An Examination of the Wiccan Rede

The Wiccan Rede is the guiding moral principal of Wicca.  While it can be found in several variations, the most common and more accepted version is: An it harm none, do as thou wilt.  But what does this pseudo-archaic phrase mean, and where did it originate?

Let’s begin by looking at a few of the words in the Rede.  The word Rede itself, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, means to give council or advice.  So, the Wiccan Rede isn’t a law or commandment that Wiccans must follow, but is rather a piece of advice that must be interpreted and applied by each Wiccan.

The next archaic word we stumble over is an, which means if.  Then there is ye meaning you, and lastly we have wilt meaning will.  If we rewrite the Rede into modern English we essentially get: Advice for Wiccans – If it harms none, do as you will.  But what does this mean?  We will come back to that shortly, after exploring where the Rede came from.

History of the Rede

One of the most widely known early examples of the Wiccan Rede can be traced back to either a poem entitled The Wiccan Rede published in Earth Religion News in 1974, or to a poem entitled Rede of the Wiccae written by Lady Gwen Thompson (which she attributed to her grandmother Adriana Porter1) that appeared in issue #69 (Ostara 1975) of Green Egg magazine.  However, there is earlier evidence of the use of the Rede.

If we continue working back in time, the next earliest version of the Rede comes from one of Gerald Gardner’s High Priestess, Doreen Valiente.    She used the now famous eight words in a speech she delivered on October 3, 1964 at a dinner sponsored by Pentagram, a UK pagan newsletter.

Earlier still, although not in the eight word format we use now, Gerald Gardner presented the idea of “harm none” and “do as [you] will” in his 1961 writing entitled The Old Laws.  As the first half of the statement and response pair, it is followed by “Love is the Law, Love under Will”.  It has been suggested by some that Gardner had some contact with Aleister Crowley, and the use of this phrase seems to be clear evidence as it is lift directly from The Book of the Law.  In fact, Gardner was awarded an O.T.O. charter by Crowley sometime during the 1940’s, so he must have been aware of one of Crowley’s most prominent teachings.

Crowley claimed that The Book of the Law (also known as Liber AL vel Legis) was dictated to him by an entity named Aiwass.  Aiwass was later to become Crowley’s Holy Guardian Angel.  He received this dictation on April 8,9, and 10, 1904 in Cairo, Egypt.  So, is this Aiwass the origin for the Wiccan Rede?  It is possible.  However, in 1901, in Pierre Louÿs’ Les aventures du roi Pausole there appeared the motto “Do what you like as long as you harm none.”  Gardner himself references this, so this may have been his actual inspiration for the Rede.

If we continue this journey backwards, we can find yet more possible sources.  In 1534, François Rabelais wrote “DO AS THOU WILT because men that are free, of gentle birth, will bred, and at home home in civilized company possess a natural  instinct that inclines them to virtue and saves them from vice.  This instinct they name their honour.”  And yet further back is St. Augustine, a fourth century theologian, wrote “Di lige, est quod vis fac” (Love, and do what you will).

Living the Rede

Like most Wiccans, I feel that the origins of the Rede are not really as important as the message.  And, as the Rede comes across as a rather open-ended piece of advice with no formal head of religion to interpret it, opinions on what exactly it means varies. It can mean that all actions are open to us as long as they cause no harm, or it may mean that as long as we cause no harm we can do anything we will. That may sound like the same thing, but it comes down to whether we put the emphasis on harm or on doing the actions we will.

And what about our will? What exactly does that mean? I see the will in Rede as Will, those things that we truly desire to do. It is our soul urges. But I do also see the Rede as being useful in our daily lives too.

If we take the Rede very literally, any action that causes harm to anything is prohibited.  Stop to think about this for a moment.  Nearly every action you do causes harm on the microscopic level–having your morning shower kills many of those organisms that feast on your skin, and then there is that ant you stepped on by accident on the way to work, and so on.  If you followed the Rede in the most literal way, you would be paralysed.

Rede, remember, means advice.  We are being told that we should do our best to cause no harm, to others or ourselves.  Looking at the second clause of the Rede, we see that we are also given free reign to do those things that do not cause harm.  That is pretty powerful.  We are being told that we can accomplish anything that causes no harm, we just need to do it.

So, how do we live the Rede?  It is ultimately up to each individual Wiccan to decided.  Do you live it as literally as possible and in essence make your life painful for yourself?  Do you live in a laissez-faire sort of a way, and only see harm when someone is obviously physically or emotionally hurt.  Does not causing harm include the environment?  Does it include yourself?  What about when you yell at your child to stop doing something potentially harmful?  You are saving them from one harm, but are you causing another one? Or maybe the Rede only covers the spiritual areas of your life.

For me, I try to live the Rede everyday in all areas of my life. But, truthfully, it is difficult. I don’t live it so literally that I feel bad about keeping my home clean. Nor do I think that disciplining my son is counter to the Rede. To me, the Rede is about balance. It is about finding a way to be good to everyone, including yourself, as well as providing encouragement for reaching toward our goals or soul urges.


1. This attribution is considered spurious by some.  If Ms. Porter (1857-1946) had written this poem, it would have been a confirmation of Gardiner’s stories of a hidden religion.