Lest in Self-defence it be…

Wiccan Rede * Summer 1987 by Merlin Sythove

Quite often, when people come to us to hear a bit more about the Craft, we take our time to spend an evening or so to discuss other aspects than ritual or magical work. What does the Craft mean to one’s daily life? How does one deal with everyday problems, but also with important questions which are part of society today?

Invariably discussions like these are at first concerned with ethics. But ethics, or a few guidelines, are not enough. In the long run it is important that the pagan ideals pervade one’s whole life, because we feel that that is the only way to effectively manifest one’s ideals in a practical sense. The Craft is more than just a religion – especially because of the magical side which enables one to be practical and down to earth, trying to help people, solve problems, etcetera. To us, the Craft is a way of life. This does not mean that every witch leads the same type of life, nor that every witch would agree on every social or political issue – far from it. What it does mean is that witches as a whole take their religion seriously enough to try and live by their beliefs every day, and to let those beliefs guide them at many important decisive moments. The Wiccan Rede, which is at the core of our ideas about ethics, is well enough known. Here is a slightly more elaborate version:

“Bide the Wiccan Law ye must
In Perfect Love, in Perfect Trust. 
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil: 
An’ it harm none, do what ye will. 
Lest in thy self-defence it be
Ever mind the rule of three. 
Follow this with mind and heart
And merry ye meet, and merry ye part.”

Two concepts are important in the above: the Wiccan Rede (An’ it harm none, do what ye will); and the Rule of Three (whatever one sends out will return threefold to the sender). Compared to other religions, which burden the believer with lists of various length full of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ this may not seem much to go on. On the other hand, for someone who is prepared to use common sense, his or her own innate wisdom, and who is consciously working on his or her own spiritual development, it is plenty. A third concept, related to these two ethical points of view and especially useful for daily life, can be found in the name of our religion itself: Witchcraft, translated as ‘the Craft of the Wise’. It implies a craft, a skill; knowledge as well as practical mastery; used by wise people. Now ‘wise people’ may sound a bit presumptuous to many of us, so it is usually explained as ‘people who are trying to use the wisdom everybody has, provided one is willing to look for it’.

These three points can be seen to form the essence of the Craft, as far as its relation to everyday life is concerned. In this day and age it is no longer practical to become a hermit, totally apart from society. But even if this were still possible it is certainly not something the Craft advocates. Spiritual development is not something sought after purely for oneself – it is only of value as far as it improves one’s talents and skills to help other people who need your expertise. It is a ‘means’, not an ‘end’ in itself. Often these talents bring joy, when one is able to help people in a positive way and bring some happiness into someone’s life. At other times they may be a burden, when too many demands are being made on one’s time or skills. And there may be moments of pain, when it is necessary to help someone through a sad and trying time in their life. In all cases however our own code of ethics guides us in our ways.

But there comes a moment when one may wonder. Is this all? Is this the end of our involvement with everyday life and the twentieth century? Or does the Craft imply more? Can it have actual meaning for our mundane, exciting, boring, tranquil or messed-up life? Does the Wiccan Rede tell us how to vote? Which laws to make? Does it help us decide major economic issues? Tell us which school to choose? Does it tell us to stamp out other religions and world-views? Does it condone genetic manipulation? Free sex? Does it tell us to expect other people to behave according to our code? Does it imply that all witches ‘naturally’ believe this or that? Does the Wiccan Rede lead to mass-production as an effective way of managing resources? Do witches use computers and other high-tech hardware or do they revert to the quill? And what about all those geese then?

Today’s world is full of questions but not many people take the time to think about them seriously. Our own problems are often more important. Still, it might be interesting to take a closer look at today’s society, with our own Wiccan Rede in mind.

