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The Old Religion

By Phil Vance

Published at Beltane 2002

I HAD BEEN PLANNING to write the following article for some time but a number of things prevented me. In particular, a)That the scope of the article was just too massive to do it justice in a short article rather than the book that it deserved. b) That I have (had?) many friends who regard themselves as 'Traditional Witches' and who might be upset at some of my conclusions and c) Don't you just know that someone is going to write back and say "But what about.?" or "But you haven't quoted..". Suffice to say that I have spent a lot of time and researched much of the available (in the English language) testimony and read a lot of varied viewpoints from Murray to Larner and from Graves to Kephart and their inclusion or omission is purely in terms of necessity of size.

Is modern witchcraft the legacy of a pagan religion surviving from pre-Christian Europe into modern times or is it the revival of remnants of pre-Christian beliefs or, indeed, the invention of a new system of beliefs originating at the end of the nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth centuries?

The popular belief amongst many 20 th and 21 st century followers of the craft, borrowing from Margaret Murray, is that the 'old religion' was suppressed by and persecuted by the Christian authorities throughout the 1 st and 2 nd millennia of this era and culminating in the witch-hunts of the 14 th -17 th centuries.

Murray's views were not, however, original and were almost certainly influenced by earlier anthropologists such as Karl Ernst Jarcke (1826) who posited a nature religion amongst the Germanic peoples surviving through the middle ages and into the present day. In 1839 Franz Josef Mone wrote of a cult of Dionysius and Hecate that he believed was practiced throughout the Middle Ages and renaissance by the peasantry. Jules Michelet (1862) also claimed that the peasantry of the middle ages resurrected the remnants of an ancient fertility religion in Central Europe. These viewpoints heavily influenced writers such as Sir James Frazier ("The Golden Bough"?), Jessie Weston, Robert Graves and Margaret Murray to expand such notions and were so highly regarded in their opinions that, until fairly recently, the Encyclopaedia Britannica included Murray's thesis even though her methodology has largely been discredited.

The arguments against Murray, in brief, are: -

a) That she selected extracts from confessions that appear, in isolation, to support her thesis and ignored all others that are difficult to incorporate.

b) That the use of torture/threat of torture and the use of a prescribed formula of questioning resulted in the Inquisitors getting the answers that they were looking for and not necessarily the truth.

Certainly there was a wide range of pagan beliefs and practices including witchcraft across pre-Christian Europe. If we look, briefly, at the surviving evidence of early laws and edicts from the 1 st millennium, we can see that the battle to suppress these pagan religions was in earnest.

Childeric III published an edict (743 ad) condemning all pagan magical practices including fortune telling, incantations and sacrifices to the ancestors.

Charlemagne introduced laws and appropriate punishments against witchcraft which was deemed to include the summoning of daemons, raising of storms, placing of curses, use of love potions, astrology and the making of talismans etc.

Around this same period, in England, Alfred the Great and Æthelstan were ordering execution for the 'wiccan' and for those found guilty of practising 'wiccecraft'.

The Synod of Paris (829 ad) argued for the notion that the King should punish sorcerers with death (previously three years of penance was the typical punishment for 'idolatry, invocation or maleficia'.

The Canon Episcopi (circa 900ad) argued that..

"Some wicked women are perverted by the Devil and led astray by illusions and fantasies induced by Daemons, so that they believe that they ride out at night with Diana the pagan Goddess .to a meeting to commune and do Her will flying across great distances..Many other people also believe this to be true although it is a pagan error to believe that any other divinity exists than the one true God..He [Satan] shows her deluded mind strange things and leads it on weird journeys. It is only the mind that does this. But faithless people believe that these things happen to the body as well."

The Episcopi, itself helped establish the concept of the Sabbat and of a pagan religion and its followers being deluded into Devil worship, and although many centuries before the 'Burning Times' helped to set the theological stage for such a persecution.

It also seems to suggest that at this point in history in many parts of Europe perhaps there still were pockets of pagan beliefs and of pagan worship, needing to be repressed.

However although punishments for the  practice of sorcery or witchcraft throughout the period 700-1300 were severe (occasionally execution though usually imprisonment or penance) most of the accused were on trial for their acts of maleficia (harm against others) not for 'being in league with the Devil'. This latter concept was to develop through the late Middle Ages and Renaissance as an offshoot of the war against the heretics.

