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History of Anglo-Saxon Paganism

Anglo-Saxon Paganism

The polytheistic religion of the Anglo-Saxons was practised for a comparatively brief period in England, from the invasion in the mid 5th century and throughout the 6th and 7th centuries, before gradually blending into folklore as a result of Christianization. It surrounded the cult of the Ése (singular Ós, the equivalent to the Norse Aesir, notably Woden and Thunor. The epic poem Beowulf is an important source of Anglo-Saxon pagan poetry and history, although it bears some traces of a Christian redaction, containing numerous references to the Christian God.


The Anglo-Saxon tribes were not united before the 7th century, with seven main kingdoms, known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. Certain deities and religious practises were specific to certain localities, for instance, Seaxneat was only worshipped in Essex, as he was seen as the progenitor of the East Saxons, whereas the West Saxons and South Saxons claimed different genealogies.

Our sources on Anglo-Saxon England set in with Christianization only, leaving the pagan 6th century in the prehistoric "Dark" of Sub-Roman Britain. Our best sources of information on the pagan period are 7th to 8th century testimonies, such as Beowulf and the Franks Casket, which had already seen Christian redaction but which nevertheless reflect a living memory of pagan traditions. The transition of the Anglo-Saxons from paganism to Christianity took place gradually, over the course of the 7th century, influenced on one side by Celtic Christianity and the Irish mission, on the other by Roman Catholicism introduced to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 597. The Anglo-Saxon nobility were nearly all converted within a century, but paganism among the rural population, as in other Germanic lands, didn't so much die out as gradually blend into folklore.

As elsewhere, Christianization involved the adoption of pagan folk culture into a Christian context, including the conversion of sacrificial sites and pagan feast days. Pope Gregory the Great instructed Abbot Mellitus that:

"I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water, and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil-worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God."

The question of religious allegiance of the individual kings was not a political one, and there is no evidence of any military struggle of a pagan vs. a Christian faction as in that between Blot-Sweyn and Inge the Elder during the 1080s in the Christianization of Sweden, and no military "crusade" as in the 8th century Saxon Wars of Charlemagne's. Each king was free to convert to Christianty as he pleased, due to the sacral nature of kingship in Germanic society automatically entailing the conversion of his subjects. The only exception may be found in the war of Penda, the last king of Mercia, against Northumbria. Penda exceptionally allied himself with the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd against his Anglo-Saxon neighbours. In the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Penda together with Cadwallon ap Cadfan (who was nominally a Christian but according to Bede given to barbarous cruelty) resulted in the death of Edwin of Northumbria (who had been baptized in 627). As a result, Northumbria fell into chaos and was divided between Eanfrith and Osric, who both reverted to paganism as they rose to power. Both Eanfrith and Osric were killed in battle against Cadwallon within the year. Cadwallon was in turn defeated by Oswald of Northumbria in the Battle of Heavenfield shortly after. Penda again defeated Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641, ending in Oswald's death and dismemberment. The outcome of the battle ended "Northumbrian imperialism south of the Humber" and established Penda as the most powerful Mercian ruler so far to have emerged in the midlands and "the most formidable king in England," a position he maintained until his death in the Battle of Winwaed in 655.

Charles Plummer, writing in 1896, describes the defeat of Penda as "decisive as to the religious destiny of the English". Bede makes clear, however, that the war between Mercia and Northumbria was not religiously motivated: Penda tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia, even including the baptism of his own heir, and held those reverting to paganism after receiving baptism in despise for their faithlessness. This testament of Penda's religious tolerance is particularly credible, as Bede tends to exaggerate Mercian barbarism in his account of Oswald as a saintly defender of the Christian faith. After Penda's death, Mercia was converted, and all the kings who ruled thereafter were Christian, including Penda's sons Peada, who had already been baptized with his father's permission, as the condition set by king Oswiu of Northumbria for the marriage of his daughter Alchflaed to Peada, to the husband's misfortune, according Bede, who informs us that Peada was "very wickedly killed" through his wife's treachery "during the very time of celebrating Easter" in 656. Penda's death in 655 may be taken as the decisive decline of paganism in England, but pagan kings remained in the Isle of Wight and Sussex, and Essex would revert to official Paganism in 660 and again in 665. Official, state-sponsored Paganism did not end untill 686 when the Pagan king Arwald was killed in battle by Cædwalla. This date may be extended to 688 as the [religion of Cædwalla] during this time is ambiguous.

