As a Wiccan clergy person who writes a lot about Wicca on the net and therefore discusses Wicca a lot on the net, it inevitably comes up that people want to talk with me about the basic aspects of the religion. And that's wonderful. As any long-time Wiccan of any stripe will tell you, discussing the basics is not just for newbies. As a matter of fact, if you get a bunch of formally trained 3rd degree High Priestesses and High Priests and other seasoned Wiccans into a room (provided there are brownies...there must be brownies), you will find that they love to discuss the very basics. One of those basics is the Rede and what it means.
Most people who have read even one book on Wicca will be able to repeat the 8 word Wiccan Rede, which is "An it harm none, do as you will" or some such variety of that (some people like to follow in Uncle Gerry's footsteps and try to word things archaically, so they will say "...do as *ye* will or "...do as *ye wilt.*"). I prefer modern speech when wording things about Wicca because I consider Wicca to be modern, but based on some ancient ideas. But whatever floats yer boat.
This little phrase is a huge part of both Traditional and non-Traditional Wicca. But where does it come from and what does it really mean? Those of you who have read my blog for a while might have read my review of "The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson, and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft," by Theitic and Mathiessen. I strongly encourage every Wiccan to read this book. It offers a scholarly look at the long poem, the short phrase from the poem, and gives a compelling history of the Tradition that gave us the Rede. If people are going to quote the phrase, they should be able to say where it comes from.
As Wicca has no scripture, there are no "commandments" in Wicca. I find it a bit exhausing (but cute) when new Wiccans chirp "There's only one rule in Wicca! Harm none!" Um, not exactly. First of all, there are a LOT of rules in what I would call Wicca (which are different than "commandments"). The first of them is that to be a Traditional Wiccan, you need to be trained and initiated by a Wiccan initiate. With the birth of Llewellyn Publishing, there has been born a new "tradition" of Wicca that is based solely on the material that is available before initiation and contents itself with working only with that information as a basis for practice. And that's hunky-dory. But my position is that if someone is going to ignore the first rule, that person doesn't get to quote any other rules as "official rules," either. Eclectic, non-Traditional, non-initiatory Wicca is based on ignoring the first rule of the religion. And those who practice that form of Wicca can make up their own rules for their own "tradition of one." That's why I consider eclectic, non-traditional Wicca to be a different religion than Traditional Wicca. Both valid, but not the same religion. They do have a lot of cross-over, however.
Both Traditional and non-Traditional Wiccans most often attempt to adhere to the Rede. And to adhere to its principles, one must define those principles. Here's where it gets hairy. One Wiccan's definition of the Rede is not necessarily another's, even within a Tradition or a coven. First, let's look at the word "an" in this phrase. It means "if." So the phrase is "If it harm (subjunctive form of the verb) none, do as you will." That doesn't say "never harm anyone or anything." It says "IF" it harms none, you are free to do as you will. That's not just splitting hairs.
The phrase of the Rede does not address what to do if harm may occur as a result of one's actions. Why is this? It's simply because (in my opinion) what one does is on that person's shoulders, ethically speaking. So IF I cause harm, it's on me. There are times when ALL of us cause harm.
I'm going to stop here and ask some questions. Some people, often the young and new, will say, "Oh, I NEVER cause harm! I follow the Rede!" O.K...your efforts are admirable. But consider...
1. Ever step on ants? No? Are you sure?
2. Ever give someone a healing tonic? Surely that is "good" magic! What does a healing tonic do? It kills bacteria or virus. Bacteria and virus are living things. You have harmed them when you healed your patient. You chose one life form over another as being more worthy of living.
3. Ever done something that harmed yourself? Have you eaten unhealthy food? Gotten a tattoo which caused your skin to bleed for no medical reason? Have you indulged in unhealthy thought patterns? Had more than one glass of wine? You have harmed yourself.
4. You eat, right? Even if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you have consumed living plant material. You have harmed something living.
Any Wiccan who thinks he or she "does no harm" has not examined the situation nearly deeply enough. We ALL do harm. It is simply a matter of degree.
But that's not the end of the problem. Then we have the analysis of what "do as you will" actually means. It might be taken to mean, "do whatever you want." O.K...but it could also mean "align your actions (do as you) with your will (will)." What is your will? That is an age-old question. It *could* mean "the action of manifesting your desires." When you "will" something, you attempt to bring it into being, right? So if that's the meaning of "will" that we accept, then the Rede actually might mean, "If it causes no harm, act in a manner that brings forth that which you choose to manifest."
Then we get into the whole Crowley thing (remember that Gardner knew Crowley and the OTO had a LOT to do with the philosophy of Gardner's early religion) with his "Do as Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law." It makes more sense when you think of it in terms that define "will" as a point of manifestation. It places the responsibility squarely on the individual's shoulders. It implies that what comes into being as a result of your actions WAS your will. Or it wouldn't be, period. It tells us that we MUST align our actions with that which we want to bring forth because our actions WILL bring something forth. And choosing not to act is still an act.
I recommend that in addition to the Theitic-Mathiessen book, all Wiccans read "Ethics and the Craft," by Coughlin. It discusses (among many other very valuable historical things) how Gardner basically combined Crowley's "law" with a phrase from a novel, "Good King Pausol," which states that no harm should be done upon one's neighbors. Understanding where the tenets of Wicca come from is in my opinion the responsibility of every Wiccan, regardless of Tradition.
At first glance, Wicca can seem to be a gloriously simple religion. It is not. It is very complex, and it's a path of responsibility and balance. Following the Rede and defining the Rede is anything but simple. It is not for the weak, not for the thoughtless, and not for those who are unwilling to take full responsibility, magical and mundane, for themselves, their deeds, and even their thoughts. Wicca (all forms) trains the will, trains the mind, trains the body, and trains the spirit. May all Wiccans be blessed on their paths.