Reprinted from “Witches & Pagans Magazine”:
It has been my experience that many people get involved in Wicca because they like the lack of rules. We don’t have a lot of “Thou shalt nots.” All we have is the Witch’s1 Rede, they say. But there are many unspoken rules of ethics that we think of as being essentially “Wiccan.” Why? Where do they come from?
The answer should be self-evident but often isn’t. What is the one piece of liturgy that Wiccans really have? The answer is the Charge of the Goddess.
Most modern Wiccans treat this prose as a lovely way to invoke the Goddess. It does work well that way. But consider the original meaning of the word “charge”. It is a command, a responsibility laid upon someone, an exhortation, a duty, an injunction, or being entrusted with someone’s care. It is a series of rules!
In order to illustrate this, and illustrate how this piece of liturgy defines our Wiccan ethics, the remainder of this article will be concerned with breaking down the Charge into its component elements and paraphrasing them in a less poetic fashion. I will present both Doreen Valiente’s version and Starhawk’s version, since both are utilized among different Wiccan traditions. Though there are other versions, these are the most commonly known. There are also some slight differences (some elements present in one version may not be present in the other,) and so these differences need to be addressed as well.
I. The Names of the Goddess
Listen to the words of the Great Mother;
she who of old was also called among men
Artemis, Astarte, Athene, Dione, Melusine,
Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Cybele, Arianrhod,
Isis, Dana, Bride and by many other names:
Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names:
The Goddess says, first and foremost, “Listen!” I don’t believe that this is merely a poetic way of beginning the charge; I believe She’s telling us to listen!
Many of the same Goddesses appear in both versions of the Charge. The goddesses common to both versions are: Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Arianrhod (different spellings,) and Bride/Brighid. Just among these goddesses there is diversity: maidens, mothers, and crones. (The additions to this list probably reflects the taste of the authors.)
This list of goddesses included in both versions, have messages that the Lady (or at least, those inspired by Her to write this prose) wants us to pay attention to. We can also gather that we should accept a balance of forces – life and death; Maiden, Mother and Crone; intellect and passion; love and war.
In both cases, the Goddess is named “Great Mother … and by many other names” and therein comes the Wiccan belief in the One Goddess being present in all goddesses. But it also acknowledges that these individual Goddesses are separate beings with their own individual areas of concern, otherwise why mention them separately at all?
By listing Them together, the authors are also asserting that all these goddesses are equally worthy of our respect. I would think that it would be important, then; if we follow a goddess Who is not mentioned in this passage of the Charge, we should make sure to include Her when we recite it.
II. Gathering Together
Whenever ye have need of anything,
once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full,
then shall ye assemble in some secret place
and adore the spirit of me,
who am Queen of all Witcheries.
Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me Who is Queen of all the Wise.
Our Goddess is less demanding than some gods we know (who demands a gathering at least once a week!) but She still requires that we gather together. She continues, “Better it be when the moon is full.” Why?
Most Witches know that magick brought to fruition on the full moon has the power of the waxing moon behind it. Maybe it’s just because the Full Moon has always captured the imagination of humankind, and everything looks more magickal under Her light.
The Goddess also says, “You should gather in a secret place.” Once a month, She wants us to gather away from the public eye. I believe this is because much of a Witch’s work is mystical in nature and should be a personal, private thing, shared only to those who are willing to understand. I also believe that the Inner Work (the mysticism) is necessary before you can presume to do the Outer Work.
The Lady also says, “You shall adore Me, who is the Queen!” That means that we need to worship and respect Her, not demand things of Her like a servant. She’s bigger than us, and we need to keep that in mind. If She directs us to do something that we don’t understand, we just have to remember that She is the one who commands us. Note that She says “adore,” not “fear” — we don’t need to fear the Goddess. I believe that means that She also loves us, because love has to work in two directions in order to be real love. This is a very important distinction.
III. Sorcery & Magical Training
There shall ye assemble,
ye who are fain to learn all sorcery,
yet have not won its deepest secrets;
to these will I teach things that are yet unknown.