It is difficult to judge how long the common (and particularly rural) people remained Pagan. Usually when kings converted they would make Paganism a criminal offence. Wilfrid was still converting the pagan population of Sussex in 686, and there is a law code from Wessex from 695 proscribing a fine for failing to baptise one's children, suggesting people weren't doing so. By the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon England was essentially Christianized, the Anglo-Saxon mission contributing significantly to the Christianization of the continental Frankish Empire. Germanic paganism again briefly returned to England in the form of Norse paganism, which was brought to the country by Norse Vikings from Scandinavia in the 9th to 10th century, but which again succumbed to Christianisation. Thus, mention of the Norse "Thor, lord of ogres" is found a runic charm discovered inserted in the margin of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript from the year 1073. Polemics against lingering pagan customs continue into the 9th and 10th centuries, e.g. in the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890), but England was an unambiguously Christian kingdom by the High Medieval period.



Anglo-Saxon cosmology remains sketchy. In the Nine Herbs Charm, there is a mention of "seven worlds", which may be an indication that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons believed in seven realms. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the realm humans live on as Middangeard (meaning "Middle Realm", altered to middellærd "Middle Earth" in Middle English by folk etymology), and also to a realm called Neorxnawang, corresponding to the Christian idea of Heaven. Whilst these are Christian terms, some scholars have theorised that they may have corresponded to earlier pagan realms. Earendel may have been a name of the morning star, identified with John the Baptist (who heralds the coming of the Christ as the morning star heralds the Sun) in the Crist poem. The Anglo-Saxon concept corresponding to fate was wyrd, however some scholars, such as Dorothy Whitelock, have criticised that this was a strong belief amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and was instead a belief held only after Christianisation.


The Ése had all but vanished from the religious thought of the Anglo-Saxons by the time our historical sources set in. Their chief, Woden (corresponding to Norse Odin) was euhemerized as an ancestor of the royal houses of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia. The name of ése appears to survive as referring to a class of supernatural beings on equal footing with elves, as evident in a 10th century Metrical Charm "Against A Sudden Stitch" (Wið færstice) which offers remedy against sudden pain (such as rheumatism) caused by projectiles of either ése or elves or witches (gif hit wære esa gescot oððe hit wære ylfa gescot oððe hit wære hægtessan gescot "be it Ése-shot or Elf-shot or witch-shot"). The Anglo-Saxon rune poem is unaware of ós referring to a class of divine beings, taking it as Latin os "mouth" instead. The most straightforward survival of the term is in English given names like Oswald, Oshere, Oswin, Oslac etc., partly surviving as surnames such as Osgood, Osborn or Hasluck.

Woden nevertheless left most traces in English folklore and toponymy, appearing as the leader of the Wild Hunt. His name also appears as that of a healer in the Nine Herbs Charm, directly paralleling the role of Wodan in the Merseburg Incantations. The 10th century Exeter Book records the verse Wôden worhte weos, wuldor alwealda rûme roderas ("Woden wrought the (heathen) altars / the almighty Lord the wide heavens"). The name of such Wôdenes weohas (Saxon Wôdanes wih, Norse Oðins ve) or sanctuaries to Woden survives in placenames such as Wodeneswegs. Numerous other placenames contain the name of Woden, such as Wormshill and others.

The other Ése are very sparsely attested and mostly accessible by comparison with their Norse counterparts. The name of Þunor, the god of thunder, survives in a few placenames such as Thurstable (from Þunres Stapol "Þunor's Pillar") in Essex and in given names such as Dustin or Thurston, paralleling Norse Thorstein. There is almost no evidence of Fríge, the equivalent of Frigg, except for the appearance of her name in translation of Venus in the name of Friday. Tiw was the god of warfare and battle, but had probably faded before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. His name survives in the translation of Mars in the name of Tuesday. In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem Tir is identified with Polaris rather than with a deity.

Other gods venerated in Anglo-Saxon England were Ing, a god who is often equated with the Norse Yngvi, and Gēat, a deity associated with the Norse Gautr. Kathleen Herbert in her book 'Lost Gods of England' equates Ing with Norse Freyr. This is due to Frey being worshipped as Ingvi-Frey in Sweden, along with the same symbolism found in Beowulf (among other sources) regarding the boar as Frey's symbol and his role in fertility. She also connects Ing to the early Germanic Nerthus.