Christianity found itself at the latter part of the Middle Ages undergoing violent upheaval, breaking up and the formation of schismatic groups. The  Catholic (?) Church believed itself to be threatened by these break away cults both in terms of its temporal and its spiritual powers. Its accusations against the heretics of infanticide, cannibalism , daemonology and of maleficium against the populace had, in turn, been made through the centuries by the Syrians against the Jews, the Romans against the Christians and the Christians against the Gnostics, were now levelled against the Catharists, the Bogomils, the Knights Templar and Waldensians.

This 12 th century persecution of heretics helped to create a sense of paranoia and conspiracy, that the True Church of God was beset on all sides by the evil plans of theanti-Christ, Satan. Furthermore the elements and accusations levelled at such groups became standardised over time. 1

In the 13 th and 14 th centuries the bishops initiated Inquisitions and the secular courts began actively (rather than passively as before) to seek out malefactors. This started an avalanche of accusations.

Pope Innocent IV issued a Papal Bull enabling the seizure of heretics' goods and property and of torture and execution on the most minimal of evidence. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX accused the Waldensian heretics of communing with Satan himself and of practising sorcery.

From this period onwards such trials incorporated more and more accusations of maleficia and sorcery and the grounds had been laid for the witch- hunts of the 14 th -17 th centuries.

I will not go into great detail concerning the witch hunts or of the numbers executed. It certainly is a huge field and would serve no real purpose here. Estimates by historians of the numbers accused and murdered over this period range from fifty thousand to half a million souls (though in the light of the available historical evidence the first figure is probably nearer the mark). Nor do I wish to enter too deeply into the reasons why certain individuals or groups became victims of the savage blaze. 2 Certainly most of the accused were women, widows, and the poor or elderly though the percentage of men as victims varies widely from region to region and from period to period, as does age and, certainly, there were notable 'notables' amongst the accused, even high-ranking clerics.

Sifting through the accusations and the 'confessions' what evidence do we have that any of the accused were in fact witches or that they were practitoners of a surviving pagan religion?

The accounts of flying (in body or in spirit) to a Sabbat to participate in a grotesque parody of the Christian High Mass at which various other persons and Daemons were present and of having (usually painful) sex with the Devil or of a 'free for all' orgy does not sound like any of the 'Traditionalist' practices of the Craft that I know of. 3 The magical exploits and maleficia performed (e.g. beating the river with rods to raise hailstorms or casting the evil eye to harm someone's unborn baby or cattle etc. etc.) may well be remnants of some older pagan beliefs or might, perhaps, simply be the products of some      Inquisitors' fevered imaginations. 4   Certainly, again, there is nothing that I recognise in these accounts of the practice of witchcraft as I know it today.

Is it true, therefore, that no witches existed during this period in Europe? The answer to this is that we can never really get close to the answer. I believe that it is likely that there were practitioners who handed down charms potions and spells within families. One need only look to the so called 'cunning folk' or 'witch doctors' to which many of the populace had recourse when they were ill or believed themselves bewitched in order to gain some counter magic. This practice had been observed since pre-Christian times and, whilst it was often criticised by the clergy both in pamphlets and from the pulpit, it had never been completely eradicated.

If it is true that a large percentage of the populace believed in sorcery and in the efficacy of these 'cunning folk' is that not evidence for the continued survival of a pagan religion?

As has been sufficiently argued elsewhere, the continuation of beliefs or observance of certain pagan practices, traditions, festivals and charms does not, in itself, constitute the continuance of a pagan religion - hereditary or otherwise. Indeed, with the increasingly harsh measures of suppression taken by the Christian Church from the eighth century onwards coupled with a blossoming paranoia under which anybody could come under suspicion of heresy or sorcery, it is hard to see how such a religion could survive. even in secret. Perhaps the most damning influence on the vestiges of any coherent pagan religion was the passage of time and exposure over fifteen hundred years to the dominant cultures of Christianity, the Renaissance, scientism and scepticism, the industrial revolution and the evolution of Democracy and the effects that all of these had on the belief in witchcraft and in the belief in supernatural causation of effects outside the Laws of Nature. Over this period of the Renaissance to the early Industrial age philosophers such as Liebnitz, Descartes and Hulme were radically changing even the way that the Church itself was viewed, allowing no place for the working of miracles or for the Devil and his Daemons to hide.

