History for Pagans
Too many books for Pagans make historical claims that cannot be substantiated by evidence. Some of these claims are that Wicca is a 25,000-year-old religion/6,000-year-old religion/pre-Christian religion; that Goddess are universally associated with the moon in three aspects; that there was a Pan-European pagan religion in ancient times; that 9,000,000 people died in the “Burning Times”; that Pagans were specifically persecuted during the “Burning Times”; a lot of other misconceptions about the “Burning Times”; and various erroneous ideas about the Celts.
Much of what is given about the history of Wicca in particular and Pagan survivals is speculation and wishful thinking that hard evidence does not support. Any reasonably diligent historian can counter every one of the claims with a demand for hard evidence with other, more conclusive evidence that strongly suggests an opposing scenario.
Why is it important that we distinguish between what are demonstrable historical facts and what are speculations? As part of my religious beliefs, I greatly venerate the Ancestors. I feel we are slapping our ancestors’ collective faces if we don’t seek the truth — as much as we can know that truth — of who they really were and of what they really did. Making up emotionally satisfying stories and believing that they are historically true does not honor our ancestors; doing that devalues the real contributions of our ancestors have made to our world and to our lives.
Clinging to these speculations, myths, even, as facts also destroys our credibility as religious groups. If these ideas can so easily be discredited, why should any of our other ideas or beliefs be taken seriously?
As for the “Burning Times,” Jenny Gibbons points out that if we don’t really understand why and how the “Burning Times” happened, we will be blind to when the circumstances are ripe for “Burning Times” to happen again, and be less able to circumvent such times of persecution.
Below are some of the books and web sites by respected historians (and in a few noted cases, disrespected historians) that cover some of the areas mentioned above. Some of these books are also listed on other pages where appropriate. Research regarding the Celts will be found on the separate Celtic Studies page.
Note: Several citations below had links to the online version of The Pomegranate. These articles are in the process of moving to a new server and we hope to be able to link to these articles again in the not-too-distant future.
Nature and Development of European Paganism
The Gimbutas Hypothesis and Its Critics
Many of the claims of the ancientness of Wicca or of the worship of ”the Goddess”rested on the hypotheses of Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist, anthropologist, and linguist. Her basic hypothesis, as I understand it, is that Goddess worship was at least 35,000 years old and spread throughout Europe. These Goddess-worshippers formed peaceful, egalitarian societies that did not engage in war until outside tribes who believed in a sky-god invaded the Goddess-worshippers’ territories and brought with them concepts of hierarchy, repression of women, violent conflict, among others.
Dr. Gimbutas’s hypotheses are very controversial. I have included her work, along with the work of some of her critics because it is important to understand where some of the Wiccan claims come from.
The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 7000-3500 B.C. Myths, Legends, Cult Images. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974. Revised edition: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC London: Thames and Hudson; Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.
________. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.
“The Interface of Archaeology and Mythology: A Philosophical Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm” The Pomegranate No. 5 (Lammas 1998).
“An Article and Six Short Essays in response to The Interface of Archaeology and Mythology: A Philosophical Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm.” The Pomegranate No. 6 (Samhein 1998).
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won‘t Give Women a Future.New York: Beacon Press, 2001.
Perhaps, this book should not be considered “history” as such, but as a critical look at what has been accepted by some as “history” or at least as an accounting of prehistory. Ms. Eller looks at the evidence for prehistoric cultures being matriarchal from anthropological, archaeological, art historical, and historical view points and concludes that, while she could not completely rule out the possibility, that the preponderance of evidence is strongly against matriarchal prehistoric cultures. She also goes on to look at why not having an matriarchal past need not preclude a egalitarian future for men and women. Her introduction to the subject and her exposition and criticism of the evidence is excellent; her concluding chapters seemed a bit weak in comparison.
I have been working on an essay on the so-called “masculine principle/feminine principle” and struggling with how I wanted to express how limiting I found the concepts. Ms. Eller, in two succinct and elegantly written paragraphs, said exactly what I had been trying to convey using several pages. The rest of her book is equally well-written; I could hardly put it down once I had started it.(SR)
The person who compiled this group of critiques tends to be rather anti-feminist (as demonstrated in the rest of his Web site), and, perhaps, has not been entirely unbiased in his selection of critiques of or the portions which he has used. Also, some quotations may have taken out of their original contexts. If this subject is of interest to you, you might want to consult the original sources of the quoted material to see what the authors really said in context. (SR)
History of European Paganism
The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0801439779
This is an excellent overview of the history of Slavic civilization: how it grew from its Indo-European roots and took hold across Eastern Europe from 500 CE to 1000 CE. Barford includes a short chapter on Slavic religious practices. (LC)
The Slavs. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.
