Originally published in Pagan Dawn, Luthaneal Adams, Deputy District Manager for London, shares his article on the origins of the Wiccan Rede:
The Wiccan Reed is one of the most well known sayings in modern Paganism and has been adopted by a variety of modern Pagans.
“An it harm none, do what thou will”. A message that holds a unique allure and that is perhaps quite deceptive in its simplicity. The philosophically minded can spend many hours expounding upon the meaning of the Rede and its applicability. However, one subject that is often glazed over with careless abandon is the origin of the Rede itself. Indeed, I think that some consider it’s origin to be a ‘done and dusted’ matter, but I believe that it is a subject worth revisiting.
The actual formula of the Rede is not entirely original. Similar concepts have echoed in various writings for hundreds of years.
Of course, for us, the source of the Wiccan Rede takes us directly to Gerald Gardner, father of Wicca, who gives us this explanation for where it comes from:
“[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”.
Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft
King Pausole is a fictional character created by French novelist and poet, Pierre Louÿs (pseudonym of Pierre Louis). Very often it has been the case that Gardner’s explanation of equating witchcraft ethics with that of King Pausole, is dismissed in favour of an examination of Gardner’s connection to Thelema and Crowley. While it is certainly true that the Rede is similar to the ‘law of Thelema’, I think that those versed in both Wicca and Thelema will agree that this similarity is superficial and that the actual meanings behind the words are quite dissimilar. I have even seen some authors suggest that Louÿs’ The Adventures of King Pausole is too obscure a book to have been the source of the Rede and that any such connection is implausible. However, this ignores the fact that Gardner was obviously well aware of the book in order to be able to reference it in the first place.
In fact, looking into The Adventures of King Pausole reveals a book that Gardner was most likely not only familiar with, but was actually right up his street!
Pierre Louis (1870-1925) was the best selling French author of his day (so hardly an obscure figure writing obscure works) and the two works that got him there would have definitely been of interest to Gardner. In 1894 Louis wrote book entitled Chansons de Bilitis, a work of prose poetry exalting Sapphic love. Louis claimed that this work was translated from older Greek writings and even managed to fool the experts of the time. Two years later, in 1896, Louis wrote his best selling book Aphrodite, which portrayed the life of a hetairai (courtesan) in ancient Alexandria.
Philip Heselton, in his book Wiccan Roots, explains that before Gardner found his way to Witchcraft, he had believed that he was the reincarnation of an ancient Cypriot weapons smith and that in 1939 Gardner had bought a plot of land in Cyprus, which he believed corresponded to this past life and where he, according to Cecil Williamson, intended to build a temple to Aphrodite.
It is not difficult to imagine that someone like Gardner, devoted to pursuing a path to the Goddess Aphrodite, would be rather interested in a best selling book of the same name and another by the same author that is deemed to be ancient Sapphic poetry. Indeed, given Gardner’s interests at the time, I dare say that he was most likely well aware of the writings of Louis and that this, in turn, led him to The Adventures of King Pausole.
I imagine that King Pausole would have struck a cord with Gardner. From Gardner’s own reference, we know that he must have read the book and taken enough inspiration from it that he would call it to mind in reference to the Craft some years later. But it is really no surprise that a book like this would stay in Gardner’s mind, as it in so many ways reflects his personality.
King Pausole is the ruler of the land of Tryphemia. A quirky character with a unique outlook on life, the king ruled his land under his own simplified justice system, in which there was just one law, summarised in two articles:
- Thou shalt not harm thy neighbour.
- This being understood, do as thou woudst.
Immediately we see the early stirrings of the Rede.
The king was also a Pagan in his own right: “…Pausole tolerated all religions, and himself practiced several, so as to experience the consolations of the various paradises in turn. The altar which the king preferred was a small temple dedicated to Demeter and Persephone situated in one of his parks. The two goddesses having no longer any worshipers on earth listened benevolently to him who remembered them.”
Pausole’s Pagan mentality was quite akin to Gardner’s own in many ways, especially considering the Greek influences that would have surrounded his pursuit for Aphrodite in Cyprus.
Additionally, King Pausole shared another dominant trait with Gardner, his love of nakedness and beautiful women. Pausole possessed his own naked harem, which was made up of his many wives, who numbered one for every day of the year. In keeping with the king’s rather unique perspective, he viewed this as the perfect number, so that by spending one night a year with each of them, none would get jealous of favoritism.
His wives spent all their time naked, which was not simply for the king’s own taste, but as part of the custom of the land, which the king himself had installed. In Tryphemia, it is common custom for young and beautiful women to be naked as often as common sense and decency would allow. However, as a twist in the outlook of the people of Tryphemia, it is considered far more decent to display the naked body for all to enjoy, than it is to cover it up in public, presenting a false sense of modesty and allowing the minds of the depraved to run wild with ideas of what may lay beneath the clothes of such young ladies.
For someone like Gardner, a nudist who has been described by his contemporaries as being “an unashamed sensualist”, it isn’t hard to see why the ideals of Pausole and Tryphemia would be very appealing.
he role of central character in the plot is shared between Pausole and one of his pages, named Giglio, whose exploits drive the plot forward in a combination of guile, cunning and sexual (mis)adventure. In many ways Giglio is the star of the tale, displaying a wit and roguish nature than allows him to constantly get the better of his counterpart, the king’s Grand Eunuch, Taxis. The interplay between Giglio and Taxis is quite noteworthy and very much in keeping with the way in which Gardner tended to portray himself. Giglio is a rogue and rascal, winning people over with his stories and quick thinking. Taxis on the other hand, is a staunch and stuffy Protestant who stands in utter disdain of just about everything that the king stands for. He is anti-nakedness, anti-sensualist, anti-sex and represents all the oppressive qualities that the writer sees in Christianity.
One can well imagine how Gardner, that great “leg-puller”, may well have identified with Giglio and Pausole, as he and his witchcraft stepped into a largely Christian religious arena, where so many would cast their own disdain upon him and his practices.
However, I think that perhaps we might see Gardner and the Craft best reflected in the words of Pausole, himself, when presented with the proposition that everyone in Tryphemia should be forced to adopt the custom of nakedness and the ethical views of the king and the majority:
“…Tryphemia is not a topsy-turvy world; it is a better world, at least I hope so, but I have not spared my people certain bonds in order to cause them to suffer other chains. …Sir, man demands to be left alone. Each is a master of himself, of his opinion, of his behaviour and of his actions, within the limits of inoffensiveness. The citizens of Europe are tired of feeling at every moment the hand of authority on their shoulder, an authority which is made unbearable by being omnipresent. They still tolerate the fact that the law speaks to them in the name of public interest, but when it begins to interfere with the individual in spite of or against his wishes, when it direct his private life, his marriage, divorce, last wishes, reading, performances, games and costume, the individual has the right to ask the law why it has poked its nose into his affairs without being invited.
…Never will I place my subjects in a position of being able to level such a reproach against me. I give them advice, it is my duty. Some do not follow it, it is their right. And so long as one of them does not put out his hand to steal a purse, or to give a rap on the nose, I do not have to interfere in the life of a free citizen.”
Ultimately, is this not the spirit of the Reed? Advice that may be taken, but with the understanding that each person is the master of their own life and their own destiny, and that so long as we seek to treat each other with kindness and respect, we may live free.