What is Paganism? The word itself evokes many different understandings and sentiments. Some believe it to be a heathen form of religion. Others believe it is the worship of nature. But the common understanding of the term “paganism” is meant to include all religions that are not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. They are sometimes earth centered and usually polytheistic.
Modern scholars have debated the role of religion in ancient civilizations. Some, like Edward B. Taylor, suggest that religion and the belief in higher beings served the logical purpose of explaining natural events that could not be explained in another way at the time. But others, like R. H. Codrington, suggest that religion was the result of direct experiences and emotions connected to the power of nature and natural phenomena. Regardless of why exactly ancient civilizations developed religions, it is apparent that religion played a huge role in the lives of archaic people.
Because religion was almost exclusively an oral tradition, it is impossible to reconstruct any of the ancient religions. However, we have evidence from the Cro-Magnon people, around 35,000 BCE, that most ancient religions were centered around ritual. These rituals revolved around cycles, such as the cycle of life or harvest. Much attention was paid to the rituals surrounding birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Some cultures stressed certain rituals more than others. The ability to give life was considered magical and mysterious, thus there were many cultures that celebrated the feminine Divine. Many religions were based on Animism, the belief that natural phenomena and other inanimate objects possess spirits. Animistic cultures often practiced Henotheism, the belief that there is more than one God, Goddess, or Divine Being, but also that not all Divine Beings possess the same amount of power. Because these religions were predominately oral, there was a huge emphasis on mythology. Because they “experienced the world as a sacred reality,” they turned many of their religious beliefs and symbols into allegories and other kinds of symbolic stories that exist under the blanket name of “myth.” Being oral traditions, almost all ancient religions included some sort of kinship system, whether matriarchal or patriarchal.
There is a common belief that all ancient religions were centered around a female deity. However, this may not be entirely true. While there certainly were many cultures that celebrated a feminine Divine, it has become clear that the lifestyle of the particular tribe or culture dictated the gender of their most celebrated Deity. For example, the hunter / gatherer tribes had a tendency to worship a male deity, as they relied on hunting and searching for their sustenance, activities typically associated with masculinity. The cultures that cultivated crops and relied on harvest for their sustenance were typically worshippers of a feminine Divine, as they relied on the Earth for their survival, usually characterized as female. Thus, separate cultures began to create gender roles. While there are plenty of striking examples of cultures where these roles are not present, many early civilizations held the understanding that men should be the ones to hunt, and women should be the ones to stay closer to the home and cultivate the Earth. However, this was by no means a “lesser status” than that of the men. Women held much power in ancient cultures, because of their ability to give birth and therefore expand the tribe. Women were highly respected.
Biblical times (meaning the time period during which the stories in the Old Testament were reported to have occurred) began the shift in understanding of gender roles. The status of women was slowly lowered as people began to understand the male role in procreation. Polytheistic religions shifted into henotheistic religions, starting the movement towards monotheism. There was a surge in the presence of male Deity. Gods, kings, fathers and priests slowly started to take over the power and roles of Goddesses, queens, priestesses and mothers. Patriarchal cultures became more common. “Many academics believe that the suppression of Goddess worship in Western Europe occurred a few thousand years BCE, when Indo Europeans invaded Europe from the East. They brought with them some of the ‘refinements’ of modern civilization; the horse, organized war, belief in male Gods, explanation of nature, knowledge of the male role of procreation, etc. Goddess worship was gradually combined with the worship of male Gods to produce a variety of Pagan religions, among them Greeks, Romans, Celts, etc.”
For millenniums, Paganism was the dominant religious structure of the world. Mythology from Egypt, Italy, Scandinavia and other areas in and around Europe has preserved much of the ancient religions. All these cultures are considered to be Pagan. They also involved ritual and had a large emphasis on oral tradition.
The Slow Decline of Paganism in Pop Culture
During the eighth century CE, laws against Paganism started appearing. Paganism had now been reduced to the misleading name of “Witchcraft.” However, these first laws were more concerned with human rights – for example, Charlemagne’s outlawing of ritual human sacrifice, as it constituted as murder. But gradually, these laws became less and less practical and more sharply directed at the customs of Pagans and “Witches.” In Rome, it became illegal to leave any remains of an offering out in public. The tenth century CE brought the Inquisition period, during which Pagans were put to death and torture for their beliefs. The Inquisition was considered the “political arm of the Vatican” and was created by Pope John XXII in 1318. Witchcraft was outlawed as a crime against the church during the eleventh century. The so-called “witch craze” had been sparked, as concrete evidence of the struggle between Christianity and Paganism. With the exception of England, “Witches,” sentenced under the crime of heresy, were burned at the stake all over Europe for four centuries.
As of the year 1330, the church taught its worshippers that witches were sexually frivolous worshippers of Satan who killed and ate children. When the plague of the 14th century came, witches were blamed. Witches were continually blamed for the misfortunes of others. The 15th century saw the first major witch hunt. Walter Stevens has been quoted saying “I think witches were a scapegoat for God.”
