“An it harm none do what ye will.”
We cling to these words, among other reasons, because they are our battle cry to legitimize us to other faiths. “Oh, no… We aren’t bad people. We even have a law that says ‘harm none.'” I saw this again with recent comments an ill-informed Florida sheriff made attributing ritualistic murders to “Witchcraft” when of the many replies that flooded my Facebook news feed, “We harm none!” or some derivative was the most common. It is our haughty badge of honor and overall, it is a lie. Why? Because we are human.
This specific directive is common in the Pagan faiths and is best known from a speech given by Doreen Valiente in 1964. It is, however, not a new concept. In the 1904 book The Book of Law, Aleister Crowley says “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” with the response of “Love is the law, love under will.” In 1534, François Rabelais 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.”
The Rede is similar to the Latin maxim “primum non nocere,” which translates to “first do no harm” (not, as it is widely believed, part of the Hippocratic oath sworn by doctors). A character in Les aventures du roi Pausole (The Adventures of King Pausole, published in 1901), King Pausole, says what translates to, “Do not harm your neighbor; this being well understood, do that which pleases you.” The words and sentiment clearly reverberate through history cross-culturally. Regardless of its origin, this noble dictate appeals to many Pagans and not just Wiccans.
Compared to the commandments of other faiths, the order seems loose and free: “Do anything you want as long as you do not harm anyone.”
The apparent simplicity of “harming” someone is deceptive because harm is a multi-level concept. Harm can occur on six levels of existence: physical, emotional, sexual, mental, spiritual, and social. We can say things to a child that they carry with them for their entire life, but we forget an hour later. We can participate in an unhealthy dynamic long after we recognize it is an unfair balance because the relationship benefits us, even if it is at the expense of another. We can ruin someone’s reputation with a careless accusation. We inadvertently hurt others. We sometimes intentionally hurt others for what we feel is a greater good. We may accidentally have 14 items on a 12 or fewer check out. All of these can arguably be considered “harming.”
A whole other barrel of (possibly harmed) worms opens when we think about human to animal treatment. We will occasionally step on a bug and any act of healthy eating is the death of something that once lived, be it animal or plant. We harm and that is the reality of it, so we automatically fail in this ambitious goal before we even get started.
Should we regret the harm and inconvenience we caused a drug-addicted ex-spouse when we go to court to get custody of our children? What about the pain and suffering we cause our toddler for insisting that they eat the cookie they broke in two rather than buying them another one? Who gets to judge what harm is valid and what is not? As a functioning, responsible adult, sometimes, we have to make hard choices and occasionally do things that hurt or inconvenience others. That is one of life’s realities.
Is not then “harm none” less a viable goal and more a set up for failure for those who attempt to follow it, as well as our students? Objectively speaking, “harm none” is a wonderful reminder that what we do, mundanely or magically, has an impact on others. Realistically, it is more of a sweet sentiment we aspire to attain than a realistic mandate. “Harm none” sets up a hypocritical lifestyle where we tell our students to follow a guideline that we break ourselves every day because of its complete lack of viable attainability.
In magic, we teach the importance of words and intentions. We teach total accountability. The goals we set for ourselves and our students must be ones real people can meet on a daily basis and go to bed at night feeling that they effectively achieved their magical objectives rather than sifting through their day for any perceived hurt they may have caused. We must raise up strong, empowered magical people who know when and how to stand up for themselves effectively. That can be hard to do when your head wraps so tightly around resistance to causing anyone harm. Sometimes, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.
For myself, I will no longer teach “Harm none” as a life rule to my magical students. I discuss the concept with them in the context of ethical guidelines, but will also let them know that I do not expect this level of perfection from them. Although my magical background is strongly rooted in Wicca, I do not now consider myself Wiccan, so like so many other concepts from other faiths, this one is cherry picked out of my curriculum.
My guidelines now are:
- Be kind, but not anyone’s doormat.
- Be wise, but always open to learning more.
- Be strong, but not overpowering.
- Be generous, but give nothing you will later resent.
- Honor the God and Goddess with your thoughts and deeds.