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Religion Library: Paganism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Carl Gregg

The Christianization of Europe never destroyed the old religion, because vestigial remains of old Pagan practices persisted in folklore and folk practices. Ironically, the Christians themselves contributed to the survival of European Paganism, in that the monks of the Middle Ages committed the old polytheistic mythology, which had previously been transmitted orally, to writing.

Many Christian holy days coincided with earlier Pagan festivals (for example, the feast of All Saints' Day took place on November 1, coinciding with the Pagan festival of Samhain). Ancient water sources, venerated by Pagans as associated with local spirits or deities, became Christianized as holy wells dedicated to a Christian saint, but the spiritual practices associated with such wells consisted of a blend of Pagan and Christian activities. Some Pagan deities survived under the folkloric guise of fairies - mischievous and troublesome nature spirits that needed to be propitiated through offerings.  So, while Christianity became established as the "official" religion of Europe, Paganism did not die, but simply went underground, hidden but present in a variety of folk practices.

In her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), archaeologist Margaret Murray made a startling claim: that the pre-Christian religions of ancient Europe survived the coming of Christianity and, by the late Middle Ages into the modern era, became the spiritual practice of witchcraft. Witchcraft, according to this view, was the vestigial remains of an ancient Pagan goddess/fertility cult.

Murray's theories have largely been discredited within the scholarly community. They remain important, however, because of the impact they had on the emergence of modern Pagan spirituality in the mid- to late-20th century.  Although the idea of an "organized cult" is no longer held by academics, vestigial remains of Paganism that survived the arrival of Christianity in Europe have been documented by a variety of historians, anthropologists, and folklorists who have focused on mythology, superstitions, fairy beliefs, folk rituals, and ceremonies to demonstrate that, far from being eradicated, ancient Pagan spirituality simply survived in unofficial ways. One example is the "cunning man" or "cunning woman" tradition, in which rural communities would rely on the healing and magical practices of a cunning man or woman who was versed in herbology and folk medicine. Such figures could represent a vestigial remain of a Pagan priesthood.

Eighteenth-century Britain saw the first movement toward the revival of the druids. Reflecting the popularity of antiquarianism in the late 18th-century, the druid revivalists sought to restore the indigenous spirituality of the British isles, and turned both to literary evidence from classical authors like Julius Caesar, and archaeological evidence (sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury) for inspiration. Although most critics now dismiss the early attempts at reviving druidism to be based more on fantasy than fact, these early efforts at re-visioning ancient Paganism reborn paved the way for the birth of modern Paganism two centuries later.

Study Questions:
     1.    How did the polytheism of the Romans clash with the polytheism of the Pagans in the 1st century C.E.?
     2.    Why were Pagan druids suppressed? What was the effect?
     3.    Did Christianity destroy or perpetuate Paganism? How?
     4.    How did witchcraft help Paganism survive the colonizing effects of Christianity?


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