The Burning Times
There are many myths about the burnings of the sixteenth century. There are estimated to have been between 50,000 and 100,000 victims, contrary to the nine million that has become popular belief. Most burnings occurred between 1550 and 1650, although they spanned over four centuries. Another misconception about the “burning times” is that all people who were burned were actually Pagans or “witches.” This is not the case. The church used stake burning as a way of gaining power through intimidation. Although it is very true that many Pagans were burned at the stake, there is substantial evidence to suggest that the church used stake burning to eliminate those people who were a threat to their power or were otherwise a nuisance. Many widows and midwives were burned for the crime of heresy, when, in fact, they were just knowledgeable wise women and easy targets. Evidence also points to stake burnings as a way for the church to eliminate poverty. Twenty five percent of those who were burned were actually male. Most stake burnings happened in Switzerland, Germany and France. It is also worth noting that during the peak of stake burning, there was significant struggle between Catholics and Protestants. The stake burnings were a huge political statement by both Protestants and Catholics during a time of huge social turmoil.
Yet, Paganism rose again slightly. Most texts we have demonstrating the struggle between Christianity and Paganism at the time date back to the sixteenth century. An interesting example of this is books about alchemy. Although it was considered a “Christian craft,” the books were written with Pagan symbols.
Paganism in Britain has a slightly different history than that of the rest of Europe. Evidence of Pagan cultures dates back to the Stone Age, where the British had Animistic and Shamanistic practices, as did everyone else in the world. The most common Pagan practice in Britain during the Renaissance is now called Wicce, pronounced Wee-cha, meaning wise one. Like the rest of Europe, Wicce was almost wiped out by the church. But instead of dying out completely, Pagans hid in the countryside. The countryside was a safe harbor for Pagans, as it was often the last place to be visited by Christian missionaries and other “messengers” of the church. The British countryside became a haven full of healers, midwives, seers, and diviners. Thus, the term “Pagan” emerged from the Latin word “paganus,” meaning “not of the city” or “rural.” Wicce was a Celtic religion, one believed to be responsible for the existence of many Christian saints, such as Brighid. The term “witch” was given to these country dwellers that were considered heretics by the Inquisition. “Witchcraft” on the other hand, refers to the practice of ritual magic, and is not entirely related to religion itself. Pagan practices survived in the British countryside for centuries and many people believe it to be the mother of modern Wicca.
There are many misconceptions about modern practices of Pagans. There are thousands of different sects of Neo-Paganism, each with very different beliefs. Some Neo-Pagan groups are descendants of ancient religions, though none are complete reconstructions. Many more are a combination of different cultural practices.
One of the most well known Neo-Pagan religions is Wicca. Some people believe it to be a direct descendent of “The Old Religion,” a craft which was created single-handedly by Margaret Murray and explained in her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in the 1920s. Murray claims to have completely recovered the Craft that existed in Europe during the burning times. Most people consider this claim to be absolutely ridiculous, because there was no single Pagan religion in Europe during the burning times. There is very little textual evidence and specific detail of Pagan religions in Europe during that time, although we do have signed confessions from those who were burned at the stake. Murray used these documents as her evidence to prove how the church pushed the “Old Religion” underground, into many covens that all practiced the same religion. However, these confessions hold very little historical weight, because they were signed under the eye of the Inquisition. Murray’s book sparked a sudden outburst of individuals claiming to be direct descendents of the Witches who practiced this erroneous religion. These people formed the “New Forest Covens,” small groups of around twelve people who met in secret to practice “the Old Religion.” This pseudo-reconstruction of Celtic/Shamanistic religion faintly resembled a version of European witchcraft.
In the 1940s, a man named Gerald Gardner joined a new Forest Coven. Gardner was a divinity enthusiast and amateur anthropologist. He combined his knowledge of Hermetic ceremonial magick, Celtic Paganism and what he learned in the New Forest Coven to write his book Witchcraft Today, published in 1953. He is often called the father of Wicca, although he is by no means the creator of this Neo-Pagan religion.
Most likely, “the modern incarnation of Wicca is an amalgam of ceremonial magic, mysticism, theosophy and the spiritualist movement, Masonic practices, Eastern religions and thought, fairy tales, mythologies, folklore and legends, divination and individual imagination and belief.” In other words, Wicca cannot be boiled down to one common ancestor or belief.
There are many different forms of practicing Wicca. The most popular path is Solitary, where one practices alone, according to their beliefs and values. There are also traditionalists, who believe one must be formally initiated into a coven to be considered a Wiccan. These traditionalist covens are stems from many different beliefs, among them Garnerian, after Gerald Gardner, but also Alexandrian, Dianic, Italian Strega, Starhawkian, Georgian, Blue Star, Elite, Radical Faery, and other eclectic traditions. In addition to these, there are thousands of different “fam-trads,” family traditions that are passed down only to the children in each family. Most likely, this is what Gardner and Murray based much of their books on.
Aaron Leitch, Wicca and Neopaganism, a Short History. http://kheph777.tripod.com/art_whatwicca.html
Celtic Whispers. www.celticwhipsers.org
Gillian Kemp, The Good Spell Book of Love Charms, Magical Cures and Other Practical Sorcery, London. Little, Brown and Company. 1999.
History of Wicca, author not cited.
Long, Charles H., Primitive Religion.http://mb-soft.com/believe/txo/primitiv.htm
Pagan History, The Pagan Library. Anonymous author. www.paganlibrary.com/editorials/paganHistory.php
Religious Tolerance Essays. www.religioustolerance.org
Singer, Marian, The Everything Wicca and Witchcraft Book, Avon, Mass. Adams Media Corporation. 2002.
Tuitean, Paul and Estelle Daniels, Pocket Guide to Wicca, Freedom, CA. Crossing Press. 1998.