Chapter three – Under Early Christianity
by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
As we begin to examine the relationship between the Old Religion and the Catholic Church, one thing must be clear. This book is not an attack on the Catholic Church. The Church, as we know it today, is a wonderful organization. It is charitable, supportive of many great institutions and a patron of learning. Naturally, no one can agree with everything the Church does or thinks. We are entitled to disagreement, which, in turn, boosts progress. However, while part of the historical clash of the religions is painful, it is not told as criticism of the Church today. Over many centuries, the Church evolved into the larger and richer organization we now know.
In addition, many of those responsible for the terror of the Witch Trials were more administrators than men of God. They wanted property and power. Much like some corrupt politicians, they thought that the end justified the means. On the other hand, some Christians truly believed in the influence of the Devil, believed it with all their hearts, and thought that by tormenting the body they saved the soul. It is difficult to understand, in our century, how deeply superstitious most Medieval people were, and how much the supernatural threatened their lives. Many acted out of ignorance and terror.
In 906, Regino, abbot of Prum, wrote an interesting document. It became known as the Canon Episcopi. Few documents in history were so misunderstood; few caused so much violence.
Regino described the habits of some misguided women who believed in their own hallucinations and illusions. These women thought that the Pagan Goddess, Diana, flew them over great distances. At those faraway places, they worshiped her and her husband, the Devil. Regino, a compassionate man, made it clear that he believed the Devil himself was responsible. The Devil made the poor women think that what happened in their dreams really took place.
Sure, Regino was frustrated by the women’s stupidity – how could they think that any god could exist away from the one true faith, Christianity? However, not for a moment did he believe in the flights, the Sabbaths, or anything else the women said they had done.
Until that time, the Church Fathers felt the same way, accepting Witchcraft as a stupid hoax. After all, how could an illiterate bunch of women have power over God’s world? Nonsense! Any good Christian, using the name of Jesus, could get rid of the tricks of a witch. St. Augustine, for example, heard that witches turned men into donkeys by feeding them magical cheese. He thought it was funny. To the people who told him the story, he said that such events must have been hallucinations or jokes.
Of course the Church did not approve of Witchcraft. The women who worshiped Diana were sinful Pagans who tried to cheat good Christians. But they were powerless. Only God had power over humanity.
If only they stuck to these views. If only there was no connection made between Witchcraft and Dualism. Dualism was a belief that gave real power to evil as represented by Satan. The horned God of the witches, as you will see later, looked very much like Satan. If this connection was not made, perhaps humanity would have been spared the carnage of the witch trials.
But the Church didn’t understand Regino and disagreed, eventually, even with its own early Fathers. The Church took Regino’s document and twisted the meaning around. For six centuries they read it as an admission that the women actually flew to worship at the Sabbaths. Interestingly, Regino didn’t even mention Witchcraft in the document. What he asked was that the clergy would preach that such ideas are false. A gentle man, all he wanted was to convince those women to desert Paganism and embrace Christianity. Poor Regino. Had he seen the tortured and murdered victims, he would have been horrified.
For in the early centuries of Christianity, Paganism was not suppressed; Christians and Pagans lived side by side. They did it for so long, that Christians took over some of the Pagan gods, holy places and customs, in order to reconcile people to the new religion. Pope Gregory the Great, for instance, went as far as ordering the placement of Christian relics in Pagan shrines. He hoped that the people would gradually begin to think that the old god was a new saint. Pagan feast days were used for Christian holidays. Christmas, perhaps, is the most notable example. In the Bible, the exact date of Christ’s birth is never mentioned. So they placed it right over an important pagan holiday.
Those gods that did not become Christian saints were turned into demons. However, many new converts to Christianity continued to worship them side by side with the new God. One Saxon king had a temple with two altars, one for Christ and one for the “Devils.” If you look carefully at Christianity now, so much of the Pagan still remains – the dove, the lamb, the sacred fish symbol, the ever-burning fire, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Baptism – all were, once, Pagan symbols.
As far as the 12th century, priests complained that in Ireland, the people worshiped Pagan Deities. In England, even some monks were caught worshiping Diana in woodland shrines. This continued up to the 14th century. About the same time, the poet Petrarch, while visiting Colonge, saw women performing Pagan rituals. Old habits die hard, country people are conservative, and the transition was not as easy as the Church would have it.
A 6th century Portuguese monk, acting as a missionary, complained that the women worshiped their “devils” quite openly. The interesting thing here is that the monk believed in the existence of those devils. He said the woods, streams, rivers and meadows were full of the devils, and he saw them with his own eyes!
To entice the women to the new faith, churches were built over the old holy places. In the British Isles, they were built over the shrine of Astarte in Northumberland, of Diana in Bath, of Mithras in York. In Spain, they built them over sacred mounds. Still, the women did not accept them. The priests complained that the women brought their old habits into the new churches anyway – they sang, they danced, they performed strange rituals.
