The Three-Fold Law

Part 7: Why Three-Fold?

by John J. Coughlin

Although we have seen some of the logic for the development of the Law of Return as a core belief in modern Wicca, where did the Law of Return as a three-fold return come into being?

Despite much of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows remaining secret to this day, I was able to locate an interesting passage in the second degree initiation in the Public contents of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. (The initiation rituals are circa 1949)

Magus: "Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold." [1]

Three is a very significant number in this public Gardnerian material, much of which is also found in the Farrars' A Witches Bible Compleat and appears frequently in their rituals, particularly during initiation.

  • There are three degrees of initiation.
  • The Gardnerian magic circle consists of three circles, an inner circle surrounded by two outer circles.
  • Magus closes a doorway that was opened in a circle by drawing the point of the sword across the opening three times, joining all three circles, saying, "Agla, Azoth, Adonai," followed drawing three pentacles to seal it.
  • The circle is often circumambulated three times during ritual.
  • When the magus rings the bell in ritual it is rung three times
  • Five is said to be a fortunate number because "three added to two (the Perfect Couple) be five"
  • In second degree the initiated returns the number of strokes of the scourge three-fold onto the initiator

It is easy to see that the three-fold law could easily be inferred by an initiate, particularly during the second degree initiation, and that if one would receive good three times then so would it be with the inverse, and so bad deeds would result in a three-fold penalty. Whether this was actually taught by Gardner or simply inferred by his students is still debatable. Even Valiente, one of Gardner's original high priestesses did not out rightly claim that Gardner created the Three-Fold Law. Going back to my email from Raymond Buckland, who was one of the first authors to publish the three-fold law in a book, Buckland learned it as the oral tradition of his coven and not directly from Gardner.

As is even seen today, prominent authors and community leaders can be easily taken literally, and so Gardner's symbolic used of the number three may have been taken literally by those who followed him. Since early Gardnerians did not make mention of the Three-Fold law, it is in my opinion that it was a latter edition that began though Lady Owen's interpretation of Gardner's work, and carried on through Buckland into the United States where it gained popularity, primarily though his significant visibility though the press and his books.

As other traditions began to develop and solitary practice began to surpass coven practice the three-fold law offered a useful way to keep those dabbling in magic in check. Covens were portrayed by Gardner and others as functioning as a balancing agent in keeping us from abusing magic or acting foolishly. As solitary practice gained momentum this failsafe was left to catch phrases such as the rede and the threefold law. While the rede neatly summarized the principle of "harm none" the three-fold law added the "or else!" which western culture has a tendency to emphasize.

Part 8: Timeline for Some Law of Return Concepts

[1] Kelly, Aidan , Public contents of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows (webpage), section A.4 The Initiation (1949),see Second Degree or Kelly, Aidan, Crafting the Art of Magic: Book 1, 1991, page 59

Part 8: Timeline for Some Law of Return Concepts

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