The Wiccan Rede: A Historical Journey
Part 3: Eight Words...by John J. Coughlin
The first recorded mention of the Wiccan Rede in the eight-word form popular today, at least that I have been able to discover thus far, was in a speech by Doreen Valiente on October 3, 1964 at what may have been the first witches' dinner organized in modern history. The event was sponsored by Pentagram, a quarterly newsletter and "witchcraft review" started and published by Gerard Noel in 1964.
Demanding tolerance between covens as well as toward the outside world, Doreen spoke the Anglo-Saxon witch formula called the Wiccan Rede or wise teaching: "Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil, An' it harm none, do what ye will."The above quote is from Hanz Holzer's book The Truth About Witchcraft first published in 1969 and again in 1971. This was one of the first books to present witchcraft from an outsider's view looking in, observing some of the practices of the various forms of witchcraft in both the U.S. and U.K. around at the time.
Valiente's "Eight Words" quote was also published in volume one (1964) of the Pentagram, the UK newsletter that hosted the event and as will be discussed later was subsequently published beween circa 1965 and 1966 in the United States in The Waxing Moon newsletter. In 1965 the Rede was again quoted without references in Justine Glass' book Witchcraft, The Sixth Sense:
The other, only slightly less important belief of the witches is in hurtlessness; an article of faith also of the ancient Huna religion, which is thought to have originated in Africa and traveled across the world, by way of Egypt and India to Hawaii. The kahunas taught that the only sin was to hurt Ė either oneself or someone else. The Wiccan Rede (i.e. Counsel or advice of the Wise Ones) is: 'An ye harm no one, do what ye will.' Sadly no reference is given but since Glass had quoted from Pentagram earlier in that chapter it is quite possible that her above mention of the Rede derived from something inspired by Valiente's speech in 1964. The wording is a bit different from that speech, but this may have been due to the usual changes that occur when information is passed via word of mouth or as the author recalled the quote from memory. Since Glass had an advertisement calling for help in her research which was printed in the same issue of Pentagram (and on the very same page) as Valiente's "Eight Words" quote, this is a likely source.
Glass' book also goes on to discuss how one of the covenís duties is to keep its members in check when emotions are strong. This ethical support mentality was also mentioned by Gardner in The Meaning of Witchcraft as well as other authors in the 1970's. As I will discuss in my paper on the Three-Fold Law, as traditional covens gave way to solitary practice (for the majority), something was needed to fill in for the covenís grounding element to provide "moral restraint". This replacement was the emphasis on the Wiccan Rede and the Three-Fold Law. As Glass insinuated, ethics was not a significant focus in the Craft at the time (around 1965), although the idea of harming none was generally accepted.
Another interesting variation is mentioned by Dr. Leo Louis Martello in his book Witchcraft: The Old Religion (first published in 1973): "Witch credo 'And ye harm none do what thou wilt'". According to Dr. Martello, the quote was part of an article dated March 15, 1972 in The Villanovan, the newspaper of the Students Union of the Catholic Villanova University in Pennsylvania, USA. Again no sources were given.
Circa 1970/1971, Alex Sanders composed a series of lectures written by himself and others which were privately distributed as a course for novices in Alexandrian Wicca, a tradition Sanders founded. In the essay entitled The Book of Shadows, it is mentioned that during first degree initiation,
The Book [of Shadows] is closed in front of him [the one being initiated] and he is shown the cover, on which is often written the motto of Wicca: "An it harm none - do what ye will." 
These lectures were published in the book The Alex Sanders Lectures in 1984 but were in private circulation since the 1970's. This is the only reference to the wording of the Rede in Sander's published material, although he had made reference to Crowley's "Do what thou wilt" phrase in Stewart Farrar's What Witches Do (1971).
Now when it comes to the origin of the Alexandrian tradition of Wicca, there is much controversy. Alex claimed to have been initiated into the Craft by his grandmother at the age of seven, which was later determined to be a hoax. There is also much debate as to how he was able to obtain a copy of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows which he had passed off as his own while incorporating additional elements of ritual magic into it. The point to be made here is simply that Sander's teachings were heavily influenced by Gardner's work among others and that this reference to a witches' motto may have derived from Valiente's Rede assuming the wording in the lecture was not altered at a later date prior to its compilation and publishing in 1984 - long after the Rede's widespread dissemination.
There is, however, another important source for the Wiccan Rede, which is often attributed as the source of its origins. In the Ostara 1975 (Vol. III. No. 69) issue of Green Egg magazine, in an article called "Wiccan-Pagan Potpourri", was a long (but most will find very familiar) poem called the Rede Of The Wiccae:
Lady Gwen Thomson (1928-1986), a hereditary witch from New Haven, Connecticut (USA), attributed this text to Adriana Porter, her paternal grandmother, who, as she stated "was well into her 90's when she crossed over into the Summerlands in 1946." Thomson was the primary teacher of The New England Coven of the Traditionalist Witches (N.E.C.T.W.), which she founded in 1972, although her teachings were brought to the public in the late 1960's. This tradition was a combination of her family's tradition blended with popular occultism. This was the first time the Rede was publicly referred to as a "rede" (guideline) since Valiente's 1964 speech and subsequent mention in the Pentagram and The Waxing Moon, and although the line numbers never quite took hold, the text itself did, especially the last line. This is also the first time the Rede was introduced in such a visible and easily distributed manner and at a time when the Craft was blossoming in creativity and public interest.
