A History of Paganism

The history of Neo-Paganism is probably the most complex and disputed are of Neo-Pagan Religion. Within this article we will address Pagan history from neolithic goddess worship to modern practices of Paganism. As the historical and mythical information is diverse, complex and widespread, we encourage seekers to do their own research and come to their own conclusions concerning the history of Paganism in general, as well as more detailed research into the Culture, Pantheon and Deities to which each is drawn.

From a historical standpoint, the so called 'primitive' religions are the earliest, and undeveloped form of human spiritual expression. These prehistoric cultures, lacking the technologies of modern 'developed' societies are representatives of the first groupings of humanity towards ecstatic religious insights.

The Neolithic Period

The neolithic period (a pre-history stretching roughly from 7,000 BCE to 3,500 BCE) began with humankind first developing agriculture, bringing about the need to settle the tribe in permanent enclaves and continued in this manner until the discovery of bronze lead to the creation of bronze tools and the more 'advanced' bronze age.

Pottery was the prime medium of Neolithic art and depicted the everyday life, including religious beliefs, this is shown in the universal "Goddess" statues and megalithic stone monuments, possibly constructed by the "Cult of the Dead" (there is some evidence that suggests that the Druids may be an evolution of the priesthood of the Cult of the Dead).

Evidence of this pottery has been found throughout neolithic regions from the Middle East throughout North Africa, and the Mediterranean to Europe and the British Isles. The pottery is usually rather plain, with simple decorations — triangles, spirals, wavy lines and other generic forms — incised in it's surfaces. Depending upon the particular culture of origin, such pottery may be cast in forms that mimic baskets, gourd, bells or leather sacks.

The most important neolithic/megalithic stone monuments are the Menhir (large upright stones, also called megalith) of Brittany, France and the immense stone circles of England, of which the most commonly known is Stonehenge (dating back to approx 3,000-1,000 BCE) These are extremely significant landmarks in the move from the neolithic age to the Megalithic age as they signify the great commitment people of that era had to their community and beliefs.

The Megalithic Period

Megalith are found the world over, appearing as singles ("Menhir" — standing stones), in circles ("Henge" — Stonehenge), rows (Carnac) or two upright stones with a lintel — cap stone ("Dolmen" — as in Stonehenge, which is a henge constructed of dolmen).

In whatever form they take, they are often aligned directly with a number of other sites both locally and internationally (whether by accident or design). Typically they stand over water crossings, near geological faults or tectonic intrusions where geomagnetic fields exhibit anomalies. The stones themselves are often of a high crystalline structure and can generate piezoelectricity. Brittany and Britain are especially rich in these structures, which employ Pythagorean geometry 2,000 years before Pythagoras, who was said to have been taught by Abaros, a priest of the winged temple of Hyperborea, yet to have known Pythagoras, Abaros must have lived millennia after the collapse of the megalithic culture.

When the Celts reached Britain, the builders of the Megalith were already, mythic, such as the tales of the Tuatha de Danann. Legends of dragons and giants abounded and the stones were said to be alive (Gaelic 'firchreig’ — false men) walking and dancing, (or in the case of Oxfordshire's Rollright Stones) going to the nearby river to drink. Odd lights 'will o' wisps' hovered about them. The early Christians found it difficult to keep the common people away from these sacred sites. Many churches, especially in Wales, ended up being built within the Stone circles or on Pagan mounds as a means of bringing the common people "into the fold".

The Megalith are associated with fertility and healing, this is made clear by the folk myths that surround them, such as the 'Cromlech' (stone with holes in the center, symbolic of the Mother Goddess) were widely told to enable barren women to conceive.

Puritanically regarded as Satanic, many of the megalith were broken up at the command of Church leaders. The circle at Avebury were destroyed in this manner. Then science stepped in and in 1890 the circles were declared to be calendrical, with individual stones marking the motions of the Moon and Sun, as was seen by the practitioners of the Ancient Mysteries.

The Mystery Religions

The Mysteries were the secret and sacred rites and ceremonies connected with the various religions worshiped by ancient pagans. The oldest Mysteries were practiced in and around Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome (to name a few). These secret rites and ceremonies were only known and practiced by, congregations of men and women who had been duly initiated; no others were permitted to participate. The origins of the Mysteries are unknown, but undoubtedly the sacred rituals brought to the Initiates secret religious doctrine, which in many instances were concerned with the continuance of life beyond the grave.

The Mysteries consisted of purifications, sacrificial offerings, procession, songs, dances and dramatic performances (often the birth, suffering, death and resurrection of the God were enacted in dramatic form). The aim of the Mysteries seems to have been two-fold, namely, to give comfort and instruction for life on Earth and a rebirth after death, and to inspire the Initiates to further their soul in it's spiritual journey.

