Bide the Wiccan laws ye must
In perfect love and perfect trust;
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill:
An it harm none, do as ye will.
I’ve chosen for my column this week to participate in June’s Pagan Values Blogject. In this column, I am speaking strictly to Wiccans and eclectic Pagans with a pseudo-Wiccan ethic. Many traditions of witchcraft do not follow the Rede. I’m not speaking to those traditions. Picture a bunch of Wiccan/ate/ish coven and circle-leader types sitting around a campfire. One of those present laments her struggle with teaching ethics to her students, in a path that is very individualized. So I raise my hand and offer my suggestions. I assume somebody else will have different suggestions. Some agree with my ideas, some disagree. We argue and discuss, and ideally, we all come away a little wiser.
Starting Points: Your Own Perspective
In a way, I’m writing two parallel articles here. The sources of Wiccan ethics are two or sometimes three written works: The Rede of the Wiccae and the Charge of the Goddess; the only common liturgy that we as Wiccans really have. Witches who are inspired by, or descend from, British Traditional Witchcraft, also embrace the Ardaynes. First, I will ask you, as a Guide, to consider your own views on the subject. Where do you lie in terms of “an it harm none?” What values do you take from the Charge, and how much more weight do you give one than another (are you committed to environmental activism, for example, but opposed to skyclad practice?) Do you follow the Ardaynes, and if so, to what extent, and how do you interpret each aspect?
Then I will make suggestions as to how you might impart those values to your students, without making a fatal error; which is assuming that you know better than anyone else, and refusing to accept that the Seeker looking to you may come to different conclusions.
Considering the Rede
One of the aspects of Wicca that new Witches often find attractive is its seemingly laissez-faire ethics. We don’t have a grocery list of sins to avoid. We don’t have a big book full of rules on how to live your life. Some might interpret the Rede as a license to do anything at all. Others might interpret it as an admonition to not harm anything, ever, and thus these Witches do their best to live without ever bringing harm to another being, appearing on the surface to be not dissimilar to Buddhists or Jains.
I personally believe both of these views to be misinterpretations of the original intention. Put in a more modern way, the Rede advises us to do whatever we want – as long as we aren’t hurting anyone.
For me, this means that we should not burden ourselves with unnecessary guilt. For instance, many of us carry issues and guilt surrounding our sexuality into adulthood, because our culture teaches us that sex is somehow bad; that enjoying sex makes you a bad person; and that having a sexuality that is outside of the mainstream is inappropriate and sometimes offensive. The Rede tells us not to sweat it, as long as everyone is able to offer informed consent and no one is getting hurt. Very liberating!
But it also means that we should try not to bring harm when possible – and that when we do, we must take responsibility for our actions – and our inactions. I believe that it is impossible to go through life without causing some harm! If you eat, something died or gave of its own strength so you could live. Just as we struggle to leave a smaller carbon footprint, so should we struggle to leave a smaller footprint of harm. We will not succeed; we are doomed to fail. But I believe a (Wiccan) Witch must do her very best. Sometimes we will be forced to choose between lesser and greater evils. We must a) consider what the short and long term effects of an action (or inaction) might be; b) seek guidance or use divination to attempt to foresee the things our reason cannot, especially in acts of magick or big decisions; c) accept the consequences, and; d) make amends when necessary to the best of our ability.
The late great Judy Harrow wrote an excellent exegesis on the subject. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that our values are goals to aspire to, not rigid codes to which we must adhere on pain of eternal damnation or exclusion from Valhalla. It’s one of the reasons we’re famous for our tolerance, and why we are often regarded as . . . “squishy” to non-Wiccans. We aspire to greatness, but we accept that people will be people, and we will often fall short. That’s where “taking responsibility” comes in.
Take, for example, that other often-quoted line from the Rede of the Wiccae: “Bide the Wiccan laws we must/In perfect love and perfect trust.” Love and trust are rarely “perfect” – but that’s certainly a worthy aspiration! There are other ethical elements to the Rede: “live and let live/fairly take and fairly give” is pretty straightforward; “soft of eye and light of touch/speak but little, listen much” is less clear, but suggests a Witch should look upon others with compassion, not interfere unless there is great need, be gentle, and listen rather than talk (and you can see I fail utterly at the last, I’m sure!) It also admonishes us to not bow to the greed of others, act magickally only in genuine need, avoid fools, offer hospitality, be true in love, and expect that all that we do shall be returned to us threefold.
Imparting the Values of the Rede
When someone is new to the Craft, most of us err on the side of caution, and stress the “harm none” to the point of Sunday school lessons. We tame the desire of our students for love potions and vengeance hexes by threatening them with the Threefold Law. That’s probably a good thing. Ideally, of course, our students realize the impossibility of doing no harm and have to make their own decisions. And so it falls to us as teachers to help our students to learn how to think for themselves.
One of the most important things I think we can do is to teach critical thinking skills. Constantly asking our students, “Do you really think so? Why?” and the like is healthy and demonstrates that we expect our students to utilize their gray matter. Using discernment is probably the most important skill we have as a Witch; and the most difficult to develop. If you (and your student) are of a scholarly bent, a study of philosophy is strongly advised!
An effective method I’ve tried is presenting an ethical exercise. Here’s an example, which I originally intended for my book (but it got cut, so this is the only place you’ll find it). Other examples: is it ethically appropriate to hex or bind a rapist? Is it ethically appropriate to heal a person who wants to die? How about just healing a person without their permission? Long flame wars have been waged in many a Pagan forum or comments section over these differences in opinion.
Teaching divination skills is also very important and I think it’s often neglected in Craft instruction. If you’re going to advise your students to consult their intuition as well as their reason when making decisions, you have to give them a chance to develop that intuition.