Before Gimbutas went off on her “ancient matriarchal religion” tangent, she was well-respected as an archaeologist. The Slavs is from this period of her work, and it is a classic. She includes lots of information about where the ancient Slavs came from and how they might have lived. There is a very helpful chapter on Slavic gods and goddesses. (LC)
. A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
A well-written and fairly objective study of the history of Paganism with solid bibliography and footnoted text. Some of the information, such as how intact Paganism “survived” in Europe, is more speculative than I would like to see in a history. (SR)
“Introduction: The Old Religion.” Gnosis No. 48 (Summer 1998): 12–14.
“Survivals” and the History of Wicca
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1991 ISBN 0-631-17288-2.
Hutton's books challenge the widely-held concept that folk traditions and practices contain Pagan survivals. He works very hard to find what solid historical evidence exists and whether or not it can be used to support the existence Pagan survivals. Generally, he concludes that there are very few folk practices can be held to be genuine survivals of earlier Pagan practices. Some of his evidence is less than totally conclusive and I have to wonder how qualified he is to interpret archaeological and literary evidence when his own training is as an historian of the 17th century. Some critics feel that his lack of traning in Celtic languages has biased his conclusions. Nonetheless, we recommend his books, especially Pagan Religions … since all too many Pagan writers perpetuate the “ancientness” of Pagan religion without critically examining the sources. Hutton's works are a refreshing call to critical thinking when dealing with history. (SR)
Pagan Religions … is one of my favorite books debunking some common held interpretations of the spiritual practices of the Celts. The illustrations in this book are excellent and Dr. Hutton's research made me re-think some of my beliefs and I agree with Dr. Hutton 80% of the time. (In a few cases I find his interpretations of the information totally off base). Some people think that Hutton is unfriendly to pagans, when in fact he is a champion of many pagan causes in England. This is a must read. (DT)
_______. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-820570-8 (hardback); 019-288045-4 (softback).
Stations of the Sun... is a very informative book that details the history of such British folk traditions as morris dancing, mummer's plays, rushcarts, well dressing, pace egging and wassailing. This is one of the most thorough chronicling of these folk traditions and their history. As with all of Hutton's books, I agree with what he writes 80% of the time but find some of his information off base. (DT)
________. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hutton documents the history of Wicca or “Modern Pagan Witchcraft,” as he calls it. He looks at what evidence supports claims of Wicca being an ancient religion and what contradicts those claims, and charts the development of Wicca from the mentalities and cultural milieu of the late 19th century and the 20th century. His research is extensive and thorough. Every Pagan should read this book before they are exposed to other books that make unsubstantiated historical claims about Wicca, the persistence of Pagan worship, or the “Burning Times.” (SR)
The “Burning Times”
Witches and Neighbors: the Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.
I would not recommend this to be the first book one reads on the European witch persecutions. Briggs analyzes some of the social forces that influenced the European witch craze, such as gender, economics, politics, religion, education, local social structures, concepts of “neighborliness” and cultural values as found in the trial records from the region of Lorraine in France, as well as from elsewhere. His writing is somewhat dry and he tends to ramble a bit. Some reviewers have made the criticism that he does not synthesize his case studies into a coherent overall picture. I think that his point may be that an overall picture may necessarily be chaotic and that sweeping conclusions about the effects of these various social forces cannot be drawn from the evidence at hand. It seems that these forces interacted in such complex ways so that small differences in how these forced worked together could produce dramatic differences in how witchcraft persecutions occurred (or did not occur) from one place to the next. I did found the his case studies useful in illuminating aspects of village life from the 14th to 17th centuries. (SR)
“Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt” PanGaia No. 21 (Autumn 1999): 24–34.
The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1995.
If you read only one book on the “Burning Times,” this is the one to read. It is a somewhat dry, but readable summary of current scholarship (to date of printing) and deals with many popular misconceptions about the “Burning Times.” (SR)
Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997 (reprint edition).
Witchcraft in Europe, 1100–1700: A Documentary History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
Joe Bethancourt’s “The Killings of Witches: A
Chronicle of the Burning Times”:
Marc Carlson’s Witch Hunt statistics:
Jenny Gibbons’s “Hall of Remembrance”:
This web site was created by Jenny Gibbons who is a historian and a Pagan. I wish she had footnoted her facts better on the web site (as she did in the printed version of her article in PanGaia. Nonetheless, most of what she has included on this site can be corroborated by other sources and I recommend visiting this site and reading its contents thoroughly. (SR)
Greywing’s Witch Hunt Pages:
Dietmar Nix’s “The Witch Hunt”:
Prof. [Brian A.] Pavlac’s Women’s History Resource
Witch Hunts (A.D. 1400-1800)”
Stella Australis Witchcraft Craze History: