J is for Jargon

A few posts back, I – admittedly – misquoted the Wiccan Rede and was called on the carpet by a reader and fellow blogger, Drea.  I love when this happens. It keeps me on my toes now that I am permanently on the other side of the desk (and cauldron it seems).[1]

But, let’s face it. This is a blog, not doctoral work; and sometimes I slack off. I often write my posts right off the cuff, with no reference books at hand – I do this between feeding chickens and drinking coffee. Often I misspell thinks. On occasion, I commit the crimes of comma splice, poorly phrased modifiers, and usage error, and (gasp) I have been known to mis-cite or misquote.

As ever, the misstatement didn’t change the crux of anything I was arguing, but it sure did open a can of worms (caterpillars?) in The Bad Witch’s academic psyche.

And in her email. Some people get so hung up on religious formulae that they forget that words have meaning.

Over the past few days I’ve been busily writing a syllabus for a new secular Lit course, noodling around a proposed course on High Magic, toying with the idea of accepting a slot on a Pagan radio-show (I turned down the TV documentary BTW), and looking for a Bible study class that will teach my daughter (committed to a Christian path) how to understand Christianity rather than simply accepting its tenets as so many of its followers do. Somewhere between finishing a chicken coop & run, squashing caterpillars (which are finally big enough to pluck off and bring to the chicks without eviscerating), raising teens who are hell-bent on raising Cain this summer, fighting some kind of RA related BS, reading voraciously before I have to go back to work in less than 24 hours,[2] and writing as many thoughts down before I lose them in the aether, I started thinking about our attachment to particular expressions. You know, the kind of attachment which prevents us from looking into the real meaning behind our religious expressions.

I’ll call it “Pagan Jargon.” It’s kinda like “Drill Baby Drill” for Pagans. [3]

I’ve seen Pagan folk (who turn around and accuse Christian folk of the same error) recite doxology without thinking. My opinion is that, like many ideologies, if folks were to think about it for a minute, they might feel some chagrin at not knowing the (correct) origin of their favorite phraseology. Or at least they should. Look, it don’t make no nevermind to The Bad Witch what you believe, just be able to defend it with some sort of logic that hangs together a little more tightly than “The Buckland Tells Me So.” But, it’s embarrassing to say that I have seen Pagans latch on to a narrative that is comforting to them, one that helps them justify their actions (and often their biases). What’s worse it I’ve seen them proceed to perpetuate the misinformation. Like the idea that connects Saddam Hussein to 9/11, some folks believe that if it is said with enough frequency, it becomes truth. Fact is, it just becomes another piece of propaganda.

To illustrate my point, I want to rehash that post about “The Wiccan Rede.” This time, I don’t want to talk about the practicality of the notion; I want to talk about the words. As a matter of fact, The Bad Witch will revel in the etymology of it all.

One of the assignments I give in my classroom is a critical explication using contemporary etymology to make meaning of an older text. I have my students find key words from the text then look up alternate and historical definitions using the Oxford English Dictionary,  “The definitive record of the English language.” With guided attention at the level of the word, new meanings emerge. Some of the definitions illuminate a text’s (sometimes double) meaning; others are interesting but are not helpful.

For instance: In John Donne’s “The Flea,” Donne states, “Though parents grudge … we’re met / And cloistered in these living walls of jet” (15). A student might argue that during this time period it was common place for parents to send their daughters off to convents for protection of their virginity as well as education; in this sense, cloistered is: “Shut-up or dwelling in a cloister, monastic; confined as in a cloister, recluse.” And they’d be right. But what’s more interesting is Donne’s use of the word “jet.” Sure, it’s a synonym for “black” it refers to the stone-hardness of the flea’s exoskeleton, but then again, randy old Donne just might be inferring another definition of jet: “A projection, a protruding part” like his erection, “a sudden movement of fluid” as in ejaculation, or “a jerk of the body” as happens during orgasm. How fun is that?

This assignment works best with arcane poetry since there are words in, say, Seventeenth-Century Religious Poetry that we use today yet do not yield to their contemporary meaning. We have to go back and look up their former, more apropos, meaning.

Let’s do this assignment with the Wiccan Rede.

Note: Doreen Valiente wrote her poetry in the Late-Twentieth-Century. This is when Wicca was invented; for this reason, something about the term Traditional Witchcraft seems anachronistic to me.[4] Therefore, the poetry is not timeworn, but Valiente still made an attempt at using arcane language. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I am using her 1964 couplet: “Eight Words the Wiccan Rede fulfil: / An it harm none, do what ye will,” as my point of investigation. To look at the Ostara 1975 Green Egg (Vol. III. No. 69) article, “Wiccan-Pagan Potpourri,” which contained Gwen Thompson’s longer poem, “Rede Of The Wiccae,” would make this explication article length. Also, to look at Adriana Porter’s “Wiccan Credo” of 1910 (the text on which Thompson’s version of the poem was purportedly based), raises questions of authenticity that I am not interested in arguing in this post.[5] Maybe later.

