The Witch Trials

Table of Contents


  1. History and Philosophy of Witchcraft
  2. Beliefs
  3. Tools, Clothing, and Names
  4. Getting Started
  5. Covens and Rituals
  6. The Sabbats
  7. Meditations, Dreams, and the Minor Sabbats
  8. Marriage, Birth, Death, and Channeling
  9. Divination
  10. Herbalism
  11. Magick
  12. The Power of the Written Word
  13. Healing
  14. Getting Set Up
  15. Solitary Witches

In this lecture, it might appear that Christianity is painted as the bad guy, and quite frankly that is because it committed atrocities that should not be forgotten. However, many a Pagan army committed atrocities as well: the pagan Romans wiped out the Druids, Vikings murdered Christian Priests, and the list goes on. It would do you well to remember that the Church of this time was not a reflection of the teachings of the ‘Savior’ they claimed to be based upon, but a power-grabbing entity that used religion as a club. Judge the Church of the time, as in the entity, and not the entire religion, for its actions. No pagan today wants to be held accountable for the human sacrifices made by our ancestors, so let us not demand that Christians answer for the ones theirs made.

The Coming of Christianity

The ancient religions that started with the paleolithic people and developed across nations went on in its various states for millennia. The shamans and medicine men continued to turn to the spirits of Nature for aid or helped appease them in times of crises. Christianity began to spread slowly across Europe in the early centuries of the Current Era, and then exploded when Constantine ‘converted’ the Roman Empire to Christianity in 323 CE.

The idea of all of Rome ‘converting’ to another faith at Constantine’s edict is as absurd as it sounds. It became the official religion of the nation, but its people took much longer. This was seen throughout the lands that Christianity spread through for the next millennia, as well: When a king of one kingdom converted, the Church declared that the entire kingdom had been converted. Often, this conversion was superficial even for the king himself, and served as means to gain an alliance with the powerful Catholic Church. Even in Iceland around 1000 CE, when they adopted Christianity in an official capacity and made baptism mandatory, it was with the concession that the private worship of the pagan gods was allowed.

The Church understood that the hearts of the people would not be so easily won, and so they built new churches on the sites on sacred Pagan temples. Many of these new churches, however, were built by either pagans, or recent converts who still felt connected to their old gods. They placed sheela na gigs, images of female carvings with exaggerated reproductive organs, on many of the churches. Arguments have been made whether they were carved after the construction, or if the builders simply used parts of the previous temples. Either way, it was clear that the people were not quite ready to let go of their Mother Goddess.

Alongside the sheela na gigs, there are also the green man sculptures. The image of a man’s face covered in foliage is an ancient one from may parts of the world, from Nepal to Iraq to England. The Horned God, after being displaced by the idea of ‘noble’ gods, quietly withdrew into the woods and become the Green Man. Sculptures of the green man are found in temples and churches, including Christian ones. The God of the Hunt held on just as tightly as the Mother Goddess in the wake of Christianity.

The origins of both the sheela na gigs and the green man sculptures are disputed by many scholars, but the similarity to the Old Gods is a hard one to ignore, and at the very least, they seem to be archetypes within the human unconscious, never willing to let go, until we were ready to return to our God and Goddess.

Pagan Gods become Christian Devils

Judaism may have started out as a henotheistic religion, believing that each land had gods with exclusive sovereignty over it and its people. As time went on, however, it adopted the idea of the One True God. Wicca is not very different: we believe in the One God and One Goddess. Where we differ, however, is that we believe all other gods are different facets of our Lord and Lady, and Judaism and Christianity believe that all others are, at best, false gods and idols or, at worst, demons and devils. This can be seen from the demonizing of the Canaanite gods Baal, Ashtoreth, and Moloch. The Horned God, who exists in many different cultures, became the visage of the devil, despite no biblical references to Satan being horned at all. The sheela na gigs were said by the church to represent the evil of lust and warn people against it. Pope Boniface, in 625, wrote to King Edwin of Northumbria:

               “The profound guilt of those who willfully adhere to insidious superstition and the worship of idols is openly shown in the damnable images they adore. The Psalmist says of such ‘All the heathen gods are devils; it is the Lord who made the heavens.’”

Eventually, after a 1000-year struggle against Mithraism and the Aesir, Christianity won out (on the surface) and the Pagan religions moved into the shadows. It would live on it folk stories and legends and family traditions, but not as the grand religions they once were. Many of the countryfolk still practiced their old ways with the spirits of the land, and it can be seen to this day in places like Ireland where the Fairy Faith has blended into Christianity. They still made offerings to their house spirits, and still used the gifts of the land to heal.

The Witch Hunts

Unfortunately, those practices would become the foundation of accusations leveled against them. In many villages there would be a wise man or woman who still practiced the old ways, who used herbs and charms to help heal the sick. Where the witches (a term we use to describe shamans, wise men and women, cunning folk, etc.) used their herbs to heal, they were accused of using them to poison. The charms they used to bless crops were now said to blight them instead. A midwife who was caring for a woman whose child was stillborn was called a witch and accused of murdering the infant. Like the Pagan Gods the Church deemed ‘devils’, the healers were now considered ‘devil worshippers.’ The catalyst for this shift was the Malleus Maleficuram.

In 1486 two monks from Germany, Heinrich Institoris Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, produced the document titled Malleus Maleficurm, or “The Witches’ Hammer”. It described, in horrific detail, the methods of extracting confessions from supposed witches, and declared that not believing in witchcraft was a sin. The Witches’ Hammer was so absurd that the Theological Faculty of the University of Cologne refused to endorse it, but this did not stop Kramer or Sprenger, who forged the faculty’s endorsement. This began a chain reaction that resulted in mass hysteria across Europe, where every negative event was blamed on witchcraft, and someone burned or hanged as a result. Amidst the mass hysteria, many took advantage and levied accusations against those whose demise they would gain from. While many of those who were murdered during this time practiced the Old Ways, few, if any, were followers of the Old Religion.

Although the early estimates of the death toll of the witch trials were more than nine million, that number does not hold up to modern scrutiny. Some sources claim the number to be closer to 40,000, but that only accounts for officially documented cases, and there is more than enough reason to believe that not every ‘witch trial’ was recorded. The most reasonable modern estimate is between 50,000 to 100,000 people. 75-85% of them were woman, most over the age of 40. The witch trials were, more than anything, a persecution of women, rather than of a secret pagan religion as earlier scholars predicted.

The Witchcraft act of King James that was passed in 1604 would be replaced in 1736 by a law stating that all witchcraft was a fraud. Despite this, people still practiced the Old Ways, and many of them publicly such as the cunning men and women, although the idea of a widespread underground religion existing at this time is largely disputed. It existed in remote places, passed down as family traditions, but the claim that it was an unbroken line from ancient pagan times that Margaret Murray and others made paints a clearer picture than it is. Many of the practices had ancient roots, but it exists in broken lines throughout many different religions, the pagan symbolism often slipping into the mainstream religions until it was ready to burst forth into the forefront again.