So, for those of us that are Wiccan ((eclectic Wiccan, not NeoWiccan, asshole)) we often refer strangers to the Wiccan Rede as our expression of a moral system. Except it’s not; in practice it’s more PR tool than guideline. Either it’s treated too casually with more focus on the “do what thou wilt” than the “harm none” or it’s taken too literally. I’m pretty sure the original author of the Rede would be horrified to hear one man I knew took a beating because he applied “harm none” without further discernment.
The ultimate Wiccan values statement is not the Rede, it is Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess ((used per the Creative Commons license issued by her foundation. Pretty sure it’s far too late for no derivative works, says one of the many poets that have indeed derived from the Charge. Does a blog post discussing it constitute derivative work or academic discussion?)) Yes, it is referenced as liturgy and used in one the heaviest of the heavy coven-based Wiccan rituals that is, but, outside of circle, it is just as powerful: it is a description of how Wiccan adherents should conduct themselves.
I’m going to go through this phrase by phrase with my own understanding of it.
1)Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names.
Aside from an introduction, for now I’m going to set this one aside. It’s a complex issue and I am heretical in that I don’t believe all the Goddesses are as one Goddess – but a few are comfortable forming a union, or maybe a social sports league. This is an expression of my personal experience with the divine and most certainly not specific to Wicca. Just me.
2)Whenever ye have need of anything, once in a month, and better it be when the Moon be full,
First, it suggests religious gathering/ritual once a month. It also recommends asking for help with your needs once a month. That seems about right – in a give-and-take relationship once a month is a reasonable exchange for help on both sides. The full moon is preferred. It doesn’t need to be at night, just during the full moon. Night just cooperates with most people’s work schedules. Since this itself is derived from a passage from Aradia where similar words were addressed to slaves, the implication of night would also be about safety in secrecy – which, in a society where slavery is mostly metaphorical is not necessarily the case.
3)then ye shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me, who am Queen of all Witcheries.
So there does need to be a bit of worship worked in. It’s a give and take – but to adore someone, you generally need pretty words and pretty things, whether it’s a libation, a spritz of perfume or a lot of sincere if horrible poetry. (Valiente was a wonderful poet. I am speaking of what the poetic average just is in general.)
The location, according to this, should not be public. This is an area with rich possibility for exploration and debate. Some read this as an edict to stay in the broom closet (keep it unknown that you are Pagan.) Since this text is itself a derivative work, inspired by Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia factors into the shape of this intent.
Since Aradia is the tale of an oppressed population in Italy saved by the Goddess Diana, led by a female Christ ((the literal meaning of Christ is “anointed” and thus in this case it is a generic term for a mythologized savior)) named Aradia, it makes sense that these oppressed people would be admonished to hide their doings. It seems possible that there may have been some sort of culturally required break in work patterns at the time of the full moon as well. An enslaved population most certainly needs to keep any organizing and educating doings a secret. So for those that subscribe to the Burning Times motif, secrecy intended steps to avoid persecution.
There is yet another perspective on this, and one I am more inclined to in terms of what is current in society. This admonishment for secrecy aligns with a little-practiced Christian value expressed in the gospel by that more famous Christ: praying only in secret. From Matthew 6:5-8:5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
While some Wiccans believe God/ess is ominpresent but not omnipotent, requiring prayers to actually be spoken, most likely appreciate treating faith as something very intimate between the self and the divine, rather than a decorative accessory of public morality.
4)There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these will I teach things that are yet unknown.
This is a little more complex. Certainly those who practice Wicca or other forms of the Craft learn plenty witch-to-witch. But this line also suggests why Wicca is a Mystery religion. Direct contact with the divine is often instructive; since most rituals involve some sort of direct communion/interaction, it also results in information imparted to that person about how to better practice magic, or how to solve one of life’s vexations or simply how to heal a wound. Miracle healings, while not unheard of, are fairly rare in the Craft; however, understandings of steps needed and work required to heal being acquired in a vision or similar spiritual experience during Wiccan ritual are very common. These visions and information sessions do seem to come over the strongest signal during the full moon.
5)And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.
