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." 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.
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.
 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
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