Only If None Be Harmed: Getting Specific
about Magical Ethics
By Judy Harrow (HPS, Proteus
Used with permission
"All may use the Art for their own advantage or for the
advantage of the Craft, only if you are sure you harm none. But ever
let the Coven debate this at length. Only if all be satisfied and none
be harmed may the Art be used. If it is not possible to achieve your
ends one way, perchance the aim may be achieved by acting in a different
way, so as to harm none. May the Curse of the Goddess be on any who
breaketh this Law."
Ardanes #122-124, from the Grimoire of Lady Sheba
Sometimes a cliche just wears out. It loses meaning or,
worse, begins to say things we never meant. I think it's time to retire
the phrase "black magic."
Saying "black" when we mean "evil" is nasty nonsense.
In the first place, it reinforces the racist stereotypes that corrupt
our society. And that's not all. Whenever we say "black" instead of
"bad," we repeat again the big lie that darkness is wrong. It isn't,
as people who profess to love Nature should know.
Darkness can mean the inside of the womb, and the seed
germinating within the Earth, and the chaos that gives rise to all truly
new beginnings. In our myths, the one who goes down to the underworld
returns with the treasure. Even death, to the Wiccan understanding,
is well-earned rest and comfort, and a preparation for new birth. Using
"black" to mean "bad" is a blasphemy against the Crone.
But even if we no longer speak of magic as "black" or
"white," we still need to think and speak about the ethics of magic.
Although black is not evil, some actions are evil. It simply is not
true that anything a person is strong enough or skilled enough to do
is OK, nor should doing what we will ever be the whole of the law for
us. We need a clear and specific vocabulary that enables us to choose
wisely what we will do.
We need to replace the word "black," not simply to drop
it. Some Pagans have tried using "negative" as their substitute, but
that turned out to be confusing. For some people, "negative" means any
spell to diminish or banish anything. Some things - tumors, depression,
bigotry - are harmful. There's nothing wrong with a working to get rid
of bad stuff. "Left-handed" is another common term for wrongful practice,
very traditional, but just as ignorant, superstitious and potentially
harmful as the phrase "black magic" itself. So in Proteus we tried using
the word "unethical." That's a lot better - free of extraneous and false
implications - but still too vague.
Gradually, I began to wonder whether using any one word,
"black" or "unethical" or whatever, might just be too general and too
subjective. Perhaps all I really tell a student that way is "Judy doesn't
I won't settle for blind obedience. If ethical principles
are going to survive the twin tests of time and temptation, people need
to understand just what to avoid, and why. Even more important, they
need a basis for figuring out what to do instead. Especially when it
comes to projective magic.
Projective magic means active workings, the kind in which
we project our will out into the world to make some kind of change.
This is what most people think of when they use the word magic at all.
Quite clearly, magic that may affect other people is magic that can
harm. This is the basis of the proverb "a Witch who can't hex can't
heal." Either you can raise and direct power, or you can't. Your strength
and skill can be used for blessing or for bane. The choice - and the
karma - are yours.
Just as some people feel that strength and skill are their
own justification, others feel that any projective magic is always wrong
- that it is a distraction from our one true goal of union with the
Divine or a willful avoidance of the judgements of Karma. I think these
attitudes are equally inconsistent with basic Wiccan philosophy.
We are taught that we will find the Lady within ourselves
or not at all, that the Mother of All has been with us from the beginning.
We can't now establish a union that was always there. All we can do,
all we need to do, is become aware. Knowing what it feels like to heal
and empower, again and again till you can't dismiss it as coincidence,
is one of the most powerful methods for awakening that awareness. It
makes no sense to say that the direct experience and exercise of our
indwelling divinity distracts from the Great Work.
Indeed, it is this intimate connection between our magic
and our self-realization that our ethics protect. Wrongful use of magic
will choke the channel. No short term gain could ever compensate for
The karmic argument against practical workings seems to
me to arise from a paranoid and defeatist world view. Even if we assume
that the hardships in this life were put there by the Gods for a reason,
how can we be so sure that the reason was punishment? Perhaps instead
of penance to be endured, our difficulties are challenges to be met.
Coping and dealing with our problems, learning magical and mundane skills,
changing ourselves and our world for the better - in short, growing
up - is that not what the Gods of joy and freedom want from us?
One of the most radically different things about a polytheistic
belief system is that each one of us has the right, and the need, to
choose which God/desses will be the focus of our worship. We make these
choices knowing that whatever energies we invoke most often in ritual
will shape our own further growth. Spiritual practices are a means of
self-programming. So we are responsible for what we worship in a way
that people who take their One God as a given are not.