Starhawk has no equivalent section.
Which Charge do you follow? This is the first really significant difference between these two charges: in Valiente’s version, you are commanded to learn magick. If you choose to follow Starhawk’s Charge, there is no requirement to learn (or do) magick. So if you are someone who follows the Wiccan faith but you don’t practice magick, you shouldn’t follow Valiente’s Charge, because it is quite clear here that magickal training is expected. It also states that unless you have “won its deepest secrets” (and anyone who thinks they have is, in my opinion, suffering from High Priestess Disease,) you need to always keep learning.
IV. Freedom from oppression — and clothes (or maybe just bling).
And ye shall be free from slavery;
and as a sign that ye be really free,
ye shall be naked in your rites;
and ye shall dance, sing, feast,
make music and love,
all in my praise.
For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit,
and mine also is joy on earth;
for my law is love unto all beings.
You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.
Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.
For My law is love is unto all beings.
Ah, some of my favorite verses!
The Goddess says, “You shall be free from slavery.” This is a good reason to believe that Wicca is a countercultural movement. In order to be free, we have to think for ourselves, and we should also abhor slavery and try to fight it.
She also commands that we shall “be naked in our rites.” At one time, all Wiccans took this to mean skyclad (clothes-free) practice, but most of us have since adopted ritual robes instead. I suppose the question is, what did She mean by “naked?” The obvious answer is, of course, “without clothing” but it can also mean unadorned. So what does that suggest about our custom of wearing cool Witch bling and fancy amber and jet necklaces? I think the idea is to remember that we are all equals before the Goddess.
Next, we are exhorted to “sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in Her presence/praise.”
So, She wants us to make a joyous noise, to sample freely of the fruits of life, to offer up celebratory and joyful movement, to create art, and to love. No sitting on hard pews being quiet for us! She wants us to be noisy! She wants us to shout with joy! She wants us to love freely and without guilt!
This was a very important realization for me, because I tend to be a serious person by nature. To emphasize this message, She goes on to remind us that Hers is the “ecstasy of the spirit,” and “joy on earth;” meaning that She is the one who grants these things, and that is Her realm.
Last, the Lady announces that “Her law is love unto all beings.” That includes the jerk who cut you off in traffic, the miserable boss who is riding you for no good reason, the irritating cousin you would rather not admit that you know, that dog next door that won’t shut up at 3 a.m., mosquitoes and wasps and spiders and snakes and beetles too. All beings. Period.
Keep pure your highest ideal;
strive ever towards it;
let naught stop you or turn you aside.
Starhawk writes no equivalent passage.
I think this passage doesn’t require much interpretation. The Goddess wants us to hold to our highest ideal (note that She said, “your highest ideal,” not “My highest ideal,”) to always work to achieve it, and not to allow anyone to dissuade us from it or distract us from it. Those who are familiar with the work of Aleister Crowley’s work will recognize this as a clear command to focus on, and work consistently to achieve, our True Wills!
VI. Youth and Immortality
For mine is the secret door
which opens upon the Land of Youth,
and mine is the cup of the wine of life,
and the Cauldron of Cerridwen,
which is the Holy Grail of immortality.
Mine is the secret that opens the door of youth, and Mine is the cup of wine of life that is the cauldron of Cerridwen, that is the holy grail of immortality.
There is a fine distinction here, again, that needs mentioning between the two Charges. Valiente refers to the “secret door which opens upon the Land of Youth,” and Starhawk refers to the “secret that opens the door of youth.” This distinction represents a difference between Gardnerian Wicca and Reclaiming Wicca. For the Gardnerians (Valiente’s tradition,) the Land of Youth is the Summerlands, where we go when we die and our beauty and youth is restored; the process of earning entry into the Summerlands is an occult mystery. For the Reclaiming Witches, the “fountain of youth” is a state that can be reached by anyone of any age through the Secrets of the Goddess. For Doreen Valiente, the Goddess asks us to seek the Summerlands through occult practice, while for Starhawk, the Goddess wants us to seek inner youth and bring that freshness to our everyday lives, regardless of our age.
