Pagan Morals

This post was originally written for the 5th number of the online magazine "Puni Mjesec" (Full Moon). Since I publish all my texts on my blog, I decided to do the same with this one. In addition to this, I think that this article could be useful to every Pagan and in general those that want to be informed on the topic of Paganism and the cornerstones of this spiritual path. I can only hope that I am right about this and that my words will give you some new insight. 

The Difference between Morals and Ethics

Morals and ethics are exceptionally similar terms, to the extent that morals are actually a part of ethics. To elaborate, morals are the stance an individual, or a group takes towards the principles of good and evil; it refers to behavioral customs and ideals which are closely related to conscience. We often say that a person is moral, or virtuous and by this, we usually mean that they behave in accordance with his/her own (or perhaps a socially defined) codex of good behavior, that they are fair and that they have a highly developed sense of their role in society. Ethics, apart from it being a distinct philosophical discipline, refers to the behavior that is in accordance with morality rules. As we have established, morals don't have to be individual; they can also belong to a group. Different historical periods had their own morals (e.g. medieval morals), as do different cultures or professions (we can therefore talk about tribal morals, or medical morals). There are also religious morals which are specific for every religion/faith. So, for example, Christian, Islamic and Pagan morals may differ. Yet, there is one important difference between ethics and morals, which is that ethics are global and timeless; they do not have temporal, cultural or geographical boundaries. Ethics implies simply behaving in accordance with morals, regardless of which group or period they belong to. On the other hand, morals are conditioned by these factors. This is why the title of this post is "Pagan morals" in stead of "Pagan ethics".

The Basics of Pagan Morals

Pagan ethics stem from aesthetics. It's important to emphasize that, in this context, "aesthetics" doesn't imply the concept of beauty which is defined by social conventions. On the contrary, it doesn't even have to refer to secular beauty! Aesthetics refers to beauty in any form and in the broadest sense of the word. Aesthetics also includes any form of harmony (or as the ancient Greeks called it - cosmos). It is human to strive towards cosmos i.e. order in any shape and in any aspect of our lives. If everything in our lives was chaotic, then we would be unhappy because chaos by the very definition of the word denotes a sort of abyss, or chasm from which cosmos (order) should and will come forth. Therefore, chaos signifies ugliness and disharmony. Pagans believe that by behaving ethically, they contribute to creating order, beauty and harmony in general. Since anything that is beautiful and harmonious is also aesthetic, we ultimately create aesthetics by behaving ethically. It is precisely because of this that Pagan ethics stems from aesthetics. 

Furthermore, Pagan morals are based on love. In Paganism, and almost all global faiths/religions/spiritual paths, there is something called the "golden rule". It reads: "Do to other as you want them to do to you". This rule exists in Christianity, Judaism, Islam but it was also known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and many other cultures. It simply changed is form according to the culture and time, but it is essentially about the same things - love. It is expected that people, as social beings, behave nicely towards the society they live in as well as towards themselves. You are surely aware of the old saying: "You must first love yourself before you can love another". There is some truth in this. Anyway, love, or in the least respect towards others (and ourselves) is essential for individual and group development. The golden rule speaks precisely about this. If the whole world functioned on the basis of mutual respect (if love is not possible all the time), there wouldn't be as many problems.

The Pagan "Golden Rule"

Pagans have their own version of the golden rule which in its longest form reads: " 'An ye harm none, do what ye will". The short version, which also happens to be the most frequently used version reads: "Harm none". Although this "rule" originally wasn't generally Pagan, it gradually took its honorary place in the Pagan moral system (more information in the post "The Wiccan Rede"). It originally comes from Wicca - a Neopagan denomination which was formed in the 50s in England. Gerald Gardner, who is thought of as the father of Wicca, mentions it for the first time in his book Witchcraft Today
They [witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one ". But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm." This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage, and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one's actions, especially upon others, This, you may say, is elementary Christianity. Of course it is; it is also elementary Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Judaism, to name only a few.

