What’s Behind the Power to Keep Silent?



You know, R.D. Laing had three rules of a dysfunctional family. Rule A is: Don’t. Rule A1 is: Rule A does not exist. And Rule A2 is: Never discuss the existence or nonexistence of rules Rule A, A1, or A2. So in an abusive family, like my own when I was a child, we could talk about everything we wanted except for the violence that we had to pretend wasn’t happening. We couldn’t talk about the fact that we couldn’t talk about the violence, and so on and so on.

When I was a bright young Witch — and it was many and many a Moon ago — any time that someone wanted to shut down your discussion of activism, they’d just say “Rule of Three!” and that was all it took for everyone to decide that, yes, indeed, you needed to STFU.  Although the first references to the rule appear to have been to an early statement in Gerald Gardner’s novel, High Magic’s Aid, which said,  “Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally [thou] art bound to return good threefold,” the Rule later came to stand for the notion that whatever you sent out into the world would return to you threefold.

Thus, if you, for example, bound a rapist, making him unable to rape, you, too would be thrice unable to rape.  To which, I at least, always responded, “Great.  I don’t ever want to rape anyone.  So, fair enough, I’ll bind this rapist and I’m glad to be bound three times from raping anyone.”  But, over time, the simple incantation of “Rule of Three” began to mean that one should almost never engage in activism because, woo, hoo, whoo, ohohohh, it could come back to “bite” you three times over.  You could have all the good intention in the world, you could just want to stop a rapist from raping, but the unexplained, mysterious, but all-powerful Rule of Three meant that if you bound the rapist you’d, I don’t know, be unable to have sex, or find yourself abandoned by your lover, or lose your libido.  Because, I don’t know, because.  Reasons.  You’d interfered with the rapist’s free will or something, I guess.

The phrase, “Rule of Three,” became useless and most reasonable people abandoned and it and rejected its simplistic meaning.

Lately, I’ve noticed the same thing happening with the phrase:  “The Power to Keep Silent.”  You know this phrase;  it’s quoted, usually without any definitive attribution, as one of the “Four Powers of the Witch.”  Thus, a Witch must know how to Will, to Dare, to Know, and to Keep Silent.  Those four powers, it is said, create a pyramid, with to Know, to Will, and to Dare forming the base of the pyramid and to Keep Silent forming the apex.  And each of them can be explained rather easily and can rather easily be associated with various aspects of Witchcraft. So, for example, the Power to Will relates to a Witch’s ability to project her will into a magical working.  She ends a spell declaring, “This is my will; so mote it be.”  This power relates to how well a Witch keeps her word on the “mundane” plane; if your word is no good in this world, why should it command respect when you cast a circle and move between the worlds?  Having a strong will obviously relates to the ability to do strong magic.

But what about the Power to Keep Silent?

Well, obviously, if you belong to a despised minority religion, the Power to Keep Silent matters.  If they arrest & torture you, we don’t want you naming the rest of us and telling when & where our next meeting is going to be.  Keep silent and trust, as one early source that I read assured, that drugs will reach you before they light the logs beneath your bare feet.  Or, not, but don’t name the rest of us to stop them pulling your limbs apart on the rack.

Similarly, if you and the old woman who lives at the edge of the forest are going to go out under the dark Moon and do magic designed to, for example, make the lord’s son impotent in return for the fact that he raped your daughter and you can’t demand justice in the light of day, well, then, sure, you need to Keep the Fuck Silent about what you’re doing.  If you could waltz into court and sign your name to a complaint, you’d have done that.  The whole reason you’ve brought a chicken and a pair of socks to the old woman is that you can’t let the lord know you’re seeking justice.  And if you name her, well, she won’t be here to help you when the lord’s second son rapes your second daughter.  So, keep silent.

I’ll also acknowledge that staying silent has a power all its own.  It intensifies the power of the magic that I’m doing.  It’s secret and it hits my target without any advance warning.  Secrets have power simply because they’re secret.

