Threefold Law of Return (also Threefold Law of Karma) An ethic more than a law of uncertain origin that emerged in the Gardnerian tradition (see Gerald B. Gardner) of contemporary Witchcraft and that has been adopted by some witches in other traditions. It is derived from the Eastern concept of karma.
Karma is the cosmic principle of cause and effect, which holds that for every action in life, there is a reaction; good is returned by good, evil is returned by evil. Karma is the sum total of causes set in motion through a series of incarnations, and it influences the spiritual progress of the soul toward Divine Consciousness. Karma is not a law of punishment, though it has been interpreted as such by some schools of Western esoteric thought, such as Theosophy.
The Threefold Law of return, however says that an action is not returned in equal measure but magnified three times, which defies the metaphysical laws of the universe. According to this concept, a Witch who uses her powers for good gets triple good in return. The law is a significant incentive not to use Magic to curse others or even manipulate them, for the evil will return in triple strength as well. Some Witches say the return is sevenfold.
The origin of the Threefold Law of return in Witchcraft is not known. references to returning persecution twofold appear in the legend of Aradia, as recorded in the late 19th century by Charles Godfrey Leland in the legend of Diana, the Greek goddess and patroness of witches, sends her daughter, Aradia, to earth to teach witches their art. Diana instructs Aradia:
And when a priest shall do you injury By his benedictions, ye shall do to him Double the harm, and do it in the name Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!
Gerald B. Gardner, for whom Gardnerian Witchcraft is named, was a believer in karma and promoted the ethic that Witches must not use their power for anything that brings harm to another. There is no evidence that he conceived of the threefold return, though P. E. I. (Isaac) Bonewits notes that Gardner did specify threefold return in Ritual scourging (light whipping). Three may have gotten attached to the concept of karma simply because it is a magical number; incantations often are repeated three times (“three times is the charm”). Three is perfect and lucky, and in contemporary Witchcraft it is associated with the Triple Goddess (see Goddess).
The first known reference in print to the Threefold Law of return appeared in 1970 in Witchcraft Ancient and Modern, by Raymond Buckland, who was initiated into the Craft by Gardner and was instrumental in introducing Gardnerian Witchcraft into the United States. Buckland observes that with the retribution under the Threefold Law, “there is no inducement for a Witch to do evil.”
The law of cause and effect is watched over by higher entities called the Lords of karma, a concept from Theosophy that is drawn from the Hindu lipikas, the “scribes,” whose job it is to record karma, and the devarajas, who rule over the cardinal points (and also are associated with the elements) and are said to be karmic agents during a person’s life on earth. According to Stewart Farrar, the Lords of karma do not override the law of karma but can help push people in the right karmic direction.
Most contemporary Witches believe in Reincarnation and the cause and effect of karma, but some do not take the Threefold Law of return literally in terms of a triple return. They believe in using their powers for good and not evil (see Wiccan Rede).
- Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1986.
- Weinstein, Marion. Earth Magic: A Dianic Book of Shadows. revised ed. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1998.