The earliest Greek Mysteries were the Orphic, the Eleusinian and the Dionystic. The Orphic Mysteries were those of a Mystic Religion founded, according to tradition, by the legendary poet and musician Orpheus, to whom was attributed a great mass of religious literature.

Far more celebrated were the Eleusian Mysteries, connected with the worship of the Goddess Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Attica; these Divinities were associated with amongst others, Pluto, God of the Underworld and Bacchus a name for the youthful Dionysus, God of vegetation and of wine.

The worship of Dionysus or Bacchus, at Athens was accompanied by feasts, procession and musical and dramatic performances. In later times the mysteries associated with Dionysus became occasions for intoxication and promiscuity. They were forbidden at Thebes and later elsewhere in Greece. As the Bacchanalia these rites were introduced into Rome early in the 2nd century BCE. At first the Mysteries were celebrated only by women; when they were opened to men, the gatherings were suspected of gross immoralities and in 186 BCE the Roman senate attempted to suppress the Rites by decree.

Secret Rites were a part of worship of several Greek Deities, such as Hera, Queen of the Gods; Aphrodite, Goddess of Love; and Hecate, Goddess of the Underworld. Many foreign religions adopted by the Greeks and Romans had Mysteries connected with the worship of Divinity; these religions included the worship of the Phrygian Goddess Cybele, the "Great Mother" of the Gods; the Egyptian Isis, Goddess of the Moon nature and fertility and the Persian Mithras, God of the Sun. The worship of those Deities spread throughout the Greco-Roman world and was extremely popular in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. Isis, who at an early date had been identified with Demeter, was worshiped in Italy as late as the 5th century CE.

As these religions were gaining in popularity in the civilization of the Greco-Roman world, elsewhere there was another form of Pagan religious structure being formed and practiced by the Germanic/Scandinavian peoples — Heathenism.


Heathenism is the pre-Christian religious beliefs of the Germanic/Scandinavian people. The legends and myths of the ancient heroes, Gods and the creation and destruction of the universe developed out of the original common mythology of the Germanic peoples and constitute the primary source of knowledge about Ancient Germanic religions. Although Scandinavian mythology was transmitted and altered by medieval Christian historians, the original Pagan religious beliefs, attitudes and practices can be determined by relating the mythology with the practices of the other mystery religions.

It is clear, however, that the religious mythology developed slowly and the relative importance of different Gods and Heroes varied at different times and places. Thus the Cult of Odin, Chief of the Gods, may have spread from Western Germany to Scandinavia not long before the myths were recorded; minor Gods — including Ull, the fertility God; Njord and Meimdall — may represent older Deities who lost strength and popularity as Odin became more important. Odin, a God of war, was also associated with learning, wisdom, poetry and Magick.

Besides Odin, the major Deities of Heathen Mythology were his wife Frigg, Goddess of the home; Thor, God of thunder who protected human and the other Gods from the giants and who was especially popular amongst the peasantry; Frey, a God of prosperity and Freya, sister of Frey, a fertility Goddess. Other lesser Gods were Balder, Hermod, Tyr, Bragi and Forseti; Indun, Nanna and Sif were among the Goddesses. The principle of chaos among the Gods was represented by the trickster Loki.

Many ancient mythological heroes, some of whom may have been derived from real persons, were believed to be descendants of the Gods; among them were Sigurd the dragon-slayer; Helgi, thrice born; Harald Wartooth; Hadding, Starkad and the Valkyries.

The valkyries, a band of warrior maidens that included Svava and Brunhild, served Odin as choosers of the slain warriors, who were taken to reside in Valhalla. There the warriors would spend their days fighting and nights feasting and drinking until Ragnarok, the day of the final world battle, in which the old Gods would perish and a new reign of peace and love would be instituted. Ordinary Individuals were received after death by the Goddess Hel in an underground world.

Scandinavian mythology included Dwarves, Elves and the Norns (also known as the Fates) who distributed destiny to mortals. The ancient Scandinavians also believed in personal spirits such as fygjia and the hamingja, which in some respects resembled the Christian idea of the soul. The Gods were originally conceived as a consideration of two formerly warring Divine Tribes, the Aesir and the Vanir. Odin was originally the leader of the Aesir, which consisted of at least 12 Gods, these Gods lived in Asgard.

The Scandinavian Gods were served by a class of priest-chieftains called 'Godar’. Worship was originally conducted outdoors, under guardian trees, near sacred wells or within a sacred arrangement of stones. Later wooden temples were erected, with altars and carved representations of the Gods. The most important temple was at Old Uppsala, Sweden, where animals and even humans (usually prisoners taken in battle) were sacrificed.