In a world solely inhabited by witches the Wiccan Rede, or something similar, would be at the very heart of society. Laws, socio-economic structures, public holidays, morals, simple etiquette, everything would reflect this central ideal. Actually, if you start thinking about this it can become extremely complicated and involved, so before we go throwing some ideas around it might be a good idea to state one obvious fact. This obvious fact is that we all, without exception, grew up in this flawed society. And like it or not, we all have norms and values which are part of this society. Now we only keep these norms and values as long as they make sense. As long as we feel comfortable using them: to please the neighbours, to avoid conflict, or even ‘naturally’ because we don’t realise that it is possible to do things differently. Once upon a time there was a tribe where the only taboo before marriage was eating together. Sex was encouraged as soon as the children reached puberty. Perfectly normal, healthy and natural, don’t you think? Just look at the animal world – there it is much the same. It is only when animals start nesting that they are caring for each other and feeding each other. (Don’t snicker, I’m serious!) Occasionally we find out that we have norms which are even Christian, and we may have to face the fact that they wouldn’t agree with a ‘pagan’ society. So after having stated this, we can return to our witch-world. How does one go about thinking about something like this? Which ‘general principle’ could be used to guide one’s visions and ideas? For the Christians the 10 commandments would be a good starting point, or the ethical ideals as preached by the way Jesus lived his life. For pagans and witches it would be obvious to choose the Wiccan Rede, which preaches individual freedom together with respect for the other person. We could also choose Nature as our example, or the Charge. Or all of these.

The type of society one could visualise would probably be a very flowing, constantly changing and developing society. Individual freedom and personal responsibility would be of extreme importance. Does belief in Karma and Reincarnation mean the abolishing of all forms of insurance by the way? Schools would educate children into becoming well adjusted people within this society, with a healthy regard for life and spiritual development. Individual freedom of necessity leads to a very decentralised government; to local bodies which can quickly and efficiently deal with local needs and problems. No individual is the same, and the natural growth, flowering, fruition and death of individual enterprise needs the room it deserves. Society would be similar to our present system of covens: small groups with few hierarchical ties, but with a fairly free exchange of information and members. Commitment of members towards the communities and a sense of responsibility would be maximized. It could be compared to a stretch of countryside: forests, meadows, brooks, glades, moors – each with its own character, each with different possibilities and opportunities. Central government is fairly impossible due to the diversity of situations. And connecting to communities a complex network of communications and services would exist, comparable to the animal and insect world, contributing to the welfare of several communities at once, providing transportation of goods and people, for example.

Would it work? Would we want it? Are there already ideas in the above that you, as a pagan, dislike? Would it mean heavy social and peer group pressure to ‘conform or leave’? Would it need protection from other countries, either to prevent annexation or to prevent economic takeover? Would countries as such still exist? Would we welcome the deep commitment put on our shoulders for such a society? Or are we quite happy with today’s impersonal society where we can blend in with the masses and ‘do our own thing’ quietly? I can’t answer these questions for you. And nice as it may be to theorise about different societies, or to read about them in the many SF and fantasy novels which sprout ideas like these, when the telephone rings or the clock strikes 5 we realise that we have to return to business in hand – answer the phone, make tea, or whatever. Generally getting on with our life. Or…?

What has happened after we have spent 50 or 60 or 70 years of ‘generally getting on with our life’? Have we spent our time happily celebrating esbats and sabbats, making magic for friends and relatives? Or did we have one or two ideals left from adolescence which were worth preserving and working towards? Have we made a ‘statement’ out of our religion, or has it been merely a hobby?

Every time questions like these come up one is invariably drawn into the realm of politics. This is not so surprising, since every religion and every view on society has practical implications: things to say about how to live, what to do, what not to do; things about ‘paradise or earth’ or ‘utopia’, etcetera. But unless one is willing and able to do something in this respect, and join one or two committee’s or even a political party, questions like these often remain what they are: just questions.

