Wiccan Ethics as Discontinuation of Indo-European Pagan Ethics

The religion of Wicca is one of the largest and most widely represented new religious movements within what is variably called the New Age, Earth-Based, or (neo-)pagan communities.  Like most of these new religious movements, Wicca is difficult to pin down, and many who identify as Wiccans or witches may eclectically adopt a variety of New Age or other spiritual practices.  However, one thing that Wiccans have contributed to New Age spirituality, and specifically religious ethics, is the so-called Wiccan Rede.  The Rede variously goes something like this: As long as no harm is caused (by your actions), do what you will.

I should note that it is called a rede, which is an archaic way of saying “a piece of advice”.  As such, the Wiccans and other neo-pagans adhering to it are not necessarily accepting a moral proclamation.  It may be called good advice instead of a moral mandate, e.g., like the “Golden Rule” in ethical religious systems like Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.  I see no problem with the Wiccan Rede at first glance.  It certainly does seem like good advice, even if it doesn’t claim to be some moral truth about the nature of ethics and moral behavior under Wiccan neo-paganism.  However, this kind of religious ethic is unknown in the Indo-European Pagan religious systems from which Wicca (and much of the New Age movement) derives its mythos, aesthetics, and claimed pseudo-historical lineage.

The Rede doesn’t represent Indo-European paganism from an ethical perspective.  By far the greatest ethical lesson taught in all Indo-European mythological systems and epics is this: hubris will be the downfall of everyone.  In Indo-European myths, whether Celtic, Greek, Hittite, Vedic, Avestan, Norse, Slavic, or Baltic, hubris kills humans and deities alike.  The exalted are humbled through cunning by their enemies, and through guile the humbled make themselves exalted.  The weak find strength and the strong are made weak, the good perish with the evil, and death swallows all life as winter swallows summer and night swallows day.  The real rede or advice derived from Indo-European pagan spirituality and myth is this: always keep your wits about you, stay humble and don’t ask for trouble, do not trust gods or men or seductive women or beasts, and know that everything comes with trials and sacrifice, even for the very goddesses and gods themselves.

Indo-European religious ethics are not so consequentialist as the Wiccan Rede would have us assume.  Sometimes you can do all the good things in the world and unpleasant things will result anyway.  It is haughtiness to assume that you ever know what your actions will ultimately cause, even if it is admirable to try not to harm anyone or anything in your comings and goings.  To elaborate further, Indo-European paganism would give us this ethical advice instead of the Wiccan Rede: know that you are most often powerless in a universe full of powerful forces, and make propitiation to them for the sake of the Cosmic Order.  Treat everyone as a goddess or a god, a fairy or a spirit, because they could be, and their wrath could come back to haunt you.  Be humble, be kind, choose sides wisely, and make sure that you never have to answer for any wrongdoing by not committing any in the first place.  The Indo-Europeans recognized honor and expected to be honored.  The narrative of “As long as your actions are victimless, then they are ok” that is proffered by the Wiccan Rede is not consistent with the ethical lessons of Indo-European myth, nor with the ritual action of Indo-European religion.  You can dishonor the deities simply by not offering proper homage to them, and thus you can incur their wrath.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are harmed by your inaction; you have to have respect anyway.

As such, Indo-European religion is more accurately described as a system of virtue ethics, not consequentialism.  The moral lesson is to be humble, hospitable, and kind because such characteristics are personal virtues that will be counted favorably to your credit and the Powers of the Universe will give you your just desserts for it (if fortune favors you, and as such there is no guarantee).  Whatever ends that come about from your actions, good or bad, be you virtuous so that the deities and heroes themselves mourn the demise of someone so righteous should events turn against your favor.  This is the best one can hope for in an Indo-European pagan worldview.

The Wiccan Rede comes from either a fundamental misunderstanding or a rejection of the same Indo-European mythos, cosmology, and ethics it often claims to represent in renewed or continued form.  It is in fact a discontinuation of the religious purposes of the Indo-Europeans.  Wiccans see themselves as agents of magical or mystical power to enforce their will rather than accepting that it is one’s virtue, not one’s good will, that earns favor with the pagan Powers.  The virtue of your character and the heroism of your deeds are the ethical mandates of the Indo-European pagan.  Neither is this message a piece of advice for the Indo-European pagan.  It is cosmic law.  Good things happen to you because you are favored by powerful beings and deities who are pleased with you in light of your virtues.  Sometimes these virtues may even be shallow, like the virtue of simply being born beautiful and as such being favored by the deities.  Often these deities are even depicted as being enticed by the virtuous beauty of mortals.

If I am to make a guess, I assume the motivation for Wicca’s discontinuation of pagan religious ethics may have more to due with its determination to be anti-dogmatic.  Many Wiccans and neo-pagans I have met have expressed their appreciation for the consequentialist ethics of the Rede as opposed to the often oppressive religious morality of the more mainstream religious alternatives.  The Wiccan Rede serves to replace the equally demanding religious ethics of the Indo-European religions from whence Wicca takes much of its inspiration.  Indo-European religion is about virtue and religious purity as much as the Abrahamic religious morality that usually permeates the cultural ethos in which New Age practitioners are operating.  The Wiccan, in trying to escape more conventional religious systems, may be equally burdened by the Indo-European mandate to act with dignity and humility, keep herself pretty and clean and ritually pure, honor others with humility, make propitiation to the Powers, and sacrifice to please her patrons (whether deities or humans) so that she can have their protection.  It is an uncomfortable pagan dogma to accept that our goodness, fairness, beauty, and generosity is what make us worthy pagans, and not the mere consequences of our wills.

The Wiccan discontinuation of paleo-pagan religious morality is a novel effort to reinvent Indo-European religious practice, and it frames neo-paganism as an alternative to more conventional religious ethics.  I conclude by suggesting that this is not necessarily wrong or inauthentic as a genuine neo-pagan religious practice, especially since Wicca and neo-paganism do not usually claim to represent paleo-paganism or traditional Indo-European religions, per se.  However, I think it is important to hash out where Wiccan neo-pagan ethics fit (or do not fit) into the traditions they are claiming to emulate or otherwise continue.

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