Developing compassion would also seem to be a Wiccan virtue, especially if we aspire to “perfect love and perfect trust.” The best way to encourage compassion in others is to demonstrate it in truth in your own beliefs and behaviors. Speak your truth, use your discernment, express your true feelings – and then forgive. Spend less time judging others and more time trying to cultivate empathy. And let your students see your successes and your failures.
Above all, I think the most important skill you can teach in imparting the values of the Rede is a sense of personal responsibility; what others might call “honor.” Teach your students to own their own issues. The Twelve Steps are probably the best model I’ve seen of how to break this down. Make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself; admit one’s wrongs, acknowledge one’s own shortcomings, work on them, and do one’s best to make things right with those one has harmed.
Considering the Charge
There are a lot of unspoken values that Wiccans and most eclectics view as “Pagan values.” Environmentalism, individualism, feminism and hedonism are highly regarded. We are permissive and accepting towards sex and sexuality and all forms of love. We affirm life; we celebrate being alive. We find virtue in joy, in weirdness, and in stubbornness. We respect that death is a part of life and all things must end. We embrace opposites and we believe that two things that seem in direct contradiction can both be true. We respect mysticism and intuition as well as reason. Where do we get all this? The answer is, from the same place that teaches us to value “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence.” I wrote something a few years back that broke this down a bit more thoroughly: if you’re interested you can read it here. But it’s not necessary for the purposes of this article; the key is to note that this piece of prose is more than just a fancy invocation to use at ritual; it delineates a code of values.
Like most values, we each choose what sort of emphasis we place on the different aspects of the Charge. Some people take the “skyclad” charge pretty seriously and others don’t give it any regard at all (I’m pretty firm on it for initiations but often practice robed myself; I live in Canada and it gets cold up here!). This will become clear to your students in your choices of tradition and practice. Generally you can assume that anyone studying in your tradition shares similar values, but they’re probably not identical. Your mileage may vary.
Imparting the Values of the Charge
I think this requires the least work. The truth is your students will pick up your views on the subject through osmosis, just as we pick up our values by osmosis from our parents, siblings and schoolmates. Frequent recitation of the Charge at group ritual also helps. You could encourage round-table discussions on the topic. Certainly you should work to practice what you preach (social and environmental activism, respect for life, joy in sex and love, etc.). Just as what your parents did taught you more about the proper way to behave than what they said, you will impart your values to your students through your behavior. So the best way to teach these values is to walk your talk.
Considering the Ardaynes
The “Old Laws” are somewhat controversial. It was Doreen Valiente’s contention that they were introduced into the Craft by Gerald Gardner in order to manufacture an ancient source for the rules he arbitrarily imposed on his coven (and in particular, when he wanted to toss out his old priestess for a younger, more nubile one). You can read them from Gardner’s Book of Shadows here.
The Ardaynes are the source of many of our beliefs and practices, even if your tradition does not actively follow them. The ethic of secrecy, of binding together to protect other members of the group, of submission to the will of the gods; these all come from the Ardaynes. So does our admonition to “never boast, never threaten, and never say you would wish ill to anyone.” So does our admonition against hexing; but this is largely due to fear of Christian reprisal, not due to a genuine belief that it is wrong. So does the admonition to not accept money for the Craft, and to not bargain for your Tools (or anything you would use in the Art). Interestingly, however, inclining someone to want to sell their house to you is okay!
A great source of contention in recent months is the admonition not to drag secular authorities into matters of the Craft, especially in a way that endangers the Craft or its practitioners. We are urged instead to go to the Tribunal of the coven as our highest authority, presided over by our High Priestess and High Priest. Of course, improperly managed, this Ardayne easily creates an environment that could protect an abuser. If we intend to be self-policing, then let us do it properly and well.
Imparting the Values of the Ardaynes
Most of us seem to have selectively absorbed some parts of the Ardaynes and not others. For instance, we all seem to think that we should not bargain for our Tools, boast, threaten, speak ill of others or charge for the Craft; but we have embraced lesser and greater degrees of secrecy and we generally disregard the passage about younger women replacing older ones in entirety. I think that the key for most of us is to realize where we got these ideas from and to make a conscious decision about whether or not we’re going to follow each of them. In that case, it’s like the Charge; our students will absorb it, or not, depending on how we act and on their individual discernment.
A mentoring relationship is often very effective in imparting these values, and because they are usually presented as a list of rules, old-fashioned study and quizzing works well too.
Ironically, the Ardaynes are often enforced in British Traditional Witchcraft and its descendants like commandments; but again, these are usually enforced selectively. I think there is wisdom in many of the rules of the Ardaynes, such as the rules about leaving covens and starting new ones. On the other hand, I think the requirement for older women to step aside for younger ones is a load of horse dung (and did when I was twenty also). If you’re going to hold to Ardaynes, make sure they are equally applied to everyone. And never preach what you don’t practice yourself; your students won’t buy it.
In a faith that values free thinking, we cannot reasonably expect that all of us will hold to the same ethics in the same way. But I believe that to be a good thing! Ultimately, each Witch is responsible for his or her own behavior, and as a result, teachers must accept that our students will make their own decisions; and these decisions may not be the same ones that we would personally make. However, most of us absorb these values so well that we adhere to them without even knowing where they come from. I believe that as teachers that we should make a conscious effort to discover where our values originate and how we, as people, feel about them, before teaching them to our students. Above all, we should apply our own discernment, and teach our students to apply theirs.
Footnote: For an excellent study of the origin and implications of Pagan values, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Brendan Myers.
Next column: A Sticky Issue: Teaching Sex Magick