We’ve all heard of witches, but do witches have a real existence? Yes, they have existed since the dawn of history, and most likely for millennia before. But what comes to mind when you think of a witch? If it is the fearsome, cackling hag leaning over a boiling cauldron or a silhouette in the moon of an old woman in a pointed hat flying her broomstick… nothing could be further from the truth.
Witches have had many misconceptions throughout the years… one of the most heinous ones being that they were evil and deserved hanging or burning. Witch trials in both Europe and the colonies which would become the United States took place between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries because of the perceived threat against Christianity. Mass fear and negative images were used to further other agendas… which led to violence against people who were not even practicing what they were accused of.
In Classical literature we have Homer’s Circe who bewitched men and turned them into swine. Ovid tells us of the Strigae; erotic beings who flew through the air to carry out their murderous deeds. But with such an ancient history, when did the witches first appear? Early mythologies: In Norse mythology we have the Valkyrie; maidens of Odin who flew through the sky and assisted in the outcome of battles, taking slain warriors to Valhalla.
Many theorists believe that witchcraft is a survival of the cult of Diana, goddess of hunting. English archaeologist Margaret Murray put forward a similar theory in 1921, arguing that the craft traces its roots back to pagan fertility cults.
The Christian image of the Devil is actually an amalgam of god-forms from paganism, such as the Greek Pan and the pagan horned god, sometimes known as Herne the Hunter. The idea no doubt traces itself back to the shaman, usually male, who would dress in the skin of the animal about to be slain; hence the horned god image.
Is paganism a living tradition with roots deep in prehistory or just a collection of superstitions, magic tricks and witches’ spells? Pagans explores the origins, history and beliefs of Europe’s ancient religions.
Sexy Beasts – Looks back to a time before sex was taboo, when humans saw themselves as an integral part of the natural world. Through history and prehistory, the representations of the ancient gods and traditions followed by pagans have been marred by propaganda from other religious groups eager to rein in those they defined as wild barbarians. In truth, the word pagan is a Roman term meaning ‘country folk’, and the general concept of paganism is of oneness with nature and a quest to fully understand the world around us.
Magic Moments – Today magic is used as a form of entertainment. It still thrills us to see an apparently impossible phenomenon happen before our eyes. Reaching back through to prehistoric times, the pagan magicians, who could conjure material from nothing or predict the future, would almost certainly have been held in the highest regard.
Band of Brothers – According to Roman records, the Iron Age Celtic people of Britain consisted of war-like tribes – but this could well be propaganda of the age. In 43 AD, as now, invaders found ways of justifying their subjugation of the native people whose country they colonized and whose land they took. Whatever the reality, the image of rough, heavy-drinking hooligans and evil barbarians is what we have been left with.
Sacred Landscape – A strong pagan belief is that the natural world is embedded in all of us. One method of defining the landscape is by building monuments. The construction of tombs at the boundaries of territory illustrates to outsiders that the area is rightfully yours, since it belonged to your ancestors. A succession of ritual monuments known throughout prehistoric Europe, from wooden trackways to henges (stone or wooden circles), suggest the strong influence of altering the landscape as a way of defining territory within the pagan belief system.