by non-witches (or novice or heavily-closeted witches) began to be published. Although they did not include much useful information of the Craft, they did generate interest - and a market - that cried out for more details.

One author to respond to this call was Stewart Farrar, who was later initiated and became a very prominent figure in the Craft. In 1971 his book What Witches Do Farrar gave an inside view of craft practice and beliefs. Farrar also made an interesting reference to the workings of the three-fold law in magic.

"The 'white' witch, however, maintains that 'black' working, while it may be initially successful, carries the seeds of its own retribution. Not only does power misused corrupt the user; it can also have a boomerang effect. It is a well-established occult principle that psychic attack which comes up against a stronger defense rebounds threefold upon the attacker. Like the hi-fi amplifier again, feed-back can build into a scream of self-torment which overloads the whole circuit. [1]"

Stewart then went on to offer a quote from Dion Fortune to supply a metaphysical explanation for the boomerang effect of "black" working. Forune portrays the soul "moving with the tide of evolution" [2] like a wheel spinning clockwise and a soul moving against that tide as a wheel spinning counter-clockwise. The normal flow would be clockwise, but "black" workings would reverse that spin. The warning comes as a reminder of momentum: a wheel spinning counterclockwise cannot just reverse its direction. "Momentum has to be checked and worked up again before reversal of spin can take place." [3]

This reference to Dion Fortune above is actually very important here because it clearly shows her influence on the development of modern Wicca concepts. Like Sterwart, Gerald Gardner was well read in Dion Fortune's books and includes several of them in his bibliographies. In fact after reading many of the works of Dion Fortune, one can better understand Gardner's emphasis on polarity, gender, and the sexual elements of Wiccan symbolism, not to mention much of the anti Left-Hand path sentimentality particularly prevalent in Stewart Farrar's books. Look in the bibliography of many of the early authors, such as Gardner, Valiente, The Farrars, and Martello, and you will find books by Dion Fortune listed - often several of them.

Getting back to the Three-Fold law and its birthing place in occult principles, I offer the following quote from Dion Fortune's book Psychic Self-Defense, first published in 1930:

"It is a well-known cosmic law that everything moves in circles, and whatever forces we send out, and whatever thought-forms we extrude from our auras, unless absorbed by the object to which they are directed, will return to us in due course. One of the most effective, and also one of the most widely practiced methods of occult defense is to refuse to react to an attack, neither accepting nor neutralizing the forces projected against one, and thus turning them back on their sender. We must never overlook the fact that a so-called occult attack may be evil though-forms returning home to roost." [4]

The reference of the Three-Fold Law as the "Law of Return" fits much better in this context, as does the metaphysical explanation offered by Dion Fortune. One of the reasons for the debate of the validity of the Three-Fold law is due to the law's often-moralistic presentation, which comes across more as a religious belief or ethical stance than a universal occult principle.

When taken out of its ethical context the idea of the Law of Return begins to become more palatable non-Wiccan occultists. Although not all practitioners of magic would agree with Fortune's theory of the spin of the soul, very few would doubt that just as a child can get burned while playing with fire, so too can a practitioner get burned should one improperly handle the forces raised when working magic, regardless of the intention. The magician would also be reminded that what we think we need is not always what we really need and this too can often sow the seeds of our own destruction. It is only when the practice of magic is encompassed in religions practice does it being to take on an ethical stance.

A similar approach was taken by another well-known public figure in modern Witchcraft, Sybil Leek. In 1971 she warned "...there is generally a kickback in black magic (many spells reverse themselves against the spell-maker)..." [5]

Another occult principle that can account for the concept of the Law of Return is the Law of Attraction. This theory of "like attracts like" is the underlying principle of sympathetic magic and even the use of correspondences in magic. For example, in sympathetic magic one would ritually act out the desired results in order to bring about those results; the classic example being how hunters in certain tribal cultures will enact a successful hunt in dance prior to the hunt. When using correspondences, one would use objects (herbs, stones, etc.) and colors associated with the desired goal as a means of attracting similar energies. For example, in a love spell the colors red and pink might be used in conjunction with rose oil and rose quartz because all of these are associated with love.

