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Pagan Ethics: The Goddess made me do it!

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 28, 2009

Welcome to a guest blog by Magdalena Merovingia! It’s a follow-on from my previous post as this is one of the original articles I cited; now gone, and I thought worth preserving. I used the wayback machine to find this as the original site is down. (http://www.iit.edu/~phillips/personal/grammary/ethics.html)


Pagan Ethics: The Goddess made me do it!

by Magdalena Merovingia

“The Goddess made me do it”; think of how absurd that statement
really sounds to a Pagan. After all we generally subscribe to a belief
system that supports both immanent and internalized Deity and, to use a
theologically technical term, is panentheistic — we and the Deity
are mutually dependent on one another. That is, what we do has a direct
effect upon the Deity. If our actions are honorable and ethical the Deity
is enhanced by us, and likewise, if our actions are dishonorable and
unethical the Deity is correspondingly impoverished.


So if we can’t take the easy way out and pass the buck entirely to the
Lady and wash our hands of it then what do we do? What is it that really
guides our behavior in the world? Many would say the Wiccan Rede: An it
harm none, do as thou wilt. But is that really sufficient in and of
itself? It is my opinion that the Rede, while making a clear cut
statement, is very very broad and quite abstract in nature. While most of
us would wholeheartedly embrace the Rede as a guide for our behavior we
would also do well to supplement it with a more specific and well-
thought-out code of ethics. This code, if intelligently constructed, could
serve multiple purposes. One, it could give us more concrete ideas about
the concept of harm and suggest appropriate Pagan responses. As such it
would become a helpful tool for its user(s) in navigating this wild
experience we call life. Another good reason for having a code of ethics
(and following it) is it gives us credibility in the broader society as an
ethical people. Our ethics is one area where we can truly distinguish
ourselves from various “satanic” cults and other groups who engage in the
various “dark” arts. Having to make this distinction has been with
people for a long time. Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus is credited
with saying that “by the fruits of their labor you shall know them.” We
would do well to heed these wise words even today and let our actions
speak justly for themselves. Let us now take a closer look at this issue
of ethics, that elusive, subjective concept that supposedly makes us


ethics, n.;

  1. the discipline dealing with what is
    good and bad or right and wrong or with moral duty and obligation;

  2. a: a group of moral principles or set of values; b: a particular
    theory or system of moral values; c: the principles of conduct governing
    an individual or a profession; standards of behavior;

  3. character or the ideals of character manifested by a
    race or people.

When we look at this definition we see that the concept of ethics is
formed around the concepts of morality, behavior and character. So when we
talk about Pagan ethics one thing we are talking about is the moral and
behavioral aspects of the Pagan weltanschauung. On a personal level we are
examining our behavior towards each other and towards everyone else, human
and non-human, with whom we interact during the course of our lives. We
are also examining how we define and implement our moral duties and
obligations towards ourselves and towards others. This is not an easy
task. Morality and standards of behavior are very subjective by nature and
differ quite substantially from culture to culture and even from person to
person within the same culture.


At the group level we can talk about our “professional” ethics, the ethics
of magick or the ethics of ritual practice for example. While still
retaining a definite individual and very personal aspect to them
(especially in solitary practice), there is often a broader sphere of
influence involved that reaches beyond the self to include others either
directly or indirectly. While still
difficult these are somewhat easier to define as we can come together as
a group and decide what principles and standards we are going to adhere to
ourselves and hold each other accountable to also.


And then there is the “global” aspect of ethics — the character
or ideals of character manifested by a race or people. This is the aspect
of ethics that defines us as either “good” or “bad” as a people. And this
is where the majority of misinformation and misunderstandings exist
between our actual identity and the identity imposed upon us by
stereotypical definitions of “witch” and “witchcraft” so pervasive in our
current society. It is at this interface between actuality and
indoctrinated fantasy that the rubber really meets the road. If we are to
be successful in changing these definitions and the hatred and hostility
they breed on a global level we must each on a daily basis strive to our
highest ideals of morality and character in every
aspect of our lives. Only by presenting a continuing and consistent
presence as an ethical and responsible people collectively will those old
ideas finally fall with time, as they must when actual human experience
doesn’t support and verify expectations. All too often we are thought of
first as “a witch”, the stereotype, and then secondly, and usually only
when they come to know us, as John or Jane Doepagan, a real person.