Surely, Gardner was inspired by Aleister Crowley whose texts he researched in depth, whom he privately knew and with whom he also cooperated in the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) into which he himself was initiated. In his Book of the Law, which is one of the basic literary works of this path, Crowley wrote the following: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will. There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt. (...) but in practice, only one act is lawful for each one of us at any given moment. Therefore Duty consists in determining to experience the right event from one moment of consciousness to another". Crowley writes the words "Law" and "Duty" (and in some versions also "Will") with capital letters. By doing so, he emphasizes that he isn't just thinking of any duty, will or law but rather of something personal and transcendental. Will is transcendental because it is correct/lawful (of course, for every person individually). The law is also true because it is true for every person individually (every person knows their own law which is true from their perspective). Duty is also individual and is conditioned by Will and the Law. Therefore, a person's own and true will is that which is intrinsic, which is true for him/her and towards which he/she has to strive. According to Crowley, if everyone were to follow their true Will, there would be no problems in the world because the universe is a cosmos in the complete sense of the word (everything has its place i.e. everything is in order so every person's Will also has its own orbit and nobody's Wills clash). Nevertheless, there is one condition to achieving individual Will - "love is the law, love under will". Gardner paraphrased this condition and turned it into: " 'an ye harm none". Essentially, Pagan morals claim that you can do whatever you want as long as love and/or respect are present because only while it is present can be ensure that no harm will be done. It is important to note that "do what thou wilt" doesn't only refer to actions, but to passive actions as well (or the lack of them). Also, the word "none" includes the doer of the action and not only the beings around him/her. So, both principles offer complete freedom ("do what ye will"), but they also condition it. This is how complete freedom is turned into relative freedom.

Relative Freedom - What Does It Imply?

When talking about relative freedom in the context of morals, the central topic is free will. Free will is that which enables every person do decide what they are going to do and what they aren't. Through this, a person takes on a certain amount of moral responsibility towards him/herself and their surroundings because their every action can and will have a reaction.

Within philosophy, there are two prominent, contrary systems which talk about free will. One of them is determinism according to which everything is predetermined. Therefore, a person's free will and human activity have no effect whatsoever. In this sense, free will doesn't even exist. A contrary belief system is indeterminism which speaks of the existence of absolute free will. That is to say, people can do anything they want because causal reactions do not exist. It's also worth mentioning predestination which is very similar to determinism, but according to predestination, God is the one that decides the fate of everybody and everything.

Pagans are somewhere in between these two extremes because they mainly believe that free will exists, but as a part of a determined world. This could be called the philosophy of compatibilism. Since Paganism doesn't have a strictly prescribed moral codex, opinions may vary, but no one opinion will go to extremes. But even Pagans believe in some sort of conditioning. This can be seen in the Pagan version of the golden rule which, although it confirms the existence of free will, also posts a condition for its existence (" 'an ye harm none"). Our actions, lives and fates generally can be conditioned by many factors; some of them will be external (the world around us, general life conditions in which we find ourselves, or the surroundings into which we are born), and others will be eternal (we can condition ourselves). In this sense, a condition is something that we cannot influence. But this is why all the things that we can influence are subjected to our free will. Nevertheless, we mustn't let ourselves get drunk with free will and in the process stop thinking about the repercussions of our actions. Remember that free will and moral responsibility are inevitably linked together.

Karma - As You Sow, So Shall You Reap

The principle of karma comes from Indian philosophy and primarily speaks of moral retribution. Simply put, every action has a consequence (the law of cause and effect), or rather every action has a reaction. A more common way to put it is: "As you sow, so shall you reap". If this saying is taken literally, it is easy to conclude that the land will not yield tomatoes unless a person first plants them.

