Thoughts on the Threefold Law/Law of Return
I realized I was a Wiccan sometime late in middle school, and overall I’ve been very happy with my decision to walk down that path. However, over the nine or ten years I’ve been stewing in the religion, I’ve come to realize that there are parts of what I started with that don’t make sense to me anymore. It’s natural for this to happen — and it’s certainly not something that worries me — I don’t call myself Wiccan because I need to fit my beliefs in a box (I am a mostly solitary practitioner, after all) , so it doesn’t bother me when something doesn’t quite fit into the box Gerald Gardner started building in the 1940’s. However, it does give me something to think about.
The thing that has come to bother me is the threefold law. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes something like this:
Ever Mind The Rule Of Three
Three Times Your Acts Return To Thee
This Lesson Well, Thou Must Learn
Thou Only Gets What Thee Dost Earn
I like the idea that whatever you put out into the universe comes back to you, and that is indeed the heart of this concept. What I don’t like is the idea that it happens in threes–it bothers me mathematically because if everything really happens in threes, you can just factor out the three and that’s the same as everything happening in ones, which makes more sense to me and sounds a lot less like something someone just made up one day. I also don’t like that it sounds like a reward/punishment system (“Thou only gets what thee dost earn”) with some sort of immediacy. Furthermore, I don’t like that it sounds like it was written by someone who wanted to write in Renaissance English but actually lived in the 20th century and didn’t know how.
On the number three: I think it makes sense in a lot of contexts. A disproportionate number of ideas (especially occult concepts) come in threes or are triplets–beginning, middle, ending; maiden, mother, crone; father, son, holy spirit; body, mind, spirit; thought, word, deed… the list goes on. The number three is indeed magickally powerful; but so is every other number in its own way, and in this case, having a number at all is completely unnecessary. The chosen number is consequently completely arbitrary. That is to say, when every bit of energy put into the universe gets multiplied by the same number before it comes back to you, it doesn’t matter what that number is (furthermore multiplying it at all would mean that the energy of the universe is constantly expanding exponentially, and I’m no expert, but it doesn’t seem to me like that’s the case) .
If you need a mathematical refresher, here’s what the threefold law essentially is saying: grant that I put out 4 units of good energy into the universe and 1 unit of bad energy (assuming, which I don’t, that energy can be simply “good” or “bad”) . The threefold law says that I should get back 12 units of good energy (4×3) and 3 units of bad energy (1×3) . But if we look at this as a ratio of good energy to bad energy, then input:output is 4/1:12/3. If you divide the output by 3/3 (which is just a fancy 1) , you get 4/1:4/1.
So, the threefold law is just a fancy way of saying that the amount of each type of energy the universe throws at you is directly proportionate to the amount of that type of energy you put out into the universe. Essentially, the problem I have with the threefold law is mathematical, not philosophical. I understand, if they were going to choose an arbitrary number, WHY they would choose 3–I just don’t understand why a number had to be chosen if it was going to be completely arbitrary anyway.
There is another version of the threefold law called the Law of Return, and this is something I like much better. Below is a rather lengthy quote from Catherine Noble Beyer (just another everyday practitioner who posts some of her thoughts on the interwebs) , whose thoughts I find line up very closely with mine:
“The world does not work as simply as [the threefold law] make it sound. If it did we’d all be donating to charity like mad and reaping the rewards by the handful. The idea of things returning threefold is unnatural. According to the Law of Ecology (from biology class – as Wiccans we should be taking lessons from nature) :
“Everything is connected to everything else
Everything must go somewhere
Nature knows best
There is no such thing as a free lunch
“But it is true that harm tends to beget harm, and it is true that one good turns deserves another: people remember a person’s charity and are more likely to aid them in return. Hence, why I prefer to use the term “Law of Return” over “Threefold Law”.
“Let’s also remember one of Newton’s laws as another lesson from nature: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. “Opposite” does not mean that you receive bad for every good. It means what gets put out comes back. For instance, if you push upon a wall, the wall is actually pushing back with an equal amount of force – if it did not, it would fall over. That’s straight from physics class.”
If you’re very interested in this topic, I suggest you check out her whole article on the subject at http://wicca.cnbeyer.com/three.shtml
The only thing I require, which the Threefold Law has and the somewhat simpler and more sensical Law of Return lacks, is the benefit of being written in a short, rhyming ditty. The reason you hear rhyming spells from, say, the witches in Macbeth, is that in this sort of practice there IS the belief that rhyme better connects a person to the universe–it forces rhythm and brings out the inner child, who is less sophisticated (here I make use of the original c. 1600 definition of sophisticated: “mixed with a foreign substance, impure; no longer simple or natural, ” etymonline.com) and therefore better able to participate in creative acts.
The simple solution to this problem is to write out the Law of Return in a short, rhyming ditty, so I did:
Of your actions ever wary be,
for all that derives is drawn to thee:
Water will wet, fire will burn,
and all you beget alike will return.