“May whatever ye do, Come back to the,
Three times bad, or three times good“
Three-Fold Law, or Law of Return as it is also called, is perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of Wiccan ethics. The basic premise is that anything we do comes back to us in the end, often to a greater degree (such as three-fold). If we do good, then good will be retuned and if we cause harm, we put ourselves in danger of harm.
This relates a lot towards Karma. In that ethically it is equivalent to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you”. But in the case of the Law of Return, there is a literal reward or punishment tied to one’s actions, particularly when it comes to working magic.
The debate over the validity of the Law of Return and its variations takes many forms. Some feel that it was created to keep new initiates in check as they learned to work with magic, while others feel it is a remnant of Christian thinking, being that a majority of Wiccans come from a Christian background. However, many Wiccans today, including some authors and “community leaders”, take the three-fold law quite literally.
Since the idea that “we reap what we sow” is generally accepted among Wiccans, the Law of Return can fairly be considered a core belief. However, it must be acknowledged that it is neither a necessary nor a universally defining belief of the Craft. There are many Wiccans, experienced and new alike, who view the Law of Return as an over-elaboration on the Wiccan Rede, which recommends that we refrain from causing harm. A Wiccan would not wish to cause harm since he or she deems it wrong to do so, not out of fear of retribution.
Doreen Valiente, one of the most influential and respected figures in modern witchcraft, boldly stated in her speech at the National Conference of the Pagan Federation in November 1997:
Another teaching of Gerald’s which I have come to question is the belief known popularly as “the Law of Three”. This tells us that whatever you send out in witchcraft you get back threefold, for good or ill.
Well, I don’t believe it! Why should we believe that there is a special Law of Karma that applies only to witches? For Goddess’ sake do we really kid ourselves that we are that important? Yet I am told, many people, especially in the USA, take this as an article of faith. I have never seen it in any of the old books of magic, and I think Gerald invented it.
While researching the Three-Fold Law, I took the liberty of writing several early authors who had referenced it in their books. The few responses I received were always the same; they did not know where it came from but it was known, at least as oral tradition, when they entered the craft. Using the dates of their initiations I hoped to at least obtain a starting point for my research. In this case, since Raymond Buckland was the first to be initiated of those authors who took the time to respond, I had a start date of 1963. Buckland was initiated as a Gardnerian by Lady Olwen, Gerald Gardner’s last High Priestess before his death in 1964. Although Buckland recalled that Lady Olwen’s coven referred to the three-fold law, he did not recall any mention of it by Gardner himself in their correspondences. I also knew from Margot Adler, that it was known in the US, at least orally when she entered the craft in 1972. “I know it was talked about the minute I entered the craft in the Brooklyn Pagan Way, and that was 72, but whether it came in written or oral form, I don’t know.” The Brooklyn Pagan Way was run by the New York Coven of Welsh Traditional Witches so the Law of Return had already disseminated outside of Gardnerian practice by 1972.
Starting with books in the 60’s, I sought to find any reference to the Three-Fold Law or variations of that theme. I was particularly interested in finding non-Gardnerian sources since, unlike many other aspects of modern Wicca, the Three-Fold Law appears to be a purely Wiccan construct particularly of Gardnerian lineage, adding a moral element to the practice of magic. I then worked backward seeking earlier influences, as well as forward, seeing who referenced these early books in their bibliographies