Either interpretation fits into the rest of the passage, in which the Lady claims the mysteries of Life, Death, and Rebirth as Her own. “The cup of the wine of life” can be seen both as the joy of Life celebrated and as the Mother’s womb. The Cauldron of Cerridwen is the cauldron of transformation, in which we all are slain and reborn in a new form; the tomb that is also a womb. By claiming these mysteries, the Goddess tells us not to fear death, but to accept it as part of the process of life. She tells us to remember that all things come in cycles. She reminds us that no matter how difficult things are, this, too, shall pass.
VII: Life After Death
I am the Gracious Goddess,
who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man.
Upon earth, I give the knowledge of the
and beyond death, I give peace and freedom
and reunion with those who have gone before.
I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before.
The Lady says, “If you’re in touch with My mysteries, then you should know that the spirit is eternal. When you die, I will give you peace, and freedom, and I will see that you are reunited with those you love whom you have lost.”
What form this reunion takes is up for debate in the Wiccan community. Some non-theist Wiccans believe that there is no life after death; others believe that we are all reunited in a collective race consciousness; while still others (myself among them) believe that our spirit continues and we get to hang out with the cool people we love and miss in a world very similar to this one. (Except that since it’s the Land of Youth, we all get to be at our physical prime again!)
VIII: The Mother of All Living
Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice;
I am the Mother of all living,
and my love is poured out upon the earth.
Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.
So, our Goddess does not ask for us to sacrifice anything. I believe this also means that She doesn’t want any martyr complexes.
I think there is a difference, however, in that if we freely offer Her a sacrifice, She will be pleased to accept it. At every Esbat I offer Her the first portion of the wine and the feast; at every harvest, I offer Her the first portion of my carrots, grapes, pumpkins and so forth. I offer it freely in gratitude for what I have received. I feel She’s happy to have it and appreciates the offer. But, She doesn’t demand it!
She goes on to remind us that She is the Mother of all living things and She loves all of them. Note, too, that She makes sure to clarify by telling us that Her “love is poured out upon the earth,” that this includes plants and spirit-beings as well. I think this may be the seed of Pagan environmentalism, which accepts all living things as the Great Mother’s creation.
IX: The Star Goddess
Hear ye the words of the Star Goddess;
she in the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven,
and whose body encircles the Universe.
Hear the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of Heaven, whose body encircles the universe:
Who is the Star Goddess? Well, this is the Great Cosmic Goddess, of Whom all Goddesses are but a part. Either the dust of Her feet are the hosts of heaven (a.k.a. the gods,) or those hosts of heaven are in the dust of Her feet. I take that to mean that they are merely a part of Her greater whole. And since Her “body encircles the universe,” She encompasses all of us and we are contained within Her. I can’t help but make that “eat my dust!” connection as well. She is far beyond the hosts of heaven (the gods;) She leaves them in Her dust. So this is the Goddess of the gods that we are listening to now! I don’t know if I can effectively communicate in this short space how truly profound this statement is if you consider it. So, the Great Creatrix wants to tell us something. Maybe we should listen!
X. The Soul of Nature
I who am the beauty of the green earth,
and the white Moon among the stars,
and the mystery of the waters,
and the desire of the heart of man,
call unto thy soul.
Arise, and come unto me.
For I am the soul of nature, who gives life
to the universe.
From me all things proceed,
and unto me all things must return;
I Who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters, I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of nature that gives life to the universe. From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return.
The Creatrix identifies Herself with the earth, the moon, and the mysterious waters. The earth, moon and waters all change; cycling through seasons, phases and tides. They have been here long before us and they will be here long after we are gone. They are cradles of life, but they also have phases of death and darkness, ebb and flow.
