Continuity of an Ancient Religion: Britain


Of the ancient religion of pre-Christian Britain there are few written records, but it is contrary to all experience that a cult should die out and leave no trace immediately on the introduction of a new religion. The so-called conversion of Britain meant the conversion of the rulers only; the mass of the people continued to follow their ancient customs and beliefs with a veneer of Christian rites. The centuries brought a deepening of Christianity which, introduced from above, gradually penetrated downwards through one class after another. During this process the laws against the practice of certain heathen rites became more strict as Christianity grew in power, the Church tried her strength against ‘witches’ in high places and was victorious, and in the fifteenth century open war was declared against the last remains of heathenism in the famous Bull of Innocent VIII.

This heathenism was practiced only in certain places and among certain classes of the community. In other places the ancient ritual was either adopted into, or tolerated by, the Church; and the Maypole dances and other rustic festivities remained as survivals of the rites of the early cult.

Whether the religion which survived as the witch cult was the same as the religion of the Druids, or whether it belonged to a still earlier stratum, is not clear. Though the descriptions of classical authors are rather too vague and scanty to settle such a point, sufficient remains to show that a fertility cult did once exist in these islands, akin to similar cults in the ancient world. Such rites would not be suppressed by the tribes who entered Great Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans; a continuance of the cult may therefore be expected among the people whom the Christian missionaries laboured to convert.

As the early historical records of these islands were made by Christian ecclesiastics, allowance must be made for the religious bias of the writers, which caused them to make Christianity appear as the only religion existing at the time. But though the historical records are silent on the subject the laws and enactments of the different communities, whether lay or ecclesiastical, retain very definite evidence of the continuance of the ancient cults.

In this connection the dates of the conversion of England are instructive. The following table gives the principal dates:
597-604. Augustine’s mission. London still heathen. Conversion of Æthelbert, King of Kent. After Æthelbert’s death Christianity suffered a reverse.
604. Conversion of the King of the East Saxons, whose successor lapsed.
627. Conversion of the King of Northumbria.
628. Conversion of the King of East Anglia.
631-651. Aidan’s missions.
635. Conversion of the King of Wessex.
653. Conversion of the King of Mercia.
654. Re-conversion of the King of the East Saxons.
681. Conversion of the King of the South Saxons.

An influx of heathenism occurred on two later occasions: in the ninth century there was an invasion by the heathen Danes under Guthrum; and in the eleventh century the heathen king Cnut led his hordes to victory. As in the case of the Saxon kings of the seventh century, Guthrum and Cnut were converted and the tribes followed their leaders’ example, professed Christianity, and were baptized.

But it cannot be imagined that these wholesale conversions were more than nominal in most cases, though the king’s religion was outwardly the tribe’s religion. If, as happened among the East Saxons, the king forsook his old gods, returned to them again, and finally forsook them altogether, the tribe followed his lead, and, in public at least, worshipped Christ, Odin, or any other deity whom the king favoured for the moment; but there can be hardly any doubt that in private the mass of the people adhered to the old religion to which they were accustomed. This tribal conversion is clearly marked when a heathen king married a Christian queen, or vice versa; and it must also be noted that a king never changed his religion without careful consultation with his chief men. [Hunt, vol. i] An example of the two religions existing side by side is found in the account of Redwald, King of the East Saxons, who ‘in the same temple had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils’.[Bede, Bk. II, ch. xv]

The continuity of the ancient religion is proved by the references to it in the classical authors, the ecclesiastical laws, and other legal and historical records.

1st century Strabo 63 B.C.-A.D. 23; ‘In an island close to Britain, Demeter and Persephone are venerated with rites similar to the orgies of Samothrace.'[Strabo, “Geography”, Bk. IV, c. iv, 6]

4th century Dionysius says that in islands near Jersey and Guernsey the rites of Bacchus were performed by the women, crowned with leaves; they danced and made an even greater shouting than the Thracians. [Dionysius, “Periegetes” ll. 1120-5]

7th century Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, 668-690; The “Liber Poenitentialis” [Thorpe, ii, pp. 32-4] of Theodore contains the earliest ecclesiastical laws of England. It consists of a list of offences and the penance due for each offence; one whole section is occupied with details of the ancient religion and of its rites. Such are: Sacrifice to devils. Eating and drinking in a heathen temple, “a” in ignorance, “b” after being told by the [Christian] priest that it is sacrilege and the table of devils, “c” as a cult of idols and in honour of idols. ‘Not only celebrating feasts in the abominable places of the heathen and offering food there, but also consuming it. Serving this hidden idolatry having relinquished Christ. If anyone at the kalends of January goes about as a stag or a bull; that is, making himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, and putting on the heads of beasts; those who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.’

