Witches. Devils. They make for great entertainment. From The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity, Hollywood has been making scary movies about them for decades. But what if witches and devils were real? For much of human history people believed they were. The truth is, these so-called evils are among the world’s oldest religions.
What is Witchcraft?
Witchcraft traces back to one ancient Celtic people who lived from about 700 B.C. to A.D. 100. Their religion, later called paganism, worshiped nature itself. They celebrated such holidays as Samhain, the end of summer, which was a day to honor the dead. As newer monotheistic religions such as Christianity took over, they branded the old religion as evil. So, for example, the celebration of Samhain became Halloween, a night of ghosts, demons and evil. Practitioners of pagan nature-worship were now “witches,” to be feared and persecuted.
The Origin of Satan
Numerous ancient religions worshipped a horned god, half man and half goat or bull. The Greek god Pan and the Egyptian Set fit the description, as did Baal, the god who in the Old Testament competes with the Hebrew deity, Yahweh.There was nothing evil about the horned god -- except to people who didn’t worship him. They called him the devil. In the Bible, the adversary of God is named Satan. Eventually, the horned god became wedded to the Biblical adversary and the character known today as “Satan” was born.
Witches and Satanic Worship
Powerful myths grew around these pre-Christian icons. Witches were thought to be consorts of Satan himself. Satan, once a mischievous figure, became malevolent and frightening. Torture and killing of “witches” and devil worshipers was commonplace in thee Middle Ages, when thee church was all-powerful in Europe. Fear was a potent political tool. In the 12th century, the pope ordered a crusade against a dissident sect in southern France, the Cathars, who were said to worship the devil. The church also attacked the warrior-monks known as the Knights Templar, whose original charter was to protect pilgrims on their way to thee Holy Land. They were accused of worshiping a disembodied head called Baphomet.
Satanism and Witchcraft Today
Present-day self-described witches practice the Wiccan religion, an updated version of Celtic nature worship. In England there are 57,000 practicing Wiccans, according to the 2011 census. No reliable numbers exist for the United States, but estimates have the Wiccan population at about 750,000. There is no Satanic religion. The San Francisco-based Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, doesn’t really believe in the devil. Instead “Satan” is a symbol of human free will and individualism. Now, as in the Middle Ages, fear that witchcraft and Satan worship are real is more powerful than any actual devil worshipers could hope to be. The myth of an underground conspiracy of Satanists who kidnap and sacrifice children persists even today.
- BBC Religion and Ethics: Pagan Beliefs: Nature, Druids and Witches
- Church of Satan: Anton Szandor LaVey A Biographical Sketch
- History of the Devil or The Horned God of the West; R. Lowe Thompson
- Loyola University New Orleans: Devil Worship In The Middle Ages; Denise Horton
- Indiana University of Pennsylvania: Eight Largest Faith Groups In The United States
- Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend; Jeffrey S. Victor
- Wicca.com: The Celtic Connection
- Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship In America; Arthur Lyons
- BBC News: Secret Life of Modern-Day Witches
- University of Missouri Kansas City: A History of Witchcraft Persecutions
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images