To begin, the assignment states that the reader/writer should catalogue all of the interesting words. I choose: “an,” “rede,” “harm,” and “will.” Given my misquote of last week, I would like to add “mote” to the list.

Also, I am using a digital (meaning “most updated thing possible) university subscription of the OED. I’ll give general citations of the definition number but won’t cite the OED in full – seeing as I just told you where I got my info.

The next step in the assignment is to gloss the words using their contemporary meaning. But how do we decide on what “contemporary” means given that Valiente was writing in archaic language but during the Vietnam War Era? *Sigh* We roll with it. While I know that Valiente was writing in 1964, I’m assuming she was aiming for a pre-Christian – at least pre-Roman – lexicon. Just to give you some context, Beowulf is sited as OE (Old English) in the Fourth-Century. There are older texts cited eOE (early Old English) prior to the Christianization of Briton. I won’t gloss every definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); rather, I will look at the definitions that are most likely to be useful – perhaps footnoting anything that looks amusing. The final step is to develop a concept of appropriateness for reading the text. Here, we apply what we have just discovered.

An – Used as a contracted conjunction (and) beginning around 1160. A nonstandard form, there seems to be no history of the word prior to the High-Middle Ages. In writing, it almost never occurred at all, save, in what is assumed to be, scribal error. So basically, the word means “and.” However, it didn’t appear until well after Christianity entrenched itself in medieval-Briton. Just sayin’.

All of that aside, it does not and never has meant “if” as a lot of folks like to say.

Rede – Aside from Tolkien and Joyce (and Wiccan poets, I reckon), no one uses this word anymore.

Someone very kindly pointed me to this article. The author of this article claims that the word “rede” “is derived from an Old English word ‘roedan’ which means to guide or direct.” The footnote to this information leads to a blog that states the same thing verbatim and is uncited. As a matter of fact, in all of my searches for the word “roedan” the only information I find is someone talking about The Rede, saying the same thing word-for-word, and not citing from whence that information is derived.

This is what I’m talking about. Drill Baby Drill. Memorize and regurgitate with no investigation.

Being The Bad Witch that I am, I had to know the history of “roedan.” So, I looked in my inclusive OE dictionary, consulted my Bruce Mitchell texts, looked in the OED, and – just to be extra bad – asked a colleague whose expertise is Old English.

Guess what?

Roedan is not a word. Never was.

Roeðe and Roeðen (past participle), however, are. But, that’s not a D, ladies and gentlemen – that’s a thorn, a TH. So, the word to which they are all trying to link is pronounced Rō Thᵊ. Roeðe redirects to réðe – again, that’s not a D! Réðe is an adjective – not a noun. It means “righteous, right, just” it also means “fierce, cruel, savage; 1. applied to persons, (a) in a bad sense; (b) of justifiable severity, severe, stern, austere, zealous; 2. applied to animals, wild, savage, fierce; 3. applied to things (punishment, calamity, etc.) severe, cruel fierce, dire.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not the word we are looking for.

Now, getting the word wrong doesn’t change the meaning of the word rede or The Rede itself, but it sure does cast suspicion on sources that would so entirely eff-up a trivial bit of information. I mean, if that’s wrong, what else has been schlepped out for the parade?

The original meanings of the actual word “rede” (with a D) are mostly related to (no surprise here), “Counsel or advice given by one person to another,” as well as, “A scheme, plan, or method for attaining some end.”

Because I am The Bad Witch, and because I don’t take any stock in what Wikipedia has to say about anything, I went ahead and looked at all of the definitions of “rede” that applied in what many neo-Pagans like to believe is the correct time frame for their sources. What’s interesting is that the older eOE meaning of the word is “Fate, lot.” In a second, later OE definition, rede means, “To have or exercise control over; to rule, govern, guide.” Later this “guidance” was translated into the 15th Century usage: “To save, rescue, deliver.” There is a definite theological statement to be made here because rede also means to be “saved” by Christ or The Virgin Mary. I couldn’t make this shit up. Reality is so much more interesting than the things we fabricate. It also means, “To decree; to appoint, select.” Ironically, it also means “interpretation.”

Harm – Strange to discover, but this word didn’t really wheedle its way into English until the eleventh century.[6] Prior to that, it was used in Old High German, harmjan, “to calumniate,” or to injure with words, and in Old Norse, harmr, “grief, sorrow.” Turns out, it rarely meant “harm, hurt.” Fun fact.

It’s possible that the word had a cognate with Sanskrit śrama, “labour, toil,” but I doubt Valiente knew that.