So let’s take a closer look at these intertwined concepts of morality,
behavior, and character that appear to define ethics. Morality often
appears to have a divine component to it that pure legality does not. Many
people think of morality in terms of “God’s” law, as opposed to legality
which is “man’s” law. This is the position of orthodox Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam. God defines morality and humans obey. And each of
these tradition’s sacred texts, the Bible, the Torah, and the Qur’an
respectively, are where one finds the specifics. Avi Sagi and Daniel
Stateman, in an article for the Journal of Religious Ethics, write: “Since
human beings are limited in their moral understanding and in their ability
to pursue a moral activity in light of this understanding only
unconditional obedience to God can ensure right moral behavior.” And R.
Zevi Hirsch Levin, from that same journal, explicitly claims
“that without religion we have neither morality nor virtue. Morality is
determined by the Torah rather than by independent rational
considerations.” In both of these examples humanity is absolved from any
personal responsibility in determining ethical and moral behavior beyond
obedience to God or to God’s word. This is not a functional paradigm in
the Pagan world, where we find neither a sacred text to defer to, nor do
we find God “out there” somewhere in an objective position independent
from ourselves.


Buddhism, a non-theistic tradition, provides us with an example
of ethical and moral behavior without tying it to a concept of God or
divinity. The basic Buddhist position can be stated in two parts: first,
do not harm others and second, help others. Others includes not only other
humans but all sentient life. Some Buddhists schools of thought place more
emphasis on the second part, helping others, than other schools do, but
all emphasize the non harming aspect. To get more specific, the Buddhist
teaching of moral discipline includes the avoidance of the ten
non-virtuous actions involving body, speech, and mind. The non-virtuous
actions involving the body are killing, stealing, and engaging in sexual
misconduct. Each of these things is very specifically defined. The
non-virtuous actions involving speech are lying, harmful speech,
divisive speech (meant to bring division between people), and gossip or
idle speech
. The non-virtuous actions involving the mind are
harmful intent, ignorance (active repudiation of the central tenets of
Buddhism), and coveting or desiring the wealth or possessions of
. From the Buddhist perspective it is imperative that one
follow these if one is to succeed in attaining enlightenment. The strict
mental discipline and meditation practices are not sufficient for it is
believed that any gains realized through these practices are offset by the
karma incurred from one’s engaging in non-virtuous behavior. Here we see a
swing of the pendulum entirely the other way. Humanity is now held fully
accountable for determining ethical and moral behavior. Even if one
chooses to just follow the moral codes of Buddhism, there is still a
fundamental difference. The Buddhist canon was developed utilizing
human logic and reasoning whereas the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic
canons are generally considered to be “revelations” from God.


By combining these two concepts, the existence of and interaction with
Deity and a deep respect and consideration for all forms of life we can
start to form a foundation for Pagan ethics. Starhawk appeals to the
immanence of the Goddess in the world and in all forms of life as her
foundation for ethics and ethical behavior. She says: “Love for life in
all its forms is the basic ethic of Witchcraft. Witches are bound to honor
and respect all living things, and to serve the life force. While the
Craft recognizes that life feeds on life and that we must kill in order to
survive, life is never taken needlessly, never squandered or wasted.
Serving the life force means working to preserve the diversity of natural
life, to prevent the poisoning of the environment and the destruction of
species.” While not as explicit as the Buddhists’ ten non-virtuous
actions, this still gives us something concrete that we can work with. It
connects ethics and morality to behaviors that support life.


If you think about it many of the things that most people, Pagan and
non-Pagan alike, find morally objectionable often involve the lessening or
taking of life. Such things as murder, rape, and incest are often
thought of as moral crimes before being considered legal crimes. Robert
Merrihew Adams, a Christian scholar, presents us with the idea of the
morally horrible. He says, “It is not a consciousness of a command or
requirement laid on us by anyone, but a feeling about the actions
themselves and their consequences. We feel there are certain things it
would be horrible to do even if there were no authoritative rule or social
pressure against them and even if they were not forbidden by God. … Our
primary feelings about such deeds are not about violation of a rule or
requirement, but about what is done to the victims.” Mr. Adams appears to
be appealing to a basic sense of goodness within humanity and a confidence
that that goodness will prevail.


Unfortunately this basic goodness doesn’t appear to prevail enough or be
cohesive enough for our society to function without a legal code. So let’s
take a look at ethics and morality and their relationship to the legal
system. I find it interesting to note that we are faced with a primarily
modern and primarily Western phenomena here — the separation of “church”
and its corresponding morality from “state” with its corresponding legal
code. Historically societies have always combined these. What was
generally agreed upon as moral was also legal. The legal code reflected
the lived beliefs of the culture which it served. People didn’t live
separate “religious” lives independently from their “secular” lives, they
just lived. In fact there are cultures today who’s languages do not
contain a word equivalent to our word “religion.” In Sanskrit, Hindi, and
Tamil you find words for “law,” “duty,” “custom,” “worship,” “spiritual
discipline,” or “the way” but not “religion.” These concepts organically
incorporate all the things modern Western culture often separates out as
being specifically “religious.” However in America today, especially as
Neo-Pagans, we do not have the luxury of having the “state” automatically
define our ethics for us and have that be adequate.