The first lesson here is to accept change and transformation, to appreciate the beauty in the world around us, and to spend time observing that world. The second lesson is that She wants us to look to the natural world for the sacred. She tells us that She is “the beauty of the green earth.” Again, Pagan environmentalism is reinforced. If the earth is sacred, and our Goddess is there, we must, must care for it and treat it with reverence and respect!
XI. The Rapture of the Infinite
and before my face, beloved of Gods and of men,
let thine innermost divine self be enfolded
in the rapture of the infinite.
Starhawk again writes no equivalent.
Valiente’s Goddess tells us that in Her presence, we are loved by the Gods and by humanity. She reminds us that our innermost self is divine and she asks us to “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.” In this simple phrase She reminds us to appreciate that profound divine eternal mystery hinted at in the earth, moon and sky, and ocean, but She also encourages us to seek that mystical state of enlightenment that is impossible to describe if you have not experienced it; that state of religious ecstasy that some call nirvana, some call satori, and the Witches call “Drawing Down the Moon.”
XII. All Acts of Love & Pleasure
Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth;
all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.
Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices,
for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are
The Goddess commands us to worship Her with joy, and explicitly endorses that one of the most sacred acts of ritual and worship that we can offer to the Lady is to celebrate love and pleasure. Sexuality becomes sacred! This is the foundation for why many Wiccans and Pagans do not constrain their relationships to heterosexual monogamy. What this section means, exactly, is much discussed in our community. Some more traditional Wiccans believe that the balance of male and female is preferred, but many others accept many alternate forms of sexuality. When you take this proclaimation together with the self-acceptance and appreciation of nakedness earlier in the Charge, it makes for a very liberating sexuality in which shame and embarrassment should never play a part. But take note: because sexuality is sacred anything that cheapens that experience insults an act which should remain sacred, and hence, is blasphemy.
XIII: Wiccan Virtues
And therefore let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion, honour and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.
Let there be beauty and strength, power and
compassion, honor and humility, mirth and
reverence within you.
This passage describes a set of Wiccan Virtues, and it is the most ethically explicit part of the Charge. Note it is a list of virtues, not of sins — we are exhorted to embody these virtues, not to avoid disobedience of a set of rules. Note the balance emphasized here; the Goddess wants beauty and strength, not beauty or strength; power and compassion, honorand humility, mirth and reverence. When Wiccans speak of finding balance, I think it is these qualities we are especially trying to balance within our own characters.
XIV: Finding the Goddess Within
And thou who thinkest to seek for me,
know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not
unless thou knowest the mystery;
that if that which thou seekest
thee findest not within thee,
thou wilt never find it without thee.
And you who seek to know Me, know that the
seeking and yearning will avail you not,
unless you know the Mystery: for if that
which you seek, you find not within yourself,
you will never find it without.
To me, this is the most profound passage in the Charge: the Goddess tells us not to waste time looking to others for our validation and for the mysteries that are Hers, but to look within. So for anyone looking for a great Wiccan guru to teach you how to find the Goddess; well, cut that out! A good Wiccan teacher will try to show you how to find those answers for yourself. The Goddess also reminds us that changing what is within changes what is without. If you want to change your world, change your perspective, and be the change you would see in the world. “As above, so below.”
XV: The Beginning and the End
I have been with thee from the beginning;
and I am that which is attained
at the end of desire.
For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at
the end of desire.
In Her last statement, the Lady reminds us that She will be with us at the beginning and the end, and She has always been with us, and She is what we ultimately seek. For me, that’s a pretty comforting thought.
The Charge of the Goddess is a very profound ethical code as well as a statement of theology and cosmology. If you include it with the Witch’s Rede and the Threefold Law, Wicca is full of ethical direction! I hope this has helped to clarify some of it, and even if you don’t agree with my interpretations then I hope I have inspired you to give some extra thought to yours!
Starhawk, “The Charge of the Goddess,” from The Spiral Dance, 1975, 2010.
Valiente, Doreen, “The Charge of the Goddess,” from The Gardnerian Book of Shadows,reprinted at www.sacred-texts.com, 1957, 2007.
– by Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison)