Witchcraft in Europe

It's been said that history is written by the victors. History is imperfect and is often clouded by societal, personal, or political agendas; therefore, the study of magickal history is no easy task. To trace the course of events to modern Wicca and witchcraft, one can begin by examining the early manifestations of witchcraft in Europe.

“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

— Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher

There are at least four competing interpretations of how witchcraft took root in Europe. The first view, which most in the magickal community have rejected, is that witches never really existed. According to this opinion, witchcraft was simply an invention of the Church authorities, used specifically to gain power and wealth.

The second view suggests that witchcraft developed out of European fertility cults that emphasized a goddess as a central deity. Although this concept has some merit, historians have yet to substantiate it with written chronicles.

The third view says that the idea of witchcraft was a social convention and superstition. When people could not explain an unpleasant event, they blamed someone whom they labeled a witch. This perspective traditionally does not allow for the existence of real witches, but instead considers them to be merely superstition.

The last theory describes how witchcraft evolved gradually from a wide variety of practices and customs. Many of these customs are rooted in paganism, Hebrew mysticism, Celtic tradition, and Greek folklore surrounding sorcery. Many of these customs carried through to Christianity — vestiges of magickal and pagan practices were prevalent in the early Church, and some remain to this day.

Saint Brigid was a Celtic goddess so beloved by the common people that the Church adapted her story and canonized her. This is an excellent example of pagan beliefs and symbolism that the early Church “borrowed” and incorporated into its own traditions.

Despite the Church's obvious connection to paganism, early Christians did everything in their power to discourage the old ways. Books of penance from the Middle Ages frequently speak of punishments for people caught practicing magick. For example, a mother caught putting her daughter on the roof to cure sickness was commanded to do penance for seven years (penance generally consisted of some type of fasting or other restriction).

Witchcraft was also influenced by the myths that traveled from one culture to the next. As the Vikings and the Romans invaded the British Isles, their legends, gods, and goddesses mixed with the beliefs of the indigenous people. Traders and travelers, too, brought stories and ideas to the lands they visited, so that cross-pollination occurred.

Additionally, because most people in earlier centuries were illiterate, magickal traditions were handed down through generations by oral teaching. The few individuals who did possess the ability to read and write probably recorded information according to their own views. Therefore, it's difficult to ascertain what's true and what's fantasy regarding long-ago magickal practices.

St. Patrick is lauded in Catholicism for having driven the snakes out of Ireland. Snakes are symbols of occult wisdom, kundalini energy, sexuality, and the Old Religion that existed for thousands of years in Ireland, Britain, and Europe before the ascent of Christianity; therefore, St. Patrick is actually revered for driving out the spiritual beliefs that predated Christianity.

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