In a previous blog post (Paganism, Rules, and Dogma) I briefly mention the existence of the widely accepted, and also widely not accepted notion of the Wiccan “harm none” or the “threefold return”, the druidic “Law of the Harvest”, or the Hindu concept of Karma. In the article I say, in essence, that it doesn’t matter whether or not one believes in these rules, they still exist.
A reader expressed his hope that I would go further into that topic.
Dogma or Natural Law?
Obviously, this isn’t that easy. Otherwise we all would have agreed one way or another eons ago. So, let’s unpack a few things and see where we get.
Philosophically, this debate is almost like the one I stumble into on social media every now and then: Do the Gods exist per our human consciousness of them (i.e. they are only a product, a projection of our minds) or are they entities of their own, independent of what we think, and no matter if we think they exist?
But since we cannot answer this question with enough certainty for an unanimous yea or nay vote, let’s just use this as a comparison as a measure of the difficulty, and enormousness, with our little one here, “Is the harm none principle a man-made dogma, or a natural law?”
Well, let’s actually compare this to other natural laws. Like gravity. Aside from a few (the flat earthers, who think we travel upwards through space on our little disk, fast enough that when we jump, Earth catches up with us) we all know that gravity exists and, when we use it as a factor in calculations, we can figure out things like flight patterns. But even more mundane, we can describe the effect of gravity in a formula that lets us calculate with what speed an apple hits our head when it falls from a tree under which we’re taking a nap.
Now, someone who was really good in math and physics wrote that formula down, expressed this natural law in writing.
Why am I going on and on about this? Because whenever this debate over harm none erupts in social media or wherever, someone says, “But it’s just something that Gerald Gardner wrote in his books!”
Yes, he did. But if we keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about the natural law on falling apples (and anything else falling) written down by Isaac Newton in the 18th century, the question is not whether or not Gardner wrote it down, but why. Did he make it up from thin air? Or did he just pen down something that exists no matter if written down or not? Does this particular rule of harm none (in it’s various other wordings) exist on its own, or is it man-made? Is it natural law or is it dogma?
Honoring Ancestors and Traditions
Clearly, the fact that something is written down is not evidence enough that it is man-made. But we can, as a Triade tells us of the three tasks of a Druid, look back into history and see if people long before us had similar thoughts (the other two tasks are “living fully in the presence” and “listening to the whispers of the future”).
I touched upon this topic already in an earlier post (Finding Ethical Guidance in Lore) where I dissect one particular Alpine tale of a corn cutter, who receives a magical scythe from a smith who lives deep in the forest (obviously, because the smith is a magical figure), a scythe that allows the corn cutter to cut better than any of his colleagues. But the corn cutter must not take advantage inappropriately of his gift, the smith tells him, lest the magic disappears. Alas, he fails to adhere to the condition (of course), the smith does not equip the scythe with its magical powers any more, and the corn cutter falls back into poverty.
This is obviously only one example of a tale telling us what happens if one were to wield their magic in a way that harms others (in the story, the man keeps cutting into the heels of the cutters in front of him, because they are too slow – clearly harmful behavior). There are many such stories to be found in the Alps, and I am sure elsewhere. For example, pretty much any story where someone gets a gift or even access to treasures from a dwarf or gnome fails to use the gift humbly and wisely, and thus loses it.
All these tales predate Gerald Gardner by far, and they even predate say, the folks around Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg, one of the initiators of the Druid revival era. So, the rules weren’t made up by these men, either.
Even further back in the mid sixteenth century, known witches (who actually performed the Craft) were acquitted at witch trials because they could prove that they didn’t harm anyone. Most prominently Christopher Gostner zu Sexten in Tyrol with his 30+ grimoires full of spells. But even back then the understanding was: you’re fine as long as you harm none.
All of this lore was originally penned down in the Christian era, one could bring up, which makes it difficult to discern whether this notion of doing no harm came up with Christianity, or was already prevalent in Pagan times, and Christianity just adopted it.
There is one thing to be considered, though. While these tales were written down by Christians beginning in mediaeval times, their content is overwhelmingly pagan. Think about all the mystical and mythical figures appearing in these tales – Giants and Green Men, Blessed Ladies, mermaids and water sprites, dwarfs and gnomes, smiths and witches in dark forest (I could go on and on) – they are from times before and outside of Christianity. In most stories we learn that we should act morally and ethically, but we are not told to not interact with these figures at all. In other words, the tales all got some Christian tint, but their core meaning, harm none, might just be original, i.e. remnants of Pagan times.
But even if one would stubbornly claim that this harm none business must be a Christian affair, because that’s the era when these stories were gathered in books, we have still evidence of this notion in antiquity: the Pre-Christian tales and epics from Greece and Rome, for example. Think about the Trojan war, which is practically an account of punishment for upsetting societal norms such as marriage and hospitality. Or take Odysseus, who gets severely punished for his neglect of the rules (worship the gods, particularly the one ruling the oceans, even more particularly when you are sailing over one of his oceans).
Since antiquity, unethical, immoral, harmful behavior, especially in the realm of Magic and Spirits, has lead to consequences for the perpetrators. The concept is as old as stories themselves. In fact, the concept has been transferred through storytelling from one generation to the next for millennia. Gerald Gardner just took note of it when conceptualizing his version of Wicca. He didn’t invent it.
It All Boils Down to Ethics
I am painfully aware that I have yet to give a concrete answer to the question, “Is it manmade dogma or natural law”.
Well that might be because I – or anyone else, really – can’t say for sure. But I could give enough evidence, I hope, to make a case that neither Iolo Morganwg, Gerald Gardner, or any “New Age” Pagan came up anew with this idea. So, in the end, everyone needs to find an answer to the question for themselves. Hopefully after giving it the necessary thought that this question deserves.
But, what if? What if it’s not a natural law? What if it was made-up all along, maybe as far back as pre-Neolithic nomadic hunter-gatherers? Does man-made not also warrant us submitting ourselves to something that sounds rather sane, intelligent even? We do that all the time. With much newer rules that are clearly man-made and not natural laws.
We humans have come a long way since the dawn of our species, and during enlightenment, at the latest, we realized that we, homo sapiens sapiens, are equipped with a tool – our rational mind – that lets us manage our day to day societal live in a way that is aims at minimizing harm. Yes, we fail at it. Everyone does every now and then. But in a grand scheme of things, it works out well. We don’t walk around murdering, raping, and beating each other up in droves, and doing so is not only regarded failure, but also punished. Even if it’s done in a sense of retaliation.
So, what does someone mean when they say they don’t accept, or adhere to, the principle of harm none, a rule that organizes us functioning as a society? No matter if that rule is a natural law or created by using our human intelligence? Does such an announcement acquit them?
Proper and polite behavior, being considerate rather than retaliatory, is simply a form of conduct we, as a society, have arrived, or at least try to arrive. It’s not fluffy. It is not New Age. It’s just what we should expect from each other.
The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.