I have discussed the Threefold Law in several previous articles but it’s never had its own post before. Most people get the wrong idea about the Threefold Law. It does not actually say that you get back threefold what you send out.
The so-called law of threefold return is actually a misinterpretation of Wiccan liturgy. It is not saying that there’s some cosmic law that means that what you send out will return threefold. The rule is actually telling witches to return good threefold when we receive good.
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.”
Causality and ethics in Wicca (January 2020)
Everything you think you know about Wicca is wrong (January 2021)
Seven things I wish people knew about Wicca (July 2015)
Heresy is good (May 2016)
Paganism for beginners: Wicca (May 2015)