The Three-Fold Law

Part 9: Conclusion

by John J. Coughlin

The notion of cause and effect is generally accepted by witches of all forms, although it has been perceived in many different ways. The Farrar's kept to the same lines as Dion Fortune considering negative return a risk when working magic to harm. Early Gardnerians made no reference to a law of return outside of accepting Karma, which Doreen Valiente said, "Gerald Gardner... was a strong believer in reincarnation and the working-out of karma." [1] The first mention of a three-fold law in print which I have been able to locate comes from Raymond Buckland, although he has shared that he had learned in from Lady Owen, and seems to have been inferred from Gardnerian initiation practices by some Gardnerians who took the symbolism in such rituals literally.

What we are left with is not a clean timeline of one instance of a Law of Return which has evolved over time, but rather several instances of the concept, each with a very specific context which has sometimes blended to cause confusion.

Buckland is the primary source of the popularity of the Three-Fold Law, having actively promoted it in the United States since he was initiated into the Gardnerian Tradition in 1964. There are no records which I have been able to find to date of earlier Gardnerians using this concept and Monique Wilson, who initiated Buckland and who Buckland said taught this principle did not write any books. Buckland applied this law to all actions and not just a principle in magic. Buckland did not believe in the notion of karma affecting future lives. Although his emphasis on the three-fold nature of return varied, it is clear that it was taken literally and presented as such in both his books and articles. It was quickly adapted by many other traditions which formed in response to growing interest in the Craft.

The Farrars are the primary source of the Law of Return which was particularly more of an occult principle in regards to the potential consequences of magic and linked this to some extent with Karma.

These two principles initially developed independently by their respective advocates and especially in the United States, both view points were merged into an uneasy yet largely unquestioned notion of retribution based both on both karma and the three-fold law.

But why did so many take it so literally? Keep in mind most of the authors were new to the Craft when they were initiated, and started writing soon after their initiation. It is interesting to compare the early works of Buckland, Steward Farrar, and Leo Louis Martello to their later works. Buckland for example was extremely hostile to homosexuality and non-Gardnerian forms of witchcraft and Martello hoped his first book on witchcraft, Weird Ways of Witchcraft would remain buried in obscurity. [2]

Much of Steward Farrar's early work, for example, was basically a rehash of Alex Sander's words. As Stewart began to make the teachings his own, he "learned to sort out the undeniable wheat from the regrettable chaff." [3] It is easy for us to look upon authors as experts and accept their words without question.

Wicca in particular has been influenced greatly by authors and publishers. Many are embittered with Llewellyn Publications, for example, for promoting trends more than legitimate material. Although Llewellyn has published a significant number of questionable books, almost any publisher is going to be concentrating on profit over integrity. Publishers need to sell books to stay in business and so are more likely to invest in books that appeal to the public.

Authors like Buckland, already having incorporated the literal form of the Three-fold Law into their work naturally sought ways to justify or explain such believed through speculative metaphysics rather than threaten the stability of their belief system. Each following generation of authors continued this trend, either attempting to justify their ethical stance or present it without further elaboration.

Anton LaVey, the infamous founder of the Church of Satan in the United States during the 1960's has this to say about the Three-fold Law:

"White witchcraft groups spout the theory that if you curse a person, it will 'return to you three-fold,' 'come home to roost,' or in some way 'boomerang back to the curser,'" he states. "This is yet another indication of the guilt-ridden philosophy which is held by these neo-pagan, pseudo-Christian groups. These people want to delve into witchcraft, but cannot divorce themselves from the stigma attached to it." [4]

While there has always been a certain level of antagonism between Satanists and Wiccans, this observation has some merit. Looking back to my own experiences in the Craft, whenever someone found out I was a "witch" I almost always had to answer these questions: "Do you worship Satan?" and "Do you hex people?"

Since the 1990's Wicca has become much more known to the public and yet I am still occasionally asked these questions. In the early 1980's when the public was still basically unaware of the Craft such questions were almost guaranteed. Many of us used the word "Wicca" because it lacked the negative imagery associated with the word witch. This sadly has changed as "Wicca" began to be used in television shows as a fancy way to refer to a witch, but it was a helpful way to refer to our beliefs without initial biased reaction while it lasted.

In answering these questions, catch phrases such as the Rede and the Three-fold Law made it easier to get our point across quickly. Telling someone "no we do not believe in Satanism and believe that if we do wrong it comes back to us three times" left little room for debate. The Three-fold Law provided an easy quote for articles in newspapers and magazines by publicly known witches such as Raymond Buckland, providing a convenient way to promote a more positive image.

The downside of this, which LaVey's attack hits dead on, is that apart from those who called themselves witches for the shock effect, many actively sought to separate themselves from the bad press and stigmatism attached to witchcraft. Satanists were (and still are) often portrayed as the "bad guys" and Wiccans as the "good guys." I recall reading things such as "Satanists are anti-witches" or "Satanists use the inverted pentagram because they are opposite to us (good) witches."

I can only imagine the uphill battle early American witches such as Buckland had to face on daily basis at a time when the only source of good press for witchcraft were their own statements. It should come as no surprise that Buckland, as one of the earliest public representatives in the United States also was the one to push the Three-fold Law so vehemently and why it was so readily adopted by other witches.

Over succeeding generations these short ethical statements have been given more and more emphasis without appropriate elaboration. The Rede and Three-fold Law on their own do not provide a complete ethical system and many new to the Craft assume that they do.

At some point, in a separate paper, I will present a more detailed analysis of ethics in the Craft. I will also need to revisit this paper once I have completed the paper on Karma since in some aspects that concept is related to the Three-fold Law.

Part 10: Bibliography

[1] Valiente, Doreen, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, 1978, page 39
[2] Martello, Dr. Leo Louis, Witchcraft: The Old Religion, 1975, page 255
[3] Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches Bible Compleat, 1984, volume 1, page 17
[4] Roberts, Susan, Witches U.S.A., 1971, page 221

Part 10: Bibliography

About the Author
Return to Three-Fold Law Menu
Return to Ethics Menu
Purchase the Book

You may be able to contribute to the research on this site! Click HERE to find out how.

© 2001-2010, John J. Coughlin. This text may be disseminated freely for educational purposes provided it includes proper credit containing a link back to

A revised, corrected, and expanded version is now available in book form. Click here for more information and to order.