Obviously the metaphysics of the great thinkers was not immediately available to the average townsperson or peasant (most of whom were still illiterate and would remain so for many centuries to come). Nor would the average citizen necessarily have agreed with such exotic and rarified philosophies had he but access to them. However the cumulative effect of such thinkers had their influence on the leaders, the policy makers and in the 'corridors of power' over this turning point in history and were, to a large extent, responsible for the eventual decline in prosecutions and their scepticism had a 'trickle down' effect to the man on the street.

There is some evidence over this period (14th-17 th centuries) of a cult of Diana in the Mediterranean region of Europe as there is some evidence for a cult of Holda (Hilda) in Germany but, as the accounts of these come purely from the Inquisition, such details must remain suspect.

Yes, I have read "Aradia" by George Leland (1899) and whilst it would seem to confirm the survival of a Dianic cult of stregheria, the authenticity of the work itself is highly suspect.

Thus, whilst it is possible that there may have been remnants of pagan beliefs and practices dating to this era, the witch hunts of the Renaissance cannot be reliably taken as evidence of a continued pagan religion . Nor have we any right to identify the practice of our craft today with those poor unfortunate victims, ostracised, tortured, hung or burnt, as there is no evidence of any connection. 5

So where does this leave modern witchcraft?

Modern witchcraft, its beliefs and rituals appears to have been born out of various tracts of the 19 th century (e.g. "Aradia, Gospel of the Witches"?), to have been reformulated by various characters through the 20 th century and to have been added to by Middle Eastern mysticism, the Kaballah, and tempered by late 20 th century 'New Ageism' and by a fascination with all things Eastern, Celtic, Nordic, Goddess worship/Feminism.

Whilst it is quite possible that 'Traditional witchcraft' covens have their origin in some distant past, the ritual involved and the deities involved appears to be based on constructs evolving over the last 100 years or less.

Whilst there is no denying the antiquity of Deities such as Diana and Brigid, Isis and Cerridwen, Pan and Cernnunnos, Dionysius and Dagda, the worship of these appears to have been resurrected in the light of 20 th century ideals.

It is difficult if not impossible to know whether or not there were individuals who actually worshipped either the Nature Gods/the 'Old Ones' throughout the 9 th to 19 th centuries or who practised magic as we would recognise it today (n.b.the two things are definitely not mutually dependant). It is fairly certain that there were individuals who believed in the power of talismans and curses and the magical power of various objects, phrases and herbal potions. Many Christians firmly believed also in the power of such things throughout the Middle- Ages and the Renaissance into the Industrial era. But that these individuals formed covens to carry out their religious worship or spellcraft seems highly unlikely given all the reasons above.

What sorcery did still exist in the 1400's appears to have been a strange mixture of numerology, alchemy, herb craft, ideas stolen from the near and Middle East and prayers or invocations to Christian saints and angels.

Thus, again, where does this leave witchcraft as it is practiced by covens, hedgewitches and wiccans today?

I strongly believe that 'traditions have to start somewhere.'? Also that proof of antiquity is no guarantee, by itself, of the validity of a belief or system.

Furthermore I believe that each individual has to find the path to the Divine that they can identify with and which gives them the opportunity to make sense of their own life and of the Cosmos/Creation.

It is possible that the Gods have descended to this planet over the millennia (or sent their prophets) to educate and to teach a pathway to the Divine that is appropriate to that culture at that time and in that place.

It is also possible that mankind, over the millennia, have fashioned Gods and Goddesses in order to be better able to worship aspects of the Creation in its various forms and gifts, e.g. Gods and Goddesses of the wind, sea, the sun, the moon, the hunt, fortune learning, war, love etc.

As a mere mortal I genuinely am unsure as to which is the case. I am certain, however, that there is no "one true path " and that each person must find their own way of coming to terms with this Life, this Creation, and the Unknown.

Does it matter, if I am correct, and that modern witchcraft seems to owe more of its origins to the 20 th rather than the 15 th or 9 th centuries? I would say most emphatically NOT!   The rituals and Gods that we worship are our way of connecting to the Divine Principle and help empower us in our relation to the Creation. They are our way of giving thanks and of celebrating all the many gifts (and trials) that are given to us and of leading life by moral codes appropriate to ourselves rather than dictated by a hierarchical and materialistic orthodox religion which truly does belong to the 16 th or 13 th centuries and is desperately trying to reinvent itself to cope with modern living and values.

