I had been practicing magick for over a decade when I first heard about the Wiccan rule of three. I was working in a Pagan Shop in my home town of Portsmouth (UK) and I made a humorous comment to a customer about using poppet magick in conjunction with some pins. A Wiccan who overheard this commented “Remember the Rule of Three” in an ominous tone of voice accompanied by what they evidently thought was an authorative look.
“With the proper focus you only have to do it once” I replied with a grin “Just really feel and imagine the result as you do it”
“No!” Exclaimed the Wiccan becoming quite upset “The Rule of Three- whatever you do returns thrice to thee! It’s a magickal law!”
“L-a-w or l-o-r-e?” I asked and received a blank look by way of reply. Further questioning revealed that they had no idea what the difference was. I had to explain that while a law was a set of guidelines, established facts, or principles, lore was a traditional body of knowledge on a particular subject and not always correct. That they both sounded the same meant that the two could be easily be confused as in ‘The lore of the jungle’ could be misheard – and misinterpreted - as ‘The law of the jungle’ with subsequent ideas and concepts being based on an erroneous conviction.
“The High Priestess told me about it when I joined the coven– I think she meant law” Said the Wiccan, suddenly sounding a whole lot less confident. “She said that if we did spells for good then the good would return to us threefold, but if we did evil magick evil would return to us threefold”
“How?” I asked
“Karma” Came the prompt reply
My explanation that Karma is a Sandskrit word meaning “action” rather than some sort of all powerful principle caused the conversation to wander off the subject of the ‘Rule of Three’, but I was very puzzled that UK Witches would believe in such a thing and how it had originated. All my magickal experience had showed that, provided you knew what you were doing, you could cast any spell within your abilities - positive or negative - without any consequences either way.
From the ‘soundbite’ nature of the saying I suspected that it was a relatively recent bit of dogma, something that was confirmed when I asked around all the local Wiccan groups. All of them had it as part of their core teachings which added weight to my theory. Then I checked with the older Craft groups such as the original members of the Alexandrian and Gardnarian groups and the local covens that had been around for several centuries. Fortunately Portsmouth is located near to the New Forest, Brighton, and Hindhead, all of which have ancient magickal connections if you know where to go and who to talk to.
These groups had heard of the ‘rule’ but it was not part of their training or practice. Talking to the senior members I was able to trace the first time it was mentioned to some Ritual Magick groups that began around the early 20th century. The generic term for these groups was “White Lodges” so called because their aim was spiritual improvement using meditation and Kabbalistic techniques. They called themselves “white” to distinguish themselves from the so-called “Black Lodges” who used similar techniques for gaining money, sex and power. To prevent new members abusing (as they thought) the skills they learned they installed mental safety catches, of which the “Rule of Three” was one.
Many of the founders of these systems were versed in the skills of psychology, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis. By introducing this idea early in the neophytes’ training it formed an artificial complex, effectively blocking them from using their skills for personal gain or influencing others in a negative manner. As they progressed in their training and self-development working on themselves they became more aware of their inner nature and how much of their worldview had been imposed from outside. With this growth came the realisation of the illusory nature of good and evil and the evolution of a personal morality based on an integrated personality.
At this level of personal understanding the complex would have been overcome or surpassed during the training. In this system the lore of threefold return served a useful purpose and it would be no surprise it carried over to Wicca when it came on the scene because the founders drew heavily on Masonic and White Lodge practises. However unlike traditional Craft, or the sources it drew from, in the beginning there was little or no emphasis on self development. As Wicca developed people spotted the innate aspects of Jungian and Freudian psychology and a grading system along the lines of its source systems arose
However popular books on “Modern Witchcraft”, films, and even TV series usually written by people with only the most cursory knowledge of Wicca have enshrined the “Rule of Three” as an unbreakable law rather than a magickal safety catch. This has been taken up unquestioned by people who read a few books and set up their own coven with themselves as leader. When, by planning or dumb luck, these become successful or even influential the “Rule” becomes an established ‘fact’. It only goes to show that you should never “Leave your brain” at the entrance to sacred space.