“The Laws of Wihtraed”, King of Kent, [ Thorpe, i, p. 41] 690. Fines inflicted on those who offer to devils.

8th century “The Confessionale and Poenitentiale of Ecgberht”, first Archbishop of York,[ Id., ii, p. 157 seq.] 734-766. Prohibition of offerings to devils; of witchcraft; of auguries according to the methods of the heathen; of vows paid, loosed, or confirmed at wells, stones, or trees; of the gathering of herbs with any incantation except Christian prayers.

“The Law of the Northumbrian priests.” [Id., ii, pp. 299, 303] ‘If then anyone be found that shall henceforth practise any heathenship, either by sacrifice or by “fyrt”, or in any way love witchcraft, or worship idols, if he be a king’s thane, let him pay X half-marks; half to Christ, half to the king. We are all to love and worship one God, and strictly hold one Christianity, and totally renounce all heathenship.’

9th century “Decree attributed to a General Council of Ancyra.”[Scot, p. 66.–Lea, iii, p. 493] ‘Certain wicked women, reverting to Satan, and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess that they ride at night with Diana on certain beasts, with an innumerable multitude of women, passing over immense distances, obeying her commands astheir mistress, and evoked by her on certain nights.’

10th century “Laws of Edward and Guthrum.”[ Thorpe, i, p. 169] After 901. ‘If anyone violate christianity, or reverence heathenism, by word or by work, let him pay as well “wer”, as “wite” or “lah-slit”, according as the deed may be.’

Laws of King Athelstan [Id., i, p. 203] 924-940. ‘We have ordained respecting witchcrafts, and “lyblacs”, and “morthdaeds”: if anyone should be thereby killed, and he could not deny it, that he be liable in his life. But if he will deny it, and at the threefold ordeal shall be guilty; that he be cxx days in prison.’

Ecclesiastical canons of King Edgar,[ Id., ii, p. 249] 959. ‘We enjoin, that every priest zealously promote Christianity, and totally extinguish every heathenism; and forbid well worshipings, and necromancies, and divinations, and enchantments, and man worshipings, and the vain practices which are carried on with various spells, and with “frithsplots”,[Frith = brushwood, splot = plot of ground; sometimes used for ‘splotch, splash’] and with elders, and also with various other trees, and with stones, and with many various delusions, with which men do much of what they should not.–And we enjoin, that every Christian man zealously accustom his children to Christianity, and teach them the Paternoster and the Creed. And we enjoin, that on feast days heathen songs and devil’s games be abstained from.’

Laws of King Ethelred [Thorpe, i, pp. 311, 323, 351] 978-1016. ‘Let every Christian man do as is needful to him; let him strictly keep his Christianity…. Let us zealously venerate right Christianity, and totally despise every heathenism.’

11th century Laws of King Cnut [Id., i, p. 379] 1017-1035. ‘We earnestly forbid every heathenism: heathenism is, that men worship idols; that is, that they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, water-wells or stones, or forest trees of any kind; or love witchcraft, or promote “morth-work” in any wise.’

13th century Witchcraft made into a sect and heresy by the Church. The priest of Inverkeithing presented before the bishop in 1282 for leading a fertility dance at Easter round the phallic figure of a god; he was allowed to retain his benefice.[ “Chronicles of Lanercost”, p. 109, ed. Stevenson]

14th century In 1303 the Bishop of Coventry was accused before the Pope for doing homage to the Devil.[Rymer, ii, 934]

Trial of Dame Alice Kyteler 1324.Tried for both operative and ritual witchcraft, and found guilty.

Nider’s Formicarius 1337. A detailed account of witches and their proceedings in Berne, which had been infested by them for more than sixty years.

15th century Joan of Arc burnt as a witch, 1431.

Gilles de Rais executed as a witch, 1440.

