Day 253: The Law of Threefold Return and The Wiccan Rede (part 1)

Ever mind the rule of three, what you give comes back to thee.

In magic, a popular ethical concept bandied about the community is the idea of the threefold law, which is a concept similar to the principle of karma.  Karma is a concept that essentially holds that for every action, there is a reaction.  If you do a good act, a good act will return to you.  The idea of the threefold law is almost like multiplied karma:  for every action, there are three reactions.  If you do a good act, three good acts will be done to you.

I don’t know if anyone is sure where the threefold law originated, but we do know that Gerald Gardner did include it as part of his novel, High Magic’s Aid.  There, he writes “Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold.”  Others are more familiar with the short poem:

Ever mind the Rule of Three
Three times what thou givest returns to thee
This lesson well, thou must learn
Thee only gets what thou dost earn!

As with many things in Wicca, some practitioners take this rule very seriously and believe it to be quite literal.  If you do a working for someone to earn more money, then sometime during your life you will have three lucrative opportunities you wouldn’t have had before.  This interpretation, frankly, seems a little ludicrous to many Wiccans.  As such, this is one of the most contested rules or laws within Wicca.

There are some thoughtful objections to the threefold law, and to karma in general.  If it was truly a law, for example,it would apply to everyone in every situation.  All who did bad would be punished, and those who did good would be rewarded.  And yet, we know this is not the case.  Many criminals go unpunished and end up living happy, rewarding lives.  Many fervently ethical people can’t ever seem to catch a break and become bitter and frustrated.  In terms of magic, practitioners who have performed manipulative magic often note they’ve never been cosmically slapped for these acts.  Overall, even though karma does seem to have general truths (if you smile to a bunch of strangers, they’ll smile back at you; if you’re depressed, you’ll inadvertently do things in your life to reinforce your depression), it certainly has a lot of exceptions and doesn’t seem to be multiplied by any real number.

Those who hold to the threefold law more literally also have some good interpretations.  It is obviously too reductive to believe that if you punch someone once, you will receive three punches in return, but some Wiccans hold that you might receive some negative thing three-times worse than the original act.  For example, you show up to work to find your  boss has heard of your brawl and fires you for indecorous behavior.  Others hold that your actions accrued during the course of this lifetime will be revisited upon you three times more intently in your subsequent life (and, obviously, that what is occurring to you in this life is also payback from previous lives…which sort of gets around the karmic objection of ‘why do bad things happen to good people’).  Some Wiccan traditions also teach that the law of three is a permission slip:  if someone does good to you, you are permitted to return that good three times, or to take an amplified revenge upon someone who has wronged you.

While I do agree with a more generalized view of karma, I don’t view the threefold law as being part of that concept or of any of the interpretations above.  Instead, I like to think that it is a warning that your actions change you on three levels:  physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Therefore, before you take on any action, you should evaluate how it could affect your body, your mind, and your soul.  Sometimes an action might not leave you any physical damage, but could wreck you emotionally or spiritually.  Would it still be worth it?

Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil, An’ it harm none, do as ye will.

Unlike the controversial Threefold Law, most Wiccans rally behind our Rede:  “An it harm none, do as ye will.”  We often say it is our only commandment.  This statement uses some archaic language from Middle English, and would read as “If it harms no one, do what you will” if contemporized.

John J. Coughlin has traced this sentence back to a speech given by Doreen Valiente on October 3, 1964, though it is likely the commandment was used in Gardner’s covens in some form prior to this date.  Regardless of when it entered Wicca, the sentiment of the Rede is not unique.  In fact, it’s a commandment that isn’t unique to Wicca.  The oldest recording we have of any sentence like this comes from St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote “Dilige, et quod vis fac” or “Love and then what you will, do” (as translated by Prof. Joseph Fletcher) in his seventh homily on the First Epistle of John, which he likely first delivered between 407 and 409 CE.  Gardner also reveals a likely direct influence for his version of the axiom in his 1959 book The Meaning of Witchcraft where he writes that Witches “are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm none.”  Gardner is almost certainly referring to the 1919 English translation of Pierre Louÿs’s 1901 Les Aventures du roi Pausole.  This is a fairly libertine text, for it describes the king as having a thousand wives and enjoying complete sexual liberation, but the specific morality Gardner meant refers to the two principles the king follows from his ancestor’s book of customs:  “I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor, II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest.”

It bears note that Gardner may well have also been influenced by Aleister Crowley, who wrote “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and “Love is the Law, Love under Will”  in his 1904 Book of the Law.  Crowley was, in turn, inspired by François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel.  In describing the rule of the Abbey of  Thélème, Rabelais wrote that:

In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,

Do What Thou Wilt;

because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.  (From the Urquhart and Motteux 1894 translation)

For all the apparent similarity between “An it harm none, do as ye wilt” and “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” it is important to understand that they are not synonymous phrases.  Crowley’s philosophy behind Thelema was a perfection of knowing and following one’s true will, and that perfection would lead to an attunement of the universe that would make an admonishment against doing harm completely unnecessary.  In this perfect state, there is only Love.  The Wiccan phrase, however, acknowledges the fact that none of us are this perfect and we do need a conscious reminder.  In fact, the reminder itself forces us to meditate on what it means to “harm none” and the impossibility of such an act.  After all, our lives require harming others in order to continue.  To eat, we harm plants and animals.  To build our homes, we destroy those of other creatures.  As Roderick notes, life consumes itself at every turn.

When viewed beyond the scope of our life spans, we can see that this ouroboros of life does not result in harm, but rather stasis.  Because everything dies to feed another life, we are all one massive organism and that ‘harm’ is impossible.  And yet, there is a difference between the necessary daily harms we take and massive unkindness.  It is harmful to all to put too much human life onto the planet.  It is harmful to all to disturb the planet’s delicate ecosystems.  It is harm to pollute.  And, within the fellowship of humanity, it is certain harm to infringe the rights and liberties of another person.  Our one commandment forces us to keep in mind our states as a great, unified organism, and of trillions of individual parts to that whole and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we make the smallest negative impact we can.

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