So what’s the point of this exercise? The title of this article may give you a clue: “Lest in self-defence it be…’ I think it may be important (on occasion that is) to have a good look at one’s attitudes and ideals as far as they concern every day living, politics, and so forth. For it is one thing to explode on every occasion when ‘politics’ interferes with your life, and to come up with ad hoc and after the fact defences and reasons why one doesn’t agree with something. It is quite a lot more difficult to have a positive picture of how you want society to be (and I mean a realistic picture, not just wishful thinking). With such a positive picture in mind it is possible to become active, to create something new, instead of only doing away with the old and the wrong.

And apart from society, we can also have a closer look at our own pagan community, and compare the practice with the ideals we have. Do we really respect the opinions of other people? Or do we only respect them if they are close enough to our own? When newcomers join our group, are they pressurised into joining Greenpeace or your local CND? Are they expected to be vegetarians, non-smoking, non-drinking out-door types? Are they expected to apologise for a military career? Are they applauded if they’re midwives? Do you take your ‘fertility-religion’ seriously or do you favour a more puritanical approach? Do you think nothing of breaking a few taboo’s here and there, or do you ‘respect the needs of others who may not be that far’? And is this statement true of just a cover-up? Is your group typical white, middle class urban heterosexual, or is it more varied in colour, success and preference?

Nobody said witchcraft was an easy religion to put into practice. The less rules one has, the more one has to think for oneself. I’m not suggesting we have even one answer to all these questions; I’m not suggesting we don’t have any ‘peer group pressure’ to conform. It is usually masked in the statement ‘I can’t get along with him/her’ or ‘S/he wouldn’t fit within our group’. An easy way to keep change out of your life. What I am suggesting is that on occasion we may take a closer look at our own attitudes and appreciate them for what they are: just attitudes. Not much to do with our Higher Self in most cases, just conveniences. In understanding these attitudes we may get a better perspective on the influence they have on us as a person too.

There is a funny line in this Wiccan Law which I quoted in the beginning of this article. It reads: “Lest in self-defence it be…” Now we all know that witches are not supposed to harm others, and that there are ways and means to get rid of people who are interfering with your life without bringing harm to them. But how often are we involved in self-defence on a mental level – defending our ideas and viewpoints to somebody else? How often do we feel threatened by others whose moral standards differ from ours? And how often do we actually cause harm by refusing to listen to someone’s ideas and opinions, just because they are different from our own? And thereby denying them their own spiritual elbow room? How often do we find it necessary to turn seekers away to preserve our own integrity? How often do we have only minimal contact with people and covens close to us because ‘they have their own way of doing things’?

The Craft has one huge trap, in spite of all its lack of dogma. The trap is exactly the lack of dogma. The Craft is so open, so free, so much a scavenger-religion, that in practice every witch can keep on believing what she has always believed, and find a welcome. Your beliefs don’t have to change in order to become a witch! As long as you can find a reasonable sounding explanation all is well. Even Christians can become Witches! If you have difficulty with this, just use the Kabbalah to straighten things out. And if you don’t agree: I’d love to hear what you had to change in order to become a witch or pagan.

It is well-known that all is not always well between different factions of the Craft. And the same can be seen in any other spiritual stream too. Wherever beliefs are put into practice, people are then committed to those beliefs, and it is this commitment which is threatened by others who think differently. And the closer they are to us, the more threatening they are. Why else would there be umpteen churches with umpteen ‘true’ faiths? Why else would there be true and false rosicrucians? Or true and false astrological systems? I don’t think the Craft is very different, although we do have a tendency to let each other just get on with it. And although this article has been a bit over-stated in places, I seriously think that we have a good example to show us how to deal with this situation too: nature. Nature can show us differences are essential for a species to survive; as well as the fact that some differences are introduces by circumstances and local conditions. I think it is important to take a closer look at ourselves on occasion; not just as a person but also as a pagan within the pagan community worldwide, and to try and understand what is essential and what is just ‘local variation’. Because if one gets down to the bottom of things: “An’ it harm none, do what ye will” is no excuse for never changing anymore!