The Wiccan Rede: A Historical Journey
Part 1: Introductionby John J. Coughlin
Today's Wiccan ethics largely center on the Wiccan Rede: If it harms none, do what you will. Longer versions are in circulation adding poetry or personal views (or both), but these eight words are the basis of these variants and best sum up the nature of Wiccan ethics: to harm none.
The history of the Wiccan Rede proved more complicated to research than expected. Although by the 1980's the Rede was a standard inclusion in books on Wicca, there were very few references to it prior to the mid-1970's. This may have partly been due to the fact that Wicca was primarily a secretive religion to non-initiates prior to the end of the 1960's, but also because ethics were not a topic of focus in the early years of Wicca when more emphasis was placed on history and defining witchcraft practices. By the early 1970's both the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions had gained momentum, having become established in the United States where they quickly spread. As Wicca received more public attention, and solitary practice began to explode, many public Wiccans felt the need to emphasize Wiccan morality. In the 1980's authors such as Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham had introduced simplified handbooks that catered to solitary practitioners.
Another problem in researching the Rede is that books were not the only means through which information was shared. Newsletters (many with short life spans), gatherings, and by the 1980's computer bulletin board systems and the Internet, all provided a means to disseminate information. Often this information lacked references and proper credit, making any attempt at accurate research daunting at best.
Oral tradition can also not be forgotten. Just as many popular chants today were introduced at pagan gatherings and passed on through other gatherings before making its way into print, many early aspects of the Craft were not necessarily formally incorporated into a book of shadows or publication right away. That which is passed on orally can easily slip into obscurity, loosing any association with the one who originated it.
This essay will rely primarily on written resources although some first-hand accounts have helped to tie the fragments together. I welcome feedback and encourage you to share your own insights and research to help fill in the gaps.
© 2001-2010, John J. Coughlin. This text may be disseminated freely for educational purposes provided it includes proper credit containing a link back to waningmoon.com.
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