Most of us have heard the phrase “morals are above the law,” but what
does that really mean? If we think about it we come to the conclusion that
this is a real issue for Pagans living under legal systems that
perpetuate policies of destruction and hierarchies of domination that are
at odds with the tenets of our belief system. So the question is, how do
we respond? The Mennonites, a totally pacifist people whose tradition
originated in Holland in the 1500’s, have lived with this conflict for
centuries. One of the deeply held tenets of their faith is the immorality
of war and their response to living in lands where war became reality was
to relocate whole communities across national borders rather than allow
their young and able-bodied men to supply the ranks. While this was a
viable option in years past it is not as attractive today in a globally
diverse and increasingly populated world. Consequently there will be some
of us who will feel a moral obligation to work for political change,
either within or from without the system we are situated in. Others
will not, preferring instead to take the position that as long as they are
not personally affected in a substantial way they have more to offer the
community by focusing their energies in other areas.


Now this brings us face to face with the issue of authority. So what is
authoritative to us? Most of us would say that the words of the Lady,
whether spoken by a priestess at a “drawing down” or heard by our
inner ears in meditation, carry a sense of authority. Many of us invest a
certain amount of authority in those who are proficient in the psychic
arts such as tarot readers and astrologers. We also tend to invest a lot
of authority in our clergy and our elders, which is frequently an
appropriate and wise thing to do as they often have much in the way of
hard-earned experience to offer us.


While each of these has an appropriate place in our decision-making
processes, we are still ultimately individually responsible for our
choice of actions and the consequences that come of them. Therefore our
ultimate authority must come from within our own selves, from our own
internal authority. Like the song says: “My skin, my bones, my heretic
heart are my authority.”


So what exactly are our responsibilities in exercising our internal
authority? For one, we have a responsibility to be always aware of our
connection to Deity and to be constantly monitoring that connection for
“static”. Carlos Castaneda refers to this phenomena as the “trickery of
the spirit” or “dusting the connecting link to intent.” We have to
struggle with developing ways of sorting out what is real from what is
imagination, fantasy, and wishful thinking. When accepting and acting on
the advice of others we have a responsibility to understand and
internalize that information lest we fall prey to finger pointing if
things develop in unexpected and unwanted ways. And we have a
responsibility to be aware of the social and legal environments
of the situation and to weigh these factors in. Only when we
are reasonably convinced that we have done all these things can we say
that we have exercised our internal authority in a morally responsible


So how might we approach formulating and documenting our own code of
ethics or a code for our coven or group? First and foremost it’s
important to critically think about these things. One way to tackle this
is to take a top down approach. First consider the broadest of Wiccan
ethical concepts, the Wiccan Rede — an it harm none, do as thou wilt.
Keep this in mind as the overriding principle as you develop more of the
specifics. Also keep in mind that what you eventually come up with needs
to both address the central concerns of Paganism and be a practical and
useful tool for those who will seek to use it.


With these in mind you might start by considering our societal norms and
legal laws. Examine these to see if there is anything that falls within
this general category that needs to be explicitly addressed. For
example, my coven had a line in its code that said you couldn’t do
anything illegal. This generated quite a lively discussion over whether
speeding was ethical (vs. legal) and what that meant with respect to “an
it harm none.” But in general this would be where such things as our
behavior towards the environment and the earth would be addressed. This is
also where you might address pacifistic issues, if you identify yourself
as such, and what choices you wish to make regarding pacifistic activities
when they clash with the law. Likewise with abortion and other issues
where laws may infringe upon the Pagan tenet of full sanctity and control
of one’s own body. This aspect of your code should in no way be taken
lightly and developed arbitrarily with little thought. Anytime you choose
to go against the legal system you are not only putting yourself at
risk, but you are also putting the community at risk by association. But
we each have limits as to just how far our personal mocenrality and
integrity can be pushed before we act. It behooves not only us personally
but our broader community as well to have a clue beforehand as to where
that boundary is and what we think is the best course of action when that
boundary is breached. This is where the effort put into critical thinking
and communal dialogue can pay off, because there are a variety of
responses to this situation and none of them are necessarily “right” for
everyone in the group.


Next you might consider overall practices and generally held beliefs
specific to the Pagan community. What are the community’s generally
acceptable behaviour norms, especially where they aren’t addressed by the
legal code? This would be the place to address things like the appropriate
uses of magick, will, and intent and the wielding of power for example, or
the appropriate expressions of our sexuality within the context of the
community. It might also be appropriate to include a code governing hexes
and curses.


And finally you might consider what coven specifics and personal agendas
might need addressing. This could include group agreements regarding
skyclad work and more specific expressions of sexuality. It could also
include the groups’ agreements regarding smoking and the use or
prohibition of drugs for non-medical reasons.