Will – We are most familiar with the definition, “Desire, inclination, and disposition” and “To wish, desire; sometimes with implication of intention.” This word, too, did not join our lexicon until after Romanization. According to the OED, “The most remarkable feature of this vb., besides its many idiomatic and phrasal uses, is its employment as a regular auxiliary of the future tense, which goes back to the Old European period, and may be paralleled in other Germanic languages, e.g. Middle High German.”[7] Now this idea of “disposition” is the older definition of the word and it goes a little further to suggest that things should be “arranged or distributed in a particular order.” It’s as if “will” has something to do with “order.” This doesn’t negate Crowley’s idea of Pure Will and Transcendental Will – it actually reinforces it, hot damn.

Mote – This has many definitions as a noun, but as a verb it indicated only one thing in Old English[8]: “Expressing permission or possibility: am (is, or are) permitted to, have (or has) the opportunity to, may.”

If this Rede were something handed down from preRoman, preChristian sources as traditionalists would like it to be, “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, / An it harm none do what ye will,” would translate as: “Eight words are my council [most likely ‘concerning your fate’]; let them guide you: / If you use no words to injure others,[9] do what meets your desire [with a hint of ‘as long as it is in the grand scheme of things’].”

Sounds anti-climactic to me.

If my incorrect statement: “so mote it be” were part of the Rede, we would have an expression of “possibility, permission, and opportunity.”

That sounds a little like magic to me.

So, couple of things:

1) If the Rede is “An it harm none, do as ye will,” we have a lot of weeding to do in this word garden. Especially if we start taking into consideration Crowley’s writings on what is often misstated as “true will.” Crowley actually never wrote directly about “True Will.” In The Book of the Law, he addresses “Pure Will” (CCXX I:44); in The Law of Liberty, he mentions “Transcendent Will.”[10] It is only in commentary, when, presumably he was just mortal Al, and not a divine messenger imbued with the knowledge of Thoth, that he uses the phrase “true will.”[11] I like to think that the gods know what they mean when they send messages.

2) The word “rede” means so much more than either “advice” or “law.” When we start talking about Pure Will, throwing a word that translates as “Fate” into the mix is either meaningful or careless.

You pick.

I prefer a little meaning with my words.

My point is that when we start talking about the actual theological meaning of doctrine, each word matters. The Jewish tradition has an entire system of exegesis: Midrash and PRDS or “Pardes” (Peshat Remez Derash Sod).[12] When I earned my degree in Religious Studies (at a little Jesuit University in Chicago, no biggie) I learned to focus on hermeneutics. So thoughtlessness in dogma doesn’t fly on the same broom with The Bad Witch.

3) So, if the Rede doesn’t mean “do no harm,” as the Hippocratic oath suggests should be any healer’s first option, WTF does the Rede mean when you put it back together with a little bit of sense rather than simply an active imagination and a flair for cheesy poetry?

My opinion is that it means whatever you want it to mean.[13]

For TBW it means my rights end where yours begin. Likewise, yours end where mine begin. I might be a Libertarian Witch at that. And should your little toe creep over the line into my arena of rights?


[1] What I don’t love is when I’ve clarified myself and yet arsehats continue to argue a point which has become moot.

[2] I wrote this post on Wednesday. Class starts Thursday. I’ll be posting this for PBP Friday, but doing it on a Saturday which turned into a Sunday.


[4] Traditional Wiccan just seems like an oxymoron. Calling Valiente “early” seems kinda like calling Philadelphia “an ancient city.” Now, antediluvian cuneiform. . .

[5] Everybody seems to have learned “The Craft” from their grandmother. Sadly, they all started publishing when associated with Gardener. What are the odds?

[6] I’m a bit of an Old English poetry fan-girl so I have learned to pull random etymological facts out of my arse from time to time. When I can’t, I research. All damn day if I have to. But I never accept someone else’s word as fact – unless that someone is heavily and widely covered in source-work, or unless that someone is my momma.

[7] Did you also realize that the word (used as late as 1871 as such) means “Going or gone astray; that has lost his way, or has nowhere to go for rest or shelter; straying, wandering, ‘lost’”? Now this definition is only used in the dialect of Shetland, but it’s still interesting.

[8] In a recent (17th Century) Scandinavian colloquialism it means “to find fault” and in some rare modern occasions it means “to travel by motor vehicle.” Cool – but not helpful.

[9] Words, spells, lies, namecalling, blogs, all of it.

[10] Watch, this is where someone will argue, “Same thing!” The point of this post is that it’s only the same thing if you are talking about broader concepts. When you talk about theological rhetorical meaning and doctrinaire, it’s different.

[11] Please let me save that for another blog before y’all jump on me for that one?

[12] Why would we not investigate each word in each text upon which we base our religious beliefs? Because it’s easier to be spoon-fed religion. That’s why. It’s also part of why I’m neither Christian nor Wiccan.

[13] My theology contains concepts like “Justified,” “Wyrd,” “O·pv·ne·tv.”

This post is part of a year-long project. Rowan Pendragon’s The Pagan Blog Project; “a way to spend a full year dedicating time each week very specifically to studying, reflecting, and sharing . . . .    The project consists of a single blog post each week posted on prompt that will focus on a letter of the alphabet.”