The Vikings eventually found their way as they conquered and pillaged, into Medieval Europe.

The Medieval Period

The middle ages was a period in Europe dating from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, around the 5th century to the 15th century. However the fixing of dates for the beginning and end of the middle ages is arbitrary; at neither time was there any sharp break in the cultural development of the continent. The term seems to have been first used by Flavio Biondo of Forli, a historian and apostolic secretary in Rome, in his Historiarum ab Inclinatione Romanorum Imperii Decaudes (Decades of History, from the Deterioration of the Roman Empire), which was first published in 1483, although written some 30 years earlier. The term implied a suspension of progress — a period of cultural stagnation, once referred to as the Dark Ages, between the glory of classical antiquity and the rebirth of the glory as the beginnings of the modern world.

The Burning Times

In the Early centuries, the Christian Church was relatively tolerant of Paganism and it's magical practices. Those who were proved to have engaged in 'Witchcraft' were only required to do penance. But in the late middle ages (13th-14th century) opposition to Witchcraft hardened as a result of the growing belief that all magick and miracles that did not come from God cam from the devil and were therefore manifestations of evil. In 743 CE the Synod of Rome outlawed offerings to Pagan Gods or nature sprites, this was the beginning of the planned persecution of the followers of the Pagan religions. In 829 CE The Synod of Paris advocated a death of Pagans by citing the Biblical Passages of Leviticus 20:6 and Exodus 22:18. Those who practiced simple sorcery (such as the village wise woman) were increasingly regarded as practitioners of diabolical witchcraft. They came to be viewed as individuals in league with Satan (a belief still held today by many Christians).

Nearly all those who fell under suspicion of diabolical witchcraft were women, evidently regarded by witch hunters as especially susceptible to the Devil's temptation. A lurid picture of the activities of 'witches' emerged in the popular mind, including 'covens' or gatherings over which Satan supposedly presided, pacts with the Devil; flying broomsticks; and animal accomplices known as familiars. Although a few of these elements do represent vestiges of Pagan religions, the popular image of witchcraft, perhaps inspired by features of occultism or ceremonial magic as well as theology concerning the Devil and his 'works of darkness' was largely given shape by the inflamed imagination in the minds of the inquisitors and confirmed by statements obtained under terrible tortures. The first trial for practicing witchcraft was held in Orleans France in 1,022 CE.

The late medieval and early model picture of diabolical witchcraft be attributed to several causes. First the Church's experience with such dissident religious movements such as the Albigenses and Cathari, who believed in a radical dualism of good and evil, led to the belief that certain people allied themselves with evil (and therefore Satan). As a result of confrontations with such heresy, the inquisition authorized a series of papal decrees between 1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture in 1252 and Pope Alexander IV gave the inquisition authority over all cases of sorcery involving heresy, although most prosecutions of witches were carried out by the local courts. The first execution of an alleged witch was in Ireland, that of Dame Alice Kyteler in 1,324 CE.

At the same time other developments created a climate in which alleged witches were stigmatized as representatives of evil. Since the middle of the 11th century, the theological and philosophical works had been refining the Christian concepts of Satan and evil. Theologians, influenced by Aristotelian rationalism increasingly denied that "natural" miracles could take place and therefore alleged that anything supernatural and/or not of God must be due to commerce with Satan or his minions. Later, the Reformation, the rise of science and the emerging modern world — all challenges to traditional religion — created deep anxieties in the orthodox population. At the dawn of the Renaissance (15th-16th century) some of these developments began to coalesce into the 'Witch craze' that possessed Europe from 1450 to 1700s. During this period, thousands of people, mostly innocent women, were executed on the basis of 'proofs' or 'confessions' of diabolical witchcraft — that is sorcery practiced through allegiance to Satan — obtained by cruel tortures.

A major impetus for the hysteria was the Papal bull Summis Desiderantes issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. It was included as a preface to the Malleus Mallificarum (The publication Hammer of the Witches), published by two Dominican inquisitors in 1486. This work characterized by a distinct anti-feminine tenor, Vividlu describes the alleged satanic and sexual abominations of witches. The book was translated into many languages and went through many editions in both Catholic and Protestant countries — out selling all other books except the Bible (it is still in publication today).