The god Seaxnēat was not worshipped by all the Anglo-Saxons, but only by the East Saxon tribe who settled in southern England and formed the kingdom of Essex. Eostre, according to Bede, was a goddess whose feast was celebrated in Spring. Bede asserts that the current Christian festival of Easter took its name from Eostur-monath Aprilis (modern April), the month the goddess's feast was in. Another deity mentioned by Bede but for whom we have no other information was the goddess Hretha, whose name meant "glory".


Besides the Ése, Anglo-Saxons also believed in other supernatural beings or "wights", such as elves, and household deities, known as Cofgodas. These would guard a specific household, and would be given offerings so that they would continue. After Christianisation, it is believed that the belief in Cofgodas survived through the form of the fairy being known as the Hob. Similar beliefs are found in other pagan belief systems, such as the Lares of Roman paganism and the Agathodaemon of Ancient Greek religion. Many different supernatural creatures featured in not only myths, but also in the beliefs of everyday life. These included elves, dwarves, dragons, and giants, all of which could bring harm to men.

Legend and Poetry

Amongst the great mythological figures of the Anglo-Saxons was Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south. The name Hengest means "stallion" and Horsa means "horse", reminiscent of the horse sacrifice connected to the inauguration of pagan kings. The Geatish hero Beowulf is the eponymous hero of the only Anglo-Saxon epic surviving in full. He travels to Denmark to slay the monster Grendel, who had terrorised the kingdom of Hrothgar, before going on to kill Grendel's mother. He later became a king of Geatland, and lost his life in battle with a dragon who had been terrorising the land. This story may have come from the Wuffing dynasty of East Anglia, who originated in the areas mentioned. Weyland the smith figures in Scandinavian as well as continental Germanic mythology. His picture adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership.

Pagan Society

Pagan Germanic society was structured hierarchically, under a tribal chieftain or cyning ("king") who at the same time acted as military leader, high judge and high priest. The tribe is bound together by a code of customary proper behaviour or sidu regulating the contracts (ǽ) and conflicts between the individual families or sibbs. The society of free men was structured hierarchically, with at least three different ranks (reflected in different amounts of weregild due for individuals of different ranks) besides the unfree slaves or theows. All free men had the right to participate in things (folkmoots).

The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman, thegn, heah-gerefa, gerefa. An eorl is a man of rank, as opposed to the ordinary freeman, known as ceorl. An unfree serf is known as esne, later also as theow. Offices at the court included that of the thyle and the scop. The title of hlaford ("lord") denotes the head of any household in origin and expresses the relation to allegiance between a follower and his leader. Early Anglo-Saxon warfare had many aspects of endemic warfare typical of tribal warrior societies. It was based on retainers bound by oath to fight for their lords who would in turn be obliged to show generosity to their followers.


The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the Common Germanic institution of sacral kingship. A king (cyning) was elected from among elegible members of a royal family or cynn by the witena gemōt, an assembly of an elite which replaced the earlier folkmoot which was the equivalent of the Germanic thing, the assembly of all free men. Tribal kingship came to an end in the 9th century with the hegemony of Wessex culminating in a unified kingdom of England by the 10th century. The cult of kingship was central to pagan Anglo-Saxon society. The king was equivalent to the position high priest. By his divine descent he represented or indeed was the "luck" of the people. The central importance of the institution of kingship is illustrated by the twenty-six synonyms for "king" employed by the Beowulf poet.

The title of Bretwalda appears to have conveyed the status of some sort of formal or ceremonial overlordship over Britain, but it is uncertain whether it predates the 9th century, and if it does, what, if any, prerogatives it carried. Patrick Wormald interprets it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings. The sacral position of pagan kings as the semi-divine descendants of Woden in the Middle Ages was transformed into the idea of the Divine Right of Christian monarchs ruling By the Grace of God (Dei Gratia).


