Ancient Roots, Historical Challenges

Over the course of human history, deities associated with human, animal, and plant fertility have been worshipped around the world. Some scholars and many PagansThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga... believe that the “root religion” of humanity—the religion from which all other religions eventually evolved—must have been based around fertility and natural cycles, knowledge of which was necessary for survival. The small figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf, named for the area of Austria in which she was found, dates as early as 22,000 BCE (in the Paleolithic era). Pagans often see its ample female body as representing a goddessGoddess is a term used to refer to the female deity, either in the singular as the supreme divine reality, or in the plural as one of many particular or localized feminine deities. In the Hindu tradition, the Goddess refers to the very powerful, even supr... of plenty, and replicas of the figurine can be found on many PaganThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga... altarsAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said..

Early agricultural societies arose during the Neolithic era, beginning around 10,000 BCE. Nature-based Pagans look back to prehistoric and historical agricultural societies for mythsMyths are stories human beings tell about the nature of reality: how the order of things we know came to be and by what deep truths the this order operates. Myths may concern the events of creation, the divine dramas of God or the gods, or the discoveries... and rituals to enhance their relationship with the land. Rites of birth and death, planting, harvest, and thanksgiving are among the most ancient known human religious expressions and often involve singing, dancing and feasting. In the West, practices connected to the cycle of life and the seasons of the year preceded ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church.: for instance, in England and Ireland, stone circlesIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... oriented to astrological and solar events were built and probably used in worship as early as the third millennium BCE.

Pagans also look to ancient religions for alternative values and the deities associated with them. For some polytheistPolytheism is a belief in many gods. Most Pagans are polytheistic. Some are soft polytheists, believing that all gods are aspects of one greater God/dess (or sometimes aspects of two greater deities, a Goddess and a God). Other Pagans are hard polytheists... Pagans, the godsThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. are paragons of neglected virtues such as honor (the respect and social status gained through effective leadership) or sensuality (the ability to take delight in physical pleasures, and especially to share that delight). For others, they are associated with natural forces such as creation and growth, or with human processes such as commerce, communication, diplomacy, or learning. Polytheist Pagans honor their gods in the hope that deeper relationship will help them become more effective in their lives, as well as for the joy of the relationship itself. Such Pagans often draw myths, imagery, and ritual practices from the ancient religions of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ireland, and more, or from contemporary polytheisticPolytheism is a belief in many gods. Most Pagans are polytheistic. Some are soft polytheists, believing that all gods are aspects of one greater God/dess (or sometimes aspects of two greater deities, a Goddess and a God). Other Pagans are hard polytheists... traditions, such as Hinduism“Hindu” was originally a word given by the Greeks, then the Persians, to the land and peoples beyond the Indus or “Sindhu” River. The term “Hinduism” came into common use only in the 19th century to describe a complex and dynamic pattern of li... or Afro-Caribbean religionsAfro-Caribbean religions include a wide range of religious traditions that have roots in Africa, came to the islands of the Caribbean with African captives, and developed distinctive forms in this new environment: Santería or the Lucumi tradition in Cuba....

After Christianity came to power in the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE, non-Christian religions were gradually outlawed in lands the empire controlled. However, Christianity seems to have coexisted with indigenous polytheistic religion in the villages and the countryside for many centuries. Pagan practices were syncretized, or combined, with Christian ones. Popular indigenous festivals and holy days were adapted to Christianity, and some goddesses and gods were gradually incorporated into the world of Christian saintsSaints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and .... Although the Irish St. Brigid (based on the goddessGoddess is a term used to refer to the female deity, either in the singular as the supreme divine reality, or in the plural as one of many particular or localized feminine deities. In the Hindu tradition, the Goddess refers to the very powerful, even supr... Brighid) is the most famous example of this syncretism, probably the most influential piece of Christian-Pagan syncretism was the incorporation of Hellenistic Isis imagery into the veneration of the Catholic MaryMary was the mother of Jesus and, as such, has a special place in the affection and devotion of Christians. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew speak of her as a Virgin who conceived Jesus by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to the Virgin Mary, also cal...; images of Mary and the baby JesusJesus is the historical figure considered by Christians to be the Christ, the Messiah, whose life and teachings, death and resurrection give clear evidence of God’s love for humankind. Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE... still resemble portrayals of Isis and the baby Horus. Some indigenous religious shrines were destroyed, but others were converted into Christian places of worship by building churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... around them. As the Roman Catholic ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... grew in power in the West, it tried to stop what it could not assimilate: indigenous religious practices were displaced from the public sphere, although some must have continued, privately and in secret.

Scholars are skeptical that any kind of organized indigenous European religious practice lasted into the medieval period. However, stories of the goddesses and gods survived—sometimes as stories about saints—as did seasonal festivals and folk magicIn Paganism, “magick” refers to the ritualization of one’s spiritual intentions. It is often spelled with a ‘k’ after the usage of Aleister Crowley, a twentieth-century esotericist who wished to differentiate his practice from stage magic. Today... practices for fertility and healing. Among the educated elite, “high” magic intended to contact angelsAngels are a class of supernatural or spiritual beings, imaginatively understood to perform various functions on God’s behalf. Angels are especially described as divine messengers. Angels are common to Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam., demons, and spirits was also practiced. Many, perhaps even most, of these practitioners considered themselves to be Christians, although some undoubtedly resented the control of the Church. Christian authorities, in an attempt to maintain doctrinal and political control (or, perhaps, in genuine fear of indigenous beliefs), began associating fragments of ancient religions with malevolent “witchcraft.” The horned gods of fertility that appear in ancient Greek and European religion mutated into the Christian Devil, and the practices of folk magic and sorcery were conflated with heresy and Satanism. Stories of naked witches dancing secretly in forests, having licentious sex, and taking revenge on their enemies with magic titillated medieval Europeans, many of whom lived short, proscribed lives filled with difficult physical labor and few comforts.

In the fourteenth century, the practice of witchcraft became defined as a crime of heresy, punishable by death. The rubric of witchcraft included a wide range of practices, including the folk healing and herbalism used by midwives. Women who were healers were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, medicine was in the process of being professionalized, to the exclusion of female practitioners. Eventually even the practice of midwifery, long the domain of women, was deemed illegal if the midwife had no formal institutional training; yet access to these institutions was available only to men. The use of women’s healing skills, often the only ones available to the rural poor, was outlawed.

Charges of witchcraft were brought against women and men, sometimes for political reasons, and sometimes out of fear of Satanic influences. Inquisitors and witch hunters visited rural communities to seek out heresy and witchcraft. In some, residents were unable to protect their neighbors from being accused and executed; in others, however, residents took advantage of the witch hysteria to falsely accuse their enemies. Torture methods were used to extract confessionsIn the Christian tradition, confession is the public or private acknowledgment of sin: that which separates human beings from God and from one another., leading many of the accused to describe lurid acts and accuse their neighbors in order to stop the pain. Estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft during these centuries of persecution vary from the hundreds of thousands into the millions.

PuritanThe Puritans were Christians who, in the sixteenth century, called for the purification of the Church of England from what they considered the vestiges of Roman Catholic hierarchy and practice. Like other Reformers, they stressed the authority of the Bibl... colonists also brought their belief in witchcraft with them when they crossed to the New World. The American colonies of the seventeenth century saw one significant outburst of witchcraft hysteria: in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, twelve women and seven men were hanged as witches, and many more were jailed, some for years. Since then, the families of those who were executed have sought to have their ancestors legally cleared of wrongdoing, with the last six formally exonerated only in 1957.


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