The Wiccan Rede: A Historical Journey

Part 5: Conclusion

by John J. Coughlin

I must admit I had hoped to find a simple and clean historical path for the Rede when I first began my research. Chances are Doreen Valiente, who had edited much of Gardner's work, came up with the Rede using Gardner's material. I am doubtful, however, that Gardner actually wrote the Rede himself. Although "harm none" is mentioned several times in the Craft Laws released by Gardner around 1961, the only reason given is that any harm could be blamed on witches and thus encourage further witch hunts.[1]

But when one of our oppressors die, or even be sick, ever is the cry, "This be Witches Malice," and the hunt is up again. And though they slay ten of their people to one of ours, still they care not; they have many thousands, while we are few indeed. So it is Aredan that none shall use the Art in any way to do ill to any, however much they have injured us. And for long we have obeyed this law, "Harm none" and now times many believe we exist not. So it be Aredan that this law shall still continue to help us in our plight. No one, however great an injury or injustice they receive, may use the Art in any to do ill or harm any.[2]

Not once do the laws say to harm no one because it is wrong! Likewise if there had been a standard ethical stance in the Craft why were there no specifics in the public contents of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows? I doubt it was withheld due to secrecy given that an entire section is dedicated to the importance of working skyclad, a much more risqué topic to make public than a simple ethical statement.

However, the version of the Rede by Adriana Porter - if Thomson's claim is true - would have had to have been written before Porter's death in 1946. Although I could find no mention of it prior to its 1975 debut in Green Egg, that does not discount the possibility that it was in private circulation much earlier and that such a copy had inspired Valiente's 1964 speech.

Sadly, Gardner, Valiente, Porter and Thomson have all passed on leaving these questions largely unanswerable. Despite the fuzzy history of the Wiccan Rede, one thing is certain; as Wicca became more readily available, the Rede took a prominent - and needed - place in Wiccan literature. As more and more solitaries and non-traditionalists began to practice the Craft without formal initiations, the Rede ensured that the essence of Wiccan ethics was fostered and a core belief in a very open and flexible religion was established.

Today much emphasis is placed on the Rede, Karma and the Three-fold law, sometimes to the point of fundamentalism. Perhaps coming from predominantly Christian backgrounds we needed the comforting structure of the moral rules we were used (conditioned?) to, or perhaps our constant battle with the public to reclaim the term "witch" from its negative stereotype forced us to begin to over emphasize our morality in hopes of placating those who would subdue us. Going back to the King Pausole reference in The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner stated that witches were inclined to a morality of harm none, not that they were bound to it. Today the Rede is often elevated to the status of law.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the meaning of the Rede itself in this paper. I have always considered ethics to be a personal matter, not one to be tainted with a social, political or religious agenda. This is why I like the use of the word "rede"; it infers a guideline, not a strict law, thus allowing each of us to seek our own meaning based on our own experiences, and learned by our own mistakes.

As I mentioned earlier, despite all the research, I consider this a work in progress and invite you to contact me at jcoughlin (at) if you feel you have any reference material or firsthand experience to add. I know, for instance, that Hanz Holzer had published an article on Witchcraft prior to 1969 that was published in over 150 newspapers throughout the US. I do not know if the Rede or ethics was mentioned in that article. Likewise, there were many small newsletters and journals than came and went in both the US and UK during the 1960's and 1970's which may have disseminated the Rede, not to mention articles by early prominent authors and teachers that may have appeared in local newspapers.

I have added a section to include related commentary so that you may view both feedback/criticism of this site as well as further insights from visitors. I have also created a link page to list other related sites as well as on-line source material.

Part 6: Bibliography

[1] The laws were said to be "of old" and so reflected the mentality of witches during the time of the witch persecutions. The validity of these origins, however, is debatable. (I hope to explore the craft laws in more detail at some point in a separate essay.)
[2] Kelly, Aidan, Public contents of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows (webpage), section D.1 The Old Laws (1961), starting at [L:40] or Kelly, Aidan, Crafting the Art of Magic: Book 1, 1991, page 156

Part 6: Bibliography

About the Author
Return to Rede 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.