We have some Anglo-Saxon law codes dating to the 7th century, compiled by Æthelberht of Kent (c. 602 AD), by Hlothhære and Eadric of Kent, and by Ine of Wessex (c. 694 AD) soon after their conversion to Christianity. Other codes survive from the 8th to 9th centuries, notably the Laws of Alfred the Great, dating to the 890s. These law codes contain laws particular to the Church, including the churchfrith offering protection to a wanted criminal within a church building. The secular portions of the laws nevertheless clearly record tribal laws of the pagan period. Characteristic are its prescriptions of compensation payments or bots, including a weregild to be payed in the case of manslaughter, as opposed to corporeal punishments. The relative amounts of the fines allow an insight into the value system in Anglo-Saxon society. The highest fines in Æthelberht's law code are for the killing of people under the direct protection of the king, and equal fines are payed for adultery with an unmarried woman of the king's household. Alfred has a special law against drawing a weapon in the king's hall. Alfred does prescribe corporeal punishments, such as the cutting out of the tongue, which may however be averted by paying a weregild. Alfred also sets down rules on how to lawfully fight out feuds. Such fights are considered orwige, meaning that deaths resulting from them do not fall under manslaughter. An enemy caught within his home may be besieged for seven days but not attacked unless he tries to escape. If he surrenders, he must be kept safe for thirty days to allow him to call for help from his kinsmen and friends, or beg aid from an ealdorman or from the king. A follower may fight orwige if his lord is attacked. In the same way, a lord may fight for his follower, or any man may fight orwige with his born kinsman excepting against his lord. A man may also fight orwige against another man caught committing adultery with his wife, sister, daughter or mother. References to ordeals and capital punishment appear in 10th century codes only. Strangely, the wager of battle does not appear to figure in Anglo-Saxon law in spite of being a Germanic pagan custom in origin, but is introduced in England only under Norman rule.

Cultic Practice


The most unambiguosly religious aspect of paganism is that of sacrifice, that is, the dedication of gifts to the deities at designated altars. Anglo-Saxon pagan sacrifice was similar to the Norse practise of Blót. November in Old English was known as blótmónað:

Se mónaþ is nemned on Léden Novembris, and on úre geþeóde blótmónaþ, forðon úre yldran, ðá hý hǽðene wǽron, on ðam mónþe hý bleóton á, ðæt is, ðæt hý betǽhton and benémdon hyra deófolgyldum ða neát ða ðe hý woldon syllan.
"This month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language the month of sacrifice, because our forefathers, when they were heathens, always sacrificed in this month, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer." (trans. Joseph Bosworth)

The English word "bless" ultimately derives from Proto-Germanic *blothisojan (meaning "to smear with blood"), which denotes the sacrificial aspect of the term. The sacrifice was conducted at consecrated sites. Such an altar or temple was known as weoh or hearg. Anglo-Saxon temples are described in a letter by Pope Gregory the Great to Abbot Melitus, and two such sites have been excavated. There are sixty sites of pagan worship in England identified from toponymy.


Our best archaeological sources for Anglo-Saxon paganism are 6th to early 7th century burials. Of prime importance among these is the Sutton Hoo cemetery, including a rich ship burial. Other important burial sites include Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, among others. Free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. Wealthy individuals were buried with rich grave goods. The cessation of graves containing weapons or other goods in the course of the 7th century is the archaeological reflex of the transition to Christianity.

Beowulf gives two descriptions of burials, the ship burial of Scyld Scefing and the tumulus burial of Beowulf himself. They are extremely valuable as literary accounts of an otherwise prehistoric practice well-attested in archaeology. The only comparable literary description of a pagan tumulus burial is the funeral of Patroclus as described in book 23 of the Iliad. Beowulf is taken to Hronesness, where he burned on a funeral pyre. During cremation, the Geats lament the death of their lord, a widow's lament being mentioned in particular, singing dirges as they circumambulate the barrow. Afterwards, a mound is built on top of a hill, overlooking the sea, and filled with treasure. A band of twelve of the best warriors ride around the barrow, singing dirges in praise of their lord. Parallels to this account have been drawn to the account of Attila's burial in Jordanes' Getica. Jordanes tells that as Attila's body was lying in state, the best horsemen of the Huns circled it, as in circus games. Burial mounds remained objects of veneration in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, and numerous churches were built next to tumuli.


Everything that we know about the Anglo-Saxon religious festivals come from Bede's work De temporum ratione (meaning The Reckoning of Time), which described the calendar of the year. The Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar comprising of twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht ("Mother Night"), which was situated at the Winter solstice and was the start of the Anglo-Saxon year.

In the month of February, known as Solmonað, Bede claims that the pagans offered cakes to their deities. Another festival was situated around the same time, dedicated to the goddess Eostre, which was a spring festival. The later Christian festival of Easter that was followed at this time apparently took its name took its name from Eostur-monath Aprilis (modern April, the month the goddess's feast was in. The month of September was known as Halegmonath, meaning "Holy Month", which may indicate that it had special religious significance. The month of November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning "Blood Month", and was commemorated with animal sacrifice, both in offering to the gods, and also to gather a source of food to be stored over the winter.

