Many new Wiccans and Pagans are initiated with the cautionary words from their elders, "Ever mind the Rule of Three!" This warning is explained to mean that no matter what you do magically, there's a giant Cosmic Force that will make sure your deeds are revisited upon you threefold. It's universally guaranteed, some Pagans claim, which is why you better not EVER perform any harmful magic... or at least, that's what they tell you.
However, this is one of the most highly contested theories in modern Paganism. Is the Rule of Three real, or is it just something made up by experienced Wiccans to scare the "newbies" into submission?
There are several different schools of thought on the Rule of Three. Some Wiccans and Pagans will tell you in no uncertain terms that it's bunk, and that the Threefold Law is not a law at all, but just a guideline used to keep people on the straight and narrow. Other groups swear by it.
Background and Origins of the Threefold Law
The Rule of Three, also called the Law of Threefold Return, is a caveat given to newly initiated witches in some magical traditions, primarily NeoWiccan ones. The purpose is a cautionary one. It keeps people who have just discovered Wicca from thinking they have Magical Super Powers. It also, if heeded, keeps folks from performing negative magic without putting some serious thought into the consequences.
An early incarnation of the Rule of Three appeared in Gerald Gardner's novel, High Magic's Aid, in the form of "Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold." It later appeared as a poem published in a magazine back in 1975. Later this evolved into the notion among new witches that there is a spiritual law in effect that everything you do comes back to you. In theory, it's not a bad concept -- after all, if you surround yourself with good things, good things should come back to you. Filling your life with negativity will often bring similar unpleasantness into your life. However, does this really mean there's a karmic law in effect? And why the number three -- why not ten or five or 42?
It's important to note that there are many Pagan traditions that do not adhere to this guideline at all.
Objections to the Law of Three
For a law to truly be a law, it must be universal -- which means it needs to apply to everyone, all the time, in every situation. That means for the Threefold Law to really be a law, every single person who does bad things would always be punished, and all the good people in the world would have nothing but success and happiness -- and that doesn't just mean in magical terms, but in all non-magical ones as well. We all can see that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, under this logic, every jerk who cuts you off in traffic would have nasty car-related retribution coming his way three times a day, but that just doesn't happen.
Not only that, there are countless numbers of Pagans who freely admit to having performed harmful or manipulative magic, and never having anything bad coming back upon them as a result. In some magical traditions, hexing and cursing is considered as routine as healing and protecting -- and yet members of those trads don't seem to receive negativity back upon them every single time.
According to Wiccan author Gerina Dunwich, if you look at the Law of Three from a scientific perspective it is not a law at all, because it is inconsistent with the laws of physics.
Why the Law of Three is Practical
No one likes the idea of Pagans and Wiccans running around flinging curses and hexes willy-nilly, so the Law of Three is actually quite effective in making people stop and think before they act. Quite simply, it's the concept of cause and effect. When crafting a spell, any competent Wiccan or Pagan is going to stop and think about the end results of the working. If the possible ramifications of one's actions will likely be negative, that may make us stop to say, "Hey, maybe I better rethink this a bit."
Although the Law of Three sounds prohibitive, many Wiccans see it instead as a useful standard to live by. It allows one to set boundaries for oneself by saying, "Am I prepared to accept the consequences -- be they good or bad -- for my deeds, both magical and mundane?"
As to why the number three -- well, why not? Three is known as a magical number . And really, when it comes to paybacks, the idea of "three times revisited" is fairly ambiguous. If you whack someone in the nose, does it mean you'll get your own nose punched three times? No, but it could mean you'll show up at work, your boss will have heard about you bopping someone's schnoz, and now you're fired because your employer won't tolerate brawlers --- certainly this is a fate which could be, to some, considered "three times worse" than getting hit in the nose.
Some Pagans use a different interpretation of the Law of Three, but still maintain that it prevents irresponsible behavior. One of the most sensible interpretations of the Rule of Three is one that states, quite simply, that your actions effect you on three separate levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. This means that before you act, you need to consider how your deeds will impact your body, your mind and your soul. Not a bad way to look at things, really.
Another school of thought interprets the Law of Three in a cosmic sense -- what you do in this lifetime will be revisited upon you three times more intently in your NEXT life. Likewise, the things that are happening to you this time around, be they be good or bad, are your paybacks for actions in previous lifetimes. If you accept the concept of reincarnation, this adaptation of the Law of Threefold Return may resonate with you a little more than the traditional interpretation.
In some traditions of Wicca, coven members initiated into upper degree levels may use the Law of Threefold Return as a way of giving back that which they receive -- in other words, what other people do to you, you are permitted to return threefold, whether it's good or bad.
Ultimately, whether you accept the Law of Three as a cosmic morality injunction or simply a part of life's little instruction manual, it is up to you to govern your own behaviors, both mundane and magical. Accept personal responsibility, and always think before you act.