And when you have done all this, keep in mind that what you have
produced is a living document that is meant to change over time as you
and your group change. And also keep in mind that what you have produced
is a code of ethics, not a legal code. You cannot enforce them the way you
would hard rules or legal laws. You can only offer them as a gift to your
community with the hope that someone will find them helpful on their
journey to a better life.


A Coven Code of Ethics

While attending ritual or other coven functions you agree

  • Relate to others with general politeness, manners, and common
    courtesy as befitting any gathering of friends.

  • Abide by any formal rules, covenants, or guidelines adopted by
    the coven.

  • Enter the circle “in perfect love and perfect trust.” Settle any
    differences with other participants beforehand or don’t participate. If it
    is impossible to settle the differences all parties involved must be able
    to truly set the issue aside and relate to one another “in perfect love
    and perfect trust” while in sacred space.

  • Try to distinguish between having psychological issues come up
    and truly being in a compromising position regarding beliefs and values.
    If you feel you are compromising your integrity by further participation
    quietly ask the maiden to cut a door in the circle and quietly leave. If
    something comes up for you that has been triggered by the ritual, speak up
    so those in charge can address the situation in an appropriate manner.

  • Commit to thinking for yourself and not just blindly accepting
    everything said or done.

In general you agree to:

  • Follow the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as thou wilt.
  • Make a reasonable effort to consider the difference between will
    and whim and to consider that harm is not always easily pinpointed.

  • Commit to opposing patriarchal oppression and strive to
    counteract it in positive, non-violent ways. Consciously choose to wield
    “power with” and “power within” and not “power over.”

  • Observe the legal code of your cultural location except when by
    doing so you are violating your personal integrity and morality in such a
    manner that cannot be overlooked or justified and you have considered the
    effects of your decision on the coven and the broader community and you
    consciously choose to take full responsibility for those effects.

  • Commit to learning the ways of magick and the Craft that work
    for you and to apply what you have learned to the best of your ability
    with intent for the highest good of all according to the free will of

  • Never work magick or offer prayers on behalf of another without
    their knowledge and consent.

  • Commit to respecting the environment and working towards its

  • Promise to maintain a policy of non-discrimination based on
    race, age, gender, occupation, physical ability, or sexual

  • Promise to maintain a policy of non-discrimination based on
    religion as appropriate. Maintain an awareness of Wicca as a religion and
    the legal and social repercussions of religious discrimination both toward
    Wiccans and by Wiccans. Be aware of your own biases in this area and walk
    this line very carefully.

  • Commit to remaining open-minded in your contacts with organized
    religion and seek to “take what you need and leave the rest” realizing
    that opportunities for encounters with Deity are limited only by

  • Refrain from “Christian bashing” or arbitrarily condemning other
    religions or religious peoples.

  • Refrain from graphic or offensive sexual behavior in public or
    semi-public situations and maintain an awareness of the changing
    definitions of graphic and offensive in varied situations.

  • Commit to taking responsibility for all aspects of your life,
    physical, psychological, and spiritual.

  • Commit to taking responsibility for your own psychological
    healing and to overcome the internalized effects of social programming in
    accordance with Wiccan teachings.

  • Commit to the spiritual path and to continued growth and

  • Encourage fun, beauty, and play in your personal life and in the
    lives of others in accordance with Wiccan teachings. ¶

Also see Muddy Earth


Adams, Robert Merrihew, “Moral Horror and the Sacred”, Journal
of Religious Ethics
, 23.2, Fall 1995, Scholars Press, Publishers,
pages 201-224

Bell, Linda A., Rethinking Ethics in the Midst of Violence – A
Feminist Approach to Freedom
, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,
Inc., Lanham, MD, 1993

Book of Shadows, Mary Magdalene Coven

Castaneda, Carlos, The Power of Silence, Simon & Schuster
Inc., New York, NY, 1987

Geasair, Mari, “Raven Shadow Collective Mission Statement”, 1992

Heretic Heart, author unknown

Lecture notes, Comparative Philosophies of Religion, Iliff
School of Theology, José Cabaz¢n instructor, 1996

Sagi, Avi and Daniel Stateman, “Divine Command Morality and
Jewish Tradition”, Journal of Religious Ethics, 23.1, Spring
1995, Scholars Press, Publishers, pages 39-67

Sharpe, Eric J., Understanding Religion, St. Martin’s Press,
Inc., New York, 1983

Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, Beacon Press, Boston, 1988

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper & Row Publishers, San
Francisco, 1989

The HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV, HarperCollins
Publishers, New York, NY, 1989

Unruh, Abe J., The Helpless Poles, Courier Printing Company,
Grabill, Indiana, 1973

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English
Language Unabridged
, G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers,
Springfield MA, 1961


Jonathan will be back next time with something a little lighter. Thanks for reading.
listening to Freur | Doot Doot

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