I was recently at a Pagan conference where The Power to Keep Silent got a lot of lip service in response to any discussion of pubic magic workings to aid the Resistance.  “Wait!  You can’t do a public working on social media!  What about the Power to Keep Silent?”  If anyone dared to push back a bit – well, why must we keep silent? – people looked bemused.  “The Power to Keep Silent” was supposed, all on its own, as a simple invocation, to shut down all discussion. If the questioners persisted, the answer seemed to come down to, “Well, if you say on the internet that you’re going to bind Trump, then Xian prayer warriors will pray for him.  So, there.”  And, OK, fair enough, but it’s interesting to me that the Xians don’t feel the need to keep their workings secret.  They put up big, splashy webpages with names such as “POTUS Shield” and do their best to make sure that as many of their members as possible know how to join in their working.

Crowley and Levi are often cited as sources for the “rule,” sometimes associated with these powers being the “powers of the Sphinx,” but there’s little to explain why one must remain silent.  One just must in order to “obtain power.”

I’m indebted to Rhyd Widdermouth who recently reminded me that, when ancient druids decided to curse someone, they didn’t keep that secret.  They wanted to make sure that the entire community knew that the person was cursed.  There was no power in their keeping silent.  And the more suspicious and vulnerable the subject might be, the more important it was to ensure that they knew that many, many powerful magic workers were aligned against them.

I’m not suggesting that Witches are under any obligation to discuss their magic workings in public.  If you think that keeping silent will enhance the power of your working, ensure the safety of those involved, or protect you from blowback, then, by all means, keep silent. I’m just suggesting that we begin to question when and where this shibboleth helps us and when it hinders us.  I don’t want to do or not do something simply because someone intones a phrase, even if that phrase is “The Power to Keep Silent.”  Shhhh.  Don’t tell.

Picture found here.

13 responses to “What’s Behind the Power to Keep Silent?

  1. Women are always told to keep silent. I’ve always believed that my real secrets in life keep their own secrets, regardless of what I say out loud. So I’ll talk as much as I want! And about whatever I want.

  2. Nice, set of. Words great narrative if you would ask me that is a harsh reality. But I believe The tendency. To be quiet will have to pass thorough gradualisim and. Through constant reminder that. You need to be quiet.

  3. In the case of abuse there is need for a coherent and orderly manner of outspoken attitude. , because silence means Yes “consent”

    • Akpederi Raymond, good point. I’ve become much more outspoken since the election in a non-PC way. I used to just roll my eyes at a lot of conservative comments, figuring that arguing would just distract. Now, I insist on speaking up. I’m not going to let them assume I agree just because I am silent.

  4. It’s easy for the rule of three to be invoked by witches of privilege who do not suffer from systemic oppression. I guess they can afford to see how policy plays out. I can understand some of the keep silent stuff, but I’m so tired of the rule of three I could barf. It’s a cop out for inaction, and a way to try and “be acceptable” to monotheists.

    • Seidrwoman, Thanks for this. I agree that the rule of three became popular during a time when Paganism was working hard to be acceptable (aka non-threatening) to the big 3 monotheisms. We were so much older then, as the song says, we’re younger than that now.

  5. When I was a kid, people used this phrase to keep us passive, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

  6. Erin Lund Johnson

    Great points! I would note that witches historically were counter-cultural figures not a part of, and often challenging mainstream society, while druids were authority figures in, and arbiters of their society, so they would not be expected to function in similar ways in their societies. A druid’s actions were intended to be public, for the public, while the witch’s were intended to be private, and so treated accordingly. Given this, I don’t think these two figures in this instance are able to draw the most helpful parallel.

    • Erin Lund Johnson,
      That’s a good point and thank you for it. What I wonder is how does this play out in today’s society when may Pagans of different sects (for lack of a better word) sometimes work together. But I do agree with your distinction between Witches and Druids and am grateful for the comment.

      • Except if you go back far enough in history, to before the Romans vilified the witch, she didn’t operate in the shadows, her acts had no need to be hidden. She may not have been the preasts and messengers that the druids were but she was respected and consulted in many communities. So perhaps a more equal comparison than our more modern perspective would lead us to think.

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