If you’re in a witchcraft-using community, you hear it a lot. It’s a truncated version of the Wiccan Rede, “An harm ye none, do what thou wilt,” informally interpreted as a binding rule of witchcraft. It isn’t, though — there are plenty of witches of different religions, or none at all, and most of them aren’t bound by it any more than they’re required to follow the Ten Commandments.
Don’t get me wrong, the Rede isn’t a bad thing. Really, it’s pretty liberating… Particularly for people coming to it from more dogmatic religions.
“If it doesn’t hurt anyone, do what you want.” Does your partner consent? Sex isn’t a sin. Does your desire to get tattoos or piercings hurt anyone else? Do as you please. Do you want to carve an image of something? Knock yourself out.
I’m not going to lie, though. Misapplied, it blows.
I’ve talked about gender identity before, but, as someone who was raised in a fashion common to girls in my country, feminism still affects me. (Well, it affects everyone, but hopefully you get my meaning.) I’m also shorter and lighter than the average man. I menstruate. I could, if I wanted to, probably carry a child. The cultural attitudes and prejudices that affect women still affect me, and that includes the idea that women and girls should be gentle, nurturing, ladylike, and harmless.
The Rede is really elegantly simple. It’s the Golden Rule wrapped in gentle deprogramming from dogmatic conditioning. It gives you the freedom to act, and reap what you sow. So, when a liberating phrase is reduced down to an admonishment to behave, it grates on me. As someone who’s seen enough witchy finger-wagging in the name of the Wiccan Rede, by Wiccans and non-Wiccans alike, it grates on me.
Strangely, it’s also unevenly applied. I don’t know if it’s because witches may be disproportionately female-presenting, because women are more likely to be told to behave themselves than men, or both, but I have seldom seen a male witch, of any religion, get scolded the same way. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but there’s a recognizable pattern there that I’m not really inclined to ignore.
Especially because that interpretation of the Wiccan Rede isn’t universally true. These things only really work on those who have agreed to be bound by them, and no one actually seems to agree on the outcome. If you do do harm, what happens? The Threefold Law says it will return to you multiplied by three, but how? If you rob someone, will you be robbed three times, violently mugged, or just experience guilt?
Western society seems fond of invoking a very informal interpretation of karma — not karma as in the sum of a person’s actions in life influencing the circumstances of their next life, but karma in a “what goes around, comes around” sense. It rarely happens, though. What’s done in the dark isn’t always brought into the light. We’re fond of the idea that the just succeed and the unjust suffer, when the opposite is much more likely to be true.
There’s a fondness for telling people — especially women and girls — to behave themselves, sit quietly, be decorative, and karma will eventually get the bad guys, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. There’s a fondness for syncretizing pseudo-occult philosophies like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, which blame you for the circumstances of your life because you had the audacity to be sad or angry about your own trauma. Witches are wild, and liberated, and there are still those, even in our own communities, who would prefer we be quiet and behave ourselves.
I have seen, and participated in, situations where a witch needed help handling someone. I have seen witches who weren’t Wiccan hamstring themselves with a “do no harm” philosophy, only to ask others to do their magical dirty work for them. In a way, it becomes worse than cowardice — admitting you are unwilling to bear the consequences of your actions, and wheedling others to do it for you. (Interestingly, these witches often ended up hit with the lion’s share of the fallout anyway. You can’t rules-lawyer your own morality.)
Even the word “harm” is very flexible. If I want a child molester’s genitals to get bitten off by raccoons, is that creating more harm than doing nothing? Theoretically, I should do a spell for justice instead… But in an unjust society, that isn’t something I’d bank on.
Not all Wiccans interpret the Rede as a warning against defending yourself, or even against pointing retribution at the wicked. Some choose to view it in a liberating light. Witches, as a whole, are autonomous, independent entities that aren’t beholden to a moral code. We are not required to be kind, we are not required to be harmless, we are not required to render ourselves toothless and soft. We are not required to bind ourselves by any moral philosophy we do not choose.
And in an unjust society, sometimes you need to fuck shit up.