Think about this: what kind of Power actively wants us
to submit and suffer, and objects when we develop skills to improve
our own lives? Not a Being I'd want to invite around too often!
So it will not work for us to rule out projective magic
completely; nor should we. Total prohibitions are as thoughtless as
total permissiveness or blind obedience. Ethical and spiritual adults
ought to be able to make distinctions and well-reasoned choices. I offer
here a start toward analyzing what kinds of magic are not ethical for
Baneful magic is magic done for the explicit purpose
of causing harm to another person. Usually the reason for it is revenge,
and the rationalization is justice. People who defend the practice of
baneful magic often ask "but wouldn't you join in cursing another Hitler?"
For adults, there is no rule without exceptions. If you
think you would never torture somebody, consider this scenario: in just
half an hour the bomb will go off, killing everybody in the city, and
this terrorist knows where it is hidden.... It's a bad mistake to base
your ethics on wildly unlikely cases, since none of us honestly knows
how we would react in that kind of extreme. Reasonable ethical statements
are statements about the behaviors we expect of ourselves under normally
We all get really angry on occasion, and sometimes with
good cause. Then revenge can seem like no more than simple justice.
The anger is a normal, healthy human reaction, and should not be repressed.
But there's no more need to act it out in magic than in physical violence.
Instead of going for revenge - and invoking the karmic consequences
of baneful magic - identify what you really need. For example, if your
anger comes from a feeling that you have been attacked or violated,
what you need is protection and safe space. Work for the positive goal,
it's both more effective and safer.
The consequences of baneful magic are simply the logical,
natural and inevitable psychological effects. Even in that rare and
extreme situation when you may decide you really do have to use magic
to give Hitler a heart attack, it means you are choosing by the same
choice to accept the act's karma. Magical attack hurts the attacker
The only way I know how to do magic is by use of my imagination,
by visualizing or otherwise actively imagining the end I want, and then
projecting that goal with the energy of emotional/physiological arousal.
All the techniques I know either help me to imagine more specifically
or to project more strongly. So the only way I can send out harm is
by first experiencing that harm within my own imagination. Instant
and absolute karma - the natural, logical and inevitable outcomes of
our own choices.
I would think, also, that somebody dumb enough to do such
workings often would soon lose the ability to imagine specifically,
as their sensitivity dulled in sheer self-defense. That callusing effect
is the reality behind the pious proverb that says "if you abuse it,
She'll take it away."
But not every other magician is ethical. Psychic attacks
do happen. Should we not defend ourselves? Of course we should. Leaving
ourselves open to psychic attack is no good example of the autonomy
and assertiveness our chosen Gods expect. But first, how can we be sure
what we are experiencing really is psychic attack?
The fantasy of psychic attack is often a convenient rationalization
that allows us to deny our own poor choices or personal shortcomings.
When lack of rest or improper nutrition is the cause of illness, or
a project isn't completed on time because of distraction, it's a real
temptation to put the blame outside ourselves. Doing this too easily
betrays our autonomy just as badly as meek submission to attack does.
Then, to compound matters, projected blame becomes a pretext for unjust
revenge -- and that is baneful magic without excuse. Once in a rare
while, some fool really does try to throw a whammy. It's hard to predict
when you might be targeted. Passive shields are always a good idea.
Like a mirror, these are totally inactive until somebody sends unwelcome
energy. Then a shield will protect you completely and bounce back whatever
is being thrown. You may not even know consciously when your shield
is working, but the result is perfect justice.
Perfect justice; elegant and efficient. You won't hurt
anybody out of paranoia or by mistake. And perfect protection, even
though we do not have perfect knowledge.
Bindings, according to some, are completely defensive.
They do not harm, only restrain. But imagine yourself being bound -
perhaps by someone who believes themselves justified - and notice the
feeling of impotence and frustration. Binding is bane from the viewpoint
of the bound.
Even if restraint were truly not harm, bindings are just
plain poor protection. They target a particular person or group. What
if you suspect the wrong person? Somebody harmless is bound and your
actual attacker is not bound. Shields, which cover you, not your supposed
enemy, will cover you against any enemy, known or unknown.
So, baneful magic, besides being painful in the short
run and crippling in the long run, is never necessary. There are better
ways of self protection, and retribution is the business of the Gods.
Coercive magic is magic that targets another person to
make them give us something we want or need. When most people think
of the "Magic Power of Witchcraft," this is what they have in mind.
