Paganism, magick and occultism, since the rise of Christianity, have been inextricably linked. This is a (hopefully) brief summary of the tortuous and torturous history of European witchcraft and the development of modern Wicca.
Worship of a mother Goddess has been common to almost all ancient societies. Even the early Hebrews worshipped a variety of gods and goddesses, and this worship was outlawed by the Ten Commandments which demanded worship of Yahweh alone.
Babylon, Sumeria, Greece and Rome all had itinerant mystery religions, and people migrating across Europe from the East (such as the Celts) brought with them to Britain, their beliefs spread with migration across the world.
Very little is know about the religion of the ancient Britons – there are no written accounts except those seen through the very biased eyes of the Roman occupiers. We know something of ancient myths and legends which were recorded in later times, but there is very little evidence of their rituals and religious practices.
Celtic Britain, Ireland and Gaul were dominated by the Druidic religion – a solar religion which, according to Roman accounts and archeological evidence, certainly indulged in sacrifice and other rituals which echoed the Romans’ own ceremonies. However there was also a Moon-cult which complimented the solar religion, and (especially according to Gardner and Murray) modern Wicca is the inheritor of this tradition.
The “Dark” Ages – Pagan Christianity
From the 4th century CE, Christianity spread across Europe with the conversion of the Roman Empire to the new religion. It was brought to Roman Britain by missionaries, who set up monastery schools in remote areas. Through political and religious manipulation, they converted many of the local tribal kings and steadily converted the island to their faith.
During this period of expansion, Christian missionaries often came to an accommodation with ancient ways, and incorporated the rituals of native pagan gods into their tradition. As a result, many pagan stories, legends and saints were incorporated into Christian mythology. St George and the Dragon, the Holy Grail quest and so on are all transcriptions of Celtic and pre-Celtic legends.
Similarly, churches were built on sites of pagan importance – in England they can be along ley lines, where ancient and seemingly Christian sites are linked (Glastonbury Tor for example is surmounted by a chapel.)
Pagan festivals, both Briton and Roman, were also combined with Christianity to ease the conversion process. The Roman Saturnalia and Celtic Yule, the Birth of Apollo and the Festival of Mithra became our Midwinter festival of Christmas. Samhain became the Eve of All Souls Day (Hallows’ Eve or Halloween), the Spring Renewal festival (Ostara) became Easter, and so on throughout the Pagan calendar.
The Burning Times
For a time fusion of old ways was tolerated. Some ‘gods’ and natural spirits were made into saints that could be worshipped, whilst the Church consolidated its power. Afterwards, those who worshipped the old ways were persecuted brutally, cast out to the woods and secret places. “Hedge witches” were so called because they were taught behind hedges, in secrecy away from prying eyes.
With most of Europe fully absorbed into ‘Christendom’, the Church was in a position to begin to eradicate all outstanding traces of ‘heathen’ practices. Throughout Europe many people still met secretly in wooded glades, or followed the old rituals to bless the crops and encourage their return, only loosely covered up by a veil of Christianity – if at all.
For a time there had existed a distinction between “white” witchcraft – practiced by village healers, the “cunning” men and women, and “black” magic, used to kill and destroy. By the 13th century this distinction was confused, and all such Craft was outlawed as heresy.
By this time the Church had declared all Gods except their One True God to be evil – renaming them as demons led by the Horned One. The very image of the old pagan Horned God (e.g. Pan in Greek mythology, Herne in Briton etc.) became the Devil, and hence all those who followed the old ways were heretics and evil Devil-Worshippers.
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the church in Europe instigated the Inquisition (1233 under Pope Gregory IX) to rid Christendom of heretics, beginning with the Albegenses and Wildness.
As time progressed the old ways became confused. Certainly many did retain the true old beliefs but there were many who retaliated against the Church by believing its Demonic propaganda, and perverting Christian rituals into ways of cursing others. As the Inquisition spread across Europe, works such as the Malleus Malleficarum (the Hammer of Witches, published 1486) served two purposes. It created paranoia amongst the educated and ignorant alike, declaring that witches were a real and dangerous threat. Secondly it provided a blue-print for those who found the idea of invoking the devil for their own selfish ends – by believing the Malleus Malleficarum, they merely reinforced it.
Any retaliation against repression by the Church by ignorant peoples merely exacerbated the problem. Inquisitors used threats of death and torture to gain personal power – anyone who questioned was suspect.