Joseph B. Wilson , publisher of the first witchcraft newsletter in the US (The Waxing Moon)and who for many years acted as a central networking hub for correspondence, contacts, etc., shared with me that Lady Gwen was one of his early correspondents. Although Wilson could not remember much about her, he recalled that he shared a good bit of his own information from his mentors with her -- which by some accounts has since ended up as part of her adapted hereditary lineage. Mr. Wilson was also able to confirm two other important links to Valiente's Rede influence on the Porter/Thomson Rede:
1) Wilson clearly remembers reprinting Valiente's words in The Waxing Moon. Since his archive was lost several years ago, he could not give an exact date, but it would have been circa 1965-1966.
2) Gwen Thompson was a subscriber to The Waxing Moon.
Although this offers some links to a possible influence of Valiente's Rede in the development of Lady Gwen's rede, it is not conclusive and so we are left with three likely scenarios:
1) Lady Gwen's stated history of her version of the Rede is accurate and was written by her grandmother. This will raise the question: If the passing of Adriana Porter came before the publishing of Gardner's first book containing elements of witchcraft ritual (High Magic's Aid, 1949) and after Gardner is said to have been initiated by "Old Dorothy Clutterbuck" in 1939, then could they share a common source? Or could one have perhaps inspired the Rede from the other? I could find no evidence to support or deny this.
2) Lady Gwen adapted a poem written by her grandmother, adding more Wiccan-like elements. Since the tradition Lady Gwen taught is freely described as an adaptation of her hereditary tradition it is quite possible that Valiente's Rede influenced some of the rewording of Adriana Porter's poem, perhaps even unconsciously doing so.
3) The entire history of Lady Gwen's Rede was made up to add a sense of lineage and credibility to her established tradition. The questionable claims of family-based initiations pre-dating Gardner were not un-common and readily abused, so the accuracy of Thomson's claim will always remain somewhat debatable without documentation.
By 1978 in her book Witchcraft for Tomorrow, Doreen Valiente had also mentioned the Wiccan Rede.
This idea has been put into a rhymed couplet called the Wiccan Rede:Later in the same book, a longer poetic version of the Rede that Valiente called the Witches' Creed was introduced.
Hear now the words of the witches,
Mysterious water and fire,
The birth and rebirth of all nature,
Four times in the year the Great Sabbat
When day-time and night-time are equal,
Thirteen silver moons in a year are,
The power was passed down the ages,
When drawn is the magical circle,
This world has no right then to know it,
For two are the mystical pillars,
The dark and the light in succession,
By night he's the wild wind's rider,
She is youthful or old as she pleases,
The master and mistress of magic,
So drink the good wine to the Old Gods,
An Do What You Will be the challenge,
Then take up the pentacle, and pass deosil with it round the circle, holding it up at the four quarters, east, south, west and north, and repeating each time:So technically the "Eight words" couplet poetically refers to the Crede and is not part of the long version of Creed itself, since that already includes a similar couplet:
An Do What You Will be the challenge,This is a minor point, and the long Creed can of course be used either way, but for the sake of accuracy I wanted to make the clarification.
Valiente's earlier book, An ABC of Witchcraft Past & Present, which was first published in 1973, had no specific entry for the Rede, despite introducing it in her 1964 speech. Chances are it had not yet "taken hold" in the early Wiccan "community" that was still largely segregated and coven-centric by 1973, and thus was not yet something established enough to be included in an encyclopedia of witchcraft. However in the entry on Basic Beliefs of Witches, the a variation of the Rede was mentioned as part of the discourse on the Witches' ethics:
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. This is a perfect example of the perception of Wiccan ethics prior to the 1980's. Witches were not the epitome of "light and love" but rather real people who dealt with real situations, not afraid to get their "hands dirty" when necessary. Witches had a respect for life that was balanced with both its nurturing aspects and the harsh reality of the fight for survival. The rede was a summary or point of reference, but not a complete ethical system in itself.
If the Rede (or at least a version of it) was written by Valiente then the Crowley influence needs to be accepted as possibility. While Gardner does not associate Crowley with Wiccan ethics despite drawing from Crowley's work in other areas, Doreen Valiente, a poet at heart, would have been much more open to using Crowley's Law.
And mind you, Aleister Crowley, in my opinion, was a marvelous poet and he has always been undervalued in English literature simply because of the notoriety which he made for himself and reveled in. He loved being called the wickedest man in the world and all that sort of nonsense. The thing is --- as his latest biographer, John Symonds, says --- he couldn't have it both ways. If he wanted to get himself that lurid reputation, which he worked very hard at for many years, then he wasn't, at the same time, going to get a good reputation in English literature, in spite of the fact that a couple of his poems are in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. I think it's a pity that he's not had the recognition that he deserves, really, and perhaps later years will remedy that. Many of Doreen's books mentioned Crowley and recognized his indirect influence in Wiccan beliefs and practices. Even in the long text of Valiente's Creed listed above, there is a line that is very reminiscent of Crowley's dictum "Love is the Law, Love under Will" that traditionally followed the greeting "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law". Even the spelling of "magick" with a K in the last line of Valiente's Creed is also very characteristic of Thelema.
So be it in Love that harms none,
For this is the only commandment,
By Magick of old, be it done.
 Hans Holzer, The Truth about Witchcraft, 1971, page 128
© 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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