Many chieftains accepted the new faith because politically it was advantageous. Some men followed. There was a good reason why the women stuck harder to Paganism – the Church despised women. According to the Bible, women caused the Original Sin. The Church considered them weak, stupid, faithless, and hardly above beasts of burden. They had no rights, no protection, no dignity. In almost every way, they were slaves. The strong women of the Old Religion, the priestess, the Witch, the teacher, the healer, became the enemy of all that was sacred. How could they accept Christianity?
Diana’s cult remained so widespread, that the Church viewed her as an arch rival. Eventually they started to refer to her as the “Queen of the Witches.” Occasionally they attempted to include her in the Church, like so many of the saints. But they soon realized it was impossible. The Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, the most famous, or infamous, of them all, declared that Diana was the Devil.
Naturally, a secret religion that allowed a woman an important place, appealed not only to the hereditary witches, but to many converts as well. Recruits were never welcomed, though, as they were always potential spies. So the religion went underground almost totally and became a secret society. Many of the people that were later tortured and killed had no connection whatsoever to the Old Religion. The real followers knew, from long experience, how to hide.
This was a strange time. Many new sects came into being, and both Paganism and Christianity influenced all of them. To many people, Jesus himself was a magician. He exorcized demons. He healed the sick by “laying on of hands.” He raised the dead and made predictions. He claimed Divine Origin and Virgin Birth. It is true that he never tried to prove himself, and claimed all his power came from God. He didn’t want to be thought of as a magician. But to the common people it mattered little.
To understand those times a little better, two sects should be examined – Gnostics and Kabbalists.The Gnostics were not really Christians, and the Church did not approve of them. They were people who wanted peace, mysticism, and a chance to think about the universe. Most of them lived in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the Church destroyed much of their writing with the usual thoroughness. That left us with only partial knowledge of their nature.
The Gnostics disliked the world. They did not believe God created it himself, as He was not interested in creating anything. He was totally removed from any matter, and existed in a realm which was beyond matter. A split in the Godhead had occurred at some point. This split they called The Fall, and it somehow created a demon, called the Demiurge. The Demiurge created the Universe. Some said he did it with the help of Sophia, the feminine side of God. The Demiurge also created six other demons, called Archons, to help him in his work.
To make matters worse, the Demiurge had completely forgotten about The Fall, and believed himself to be the only God. With the help of his Archons he created Man. Man, therefore, is created and trapped by a god who has deluded himself. In other words, God is crazy. Man’s only hope to escape to his true home and the true God is through knowing the true state of affairs. The word Gnosis, which is what the name of the religion is based on, means Knowledge.
Naturally, the denial of the Christian God did not endear the Gnostics to the Church. And the Demiurge was admirably suitable for identification with Satan. Evil by nature, a fallen angel, self-deluded and cunning at the same time – what could be better? Heresy! Kill the Gnostics!
Now, you could ask, where is the connection to Witchcraft? Gnosticism is a totally different religion, isn’t it? It does not love the world; it despises nature and its beauty; the earth is a place to escape from rather than enjoy. Nothing in common, right? Wrong. Religious teachings can always, but always, be twisted around to benefit someone.
This time of furious faith was the golden age of the magicians, and many of them had Gnostic influence. For example, take Simon Magus – a very successful magician. Simon Magus may have been a native of Samaria. At any rate, he was working there during the time of the Crucifixion. His following, however, continued as far as the 4th century CE and spread far and wide.
Simon was impressed by the apostle Philip’s cures and exorcisms. He decided to be baptized, but saw Christianity more like a magical system than a new religion. He probably didn’t care much about the distinction, being of a practical rather than a spiritual nature. His intention was to buy the apostle’s secret of “laying on of hands” for healing. Very understandably, he thought it was a great magic trick.
Unfortunately, it offended the apostle Peter, who disliked Simon Magus immediately. On their first meeting, Peter rebuked Simon for trying to buy the apostles’ secret. Incidentally, this is where the word “simony” is derived from – buying and selling of priestly gifts or powers. Simon, who considered all of them professional magicians, could not see what was wrong in buying a perfectly good trade secret for a fair price. He probably thought Peter behaved like a pompous hypocrite, but being a particularly pleasant man, Simon took the rebuke with good grace.
Simon’s writings show a lot of female imagery. Paradise, for example, he described as the “womb.” The imagery links him strongly to the Old Religion. Unlike Jesus, he never objected when people called him a magician. After his death, his successor called himself Nenander, meaning Moon-man. Neander claimed to be the reincarnation of Simon himself. In later centuries, one of the great objections made against Simon Magus was his acceptance of women as equals. In true Wicca tradition, he viewed the power of the gods as shared between male and female.
He had a disciple, a Phoenician sorceress called Helen. With her he established a sort of trinity in which he was the Father and the Son, and she was the Holy Ghost. So in actuality, he adapted the new religion to his own views. He and Helen were worshiped, though, in front of statues of Zeus and Athena. So he certainly appealed to the Pagans as well.
