There are many people who will tell you that Wicca abides by the Threefold Law. If someone tells you this, the first thing you should ask is which version of Wicca they’re talking about, and the second thing you should ask is what version of the Threefold Law they’re talking about.
There’s an excellent article by Patti Wiginton on this topic at Learn Religions. As she points out, there are many versions and understandings of the Rule of Three.
The earliest of these (and the only one that I recognize) was written by Gerald Gardner; as Ms Wiginton writes:
An early incarnation of the Rule of Three appeared in Gerald Gardner’s novel, High Magic’s Aid, in the form of “Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art [thou] bound to return good threefold.”
There’s nothing in there about cosmic laws of karma bouncing back three times what you sent out.
It is true that whatever you cultivate in your life will generate more of the same around you: if you send out love and compassion and smile at people, you generally get the same response back; and if you send out negativity, you will get negativity in response.
I like the other suggestion offered by Ms Wiginton:
One of the most sensible interpretations of the Rule of Three is one that states, quite simply, that your actions affect you on three separate levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. This means that before you act, you need to consider how your deeds will impact your body, your mind and your soul.
This is a genuinely useful understanding of the concept of threefold return, and might prevent people from using any form of magic lightly or without thinking about the consequences.
It appears that the source of the notion that whatever you send out will come back to you threefold was Monique Wilson, and this was popularised by Ray Buckland. That would explain why this understanding of the Rule of Three is very popular, or at least widespread, in North America.
According to Wikipedia:
The Threefold Law as an actual “law”, was an interpretation of Wiccan ideas and ritual, made by noted witch Monique Wilson (1923-1982) and further popularized by Raymond Buckland, in his books on Wicca. Prior to this innovation by Wilson and its subsequent inclusion in publications, Wiccan ideas of reciprocal ethics were far less defined and more often interpreted as a kind of general karma.
There is also no mention of the threefold law or the rule of three in the Ardanes (which are widely regarded as having been composed by Gardner in 1957 after a dispute with the rest of the coven, and therefore many people regard them as suspect, including me).
The actual threefold law tells us, “Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art [thou] bound to return good threefold.”
The Wiccan Rede
The Wiccan Rede (which is simply the saying “An it harm none, do what ye will”, or If it harms no-one, do your will, and not the long poem of the same name written in the 1970s) is also widely misinterpreted. People respond to it by saying, it’s impossible to harm no-one, so it doesn’t make sense; every action you take can cause harm. This is exactly the point of the saying. It’s impossible to completely avoid harm: so you can’t just do what you want. It basically means, think about the consequences before you act, and seek to minimise the amount of harm that you do.
The eight Wiccan virtues
Another source of Wiccan ethics is offered in Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess (though few people really stop to think about what the virtues might mean, or why we should cultivate them):
“Let my worship be within the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. Therefore, let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”
I have written about what these virtues mean in chapter 25 of my book, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft.
If you carry out magic that constrains another person’s will or seeks to change their destiny, you ought to be aware of the reverberations this may cause, and how you can thereby become connected to the person. This applies equally to ‘beneficial’ magic like healing as much as to binding, hexing and cursing, as Kelden Mercury points out in his new book, The Crooked Path.
So we don’t really need a rule of three to remind us to look before we leap. If Wyrd and Orlog aren’t your thing, you could adopt Terry Pratchett‘s concept of first thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts.
And the Wiccan Rede, as I explained earlier in this post, reminds us that every action has consequences, so we ought to think before we act.
Pagan concepts of causality
To my mind, the most useful concepts of causality in Pagan thought are those of Wyrd and Orlog. Thom Burton explains the difference:
Wyrd is the past actions that are brought forward to shape the present. Not all actions are equal, however. Stronger and more powerful actions will have a greater impact than smaller, weaker actions. For example, changing the colour of your hair, whilst having an impact immediately, doesn’t really impact the person you will be 20, 40 or 60 years’ time. Moving to a new house on the other hand, particularly moving a great distance such as interstate, will have a greater impact over the course of your life.
He explains orlog like this:
Orlog translates more directly as ‘primal layers’ which better describes what Orlog is rather than the word fate. Orlog is the layers of our actions and deeds over periods of time. However, only significant deeds leave enough of an imprint in the layers of time to affect the future.
Brian Bates, in his classic novel The Way of Wyrd, explains Wyrd as a woven web of causality:
All our lives are locked together in the shimmering world of wyrd in which all things are enmeshed and connected to one another by the threads of wyrd. … The wyrd sisters spin the web of wyrd and weave the loom of life, they do not thereby determine it … the wyrd sisters simply express the will of wyrd. And so do we. We cannot control our lives, because we too are inseparable aspects of wyrd and express its will. But this is not the same as saying our life is determined. Rather, it is saying we live like an ocean voyager, trimming our sails to the winds and tides of wyrd as we skim across the waters of life. And cresting the waves of wyrd is something that happens at every instant. The pattern of life is not woven ahead of time, like cloth to be worn later as a tunic. Rather, life is woven at the very instant you live it.
The concepts of Wyrd and Orlog are widely understood and appreciated in Heathenry, but they are part of the cultural heritage of Northern Europe, and similar concepts exist in other earth-centred spiritual traditions.
Rather than appropriating concepts like karma or using the disputed concept of the Rule of Three, Wiccans ought to develop an understanding of Wyrd and Orlog.
If you do something, are you laying down a pattern in the web of Wyrd, or even more seriously, in the layers of Orlog? Is this a pattern that you want to weave into the web or lay into the layers? That ought to give people pause before acting rashly.
Most Pagan and earth-centred traditions do not regard fate as fixed and immutable; rather, our actions and choices can change outcomes, although they are of course shaped by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, which were in turn shaped by the actions and choices of others.
This means we have the power to change both our own circumstances and those of others; we needn’t just sit back and let it all happen. Witches are traditionally shapers of destiny, riding the currents of wyrd and steering a course between the worlds.
Water drops on a cobweb by jplenio on Pixabay
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4 thoughts on “Causality and ethics in Wicca”
Interesting article, thank you. I see a lot of oversimplification of the “rule of three” and similar ideas, so it’s good to see them explained well. OBOD has a concept that fits here called the Law of the Harvest: “Related to the idea that we are all connected in one great web of life is the belief held by most Druids that whatever we do in the world creates an effect which will ultimately also affect us.” (https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/druid-beliefs)
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The Law of the Harvest makes sense. I think something like it is a fairly widespread ire among Pagans (or ought to be).
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Thank you – these are important clarifications!
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What you’ve discussed here reminded me of something one of my Gods told me during a journey: “There’s no [predestined] fate, there is only action and reaction reverberating throughout time.” Which did help me adjust my thinking and how I acted, both in the spiritual and material realms.
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