By the time Valiente wrote this slavery had already disappeared from the United Kingdom and the United States. Again, because the Charge is itself a derivative work it’s necessary to look at the conditions of the feudal peasants to whom the charge of Diana to Aradia is addressed. Feudal peasants were bought and sold with the land they lived on so yes, they were fundamentally slaves.
But who might Valiente have spoken of? While some might well argue women, bucking against the restrictive conditions of the 1940s and 50s, it’s important to remember that she wrote this for use by both men and women. The question is raised then: who back then saw themselves as slaves? What do we consider ourselves enslaved by now? Given that slavery and human traffic is as virulent as it has ever been, what does the spiritual practice free us from?
The way this is phrased, it suggests that we are most enslaved to our social statuses. It’s not just the wealthy among us that cling to those identities. There is a certain fierce pride to those who wear symbols of poverty, whether it’s shabby clothing or “ghetto” whatever. By shedding the clothing we are no longer influenced by those social symbols.
But that’s only for those of us willing to shed clothing. This is also why the pseudo-choir robe is so popular among Wiccan covens that don’t go skyclad. A single garment that looks like it came from the church choir bad boy is uniform enough for other coveners not to be able to identify telltale signs of social status – in those robes your best guess as to how much power a person has comes from the manicure and that’s easy to fake out by anyone with skill and an emery board.
For those of us, like myself, that eschew both nudity and choir robes… eh, we’re bad Wiccans, I guess. But I feel a lot more free in my jeans than I do with my rear hanging out or wearing a robe that I will set on fire in 3…2…1…
For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth; for my Law is Love unto all Beings.
The simple explication: worship of the God/dess is supposed to be fun. This concept may be the most anathemic concept of all to conservative religious believers.
It also means that the Goddess wants us to experience happiness, rather than providing constant, loud demonstrations of pious misery. The God/dess loves us and loves all beings – not just the ones she has issued the charge to – and she wants everyone to be happy, not just her chosen witches. This is an artfully crafted statement – it embeds happiness as the highest value, while making love for those different from ourselves – or at least, recognizing her love for them – as equally important. The God/dess doesn’t care if someone is one of her witches or not – she loves that person all the same.
Keep pure your highest ideal; strive ever toward it; let naught stop you or turn you aside.
Shakespeare, Hamlet: “To Thine Own Self Be True.” But this does level up on the idea that it is important to know yourself and act in accordance with your own interests. This also levels a powerful edict: do everything you can to be your best self, always. If you say you have a system of moral values, live them. Life will challenge these values all the time – live them anyway.
For mine is the secret door which opens upon the Land of Youth; and mine is the Cup of the Wine of Life, and the Cauldron of Cerridwen [sic], which is the Holy Grail of Immortality.
This is where Valiente veered away from the Aradia adaptation, calling upon Celtic and British mythologies. Whether or not it was her conscious intent she did make Wicca explicitly Celtic with this line. The Land of Youth is a specific epithet for a sort of Celtic heaven known as Tir na Nog. It was believed that in that land everything was youthful and abundant forever. The Cauldron of Ceridwen refers to the Cauldron of a specific crone goddess – in that cauldron boils all wisdom. Whatever goes in the cauldron is changed forever. The Holy Grail is, in this case a dual Pagan and Arthurian/Christian reference: while Christians see the Holy Grail as the cup Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper, Wiccans see the cauldron as an embodiment or perhaps aspect of the grail.
I am the Gracious Goddess, who gives the gift of joy unto the heart.
Again, this suggests she just wants everyone to be happy. Also, that happiness is sacred. If she is the source of good in the world, then seeking real happiness is also a source of good in the world.
Upon earth, I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal; and
I think “eternal” is a later addition. But knowledge of the spirit in this case refers to two things: self-knowledge, an understanding of the self so that you know what your best path to happiness is and also knowledge of the human nature, that you become aware of the maladies of body and mind that keep others from their own true paths.
beyond death, I give peace, and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before.
Yes, this suggests an afterlife and the way it suggests it effectively differentiates Wicca from other types of Paganism and polytheism. Wicca believes in a pleasant afterlife and in a reunion with loved ones. This implies a meeting with ancestors but it’s kept vague. Other Pagan and polytheist beliefs tend to have unique takes on an afterlife from none at all to very specific realms of reward and punishment. This makes no mention of the Summerlands, the popular term for Wiccan “heaven” though that’s a fit, too.
