It hardly seems possible that it has been almost 100 years since Mark Twain sat down and dictated his thoughts about The Witches' Rede, leaving to posterity what is surely the most clear-headed explanation ever attempted of this critical and central tenet of modern Witchcraft.
Okay, that really didn't happen.
But it might as well have. Because it was sometime around 1904 or 1905 that Mark Twain composed a short story called "The War Prayer". It's not easy to be sure just when it was written because Twain's publisher rejected it, saying that it was too controversial. It was based, in part, on Twain's opposition to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. Twain agreed with his publisher's assessment, commenting that it would probably have to wait until after his death before it could be published. As with the comet, Twain proved to be prophetic. "The War Prayer" didn't see the light of day until its first printing in 1923.
Yet this deceptively simple short story is far more profound than a mere anti-war rant. Indeed, it is an exploration of one of the most basic guidelines for ethical human behavior. Modern Witches refer to this same idea as "The Witches' Rede", and tend to couch it in archaic English: "An it harm none, do what thou wilt," thus rendering it nearly unintelligible to all but the initiated. Reading the antiquated "An" as the more contemporary word "If", the Rede translates into the modern idiom as something like "If you harm no one, then you can do what you want."
Every Wicca 101 instructor ever born has spent a considerable amount of time schooling newbies on all the ramifications of this simple phrase. The first thing they will usually point out is that "harming no one" may be harder than it sounds, since "no one" includes oneself! And the second thing they will mention is that even the most "positive" of magical spells may carry a hidden payload that is detrimental to someone. Thus, one has to be careful to scrutinize each new spell for possible hidden agendas. And if a harmful effect is found, then, by the law of the Witches' Rede, that spell should not be worked.
It is to this second point that Mark Twain addressed himself in his brilliant essay, "The War Prayer". Naturally, he doesn't speak of Witches casting spells. Instead (and rather delightfully, considering the subject), his setting is a prayer service in a Christian church, on the eve of a great war. As the minister delivers an impassioned plea for God's aid in granting a military victory, the service is disrupted by an aged stranger who enters, claiming to be a messenger from God. He says that he has been commissioned to put into words both the spoken, and the unspoken, portions of the congregation's prayer!
Then, in words that would do credit to any Coven elder, he explains, "If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it." This is the very essence of "An it harm none". From there, he goes on to explain what the congregation is really praying for when they implore God for a military victory. Controversial? Unfortunately. Timely? Never more so.
But don't take my word for it. Head to your local library and check it out for yourself. Or, if you're near your computer, just fire up your browser and point it to "www.warprayer.org". It only takes a few minutes to read, but you will be the richer for it. True, Mark Twain may not have been a Witch, but he certainly would have understood, and agreed with, the Witches' Rede. And I know of more than one Book of Shadows that includes a special page of honor for "The War Prayer".