In the history of human migration and conquest certain patterns repeat themselves endlessly. One of these is the practice of invaders to demonize the gods of those whom they have subdued and displaced. There are numerous stories of this kind of struggle in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, told both from the viewpoint of the triumphant conquerors and of the resistant conquered.
In the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges the military eradication of the indigenous tribes of the Jordan valley by the Israelites is firmly linked with destruction of their places of worship. The indigenous gods, called Baals, are mocked and denounced. The Israelite understanding of what their god requires of them is exemplified by Judges 2:1-5, in which an angel of The Lord calls them disobedient and calls punishment on them for failing to tear down all the altars to local gods.
Later, as recounted in the 18th chapter of I Kings, the prophet Elijah sets up a contest between himself and the prophets of the Baals. Elijah taunts the other prophets, then kills 450 of them after he wins the contest. This tension remains through the remainder of the Old Testament. In the understanding of the Israelites, the first two commandments that they received through Moses – 1. I am the Lord your God …; you shall have no other gods before me. And 2. You shall not make for yourself an idol…. (Exodus 20:2-4, excerpted) – required both total obedience on their part and elimination of neighboring peoples who worshiped other gods.
In contrast the familiar stories of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6) tell of resistance by followers of The Lord who are themselves now the conquered in captivity. Their refusal to bow down to the gods of their captors leads to death sentences and then to miraculous reprieve.
What got me thinking about this dynamic was hearing recently a young Christian person state that witchcraft is sinful because those who practice it worship the devil. The statement betrays a lack of understanding both of the history of how accusations of witchcraft have been used for millennia to persecute followers of the older European religions, or those suspected, with or without cause, of being such followers, and of the beliefs and practices of modern-day Wiccans and other neo-Pagans.
After the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity as its state religion, imposition of Christian practice on conquered peoples became standard. How that was accomplished varied tremendously from one area to another. Some indigenous peoples were assimilated, some were decimated, some were baptized and then more or less left alone. By the twelfth century powerful church and state authorities were using accusations of witchcraft and Satan-worship to suppress rebellious communities for purely political reasons. The extermination of the Stedinger (Frieslander peasants of northern Europe) in 1234, in which an estimated 10 thousand to 33 thousand were killed, is one early example.
The devastation wrought by the Black Death (bubonic plague) in the mid-14th century added to other pressures to destabilize European society in the early modern period. Mass witch trials coincided with other “panics” that swept through the populace. Conspiracy theories abounded, targeting Jews and Muslims as well as “witches.” The height of the crazes occurred between 1550 and 1650, an era known as “The Burning Times.” The most conservative estimates state that tens of thousands died; others assert that the figure is more likely in the hundreds of thousands. Evidence suggests that many were targeted to settle political or personal antagonisms, frequently allowing their accusers to confiscate the land and property of the victims. More than three-quarters of those executed were women.
By the end of the 17th century the number of witch trials had dropped significantly. The Salem, Massachusetts, witch craze of 1692 came near the end of the era and was repudiated by authorities within a few years. The last person executed for witchcraft in Europe was Anna Göldi, who was beheaded in 1782. Historic documents indicate that her “crime” was most likely threatening to reveal an affair with her wealthy former employer, who retaliated by demanding her execution.
The mid-twentieth century brought to Europe and the U.S. an explosion of interest in non-Christian religions, among them the pre-Christian beliefs of northern European and British Isles peoples. Wiccan, or neo-Pagan, spirituality held great appeal for those who, often alienated from traditional Christianity, sought a religious home which emphasized equality between the sexes, care for creation, and freedom from rigid doctrine.
This revival of what is also referred to as witchcraft was met by opposition drawing on the treatises and anathemas developed during the centuries of trials and executions. Thus we again hear the accusation that those practicing the ancient craft “worship Satan.” This is problematic on two fronts. First, it is untrue. Satan, or the Devil, as the personification of evil in opposition to the good God is a Christian construct. It has no parallel in the Wiccan pantheon. Claiming that witches “worship the devil” is a modern-day example of the age-old practice of demonizing the gods of others.
And second, it is dangerous. The neo-Pagan community, especially here in conservative Lancaster County, generally keeps a low profile. But its members are not completely unknown, which makes them and their children potential targets of harassment, bullying, and worse. In today’s trigger-happy and conspiracy-theory-obsessed climate, the threat of violence is real. We who are Christians have a responsibility to be sure of our facts and mindful of the implications of our words before we speak, especially when our accusations could lead to harm of others.