Having looked at the question of antiquity of our beliefs and rituals and codes of conduct, what of spellcraft itself?

Spellcraft has existed in most if not all cultures across the planet throughout the ages and persists today in many even though its practice is anathema to the accepted state religions. However, although old or, indeed, very old charms and spells are handed down and exist in some form today, magic has always been fluid in form and constantly added to.

It is like an old story or anecdote. I'm sure that many of you will have had experience of a story being changed as it goes from one speaker to another.perhaps, even, completely changing the point or the facts of the story!! And this happens over the course of a few years perhaps even a few days!!

Many old and very old charms that we come across today appear bizarre or even slightly ridiculous and alien to the way in which we practice the craft now. It is quite probable that the meaning and/or practice of them have, likewise, changed over the course of a hundred or three hundred years. It also goes to underline that the modern focus on power raising and on symbolism has also almost certainly changed over this timescale. But as many respected figures within the craft have said.?"if it works. use it."

I do hope that I have not offended anyone too much in this essay and it is your right to ignore or to disagree with all of the above or any part of it. It was certainly not my intent to offend anyone as I know many 'Traditional' witches and count them (counted them?) amongst my friends. I feel most strongly, however, that in order to move forward in the development of our craft and of our beliefs we should let go of the erroneous identification of witchcraft with some system handed down since the 'dawn of time' i.e. the Neolithic age or indeed even to that horrific period when peasants and townspeople alike felt their soul in danger of Satan's plans and that their neighbours might be in league with Him or simply that their hatred and spite toward their neighbour found its voice in a cry of "Witch!".

Perhaps the arguments that I have expounded here regarding the origins of modern witchcraft are relevant to the followers of other traditions. That is for them to answer.

Is what you practice today genuine and from the soul? Does it work for you and your associates? Do you think that the Lady and the Lord, you Gods and Goddesses, the Supreme Creatrix, really care how old your system is? Do not rituals and systems, passed on through a hundred or a thousand years, become blindly followed and their original meaning confused?

Can something one hundred or a thousand years old be more true or valid than something five or fifty?


1.Walter Map (1182) in a diatribe on the heretics even introduces the concept of Satan being present in the form of a giant black cat!! And of the '?obscene kiss' administered in the form of a parody of the High Mass.

2.In Europe heresy was regarded as a sin against God and Religion and thus executed by burning rather than by hanging as opposed to in England (pre James I) where it was regarded, still, as a crime against the populace.

3.Neither does, as was fashionable in England, the suckling of the Devil or one of His minions in the shape of a 'familiar'.

4.Please note that I use the term Inquisitor loosely here denoting any prosecutor, religious or secular involved in the witch trials. Due to expense and demand, local dignitaries conducted most of the trials at the height of the persecution: - magistrates, sheriffs, bishops, and well to do townsfolk.

5.Though, as I have argued before, lack of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of lack.

6.I would like to leave you with a quote from an excellent book by Jeffrey Russell that seems to sum up my point of view modern scholarship perceives many similarities amongst pagan religions. But substantial differences have also existed. Many modern witches appear to have a simplistic view that there was one pagan religion. Others, more sophisticated, knowingly [?], create a synthetic paganism of their own, combining [elements of] divers ancient traditions in what amounts to a new religion." Page 159. This is far removed from the claim to an unbroken descent from a specific pagan religion though I must add that, thus far, what little we know of "ancient traditions" is both sparse and subjective.

Recommended Additional Reading:-

"A History of Witchcraft"  1999 Jeffrey Russell  pub. Thames and Hudson

 "God of the Witches" 1933 (reprint 1970)  Margaret Murray   pub. OUP

"The Lancashire Witch Craze)  1995  Jonathan Lumby   pub. Carnegie

"The Wakefield Witches"  1987  Daoma Winston   pub. Piatkus

"Witchcraft and Demonology"  1946  Montague Summers  pub. Dover  Publications

"Witchcraft and Religion"  1984  Christina Larner   pub. Blackwell

"Witchcraft and Sorcery"  1987  Max Marwick (ed)  pub. Penguin

"Witches and Neighbours"  1997 Robin Briggs  pub. Fontana Press

"Witches, Investigating an Ancient Religion"  1962  T.C.Lethbridge   pub. Routledge and Keegan