Following is a recent post I made to an email list where the topic of the Wiccan Rede came up, as it is wont to do periodically.
“The Wiccan Rede” as it is commonly used in American paganism, has become a reductio ad absurdum – reduced to the impracticable “harm none”, which in no manner is close to what Gardner originally wrote:
‘ Witches are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pasol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one.” But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.”
This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage, and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others. This you may say, is elementary Christianity. Of course it is; it is also elementary Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Judaism, to name only a few.’ [Gardner, Gerald. The Meaning of Witchcraft. Lakemont, GA US: Copple House Books, 1959; 1988 edition, page 127, as noted in the now-defunct website “What Gardner Said”.]
This is a far cry from the “Harm None!” ‘commandment’ as espoused by some who proclaim it in the name of Wicca. Even in Valiente’s speech in 1964, at the Witchcraft Research Association dinner, there was no question that the Rede was anything of the sort: “I think we have earned the right to proclaim the old teaching of tolerance and freedom, and mutual respect, which is contained in the saying The Wiccan Rede. ” Wiccan ” is the Anglo-Saxon plural of ” wicce ”; and ” Rede ” means counsel or teaching: Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil: An’ it harm none, do what ye will. This is a simple positive moral code and it could make the world a much happier place.”
[Pentagram, issue #2 , November 1964, page 7]
(Side note – if this is the ‘fulfilment’ (sic) of the Rede, what is its entirety? Food for thought.)
The ‘legendary Good King Pasol’ (sic), as most should know, was a literary creation, and not an historical figure – King Pausole, a character in Pierre Louÿs’ Les aventures du roi Pausole (The
Adventures of King Pausole, published in 1901), had a similar motto of ‘Do what you like as long as you harm no one.’ Many believe that Gardner’s version is derived from Crowley’s Book of the Law (1904), ”Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, (though as used by Crowley it is half of a statement and response, the response being “Love is the law, love under will”). Crowley might have adapted this from François Rabelais, who in 1534 wrote, “DO AS THOU WILT because men that are free, of gentle birth, well bred and at home in civilized company possess a natural instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice. This instinct they name their honor” [Rabelais quoted from Wikipedia]; however, Louÿs’ version is much closer than Rabelais’ – or Crowley’s – to the Wiccan Rede as historically expressed.
I personally have little doubt that Gardner’s intent was to white-wash the Craft into something as non-threatening as possible; however, a careful reading of his two books on the subject will reveal evidence that this was not always the reality of ‘the Cult’ as he knew it.