Any individual's free will and thus their intentions, play a key role in karma. Namely, people have several choices in any given moment of their life - to do something or not do something. The intention (the final goal, meditating on the path that should be taken) and free will (the very act of choosing a path) define the further development of the situation/life. For example, person X has the intention to go to work that day and decides to do so of their own free will. This person chose one path (a different path would be not going to work, for example). By deciding to go to work, he/she opened many more doors and an myriad of repercussions of this decision. Maybe person X gets a raise at work that day but if he/she hadn't had gone to work, that wouldn't have happened.

One could say that karmic outcomes can be seen in the future (be it the near of distant future). According to Indian philosophy, they can even occur in another lifetime because the notion of karma originally implies the belief in reincarnation (rebirth). Pagans are divided on this topic because some believe that the repercussions of an action have to be visible in the lifetime during which the action was done, while others believe that they can be passed on from life to life (which agrees with Indian philosophy).

Still, Pagans almost always agree with Indian philosophy when it comes to one thing - that every cause (action) has to have a proportionate repercussion (reaction). This repercussion doesn't have to be of the same nature, but it has to correspond to the cause proportionally. This is how balance in the universe as well as the state of cosmos (order) are maintained.

Before this was brought into awareness, a large number of Pagans believed in the Threefold Law which originates from Wicca. According to this "law", the reactions to an action are three times as large as the action itself. For example, if a person does something good, he will receive something three times better. Equally, if they do something bad, they will receive something three times worse in return. Doreen Valiente, Gardner's student, High Priestess and friend (who some see as the mother of Wicca) claimed that too many people had understood Gardner's theory too literally and that too many misinterpretations appeared after this. It simply doesn't make sense that one type of karma applies for Wiccans/witches and another type for everyone else. This rule isn't logical in a secular respect either because, if we go back to the aforementioned example, why would a person's land yield three times as many tomatoes as that person planted?

Either way, karmic reactions are the fruit of conscious actions and choices. The key word here is "conscious" because what we do unconsciously we also don't do with intention. Also, we don't include the factor of free will or active choice-making in the mix. And we have established that intention and free will are essential for the existence of karma.

But what's the whole point of being conscious of the effects of karma? Karma is there to remind us that our every action (or perhaps non-action) has an influence on us and our surroundings. This is why we should be careful about what we do (or do not) do. In addition to this, it's always good to have in mind the golden rule which essentially speaks of basic human values and what our parents teach while we are little - love others (or at least respect them), do what you can for your surroundings, take care of your loved ones, be honest, help those that are weaker and so on. Through all this, an individual develops a sense of responsibility towards him/herself, towards others but also towards their surroundings (Mother Earth).

We could summarize this in the following few sentences:
"Pagan ethics can be compared to a tree which has several big branches. (...) Everything starts with love. Love is the tree out of which the first branch grows: our respect and adoration of the cosmos (order, unity, harmony) from which stem beauty and an affinity towards aesthetics. The second branch is absolute freedom which sends the message that everyone should do what their will tells them to do. The third branch is relative freedom, that is conscious restriction of our own freedom with the freedom of others. This is the principle of nonviolence (harm none). The fourth branch is the branch of compassion, that is the feeling of obligation to help someone who is in distress. The fifth is the branch of avoiding false sentiments and giving up on the people that don't deserve either help or compassion. By doing this, you are actually protecting yourself, which is your most sacred duty. This is how Pagan ethics is entirely rounded and complete." (translation, Iolar, p. 223)


  1. FARRAR, JANET. FARRAR, STEWART. A Witches' Bible: The Complete Witches' Handbook. London: Robert Hale Ltd. 1984.
  2. IOLAR. Paganizam u teoriji i praksi: doktrina paganizma (knjiga 1). Zagreb: Despot Infinitus d.o.o. 2013.*
  3. VALIENTE, DOREEN. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale Ltd. 1978.

*Iolar's books were only published in Croatian and there is no translation of them (yet), but the group title of the three volumes is "Paganism in Theory and Practice". The full title of volume 1 is "Paganism in Theory and Practice: the Doctrine of Paganism".

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