The Wiccan Rede: A Historical Journey

Part 2: The Early Years

by John J. Coughlin

In researching the origins of the Rede, I started with the works of Gerald Gardner (1884-1964). Whether or not Garner revived a dying religion or created one from scratch was not at issue. Debates aside, Gardner was instrumental in bringing the Craft to the public and his work, along with that of Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), became much of the foundation of what has become modern Wicca.

Keep in mind that Gardner's version of witchcraft was not the only form available. Among these variations were hereditary witches and other traditionalists, many of which did not care for the Gardnerian variety. Many of these forms of witchcraft were less religious in form, and often more intellectual in emphasis than the Gardnerian/Alexandrian varieties, which were more emotional in emphasis and made more use of chants and dancing. Sadly many of these forms were not as visible and some who claimed to be hereditary were not in actuality, although it was a useful way to justify their personal practice or views. Modern Wicca has become such a melting pot of beliefs and the increasing sense of freedom has encouraged the sharing of ideas to such an extent that it is often quite difficult to discover their origins.

In researching Gardner's work I sought only to find mention of the Wiccan Rede, be it in context or verbatim, and if possible find earlier references. Prior to his third book The Meaning of Witchcraft, published in 1959, Gardner did not discuss ethics. Even in this the Rede was not yet formalized as it is now, but rather it only touched upon its essence of the Wiccan ethos as "harm none".

[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, "Do what you like so long as you harm no one". But they believe a certain law to be important, "You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.[1]

Although the above quote has been sited many times in previous essays on the origin of the Rede, there was no indication of who this "Good King Pausol" was. It turns out that King Pausole (not "Pausol") was a literary character in the story The Adventures of King Pausole (1901) by Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925), a French novelist.[2]

The specific quote Gerald was referring to was:

I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor.
II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest.[3]

Already this has the feel of the Rede, but it had not yet been articulated in the form popular today.

The Gardnerian Craft Laws, which were introduced around 1957 although finalized around 1961, make further reference to the idea of the Rede, although again only in context: "And for long we have obeyed this law, 'Harm none'"[4].

When associating the Rede with Gardner, most scholars suggest the Rede is actually based on the older Law of Thelema created by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) in his work Liber AL vel Legis (1904), more commonly known as The Book of the Law.

Who calls us Thelemites will do no wrong, if he look but close into the word. For there are therein Three Grades, the Hermit, and the Lover, and the man of Earth. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.[5]

Even among the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), an outer Thelemic order, there is some debate on the interpretation of this phrase, but those who connect it with the Rede tend to feel that "harm none" is implied from the context of the believed source of Crowley's inspiration; Francois Rabelais' novel Gargantua published in 1534.

DO AS THOU WILT because men that are free, of gentle birth, well bred and at home in civilized company possess a natural instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice. This instinct they name their honor.[6]

To be more precise, the text that would later become the Book of the Law was said to have been dictated to Crowley from a being called Aiwass, an angel of the highest order. However, in 1920 when Crowley set up his establishment in Sicily, he called it the Abbey of Thelema, which is also taken from Rabelais, and in his book Magick in Theory and Practice, the works of Francois Rabelais were recommended for its invaluable wisdom. So Crowley was indeed familiar with the work of Rabelais.

Although the extent of influence on the Rede is debatable, Crowley's influence cannot be easily dismissed. Gardner was initiated into the O.T.O. by Crowley in 1946 and was rumored to have met with Crowley as far back as 1936. After Crowley's death in 1947, many regarded Gerald as an obvious successor as leader of the order, especially since he had been granted (purchased) a charter by Crowley empowering Gardner to start a local encampment of the order. Therefore, Gardner was more than just slightly involved with the O.T.O. and its teachings. Being that other writings of Gardner, such as the Charge of the Goddess, were reworked by Doreen Valiente since, as she put it, "people are just not going to accept this and take it seriously so long as they think you're an offshoot of Crowley's O.T.O."[7], it is quite possible that she also encouraged Gardner to keep the Rede away from sounding like a work of Crowley. Valiente, an early initiate and High Priestess of Gardner considered by many to be the "mother of Wicca" for her significant influence in Gardner's work, was entrusted with editing Gardner's notes into a more formal book of shadows.

As will be discussed in the next section, Doreen Valiente was no stranger to the writings of Crowley. In relating Crowley's work with Wiccan ethics, Valiente also reminds us that the concept of following one's will is nothing new:

The teachings of Crowley's, embodied in the dictum quoted above, 'Do what thou wilt', is by no means new, and was not invented by him. Long ago, Saint Augustine said, 'Love and do what you will'. The initiate of ancient Egypt declared: 'There is no part of me that is not of the gods'. The pagan Greeks originated the saying: 'To the pure all things are pure'. The implication is that when one has reached a high state of spiritual development and evolution one has passed beyond the comparatively petty rules of religion and society at some particular time and place, and may indeed do what one wills, because one's true will is then knowable, and must of its own nature be right. The Upanishads or sacred scriptures of ancient India tell us that the knower of Brahma is beyond both good and evil.[8]

Part 3: Eight Words...

[1] Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, p 127 in the 1982 and 1999 printings not sure about earlier copies.
[2] It is rather ironic that Gardner, who was often accused of mixing his own sexual tastes into Wiccan practice (such as working skyclad and the use of the scourge in initiation) would specifically site Louÿs as the basis of a witch's morality since Louÿs was well known for the erotic nature of his work. I bring this up more for the humor than as an accusation. Regardless of Gardner's intentions, his work was instrumental in bringing Wicca to life as a viable modern religion. For more information on the literary character King Pausole, see my essay King Who??
[3] Pierre Louÿs, Collected Works of Pierre Louÿs, 1932, page 321.
[4] Kelly, Aidan , Public contents of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows (webpage), section D.1 The Old Laws (1961) or Kelly, Aidan, Crafting the Art of Magic: Book 1, 1991, page 159
[5] Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law, Chapter 1, verse 40.
[6] Francois Rabelais, Gargantua, 1534
[7] Doreen Valiente, 1991 Interview with FireHeart Journal
[8] Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, 1978, page 44

Part 3: Eight Words...

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