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Christianity, ancient Celtic beliefs, & Witchcraft

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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.

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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 witchcraft. 

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. 

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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 details.

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Wicca today:

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

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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:

bullet 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."

bullet 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.

bullet 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 different activities:

bullet 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.
bullet The census office is referring to the Wiccan religion, and other Neopagan traditions.
bullet 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.

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  1. "Why are there Witches? History of Witchcraft for Halloween", News release, Johns Hopkins University Office of News and Information, 1999-OCT-11. 
  2. Walter Stephens, "Demon lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and Belief," University of Chicago, (2000). 
  3. "A village possessed: A true story of Witchcraft," by Discovery Online, at:
  4. Jenny Gibbons, "Recent developments in the study of the great European Witch hunt," at:
  5. "The Pagan origins of May Day," at:
  6. Philip S. Johnson, "Wiccans and Christians: some mutual challenges; False Witness?," at
  7. "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

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