Christianity, ancient Celtic beliefs, & Witchcraft
1st millennium CE:
The first missionary to the Celts may have been St. Paul. He sought converts to
Christianity in the Pagan Celtic land of Galatia (now part of Turkey) as recorded in his Epistle to the Galatians of
the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Later Missionaries and the Roman army gradually
spread Christianity across Europe, easily converting the rulers and their
religious leaders, but having less success in bringing the common folk to the new religion.
Much of Christianity was derived from Pagan sources; this includes the sites of many
cathedrals, the lives of many Christian saints (who were really recycled pagan Goddesses and Gods),
many Christian holy days, and many cultural celebrations. There are many vestiges of Paganism which remain a part of
our culture; e.g. Groundhog Day, Christmas, May Day 5, Halloween, the names of the days of the weeks and months of the
year, common sayings, numerous traditions associated with holidays, etc.
1000 to 1800 CE:
During the Middle Ages, prior to 1400 CE, there was a widespread popular belief
that Satan-worshiping Witches existed, as evil persons (primarily women) who devoted their lives
to harming and killing others through black magic and evil sorcery. The
Christian church at the time taught that there were no Witches. In fact, it was
officially declared a heresy to believe that they did exist.
By the 1430's, Christian
theologians had started writing articles and books which "proved"
the existence of Witches on theological grounds. 1This in turn inspired waves of witch trials and executions throughout Europe, starting circa 1450 CE. The
Christian church attempted to gain a religious monopoly in Western Europe
by tracking down, arresting, trying and exterminating heretics. The Church
created an imaginary evil religion, using stereotypes that had circulated
since pre-Christian times. Some elements of Pagan Celtic belief, such as
worship of the Goddess Diana, were included in this quasi-religion of
The mass murders of heretics was primarily concentrated in France,
Germany and Switzerland. About two dozen suspected witches were executed
by hanging in
New England; one was crushed to death. Most of these died during the witch craze of Salem, MA during the
1690's. Contrary to public belief, most of the trials were by civil, not
religious, courts. The slaughter lasted until 1792 CE in Europe when the last witch was executed in Poland. The interval
from the late 15th century to the 18th century inclusive is often referred
to as the Burning Times.
During the Age of
Enlightenment, 1660 to 1800 CE, belief in the existence of
Satan-worshiping Witches declined. Trials continued into the 1830's in
South America. Although current estimates of the number of executions
differ greatly, the total was probably under 100 thousand.
1800 CE to the 1950:
Some believe that there were still followers of the "Old religions" in
Europe during and after the Burning Times. Because of the danger of being
charged with heresy, they would have gone underground, continued
their rituals in secrecy, and stayed out of sight. Others maintain that the
Celtic and other Pagan religions died out completely in Europe.
Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant, wrote that he had been initiated
into one of the few remaining (perhaps the last) Witchcraft coven in the
country. He explained that they had lost many of their rituals, beliefs and traditions,
due to the passage of time and their isolation from other covens. In the late 1940's, with the repeal of
anti-Witchcraft laws in England, he and one of his High Priestess, Doreen Valiente, wrote a
series of books on Witchcraft. They coupled the coven's beliefs and practices
with elements of Masonic and magickal traditions. He reported that after the
books were published, many surprised Neopagans from across Europe came out of
obscurity and contacted him. Many had believed that their own, isolated group
had been the only followers of the old Pagan religion still left in
Europe. Some critics maintain that Gardnerian Witchcraft had no link to
ancient Celtic Paganism, but was totally a creation of Gardner. More
Neopaganism in general and Wicca in particular are expanding rapidly.
Neopagans currently number 200,000 to 1,000,000 in North America. Accurate
numbers are impossible to obtain because of the decentralized nature
of the religion, and because most Wiccans remain underground for reasons
of personal safety. Some poll data indicates that the numbers of adherents
is doubling every 30 months. Wicca appears to be growing most rapidly among teens.
Wicca's greatest problem is that the public continues to link them to
the imaginary witches of the Burning Times. Some Christian information
sources use propaganda from this era to badly misrepresent Wicca today. Although Wicca is a gentle, spiritual, aboriginal faith
which most closely resembles Native American spirituality, many North
Americans continue to view it as a form of Satan worship.
Some conservative Christians act as if the Inquisition is still in
force. A few Christian leaders have even called for a genocide -- the
extermination of Wiccans. One Baptist pastor from Texas expressed the hope
that the government would use napalm to burn them alive. A tele-minister,
also from Texas, once called for Wiccans to be stoned to death because of
their religious beliefs. Sadly, he received spontaneous and sustained
applause from his congregation.
Philip S. Johnson, a Christian author, wrote: "I cannot help but
feel that Christians are at times the very worst advertisement for the
teachings of Jesus. Indeed I feel that many Christians have the propensity
for violating one of the Ten Commandments. No, not the one about adultery,
even though many Christians seem skittish about the very word sex. The
commandment often violated is the one about not bearing false witness
against one's neighbour." 6
Confusion over the meaning of words:
A serious communication problem affecting Wicca and other Neopagan
religions is caused by the multiple,
and often contradictory meanings of the words "Witch"
and "Witchcraft." We have found 17 largely unrelated
definitions for these terms. When a dispute arises about Witchcraft, the
people involved often use the word to refer to completely different
practices. For example, on 2002-AUG-2, the information service "This is True" posted the following
information about Wicca in Australia:
The posting referred to a census report about "witchcraft:" "The fastest-growing religion in Australia is
Witchcraft, census officials say...Census figures indicate that in the last six
years, the number of witches has more than quadrupled to 9,000, and the
number of pagans has more than doubled to 10,632, while most Christian
denominations have seen decreases in followers."
It referred to a law against witchcraft which is still on the books.
It is similar to a law in the criminal code of Canada and other
countries of the former British Empire: "...the state of Victoria is
considering repealing a 1966 law banning the practice of it and similar
religions, such as Paganism.
It quoted a comment from Roman Catholic Monsignor Peter J. Elliot
who is reported as saying: I'd be appalled if
[repealing the law] implies some sort of approval,' says 'I think it reflects the
collapse of values and sanity in our society that this mishmash of
superstition and fraud is to be recognized.' (Melbourne Herald Sun)" 6
The census office, the state of Victoria, and the Roman Catholic church
appear to be using the same word, "witchcraft" to refer to three very
The state of Victoria is apparently referring to a
law which prohibits fortune telling, and outlaws promising to find lost
objects through the use of magic.
The census office is referring to the Wiccan religion, and other
The Monsignor is
apparently referring to two practices often translated as "witchcraft" in the Bible: women
issuing spoken curses to harm others and murderers who use poison.
Needless to say, the three activities are unrelated. Until the
individuals and groups realize that they are talking about three very
different activities, chaos will reign.
- "Why are there Witches? History of Witchcraft for Halloween",
News release, Johns Hopkins University Office of News and Information,
- Walter Stephens, "Demon lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and Belief,"
University of Chicago, (2000).
- "A village possessed: A true story of Witchcraft," by
Discovery Online, at: http://www.discovery.com/stories/history
- Jenny Gibbons, "Recent developments in the study of the great
European Witch hunt," at: http://www.cog.org/witch_hunt.html
- "The Pagan origins of May Day," at: http://www.planet.net.au/innovations/may96/mayday.html
- Philip S. Johnson, "Wiccans and Christians: some mutual
challenges; False Witness?," at http://jesus.com.au/library/wicca/v.php
- "This is True" mailing for 2002-AUG-3. k
Copyright © 1995 to 2010 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-SEP-05
Author: B.A. Robinson