In the years of the witch hunting mania, people were encouraged to inform against one another. Professional witch finders identified and tested suspects for evidence and witchcraft and were paid a fee for each conviction. The most common test was pricking; all witches were said to have somewhere on their person, a mark, made by the Devil, that was insensitive to pain, if such a spot was found it was regarded as proof of witchcraft. Other 'proofs' included additions of nipples (said to be used to suckle familiars), the inability to weep and failing the water test (in this the accused was thrown into water, if she sank she was innocent — and dead, if she floated she was found guilty) either way the accused had no way out.

The persecution of witches declined around 1,700 CE by which time there had been 6,000 executions in Germany, 50,000 executions in Northern Europe, 2,000 in France and England and 17,000 in Eastern Europe. It is important to note that regardless of the connotations of the term 'burning times' not all in fact only a small percent of those killed were actually burned many others died during the vigorous days of torture, or were sentenced to much crueler and slower deaths. Banished by the age of Enlightenment, which subjected such beliefs to a skeptical eye. One of the last outbreaks of witch hunting took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692, when belief in diabolical witchcraft was already in decline in Europe. Twenty people were executed in the wake of the Salem witch trials, which took place after a group of young girls became hysterical when caught out while playing with magic and it was proposed they were bewitched. The subsequent witch hunt took place in the context of deep divisions between church and a controversial minister. Personal differences were exacerbated in a small isolated community in which religious beliefs — including the belief in the reality of diabolical witchcraft — were deeply held. By the time the hysteria had run it's course, little enthusiasm for the persecution of witches remained in Massachusetts or elsewhere. The laws against witchcraft were finally repealed in 1951.

Belief in traditional witchcraft, in the sense of sorcery, remains alive in India, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere and a growing return to Paganism is thriving throughout the world. The belief that Paganism is akin to Satanism and Diabolical Witchcraft (as stated in the Malleus Mallificarum) can still be found amongst many conservative Christians today.

Modern Neo-Paganism

In the second half of the 20th century, a self conscious revival of pre-Christian Paganism occurred in the United States and Europe. The foundation of this revival was White Witchcraft or Wicca (Wicce — meaning wise, or to shape, an Anglo Saxon term for Witchcraft). Wicca is interpreted as simply a revival of the nature and fertility religions of pre-Christian Europe, it evolved from publications such as Margaret Murray's The Witchcult of Western Europe (1921) and Robert Graves The White Goddess (1948). Although considered unreliable by scholars (in regards to the direct descent of knowledge) such books gave inspiration to people seeking spiritual alternatives. The writings of Englishman Gerald Gardner, who in his book Witchcraft Today (1954) claimed he was a direct initiate of a surviving Coven, imparted much of the lore and rituals of modern Wicca and English Witchcraft. Although his claims are questioned by those who doubt his authenticity, Covens of modern Witches sprang up under Gardner's inspiration and spread to the United Sates in the 1960's. This form of Witchcraft — with it's connection to nature, it's colorful rituals, it's love of fantasy and it's challenges of conventional religion and society, harmonized well with the counterculture rising up in the 1960's and grew rapidly during that decade.

Modern Witchcraft continued to prosper during the subsequent decades. Many followers of the ecological and feminist movements found in Wicca a religion with common themes. Wicca emphasized the sacred meaning of nature and it's cycles and the equal role of Goddess and God, and the Priestesses and Priests. Some Wiccan groups, known as Dianics (after the Goddess Diana) include only women and worship the Goddess exclusively. With the popular rise of Wicca also came an interest in other Pagan beliefs of our Ancestors, these have appeared as revivals of Ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Grecian and Nordic religions.

Neo-Paganism perceives itself as a modern religion based on the broad themes of pre-Christian Paganism. Although many of the ancient ways have been transformed into symbolism (such as blood sacrifice into a symbolic sacrifice). Increasingly Paganism draws from Many ancient Pagan Traditions with the result that many distinctions between Witchcraft, Wicca, Occultism and various stands thereof have become blurred. Modern Paganism is entirely different from Satanism or Diabolical witchcraft as perceived by the persecutors of past centuries. Major Pagan themes include a love of the natural world, equality of male and female, appreciation of the ceremonial, a sense of wonder and belief in magick and an appreciation of the symbolism and psychological realities beyond the Gods and Goddesses of antiquity.

Modern Paganism will continue to develop, evolve and shape itself into new forms and new expressions as Practitioners themselves evolve, develop and discover more about the natural world, the sciences and their understanding grows from both a spiritual as well as scientific and emotional sources.

It is when the faith of it's worshipers wanes, when the religion stops evolving, stops changing with the flow of energies at any given time, this is when the beliefs that form the core of worship essential to Paganism will fade away and the religion like everything will have run it's course and developed beyond the need of the people, but until the children of the ancient ways will continue to walk the ancient paths.

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