“Bernardo di Bosco”, 1457. Sent by Pope Calixtus III to suppress the witches in Brescia and its neighbourhood.

“Bull of Pope Innocent VIII”, 1484.
‘It has come to our ears that numbers of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with demons, Incubi and Succubi; and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women, the increase of animals, the corn of the ground, the grapes of the vineyard and the fruit of the trees, as well as men, women, flocks, herds, and other various kinds of animals, vines and apple trees, grass, corn and other fruits of the earth; making and procuring that men and women, flocks and herds and other animals shall suffer and be tormented both from within and without, so that men beget not, nor women conceive; and they impede the conjugal action of men and women.’

It will be seen by the foregoing that so far from the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII being the beginning of the ‘outbreak of witchcraft’, as so many modern writers consider, it is only one of many ordinances against the practices of an earlier cult. It takes no account of the effect of these practices on the morals of the people who believed in them, but lays stress only on their power over fertility; the fertility of human beings, animals, and crops. In short it is exactly the pronouncement which one would expect from a Christian against a heathen form of religion in which the worship of a god of fertility was the central idea. It shows therefore that the witches were considered to deal with fertility only.

Looked upon in the light of a fertility cult, the ritual of the witches becomes comprehensible. Originally for the promotion of fertility, it became gradually degraded into a method for blasting fertility, and thus the witches who had been once the means of bringing prosperity to the people and the land by driving out all evil influences, in process of time were looked upon as being themselves the evil influences, and were held in horror accordingly.

The actual feelings of the witches towards their religion have been recorded in very few cases, but they can be inferred from the few records which remain. The earliest example is from Lorraine in 1408, ‘lequel mefait les susdites dames disoient et confessoient avoir endure a leur contentement et saoulement de plaisir que n’avoient eu onc de leur vie en tel pourchas’.[ Bournon, p. 23] De Lancre took a certain amount of trouble to obtain the opinions of the witches, whereby he was obviously scandalized. Bodin says, ‘Il y en a d’autres, ausquelles Satan promet qu’elles seront bien heureuses apres cette vie, qui empesche qu’elles ne se repentent, & meurent obstinees en leur mechancete’.[ Bodin, “Fleau”, p. 373]

Madame de Bourignon’s girls at Lille (1661) ‘had not the least design of changing, to quit these abominable Pleasures, as one of them of Twenty-two Years old one day told me. “No”, said she, “I will not be other than I am; I find too much content in my Condition”.'[Bourignon, “Parole”, p. 87.–Hale, p. 27] Though the English and Scotch witches’ opinions are not reported, it is clear from the evidence that they were the same as those of the Basses-Pyrenees, for not only did they join of their own free will but in many cases there seems to have been no need of persuasion. In a great number of trials, when the witches acknowledged that they had been asked to become members of the society, there follows an expression of this sort, ‘ye freely and willingly accepted and granted thereto’. And that they held to their god as firmly as those de Lancre put to death is equally evident in view of the North Berwick witches, of Rebecca West and Rose Hallybread, who ‘dyed very Stuburn, and Refractory without any Remorss, or seeming Terror of Conscience for their abominable Witch-craft’;[ “Full Tryals of Notorious Witches”, p. 8] Major Weir, who perished as a witch, renouncing all hope of heaven;[ “Records of the Justiciary Court of Edinburgh”, ii, p. 14.-Arnot, p. 359] and the Northampton witches, Agnes Browne and her daughter, who ‘were never heard to pray, or to call uppon God, never asking pardon for their offences either of God or the world in this their dangerous, and desperate Resolution, dyed’; Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips, at their execution ‘being desired to say their Prayers, they both set up a very loud Laughter, calling for the Devil to come and help them in such a Blasphemous manner, as is not fit to Mention; so that the Sherif seeing their presumptious Impenitence, caused them to be Executed with all the Expedition possible; even while they were Cursing and raving, and as they liv’d the Devils true Factors, so they resolutely Dyed in his Service’: the rest of the Coven also died ‘without any confession or contrition’.[ “Witches of Northamptonshire”, p. 8]

Title: The Witch-cult in Western Europe a Study in Anthropology (1922)
BY: Margaret Alice Murray
CONTRIBUTOR: Jenny Dunnaway


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