Helen was worshiped in many forms by the followers, particularly as Sophia, the Gnostic Virgin of Light and wisdom. So here was a strong connection to Gnosticism. She was also claimed to be Mary, Mother of Jesus, and occasionally Mary Magdalene. It was all completely mixed.
Simon Magus, despite his bizarre activities, does not come across exactly like a charlatan. Rather, he operated like a Shaman. True, he did practice some necromancy and even said he had created a human being from thin air and a wandering soul. But these improbable tales were probably just plain advertising and increased business. And many people benefited from his healing.
His end is shrouded in mystery. The legend said he had a contest with the apostle Peter, in front of the Emperor Nero, who was an admirer of Simon. He proved his powers by flying at great height. Peter, supposedly calling on God, broke the spell and sent Simon down to his death. Considering the fact that the flight was probably staged with wires, and that Peter must have tampered with the mechanism, it is interesting that no one ever charged Peter for the murder of Simon Magus.
The second sect to be examined is The Kabbalah. There are many arguments as to when it started. The Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. It is secret knowledge, forbidden to most people. To study it, you had to be a scholar, male, over forty years of age and married. Otherwise, you were never allowed to touch it. This patronizing attitude was justified by saying that it presented a danger to lesser beings – such as unmarried men or any women. It is available to anyone today, and is extremely interesting. Some good introductory books will be mentioned in the bibliography. For the student of Witchcraft, it is a valuable subject.
Some scholars say that one of the major books, the Zohar, was written in 1275 by the Spanish Kabbalist Moses de Leon. But it is obvious the date means only that it was written down on paper at that time. In oral tradition, it existed much earlier. Some sources believe the Kabbalah was practiced at the time of the early Gnostics. Others go back even further. There is no way to prove it, but the material gives the impression of extreme antiquity.
The similarity between Witchcraft and Kabbalah is astounding, and is often overlooked, mostly because researchers try to pin the origin of Kabbalah on Gnosticism. True, there is a great similarity between Gnosticism and Kabbalah. This is because Gnosticism, as well as Kabbalah, had much of their origin in the Old Religion, but the Old Religion existed thousands of years before either of them.
The format of The Kabbalah is misleadingly simple. The base is a diagram of the sacred tree of life; it is made by ten circles joined by twenty-two lines. The ten circles are called Sephiroth in Hebrew. The word means “the emanations of God.” Each soul undergoes a fall from the top circle, the Godhead, through the other circles, each representing a stage of creation, into our world and an earthly body. Then, the soul has to work on its climb back into the Godhead, using the astral body, or the body of light, as its vehicle. The creative Godhead is all pure thought. It is split in two, male and female, so the tree is represented by a female side and a male side, equal in power and necessary for the maintenance of the world.
Through various techniques of devotion, meditation, and concentration, it is possible to release the soul. Then, by using the tree of life, you can travel the universe through the twenty-two paths (those lines that connect the ten Sephiroth). Much can be learned that way.
Another great Kabbalistic similarity to Witchcraft is the “Gimatria.” This is a system of conversion of words into numbers, and then back into other words of the same number. It sounds simple, but it allows the practitioner to use words of power. Particularly important are the forbidden names of various angels or even, at the ultimate, the unmentionable name of God. The use of language is extended to various formulas and the manipulation of words – very much like magic spells.
One such charm is open to anyone and is quite useful. It is not magic and has no true mystery. It deals directly with your subconscious and could enhance your success with various projects and goals. And yet it is so ancient that it goes back to the invention of writing itself – when the written word was power. Try it.
Take a peace of paper, and in the shortest possible way, write down a sentence that represents a goal. Let’s say you want to be a professional artist some day, but have very little time to paint or draw, because of your school obligations, part-time job, social life, or sports. You regret that, because you know that to be an artist you must work at it. So write “I AM A GREAT ARTIST.” Now cross out letters so that each letter appears only once. Here are the steps:
- “I” is removed. You now have I AM A GREAT ARTST
- “A” is removed. You now have I A M GRET RTST
- “M” appears only once. “G” appears only once. No need to touch them.
- “R” is removed. You now have I A M G R E T T S T
- “T” is removed. You now have I A M G R E T S
- “S” appears only one. No need to touch it.
After you do that, you will end with this bizarre word “IAMGRETS” which obviously is meaningless. Stare at the word very intently for a long time. Carry it with you. Stare at it often. It sinks, eventually, into your subconscious. You will find that in a few weeks you’ll be doing some unexpected things. Perhaps you will step into an art supplies store and buy those water colors you promised yourself last spring. Or maybe you’ll find yourself drawing caricatures of your teachers at class (not a good idea – beware of being caught). Or you will have an idea of sketching something as part of a school project, perhaps an experiment in biology, which suddenly looks much better when presented graphically. It works every time. This is a small example of Witchcraft at its practical best.
Well, it can’t be denied that Witchcraft does work. But the horror of the next few centuries was not based on practical little magic things like that. Nor was it about the love of nature and its worship. It was about humanity’s relationship with a nonexistent entity who had many names.