I read with interest an article in my local newspaper this morning on Witches and Paganism. I guess they are running the feature as Halloween is approaching. This is a time when all of the stereotypical images and views of Witches are presented. However, when you scratch beneath the surface you find out how little you knew about Witches and Paganism. It also becomes clear the level of discrimination that they have faced in the past and continue to face today.
As a person who is keen on both history and current affairs I thought it might be useful to offer what I know of the inequalities and discrimination that Pagans and Witches have experienced over the centuries. Are you aware that Paganism is the oldest belief system in these islands? Probably, the closest to modern day Paganism would have been Celtic Polytheism. This is where our ancestors practised rituals which worshipped the land and paid homage to natural phenomena.
After the conquest of the Romans, in order to subdue the people and convert them to Christianity, old Pagan rituals and festivals were adopted and combined with Christian celebrations. Probably, the most topical would be Halloween. This was originally an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which has many elements of modern Halloween. The Christian festival of All Saint’s Day was eventually moved to 1st November and the two were then inextricably linked forevermore.
Persecution of Pagans began late in the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who ordered the destruction of temples among other brutalities, this despite the fact that the emperor himself had issued the ‘Edict of Milan’ in 313AD which proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire. This persecution continued throughout the time of the Roman Empire.
This was the beginnings of the myth that Pagans were devil worshippers and created evil spells. We can trace their persecution over the following centuries. Conrad of Marburg (1st Inquisitor of Germany) gleefully claimed in 1231 “We would gladly burn a hundred if just one of them was guilty”. In 1280, we have the first appearance of a witch riding a broomstick, the common image and stereotype we see today.
Over the next 2 to 3 centuries various statutes were issued against witchcraft almost always preferring torture and/or death as the means of dealing with suspected Pagans. At this time, there were various stereotypes formed, many of which are still prevalent today. In 1566, the first witch trials took place in Chelmsford Court, England. Many executions took place across Europe as a result of witchcraft trials right up until the late 18th Century.
Some more recent horrific reportings have included a case in 1976, in Germany where a woman “was suspect of keeping dogs as familiars”, Neighbours harassed and bullied her, eventually burning down her house causing her to suffer severe burns and the fire killed all her animals. The reports do not mention if she were a practising Pagan or not.
Even today Pagans remain a target of ridicule, persecution and violence. In 1998, the European Court of Human Rights condemned and fined the Greek government for suppression of among other faiths, Paganism.
Pagans and Witches are often viewed with suspicion and there have been some cases in America where they have been unable to congregate due to venues not being willing to hire premises to them.
Luckily in the UK we have the Equality Act 2010 which should offer protection to Pagans and as Alex Park (A practising Witch) states “..they are not people to be feared. They are doctors, policemen, firemen…they could be your next-door neighbour.” Northampton Chronicle & Echo 25th Oct 2012.
I really do think it is time for us to rid ourselves of the ridiculous images and stereotypes of Witches riding broomsticks and see them as people who just happen to have their own beliefs as I am sure many people reading this will have. We seem to be becoming more aware of all other faiths that are practised in the UK but I believe that probably the oldest belief system of this land is the least understood.
So, my challenge to you is to find out as much about all faiths and belief systems and treat everyone equally regardless of those same beliefs.