The Rede is the most basic expression of ethics in Wicca. It consists of two simple lines: An ye harm none, do what ye will, or And it harm none, do what you will. If something is harmless, you are permitted to do it.
Not “harm none”
Many people abbreviate the Rede to two words: harm none. The problem is that phrase means something very different. Harm none is a commandment telling you to not cause harm. An ye harm none, do what ye will is permissive, giving a set of circumstances where you may do as you wish without judgement.
One cannot harm none. When you are threatened, you need to defend. When you are hungry, you must destroy life to live. That’s how the universe works, and understanding how the universe works is part of what we do. If you insist harm none just means pacifism or vegetarianism or veganism, you’re drawing an arbitrary line in regard to what counts as harm.
So what about actions that do cause harm? That is a balancing act between positive gain and negative harm. Are you killing an animal for food? Most, but not all, people would say that is acceptable harm, particularly if the killing is done humanely. Are you killing an animal because you want to see something die? Most people say no, sadistic gratification is not a positive gain.
Says Doreen Valiente, of the earliest Wiccans:
Witches do not believe that true morality consists of observing a list of thou-shalt-nots. Their morality can be summed up in one sentence, “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.” This does not mean, however, that witches are pacifists. They say that to allow wrong to flourish unchecked is not ‘harming none’. On the contrary, it is harming everybody.(1)
The Lycian Tradition attempts to clarify the matter with a slightly longer Rede:
An it harm none, do as you will. An it cause harm, do as you must. (2)
The Rede is not a law. “Rede” means advice. I doubt human words will ever be able to express a truly perfect law of ethics, so each of us is left to decide what ethical behavior truly means in each circumstance.
Potential Influences: The Law of Thelema
Many suggest that Gardner borrowed and adapted the Law of Thelema from Aleister Crowley, which reads “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Unfortunately, some have mistakenly confused the two statements as the same thing, sometimes even labeling one as the other.
The Law of Thelema does not say you can do whatever you want. To Crowley, True Will was the calling each person has to attune themselves to a harmony with the universe. His religion of Thelema embraces the idea of finding and following one’s True Will regardless of obstacle. However, since that Will, that destiny, creates harmony, a destructive path would be contrary to that pursuit. (3)
Love, and do what you will
Author Lilith McLelland offers another interesting parallel to the Rede: “Dilige, et quod vis fac,” or “Love, and do what you will.” It was written by Saint Augustine, in the 4th century C.E. (4) Did Gardner directly draw from Augustine? At a guess, I’d say no. The point is the general phrase and concept is not terribly radical. To do things in love, to seek harmony, to weigh the pros and cons of your actions, these are good rules of thumb for ethical living.
The Rede of the Wiccae
Many, many people refer to the Wiccan Credo , or Rede of the Wiccae, as the Wiccan Rede when it is in fact a separate document that just happens to state the Rede at its end. The Rede of the Wiccae came out of a specific Tradition within Wicca, and there’s no expectation that Wiccans ever be held accountable to the practices of a Tradition of which they are not a part.
The Wiccan Rede, however, is universal.
1 Doreen Valiente. An ABC of Witchcraft Past & Present, 1973, page 55, as quoted by John J. Coughlin at http://www.waningmoon.com/ethics/rede3.shtml , February 2003
2 http://www.lycianwicca.org/fullrede.htm (page no longer online)
4 Lilith McLelland. Out of the Shadows: Myths and Truths of Modern Wicca. Citadel Press, page 230.