Nor do I demand sacrifice,
Sacrifice is one of the most discussed concepts in all of Paganism and again this is what makes Wicca different from other Pagan and polytheist religions. Before I go further let me make this clear: these are not the sacrifices of horror movies. The majority of sacrificial practices today strongly resemble backyard barbecues. Think about that when enjoying some grilled chicken in a backyard. Wicca explicitly does not engage in sacrificial rituals. There are no animals offered, nor is anyone required to abstain from any pleasure for any reason.
Sacrifice is, however, different from offering. Offerings are routine and good manners in general. As we offer drinks to our guests so we pour libations, or burn incense or candles, or put out small pieces of food for the God/dess. It’s an extrapolation on the concept – and it’s also an important anchor to Wiccan religious ritual.
for behold I am the Mother of All Living, and my love is poured out upon the earth.
It’s unclear whether Wiccan environmentalist consciousness was sparked by this. That seems like something that came along later on. This does make it clear that all living things are her children – not just the witches – and “my love is poured out upon the earth” suggests that all living things have some of her essence upon them. It could be argued that all living things are actually the God/dess. as her presence infuses absolutely everything with no regard to what humanity considers good or evil.
Hear ye the words of the Star Goddess, she in the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven; whose body encircleth the Universe;
This is still interpreted as the same Goddess or simply another aspect of the same Goddess. That perspective is part of Wicca’s liquid monotheism/duotheism. It is arguable that the Star Goddess is part of a double or triple pantheon and is actually a separate Goddess altogether.
I, who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white Moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the heart’s desire,
This is a reminder that the God/dess is all of nature – and makes it clear that yes, that means she includes us. She is the force that gives us desire, that is what is behind our state of constantly moving on to the next want once the last one has been sated.
call unto thy soul. Arise and come unto me.
This is an interesting ritual trick – yes, it calls coveners to stand up if they are not already. But it also turns the invocation of the Goddess into an invocation of the Wiccans present.
For I am the Soul of Nature, who giveth life to the universe; from me all things proceed, and unto me must all things return;
The God/dess is everything and is in everything. This line suggests both animism and gnosticism at the same time. Even the heaven/afterlife she promises is her – to die is to be in her because she is all.
and before my face, beloved of gods and mortals, thine inmost divine self shall be unfolded in the rapture of infinite joy.
What the Goddess wishes for most is to see each creature attain its bliss – and that bliss is again promised in the afterlife. “Beloved of gods and mortals” is curious – it seems to acknowledge that there are other gods outside of the Goddess. She has stated that she is all living things; this suggests that the gods are included in that as much as the mortals are and in much the same way. So the gods are not aspects of the Goddess but they are made from her (and yet, paradoxically, they ARE aspects of her because they are made from her.)
Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.
This may be the single most upheld line of the Charge. It is the reason that Wicca has come to welcome all sexualities and all acts of consensual sexuality. There is a powerful moral key embedded in this seemingly permissive line: love and pleasure are not separate concepts: to be a ritual to the Goddess, love AND pleasure must BOTH be present in all parties for the act to qualify as sacred. The love need not be the romantic love of popular conception but it must be at minimum a cherishing and appreciation of the lover at hand.
And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
This is a call to balance with the intent of preventing a dogmatic approach to spirituality.
And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou know this mystery: that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.
The path to the divine is an inner path, not an outer one. As you know yourself and come to recognize yourself as sacred, as part of the Goddess, you will also come to connect to the Goddess and actually recognize her outside of yourself.
For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.
This is both the beginning of an individual’s life and the beginning of all that is and ever was. When you stop desiring you will come to the Goddess, but in an “embrace the desires” way rather than in the Buddhist “rise above your desires” sort of way.
This is poetry, yes, but this is also the original Wiccan values statement. Every line is packed with meaning and that means every line may have a different interpretation from what I have set down here. But it is important to understand it, because it actually has more explicit calls for pleasure-loving moral behavior than the Wiccan Rede itself does.