The Three-Fold Law

Part 3: Rise of the Three-Fold Law

by John J. Coughlin

An early hint of the three-fold law can be found in Gerald Gardner's book High Magic's Aid (1949). Fearing the public's reaction to a book on witchcraft, Gardner used the pen name Scire (his craft name), and presented his information, including parts of actual Gardnerian initiation rituals, in the form of a work of fiction. It was with this book that Gardner gauged the interest and sincerity of his potential students.

During the second-degree initiation into "the brotherhood" as the Craft was referred to in the book, the initiate returns the number of scourges received three-fold onto the one doing the initiating (as is done in the actual Gardnerian and Alexandrian ritual). The author then comments: "For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard." [1]

Since I could find no elaboration on the meaning behind this comment from the later writings of Gardner I cannot assume with confidence that his intention behind this ritual return of the scourging onto the initiator was implicitly a moral statement or whether it was symbolic that that initiated was now on equal grounds with the initiator. (Or arguably that he was just into scourging, which many believe he did enjoy. [2])

Stewart Farrar did link this portion of the initiation with the Three-Fold Law, and his work was not only instrumental in the fine-tuning of the Alexandrian tradition, but also served as a basis for many other forms of Wicca that derived from Gardnerian/Alexandrian roots.

"…the ritual using of the cords and the scourge is the occasion for dramatizing a lesson about what is often called 'the boomerang effect'; namely, that any magical effort, whether beneficent or malicious, is liable to rebound threefold on the person who makes it." [3]

However, even those who worked closely with Gardner, such as Doreen Valiente could offer no definitive answer to Gardner's personal take on the Three-fold Law. In an interview in 1991 Valiente states, "I think old Gerald cooked it up in one of his rituals, and people took it terribly literally." [4]

Valiente was an early initiate and high priestess of Gardner, being initiated by him in 1953. She is sometimes referred to as the "Mother of Witchcraft" because of her extensive collaboration with Gardner in reworking his notes into a more formal book of shadows. One of her more most well-know contributions is the poetic form of the Charge of the Goddess.

That the Three-Fold Law became an aspect of the Gardnerian Tradition is not at doubt. The concept was not only taught by Buckland as he founded Gardnerian covens throughout the United States, but Buckland can trace this teaching to Lady Owen [5] (Monique Wilson), a high-priestess who was initiated by Gerald Gardner himself.

The threefold law was very definitely a part of what I was taught by Lady Olwen (who was, of course, taught by Gerald). Now to be honest I cannot remember if the term "three fold LAW" was used but definitely "the law of threefold return" was used. But they amount to the same, of course. [6]

Although Lady Owen taught what amounted to the Three-Fold Law, Gardner never made such a reference in his correspondences with Buckland. Buckland had been corresponding with Gardner even before his initiation in, and was only later initiated by Lady Olwen in 1963 after finally meeting Gardner in person. (In the Gardnerian tradition, one is always initiated by a member of the opposite sex so Gardner could not initiate Buckland himself.)

Since Gardner believed in karma, and karma is often confused with, or considered the force behind, the three-fold law, it is my personal opinion, lacking direct evidence, that while Gardner probably made common reference to karma to his students in conversation, the three-fold law was often inferred by initiates (both Gardnerian and Alexandrian) during their second-degree initiations as a literal law, and manifestation of karma. Those who did not take the literal meaning too seriously used variations such as the Law of Return or the Boomerang effect, which could more easily fit into a general occult context.

Belief in the simple law of cause and effect is a popular one among witches of all traditions; however, this particular way of expressing it [the three-fold law] seems to have originated with the Gardnerians and is peculiar to their English tradition. [7]

Gardnerians who did not work with Lady Owen or Raymond Buckland did not have this emphasis on a three-fold return. Arnold and Patricia Crowther, for example, who were initiated in 1960 (Patricia by Gardner and Arnold by Patricia), make very little reference to ethics at all in their initial books published in the 1970's [8] although they did believe in a form of return. "Witches believe in a kind of Karma, that evil returns on the evil-doer." [9]

Valiente, who was initiated by Gardner in 1953 and rewrote much of Gardner's early book of shadows, never mentions the Three-fold law in her early work and even went so far as to question its validity in a 1991 interview - a time when the Three-Fold Law was a common belief.

Personally, I've always been skeptical about it because it doesn't seem to me to make sense. I don't see why there has to be one special law of karma for Witches and a different one for everybody else. I don't buy that. [10]

Unlike the Crowthers, however, Valiente, along with several other coven members split from Gardner around 1960 due to his habit of presenting his personal opinions as law. Valiente then continued her studies in the Craft by researching Gardner's sources and seeking other traditional forms of witchcraft.

Part 4: Law of Return and Karma

[1] Scire (Gardner, Gerald), High Magic's Aid, 1996, Page 188
[2] This idea is discussed in depth in Aidan Kelly's, Crafting the Art of Magic: Book 1, (Llewellyn, 1991)
[3] Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches Bible Compleat, 1984, page 24.
[4] Doreen Valiente, 1991 Interview with FireHeart Journal
[5] It is difficult to gain much non-biased information on Lady Owen. After Gardner's death in 1964 and inheriting his witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man, she upset many witches by selling the museum, along with Gardner's notebooks, to Ripley's International. I have heard numerous times through word of mouth that she had a propensity for passing off her own opinions as Gardnerian teachings, but never from anyone with first-hand experience.
[6] Doreen Valiente, 1991 Interview with FireHeart Journal
[7] Roberts, Susan, Witches U.S.A., 1971
[8] Patricia Crowther did reference it in 1981 in her book Lid of the Cauldron, but by then the Three-Fold Law had already been in circulation.
[9] Crowther, Arnold and Patricia, The Secrets of Ancient Witchcraft, 1974
[10] Doreen Valiente, 1991 Interview with FireHeart Journal

Part 4: Law of Return and Karma

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