Fear and superstition escalated during the Black Death. It changed the perspective of the Church and people, creating a much more gloomy and death-orientated culture. People were horrified during the 15th century that the Church was paralyzed. Clergy refused to visit the houses of the sick, friars refused to give succor to the dying, and even to perform burial ceremonies. Witch persecutions were at their peak while people desperately sought some reason for the terrible catastrophe that killed a third of the population of Europe.
Persecution of Heresy
The powerlessness of the church in the face of death indirectly led to a new spirit of questioning.
People could not understand how God, and God’s church, could allow such a terrible affliction to wipe out whole villages. They sought someone to blame – and many blamed the corruption of the Church. The Church told them it was punishment for their sins, but many saw that the priests suffered as heavily as the common-folk, and declared it to be a plague on the Church for its terrible corruption, in Indulgences and so on.
The Church lashed out by blaming the influence of the Devil. He was acting through witches, who had made a pact with Him for their protection if they would do his evil work.
The Inquisition escalated to unprecedented heights, using accusations of sexual perversion and witchcraft to root out ‘heretics’ – those who challenged or criticized the church. Forced confessions – torture, or the threat of it (in horrible detail) created fantasies which could not be doubted without fear of accusation of collusion or heresy. Under torture, victims would say anything to stop the pain. They would be driven so mad that they would invoke the Devil, the only power they could have over their tormentors.
In a grim irony, under Martin Luther’s new Protestantism – itself a heresy – witchcraft hysteria in fact escalated. In 1522 Luther criticized lawyers for actually needing evidence against suspected witches.
In Europe the witch-trials finally burned themselves out in ludicrous excesses, such as the case of the Devils of London, famously told in Aldous Huxley’s play and film, where the possessed nuns would ‘perform’ several times a day for the entertainment of visiting pilgrims.
In Britain witchcraft executions never reached the heights of the continent – witches found guilty before 1563 were fined or banished under Ecclesiastical law. After the Witchcraft Act (only repealed in 1951), witches could be hanged for treason. Burnings were not sanctioned by law, and torture was technically illegal. However, hysteria did arise during the Civil War, stirred up by Matthew Hopkins the self-appointed “Witch-finder General”. It was this Puritan hysteria that was carried to the American colonies, and led to the persecutions in New England.
Mediaeval & Renaissance Sorcery
The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in rediscovering the lost knowledge of the past, much of which had seen suppressed by the church, with its monopoly on education and learning. Renaissance ritual sorcery was largely derived from the Kabbalah – Jewish magick and mysticism, itself a product of centuries of introversion in the ghettos of Europe.
The Jewish Kabbalah was Christianized in the form of ritual magic, attempting to commune with angels, and to command spirits, demons, and elementals. It was practiced by educated and powerful men, such Dr John Dee, famous adviser to Elizabeth I, who rose to great prominence. (Dee and his associate Edward Kelly created Enchain Magic, a form of communion with angels and ‘aethyrs’.)
Sorcery, alchemy and magic in this period were inextricably linked with the science of their age – this was true even up to the time of Isaac Newton. In ‘rediscovering’ ancient knowledge, many used supposedly ancient “grimoires” – books such as The Key of Solomon, and Arabic texts that were a great source of scientific, alchemical and astrological/astronomical knowledge.
Mediaeval grimoires claimed ancient lineage, but in truth they were based on some ancient material fleshed out with contemporary writings and inventions.
Occult Revival of the 18th/19th Century
Magick and alchemy continued in this vein throughout successive centuries, with many powerful men having an interest in such matters. The Freemason movement grew in power from the 17th Century onwards, devising forms such as circle magic and the Watchtower Ritual that is still the basis of modern Wicca. Before the 16th century the Masons had been a largely middle-class guild organization of master-craftsmen and professionals, but it came to attract the wealthy, powerful and educated, who expanded the occult aspects of its inner circle.
In the 19th century occult orders such as the Rosicrucian were founded on Masonic lines but with a mystical/magical emphasis. Its spawned successor the famed “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”, of which famous men such as W B Yeats and Aleister Crowley were members, was short-lived but highly influential to later generations of occultists.
Crowley’s self-aggrandizing ways undermined and eventually destroyed the self-indulgence of the Hermetic Order, slavishly following dubious medieval grimoires and constantly fighting between each other for status, power and notoriety. However, to this day Golden Dawn books litter bookshelves, and heavily influenced occult writers of the 20th century – particularly Israel Regardie, once Crowley’s secretary, whose works have been highly regarded by modern Neopagans.