Ritual Drinking

Symbel is the Old English term for banquet organized by a feudal lord for his retainers, Christian or Pagan. Paul C. Bauschatz in 1976 suggested that the term reflects a specifically pagan ritual in origin which had a "great religious significance in the culture of the early Germanic people". Bauschatz' lead is followed only sporadically in modern scholarship, but his interpretation has inspired such solemn drinking-rituals in Germanic neopaganism. Regardless of its possible religious connotations, the symbel had a central function in maintaining hierarchy and allegiance in Anglo-Saxon warrior society. The symbel takes place in the chieftain's mead hall. It involved drinking ale or mead from a drinking horn, speech making (which often included formulaic boasting and oaths), and gift-giving. Eating and feasting were specifically excluded from symbel, and no alcohol was set aside for the gods or other deities in the form of a sacrifice.


Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft. There are various Old English terms for "witch", including hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, wicca, gealdricge, scinlæce and hellrúne. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e.g. from the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890). The word wiccan "witches" is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar's Latin Penitential where it is stated that

"Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place."

The phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an eleventh century Old English translator.


Place Names

Many place names across England are named after the old gods of the English people, for instance, Frigedene and Freefolk are named after Frige, Thundersley after Thunor, and Woodway House, Woodnesborough and Wansdyke named after Woden.

Days of the Week

The seven day planetary week originated in Hellenistic Egypt by the 2nd century BC, and was taken over in the interpretatio romana of the Greek gods in the Roman Empire period, named for Sol, Luna, Mars, Mercurius, Jupiter, Venus and Saturnus. The English language days of the week are, with the exception of Saturday (which was named after Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and harvest), loan-translations of the Latin names, by the interpretatio romana of Germanic deities. While Sunday and Monday may be considered straighforward translation of Dies Solis "day of the Sun" and Dies Lunae "day of the Moon", the names of Tuesday (Tiw's day, translating "Mars' day"), Wednesday (Woden's day, translating "day of Mercury"), Thursday (Thunor's day, translating "day of Jupiter") and Friday (Freya's day, translating "day of Venus") make clear that the loan-translation was based on theonyms rather than celestial bodies.


In the 20th century, with the rise of the Neopagan movement, a reconstructed form of Anglo-Saxon paganism arose in the 1970s as a subset of Germanic neopaganism, in the form of Theodism. A tradition of Wicca, known as Seax-Wica, founded by Raymond Buckland in 1973, uses the symbolism and iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, but in a traditional Wiccan framework.


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Ásatrú (from Icelandic for "Æsir faith", pronounced auːsatruː, in Old Norse [aːsatruː]) in the United States is a form of Germanic Neopaganism, in particular inspired by the Norse paganism as described in the Eddas and as practiced prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. There are three national organizations of Nordic Paganism in the United States, Ásatrú Alliance, Ásatrú Folk Assembly and The Troth, besides numerous smaller or regional associations.


Ásatrú is an Icelandic (and equivalently Old Norse) term consisting of two parts. The first is Ása-, genitive of Áss, denoting one of the group of Norse pagan gods called Æsir. The second part, trú, means "faith, word of honour; religious faith, belief" (archaic English troth "loyalty, honesty, good faith"). Thus, Ásatrú means "belief / faith in the Æsir / gods". The term is the Old Norse/Icelandic translation of Asetro, a neologism coined in the context of 19th century romantic nationalism, used by Edvard Grieg in his 1870 opera Olaf Trygvason. The use of the term Ásatrú for Germanic paganism preceding 19th century revivalist movements is therefore an anachronism. Ásatrúarmaður (plural Ásatrúarmenn), the term used to identify those who practice Ásatrú is a compound with maður (Old Norse maðr) "man". In English usage, the genitive Asatruar "of Æsir faith" is often used on its own to denote adherents (both singular and plural).

Beliefs and Practice

Ásatrú groups and the individual Ásatrúarmenn have no standard means of practice. The US Asatru Folk Assembly defines it as "an expression of the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Europe."