The spell to make the teacher give you a good grade, or
the supervisor give you a good evaluation, the spell to make the personnel
officer or renting agent choose you, the spell to attract that cute
guy, all are examples of coercive magic.
So, what's wrong with high grades, a good job, a raise,
a nice apartment and a sexy lover? There's nothing at all wrong with
those goals. An it harm none, do what ye will. As long as nobody is
hurt, go for it! But don't strive toward good ends by coercive means.
Although there is no deliberate intent to do harm or cause
pain in coercive workings, other people are treated as pawns. Their
autonomy and their interests are ignored.
For Pagans, to do this is total hypocrisy. We profess
to follow a religion of immanence, one that places ultimate meaning
and value in this life on this Earth, here and now. We claim to see
every living thing, humans included, as a sacred manifestation. To do
honor to this indwelling divinity, we place great value on our own personal
autonomy. How can we then justify treating other people as objects for
Nor is it harmless. Forcing the will, controlling the
independent judgement of another human being, is harm. Once again, empathy
leads to understanding. Just imagine you are the person whose will and
judgement is being externally controlled. How does puppethood feel?
From the viewpoint of the target, the harm is palpable.
The Pagan and Wiccan community as a whole is also hurt
by coercive magic. One of the main reasons people fear and hate Witches
is our reputation for controlling others. This is an old, dirty lie,
created by the invading religion in an attempt to discredit the indigenous
competition. Today, that reputation is mostly perpetuated by people
who claim to be "our own," who teach unethical coercive magic by mail
order to strangers whose ethical sensitivity cannot be evaluated long
distance. May the Gods preserve the Craft!
People who are connected to the situation, but invisible
to us, may also be seriously hurt: the cute guy's fiancee, the other
applicant for that job. What you think of as a working designed only
to bring good to yourself can bring serious harm to innocent third parties,
and the karma of their pain will be on you.
That isn't the only way an incomplete view of the situation
can backfire. There's a traditional saying that goes, "be careful about
what you ask for, because that's exactly what you will get." What if
he is gorgeous, but abusive? What if the apartment house is structurally
unsound? Better to state your legitimate needs (love in my life, a nice
place to live) and let the Gods deal with the details.
Finally, remember this: asking specifically limits us
to what we now know or what we can now imagine. But I remember a time
when I could not have imagined being a priestess. What if the cute guy
in the office is reasonably OK, but your absolutely perfect soul-mate
will be in the A+P next Wednesday? The more specifically targeted your
magic is, the more you limit yourself to a life of tautology and missed
And beyond all the scenario spinning lies the instant
karma, the natural, logical and inevitable consequence of the act. It's
more subtle than in the case of baneful magic, since you are not trying
to imagine and project pain, but the damage is still real.
Every time you treat another human being as a thing to
be pushed and pulled around for your convenience and pleasure, you are
reinforcing your own alienation. The attitude of being removed from
and superior to other people takes you out of community. As the attitude
strengthens, so will the behavior it engenders. The long term result
of coercive magic, as with mundane forms of coercion, is isolation and
Are you beginning to think that magic is useless? Did
I just rule out all the good stuff: love charms, job magic, spells for
good grades? Not at all. It is not only ethical but good for you to
do lots of magic to improve your own life. Whenever it works you will
get more than you asked for - because along with whatever you asked
for comes one more experience of your own effectiveness, your power-from-
Work on yourself and your own needs and desires without
targeting other people. Then feel free! Ask for what you want. Visualize
it and raise power for it and act in accordance on the material plane.
"I need a caring and horny lover with a good sense of humor." "I want
an affordable apartment near where my coven meets with a tree outside
my window." "I need to be at my best when I take that exam next week."
Fulfill your dreams, and sometimes let the Gods surprise you with gifts
beyond your dreams.
Manipulative magic is magic that targets another person
for what we think is "their own good," without regard for their opinions
in the matter. In the general culture around us, this is normal. As
you read this, you may have some friend or relative praying for you
to be "saved" from your evil Pagan ways and returned to the fold of
their preference. These people mean you well. By their own lights, they
are attempting to heal you. We work from a very different thealogical
As polytheists, we affirm the diversity of the divine
and the divinity of diversity. If there is no one, true, right and only
way in general, do we dare to assume that there is one obvious right
choice for a person in any given situation? If more than one choice
may be "right," how can one person presume they know what another person
would want without asking them first?
