Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

"An [if] it harm none, do what ye will." Although written in the style of 16th-century English, this maxim, known as the Wiccan Rede, probably dates back only to the mid-20th century. It was first recorded in print in 1964, having been spoken by Doreen Valiente, a priestess who had been initiated by Gerald Gardner. Some observers of modern witchcraft speculate that it may represent a revision of Aleister Crowley's occult maxim, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law," which first appeared in 1904. Regardless of its origin, the Rede - as a succinct moral code - spread rapidly throughout the Wiccan and religious witchcraft community. Balancing an emphasis on personal responsibility with an imperative for non-harm of others, it meshed beautifully with the zeitgeist of the 1960s, an era when status quo morality was being questioned in the light of student unrest, emerging feminist and gay/lesbian concerns with their attendant re-thinking of traditional sexual morality, and public disapproval of conflicts such as the war in Vietnam. The Wiccan Rede's simple and common sense ethic allowed both the new freedoms of the age to flourish, while preserving a basic sense of responsibility and care for others - at least in terms of refraining from harm.

Many variations of the Rede have emerged since its first appearance in the 1960s, some versions subtly re-defining its moral parameters. One common variant appends "Lest in thy self-defense it be," modifying the prohibition against harm in the interest of self-protection. The Wiccan community does not have a consensus view on how to interpret the Rede; some see it as a spiritual maxim pertaining only to magic, while others regard it as governing all conduct. For some, the prohibition on harm extends to an unwillingness to engage in military service, while others see no such limitation inherent in the Rede.

Despite its popularity among Wiccans and some other modern Pagans, the Wiccan Rede is hardly universally observed in the Pagan community. Most non-Wiccans regard it as strictly a Wiccan text, and seek other principles for moral guidance. Many adherents of ethnic Pagan revivalist traditions look to the heritage of their chosen culture for guidance. For example, Celtic and Norse pagans advocate a life grounded in virtue as understood in the great myths and legends of northern Europe. Such values often reflect the importance of tribal kinship, valor among warriors, and personal pride. Here is a list of "Nine Noble Virtues" as used by some Norse Pagans:

  • Courage - the ability to face both the joys and the challenges of life fearlessly;  
  • Truth - honesty and integrity in one's words as well as one's actions;
  • Honor - strength of character as reflected in one's behavior and trustworthiness;
  • Fidelity - loyalty and faithfulness to family, tribal, and spiritual commitments;
  • Discipline - consistency in effort toward reaching one's goals;
  • Hospitality - kindness to strangers, travelers, and those who are in need;
  • Industriousness - willingness to work hard toward excellence in productivity;
  • Self-Reliance - pride in the ability to care for one's own needs;
  • Perseverance - refusal to admit defeat or to let obstacles thwart one's efforts.

As is the case of the Wiccan Rede, the culturally specific values of various Pagan traditions are not universally accepted - not even within a specific cultural tradition.

Many Pagans consider environmental stewardship and care for the earth to be a central tenet of their religious ethics. Such an emphasis arises less out of traditional maxims or virtues and more out of the widespread contemporary recognition that humanity needs to redefine our relationship with the earth. Consequently, some Pagans feel inspired to engage in personal environmental activities (recycling, organic gardening, using green energy and reusable items like cloth grocery bags), participate in environmental advocacy groups (from national organizations like the Sierra Club to regional and local associations devoted to conservation work), and engage in political action on behalf of environmental causes. Others within the larger Pagan community may choose not to engage in such activity, either because they do not consider it spiritually necessary or because they do not see a necessary connection between Pagan spirituality and environmental activism. For example, they may prefer to engage in spiritual or magical efforts on behalf of nature, rather than emphasizing social or political action.

Indeed, magic and spirituality play an important role not only in the practice of many forms of Paganism, but also in the shaping of Pagan ethics. Magic is grounded in a recognition that self-interest and care for one's own family and tribe are acceptable principles of action; in this sense, Pagan spirituality functions quite well within a democratic capitalist economy, where self-interest is a foundational social principle. However, some magical communities impose restraints on the morality of self-interest, whether in terms of the Rede's "harm none," in terms of classical or mythological concepts of virtue, or in terms of balancing the competing interests of personal self-interest with the mandate for environmental responsibility and sustainable living.

Ultimately, no universally observed ethical principles define the Pagan movement as a whole, although mythologically-derived notions of virtue and honor, the Wiccan Rede, the acceptance of magic as a tool for exercising spiritual power, and a balanced sense of the importance of caring for the environment are widely held values.

Study Questions:
     1.     What is the Wiccan Rede? What does it teach?
     2.     Is the Wiccan Rede universal? What do other Pagans believe?
     3.     Describe the Nine Noble Virtues as used by Norse Pagans.
     4.     How does the environment influence a Pagan’s action?
     5.     What does magic offer to moral thought?

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