However, the law of attraction can also be used outside of a magical context. Simply put, the law of attraction states that the universe will respond similarly to where we put our energy, including thoughts and emotions. A drastic but universal example is when we have a "bad day" where things continually go wrong. During such a time, we tend to cling to a pessimistic attitude that expects - consciously or not - continued failure. It is often only when we are distracted long enough to take our minds (including unconscious) off our dilemma that things being to return to status quo. The theory has become quite a fad today in certain self-help and productivity enhancing seminars and is often abused. In fact a search for the "law of attraction" or "like attracts like" on the Internet is more likely to bring you to a website of a "coach" on this technique than on an occult-related subject.

For one to work harmful magic against someone, one must concentrate on such feelings as anger and hatred. In such a state, it can be argued, one becomes susceptible to those same forces, much as a speaker too close to a microphone is subject to feedback. Although this risk of feedback is not guaranteed, it can easily be presented as or mistaken as an ethical principle. In his introduction to the book Applied Magic, by Dion Fortune, Gareth Knight presents this concept in a particularly moralistic way, not unlike that of Dion Fortune, who also took a very moralistic approach to her work.

In the esoteric sphere there is also the cosmic law "like attracts like" which, on the one hand, can lead the aspiring soul toward the heights through contact with inner guides and helpers, and on the other, attract degraded inner entities to drag the erring soul unto a negative spiral that can lead ultimately to self-destruction. [6]

A similar occult law was presented as the Law of Action and Reaction in the book A Compendium of Occult Laws by R. Swinburne Clymer which was in publication at least as far back as 1938. Clymer (1878-1966) was an influential and high-ranking Rosicrucian who founded The Rosicrucian Brotherhood in Quakertown, Pennsylvania in 1902.

Whatever man does or desires will always produce a corresponding reaction both upon himself and all things with which he is allied or connected. He who benefits others in dire need is actually helping himself, while he who works injury to another, though ever so slightly, is decreeing his own punishment. The acts of men are the external manifestation of their own interior existence, and every thought and act as a natural tendency to repeat itself. [7]

Even earlier occult principles such as Magnetism provides an occult principle that can be related in an ethical context to that of the Law of Return. Eliphas LÚvy (1810-1875) stated that the "magnetism of those who are good attracts to them all that is good for them" [8] just as those who are evil will attract the opposite. The reason for this being that "positive magnetism is a force which gathers things together, whereas negative magnetism is a dispersive force. Light attracts life and fire carriers destruction with it." [9]

In other words, for one to work harm on another one must "polarize" themselves to the negative, where those destructive forces can be harnessed, and in so doing one opens himself to that same energy. Of course it must be noted that his work, despite its significant influence and importance in occultism, were often plagued with contradictions as he sought a balance between his occult philosophy and his devotion to the Catholic Church. (Don't underestimate LÚvi's indirect significance to Wicca; The concepts of invoking and banishing pentagrams, as well as the negative connotation of the inversed pentagram, were all derived from the work of LÚvi.)

Part 7: Why Three-Fold?

[1] Farrar, Stewart, What Witches Do, 1991, page 37
[2] Fortune, Dion, Psychic Self-Defence, 1999, page 135
[3] Fortune, Dion, Psychic Self-Defence, 1999, page 136
[4] Fortune, Dion, Psychic Self-Defence, 1999, pages 77-78
[5] Leek, Sybil, The Complete Art of Witchcraft, 1971, page 76
[6] Fortune, Dion, Applied Magic, 2000, page xiii
[7] Clymer, R. Swinburne, A Compendium of Occult Laws, 1966, page 115
[8] LÚvi, Eliphas, The Great Secret or Occultism Unveiled, 2000, page 185
[9] LÚvi, Eliphas, The Great Secret or Occultism Unveiled, 2000, page 185

Part 7: Why Three-Fold?

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