No life situation ever looks the same from outside as
it does to the person who is experiencing it. Are you sure you even
have all the facts? Are you fully aware of all the emotional entanglements
involved? Perhaps that illness is the only way they have of getting
rest or getting attention. Perhaps they stay in that dead end job because
it leaves them more energy to concentrate on their music. How do you
know till you ask?
And, to further complicate the analysis, it's possible
that the person you are trying to help would agree with you about the
most desirable outcome, but fears and hates the very idea of magic.
They have as much of a right to keep magic out of their own life, as
you have to make it part of yours!
Our religion teaches that the sacred lives within each
person, that we can hear the Lady's voice for ourselves if we only learn
to listen. "... If that which you seek, you find not within yourself,
you will never find it without." In behavioral terms, when you take
another person's opinion about their own life seriously, you are reinforcing
them in thinking and choosing for themselves. The more you do this,
the more you empower them to listen for the sacred inner voice.
Conversely, whenever you ignore or override a person's
feelings about their own life, you are discounting those feelings and
discouraging the kind of internal attention that can keep the channels
to wisdom open. Although well-intentioned meddling may actually help
somebody in the short run, in the longer run it trains them to dependency
and indecision. Few intentional banes damage as severely. This is especially
true because even the untrained and unaware will instinctively resist
overt ill-will, but in our culture we are trained to receive "expert"
interference with gratitude.
Check by asking yourself, "who's in charge here?" The
answer to that will tell you whether you are basically empowering or
undermining the person you intend to help.
And, as usual, the effects go both ways. The same uninvited
intervention that fosters passivity in the recipient will foster arrogance
in the "rescuer." Control and ego-inflation masked as generosity can
be very seductive.
If you make this a habit, you will come to believe that
other people are incompetent and powerless. Then what happens when you
need help? Your contempt will make it impossible for you to see what
resources surround you. Manipulative magic is ultimately just as alienating
as coercive magic - and it's a much prettier trap!
The way to avoid the trap is to avoid directing any workings
toward any other person without that person's explicit permission. Proteans
are generally pledged to this, and I think it's a good idea for anybody.
You don't need to wait passively for the person to ask.
It's perfectly all right to offer, as long as you are willing to sometimes
accept "no" for your answer. For the person who believes s/he is unworthy
or who is simply too shy, offering help is itself a gift. Taking their
opinion seriously is an even greater gift: respect.
The rule is that whenever it is in any way physically
possible to ask, you must ask. If it's not important enough to pay long
distance charges, it certainly isn't important enough to violate a friend's
autonomy. If asking is literally not possible, then and only then, here
are a few exceptions: Sometimes an illness or injury happens very suddenly,
and the person is unconscious or in a coma before you could possibly
ask them. If you know that this person is generally comfortable with
magic, you may do workings to keep their basic body systems working
and allow the normal healing process the time it needs. If they are
opposed to magic, for whatever reason, back off!
Traditionally, an unconscious person is understood to
be temporarily out of their body. Maintaining their body in habitable
condition is preserving their option, not choosing for them. Doing maintenance
magic requires a lot of sensitivity. At some point, the time may come
when you should stop and let the person go on. Be sure to use some kind
of divination to help you stay aware.
This is a hard road. It may be your lover, your child,
lying there helpless. Any normal human being would be tempted to drag
them back, to force them to stay regardless of what is truly best for
them, regardless of what they want. Don't repress these feelings, they
do no harm, even though your actions might. It takes great strength
and non-possessive love to recognize that your loved one knows their
own need. You may be calling them back to a crippled body, to a life
of pain. You may be calling them back from the ecstasy of the Goddess.
And this is no more your right than it would be to murder them.
If a person is temporarily not reachable, you may charge
up a physical object, such as an appropriate talisman or some incense.
When you present it to them, give them a full explanation. It is their
choice whether to keep or use your gift. By interposing an object between
the magic and the target in this way, you can work the magic in Circle,
with the coven's power to draw on, and still get the person's permission
before the magic is triggered.
With all these rules about permission, perhaps it would
be safer to work only on ourselves? Safer, yes, but not nearly as good.
If you have permission, you may do any working for another person that
you might do for yourself. Coercive magic is just as unacceptable when
somebody else asks for it, and you may not do manipulative magic on
your friend's mother, even at your friend's request. The permission
must come from the magic's intended target and from nobody else. With
proper permission, working magic for others is good for all concerned.
Every act of magic has two effects. One is the direct
effect, the healing or prosperity working or whatever was intended.
The other is a minute change in the mind and the heart of the person
who does the working. Everything we experience, and especially everything
that we do in a wholehearted and focused way - the only way effective
magic can be done - changes us. Each experience leaves its tiny trace,
but the traces are cumulative. They mold the person we will become.
