The Wiccan Rede
The basis of what I believe:
The Rede consists of two simple lines:
An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will
The Rede is comprised of eight words, not two. This fact is lost on many, many Wiccans, and I confess I was once among their number. I had become so indoctrinated with the abbreviation “harm none” and was so defensive about criticisms that such a command is impossible to keep, that I missed the forest for the trees.
The Rede does not command us to “harm none”. It tells us that any action that will harm none is acceptable.
And what about actions that do cause harm? I do believe “harm least” is generally implied by our desire to harm none. But we also believe in common sense. Consumption of food harms something, yet it is natural to eat. And self-defense, an oft-brought up issue by those arguing against the idea of “harm none,” is certainly not banned by the Rede.
Witches do not believe that true morality consists of observing a list of thou-shalt-nots. Their morality can be summed up in one sentence, “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.” This does not mean, however, that witches are pacifists. They say that to allow wrong to flourish unchecked is not ‘harming none’. On the contrary, it is harming everybody.
The Rede is not a law. “Rede” means advice. I doubt human words will ever be able to express a truly perfect law of ethics. The Lycian Tradition attempts to clarify the matter with a slightly longer Rede:
An it harm none, do as you will. An it cause harm, do as you must.
Gardner’s Old Laws, also sometimes broken into the 161 Laws, calls for a limited version of “Harm none,” stating you may bind or restrain, but never harm, with magic.
History of the Rede
In the Meaning of Witchcraft, published in 1959, Gardner first touches upon the ethics of Wicca. While the Rede as it is know today is not mentioned, Gardner states that
[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”. But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.
Good king Pausol, incidentally, happens to be a literary character in the story The Adventures of King Pausole (1901) by Pierre Louÿs.