A Brief History
No official history of witchcraft truly exists. This is because the “history” presented by the academic community is not the depiction of any real society of people known as witches. Instead it is the study of non-witches and their views about what they referred to as witchcraft and witches. Academic history is this field is the story of how superstition influenced popular beliefs about imaginary witches and witchcraft, and how theologians further invented ideas about the subject. This is a make-believe witchcraft of fantasy themes, and not an ethnographical study of a real culture of people who were witches. If we are to call this history, then we need to note that it is a mythical history at best.
It is possible, of course, that some people were involved in diabolical practices involving satanic worship, but could they have numbered in the tens of thousands across all of Europe? This seems unlikely. If we are to regard the number of people charged with witchcraft over the centuries as an accurate reflection of the sect’s numbers, however, then we must say yes. But what we are saying “Yes” to is the portrayal of witches by people who believed witches could fly, change into animal form, and frolic in person with demons. How credible can these “authorities” be in such a light? We would have to question their ability to reason and therefore their aptitude for understanding the facts and fantasies regarding the matter before them.
In contrast to the “learned view” of the authorities, looking at the folkloric witch of the “uneducated people” brings us one step closer to uncovering the witch (free of themes that support an agenda). The problem here is that what we are looking at is superstition and how fear instead of reality shapes the belief of a people. The academic presentation is the view of witches by people who feared and hated them. It is not the account of people who actually know authentic witches in their community and conversed with them about their beliefs and practices. Oddly, it is the beliefs of outsiders that scholars drew upon to present the history of witches and witchcraft.
Anything compared against the academic picture of witchcraft that does not comply is called pseudo-history, but how can we have a fake history of witchcraft when we do not possess a factual one? Many Neo-Pagan writers have been charged with creating pseudo-history when writing about views related to the roots of modern witchcraft and Wicca. Some writers believe in the existence of a pre-Christian religion of witches who venerated a goddess such as Diana, and one that survived in some fashion well into the Christian era. Critics respond that if such a thing existed there would be evidence in the witch trials.
References to venerating Diana and other goddesses do show up in trial records and those of the Inquisition. Therefore we have no absence of the concept. This, by itself, is not proof of goddess worship among the accused, but neither is it something to completely dismiss is we are to be fair and balanced. The figure of a goddess does appear in witch trials throughout Europe.
Twenty-five thousand years ago Paleolithic people depended upon hunting to survive. Only by success in the hunt could there be food to eat, skins for warmth and shelter, bones to fashion into tools and weapons. In those days people believed in a multitude of gods. Nature was overwhelming. Out of awe and respect for the gusting wind, the violent lightening, the rushing stream, people ascribed to each a spirit, made each a deity… a god. This is what we call animism. A god controlled that wind. A god controlled the sky. A god controlled the waters. But most of all, a god controlled the all-important hunt… a God of Hunting.
Most of the animals hunted were horned so the people pictured the God of Hunting also as a being horned. It was at this time that magick became mixed in with these first faltering steps of religion. The earliest form of magick was probably of the sympathetic variety. Similar things, it was thought, have similar effects: like attracts like. If a life-size clay model of a bison was made, then attacked and “killed”… then a hunt of the real bison should also end in a kill. Religio-magickal ritual was born when one of the cavemen threw on a skin and antlered mask and player the part of the Hunting God directing the attack. There are, still in existence, cave paintings of such rituals, together with the spear-stabbed clay models of bison and bears.
Along with this God of Hunting there was a Goddess, though which came first (whether they evolved together) we do not know, and it is immaterial. If there were to be animals to hunt, there had to be fertility of those animals. If the tribe was to continue (and there was a high mortality rate in those days) then there had to be fertility of the people. Again sympathetic magick played a part. Clay models were made of the animals mating, and in an accompanying ritual the members of the tribe would copulate.
With the development of agriculture there was a further elevating of the Goddess. She now watched over the fertility of the crops as well as of tribe and of animal. The year, then, fell naturally into two halves. In the summer food could be grown, and so the Goddess predominated; in the winter, the people had to revert to hunting, and so the God predominated. The other deities (of wind, thunder, lightning, etc.) gradually fell into the background, now of secondary importance.
Long before religion became Religion, full of dogma, regulations, ceremonial figureheads, theme parks, and tele-ministries, there was simply nature. The first spiritual impulses were born of people who lived close to the land and who relied on it for survival. They knew the ways of the seasons: the annual promise of the warming days, the long period of growth that followed, the importance of harvest, and the seasons of frost and death. Women knew the ways of the moon, of healing and childbirth. Men knew the movement of the herd animals and the secret ways of the hunter and the hunted. There were no holy books or official spiritual doctrines. The divine did not exist in some inaccessible realm. It lived among and through the people. It sang in bird songs, it formed the ocean’s waves, it filled the human body, plants and animals with life.
Spirituality had little to do with lofty philosophical notions – it centered on the hard facts of life. The soft facts of life must have played their part too. Love, tenderness and compassion are universal in human emotions that have long quickened the heart and informed the spirit.
In the early days, when Christianity was slowly growing in strength, the Olde Religion was one of its rivals. It is only natural to want to get rid of a rival and the Church pulled no punches to do just that. It has frequently been said that the gods of the old religion become the devils of the new. This was certainly the case here. The God of the Olde Religion was a horned god. So, apparently, was the Christian’s Devil. Obviously, reasoned the Church, the Pagans were Devil worshipers! This type of reasoning is used by the Church even today. Missionaries were particularly prone to label all primitive tribes upon whom they stumbled as devil-worshipers, just because the tribe worshiped a god or gods other than the Christian one. It would not matter that the people were good, happy, and often morally and ethically better living than the vast majority of Christians… They had to be converted!
“Pagan” comes from the Latin “Pagani” and simply means “people who live in the country.” The word “Heathen” means “one who dwells on the heath”. So the terms were appropriate for non-Christians at that time, but they bore no connotations of evil and their use today is a derogatory sense is quite incorrect.