Feel free to ask questions, poke at things I’ve said here, share additional resources. This is just meant as a starting point and summary of some particularly common things we’ve seen come up over the years.
What exactly are we talking about here?
Before we start talking about interpretation, it’s good to know that the word ‘rede’ is from Middle English, and it means ‘advice’. (Not law, not commandment, not obligation. Advice.)
There are several different common pieces described as the Rede, and a lot of people are not very clear about which one they mean.
2 word rede: Harm None (a contraction from the 8 word that leaves out important things). A much more modern thing.
8 word rede: An it harm none, do as ye will (An is an archaic word that means ‘if’). There’s a related statement by Gerald Gardner in 1959, but the first place this precise wording is used is a speech by Doreen Valiente in 1964. Originates in much older esoteric sources.
Long rede poem: Originally published by Lady Gwen Thomson in 1975 (in Green Egg a longrunning Pagan magazine) and attributed to her grandmother, Adriana Porter, who died in 1946.
The 8 word rede and the Witch’s Creed (by Valiente) appear in print in 1975.
The most common interpretation of the 8 word Rede is “If it does no harm, do as you will” Note that it is limited in scope: it does not define what ‘harm’ is, and it does not say what you’re supposed to do if an act is harmful to someone. (More about that below.)
How central is it?
Some books (or people) will make you think it’s core to every practice, and anyone who doesn’t strictly follow the Rede (which they don’t define or explain how they’re interpreting!) should be ostracised, ignored, or is not a proper witch. A lot of this approach can be traced to the rise of publication in the 80s and 90s. (And some theories about why that got started, below.)
Many people will imply that it’s central to British Traditional Wiccan (to use the common term in the US) practice. BTW folks, on the other hand, tend to say “It’s a piece that can be useful” but generally don’t describe it as central or essential. The Rede isn’t even a thing at all in some other kinds of witchcraft traditions.
Why is there so much confusion about it?
There are a bunch of possible reasons. (And if you see yourself in the following, don’t worry! There are ways to fix these.)
Beginners books that focus on spells and magic rather than deeper theory or ethics. These became a big thing in the 80s and 90s, and while a lot of more recent books are either more balanced or more specific they’re just talking about magic, the problem persists.
People not getting archaic grammar. This means that people tend to do odd things with the meaning of the 8 word rede.
People passing along incorrect or incomplete information. A lot of people pass along information they’ve partially learned, but not gotten to the origins for. (And there are an awful lot of people out there claiming a lot more depth of knowledge of witchcraft, Wicca, and Paganism than they actually have, along with the people who do have the depth of knowledge.)
Most people don’t have a background in ethics. It’s not a subject most of us are taught how to work with unless we’ve had philosophy classes, or stumbled into learning more about it. (If you’re an avid watcher of The Good Place, you’ve probably got more actual philosophy education than a surprising portion of the population…)
People are used to soundbite morality. Many people who are coming out of various forms of Christianity (especially in the English-speaking world) are used to a religious structure where people tell them what to believe, and what is right and what is wrong. A system of morality based on other concepts than a limited canon of religious texts is a really new concept for a lot of people.
Humans are not great at long-term consequences. It’s a lot harder for us to talk about a concept of ethics that is made up of many choices, over a long period of time, than a system that has rigid structures and fixed rules. A lot of people shy away from that kind of hard work (one thing if that’s just about them, but a lot more of a problem if they try to enforce those rigid structures on other people.)
What are some considerations?
So, when we’re thinking about the Rede (in its various forms), some questions come up.
How are we defining harm, anyway? Some people limit to significant ongoing consequences. Other people call something harm if it is a routine disagreement. (For example, I’ve seen people argue, apparently entirely seirously, that someone disagreeing with them online in a civil but clear way – no bullying, no nastiness, just “I don’t agree with that” or presenting their own view – is harmful.)
What does it mean about situations that are not actually harmful, but may be challenging? There are a lot of things out there that are a non-harmful choice for an individual, but may be more complicated in their particular context.
A classic example here is someone from a conservative religious background or family making choices about relationships (whether that’s orientation, sex outside of marriage, divorce, etc.) that are important and good for them, but not what some of their family members want them to choose. In a case like this, (orientation, sexual choices, etc.), not doing what makes them happy and fulfilled causes the person harm, but doing what they choose may discomfort others. Where is the line in this case?
What about questions of consent? I’ve seen people argue that if you find someone unconscious in the street (and probably in need of medical care) that the Rede would prohibit acting, because you are taking that person’s choice away from them, or acting without their consent. And yet, many people reading this would probably equally argue that leaving someone ill and unable to seek help themselves is definitely causing harm!
Because of this “Harm none” is clearly not a workable model without a much clearer idea of what harm is, and how to define the scope of evaluation. Even the 8 word version needs a lot of supporting material to make it useful in most cases.
Why do people cling to it?
Desire for someone else to describe the moral view. Discussed above.
Reaction to misconceptions about witches (the history of the witch hunts, ostracism, etc.) I think that one reason a lot of people cling to “Harm none” is that it’s a thing you can offer to concerned family, community, and others, as a method of protection in a complex world. It’s an understandable desire, but it’s not one with a great long-term track record, especially in the soundbite version.
Fear of taking action and having agency. One issue I’ve seen come up is that a lot of people find the permissiveness of witchcraft, and the role of witchcraft as a tool for responding to scarcity and repression (historically and more recently) to be terrifying.
A lot of societal work has gone into creating models of ‘correct’ or ‘approved’ behaviour that encourages people not to speak out, or act for their own (reasonable) needs. A lot of people use “Harm none” as a shield, and a way to justify not taking steps to improve their direct personal life. (And there are lots of ways to do that without causing direct harm to others, but many fewer without theoretically causing some discomfort or d…
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