Our karma is our choice.
Instant karma can also be good karma. Logical, natural
and inevitable outcomes can be desirable. When you send out good, what
you send it with is love. Love is the driving force. When you let love
flow freely, the channel down to love's wellspring stays clear and open.
When you send out good, you direct it along the web of person-to-person
connection, and awareness of that web is reinforced. The totality of
that web is the basis of community.
When you send out good it feels good. In the same way
that sending out bane requires imagining pain, sending out blessing
requires imagining pleasure, strongly and specifically. And, when you
send out good, just the same as when you call it to yourself, you reinforce
your sense of effectiveness in the world. Blessings grow in the fertile
ground of mutuality, to the benefit of all.
A pattern is becoming visible. In baneful magic, the magician
intends to harm the target. In coercive magic, the intent toward the
target is neutral. In manipulative magic, the magician actually means
the target well. But no matter how different the intent may be, in all
three cases magic is directed toward another person without that person's
permission. In all three cases, the target, the practitioner and ultimately
the community are all hurt. And in all three cases, there are safer
and more effective ways to reach the valid goals that we mean to aim
So, perhaps there is a descriptive word that covers all
wrongful magical workings after all. How about "invasive" magic?
Drawing the Line
There's one thing left to examine: the paradox of making
rules to protect personal autonomy.
If we make some of our choices as a community, by discussing
things together and arriving at a common understanding about what magical
behaviors are acceptable among us, then we choose and shape the kind
of community we become.
Or we could give up our right to choose, because we feel
we shouldn't tell each other what to do. Some people believe that a
refusal to set community standards promotes personal autonomy. It never
Appeals to individual rights can be real seductive. None
of us wants Big Brother looking over our shoulders, telling us what
to do "for our own good." For Witches in particular - members of a religious
minority with bad image problems - this is a very legitimate fear. But
make sure when somebody talks about "rights" without specifying something
like "religious practice rights" or "the right to consensual sex," that
you find out just what "rights" they mean.
Rhetoric about "rugged individualism" has been used in
recent history to fast-talk us into letting the rich or strong dominate
all our lives. Without anything to stop them, they can destroy the forestland,
or deny jobs or apartments to "cultists." Personal autonomy for most
of us is diminished when we allow that.
Magic can be used for dominance, just the same as muscle
or money. There is no difference, ethically, between the magical and
the mundane. We are not obligated to tolerate power trippers among us.
We are not obligated to run our own community by the slogans and groundrules
of the dominator culture.
Thinking about "rights," or about "laws" for that matter,
in the abstract leads to "all or nothing" thinking - immature and slogan
driven. I don't think we should ever "just say" anything. We need a
deeper and more mature analysis. We need to ask questions like "right
to do what?" and "law against what?" We need to get away from absolutes
and to look in practical terms at the advantages or disadvantages of
Once more, our religion itself shows us the way to steer
between the false choices. "An it harm none , do what you
will." What a person does that affects only herself - magical or mundane
- is truly nobody's business but her own. For example, consensual sexual
behavior affects only the participants. But toxic waste dumping affects
everybody in the watershed.
As long as we look at behavior in terms of private choices
or individual will, we obscure the distinction that really makes a difference.
If we're serious about wanting to give each of us the most possible
control over our own lives, then decisions should be made by all the
people affected by the behavior - not just by the people acting.
As soon as another person is magically targeted, that
other person is affected. If we allow such targeting without consent,
we are not supporting personal autonomy, we are subverting it!
When the behavior begins to affect us all - for example
when real estate development threatens the salt marshes, and ultimately
the air supply - or, very specifically, when invasive magic erodes the
trust we need to work together - then we have a right to protect ourselves
as a community. No ideology should turn us into passive victims when
something we hold precious stands to be destroyed.
Invasive magic hurts the target first, and soon the actor,
but in the long run it hurts all of us. It's been so long since we've
been able to meet together, share our knowledge, help one another in
need. Pagan community is very new, and still very fragile. It can only
grow in safe space.
The People of this Land forbade skirmishes around the
pipestone quarries, keeping that sacred source open to all. Otherwise,
no sane person would go there, and the Old Ways would wither. For much
the same reason, we cannot tolerate poppets in our council meetings.
An atmosphere of coercion and manipulation and magical
duels does not nurture community. Eventually, for self protection, the
gentle will either change or go away. We could lose what we have misguidedly
refused to protect.
As within, so without: our karma is our choice.