Many Ásatrú groups celebrate with Blóts. Historically, the Blót was an event that focused on a communal sacrifice at various times of the year for a number of purposes. Families and extended family organizations would gather to participate in the communal event. Modern blots are celebrated several times during the year. Ásatrú communities (kindreds, hearths, mots) have different approaches to the frequency of blots and their means of celebrating them.


Besides the blot, key among the ritual structures of Ásatrú as developed by McNallen and Stine is the sumbel, a drinking-ritual in which a drinking horn full of mead or ale is passed around and a series of toasts are made, first to the Aesir, then to other supernatural beings, then to heroes or ancestors, and then to others. Participants make also make boasts of their own deeds, or oaths or promises of future actions. Words spoken during the sumbel are considered and consecrated, becoming part of the destiny of those assembled.


A Goði or Gothi (plural goðar) is the historical Old Norse term for a priest and chieftain in Norse paganism. Gyðja signifies a priestess. Goði literally means "speaker for the gods", and is used to denote the priesthood or those who officiate over rituals in Ásatrú. Several groups, most notably the Troth have organized clergy programs. However, there is no universal standard for the Goðar amongst organizations, and the title is usually only significant to the particular group with whom they work.


A Kindred is a local worship group in Ásatrú. Other terms used are garth, stead, sippe, skeppslag and others. Kindreds are usually grassroots groups which may or may not be affiliated with a national organization like the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, the Ásatrú Alliance, or the Troth. Kindreds are composed of hearths or families as well as individuals, and the members of a Kindred may be related by blood or marriage, or may be unrelated. The kindred often functions as a combination of extended family and religious group. Membership is managed by the assent of the group. Kindreds usually have a recognized Goði to lead religious rites, while some other kindreds function more like modern corporations. Although these Goði need only be recognized by the kindred itself and may not have any standing with any other Kindred.


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Celtic Polytheism / Paganism

Celtic polytheism, sometimes known as Celtic paganism, refers to the religious beliefs and practises of the ancient Celtic peoples of western Europe prior to Christianisation. Celtic polytheism, as its name suggests, was polytheistic, believing in a number of different deities, and was also animistic, believing in spirits existing in natural objects such as trees and rocks. Religious beliefs and practises of the Celts varied throughout the different Celtic lands, which included Ireland, Britain, Celtiberia, Gaul, areas along the Danube river, and Galatia; however there were commonalities shared by all.

Celtic religious practices bear the marks of Romanization following the Roman Empire's conquest of certain Celtic lands such as Gaul (58–51 BC) and Britain (43 AD), although the depth and significance of Romanization is a subject of scholarly disagreement. Celtic polytheism declined in the Roman Empire period, especially after the outlawing of one form of it, Druidism, by the emperor Claudius in 54 AD. It persisted somewhat longer in Britain and Ireland, where it gradually disappeared during Christianization, over the 5th to 6th centuries.

Celtic Terminology

Celtic polytheists probably did not have a name for their religion until faced with other religions to compare it. Therefore, the only titles bestowed upon Celtic religion are the ones which were used to describe the religion in a competitive manner, such as the Latin word "paganism".

Sources of Information

We know comparatively little about Celtic polytheism because the evidence for it is fragmentary, largely due to the fact that the pagan Celts themselves wrote nothing down about their religion. Therefore all we have to study their religion from is the literature from the early Christian period, commentaries from classical Greek and Roman scholars, and archaeological evidence.

Literary Sources

The Iron Age Celts wrote nothing down about their religion not because they couldn't (many knew the Greek alphabet, and used it for other purposes and the Celts of the British Isles also made use of their native Ogham script), but because it was forbidden. The Druids, or priestly caste of the Celts, would only allow their knowledge to be passed orally, possibly so as to protect its secrets from outsiders.

Greek and Roman Sources

Various Greek and Roman writers of the ancient world commented on the Celts and their beliefs. The Roman general (and later dictator) Julius Caesar, when leading the conquering armies of the Roman Republic against Celtic Gaul, made various descriptions of the inhabitants, though some of his claims, such as that the Druids practised human sacrifice by burning people in wicker men, have come under scrutiny by modern scholars. However, the key problem with the use of these sources is that they were often biased against the Celts, whom the classical peoples viewed as "barbarians". In the case of the Romans who conquered several Celtic realms, they would have likely been biased in favour of making the Celts look uncivilised, thereby giving the "civilised" Romans more reason to conquer them.

Irish and Welsh Sources

The other literary sources come from the Celtic lands of Wales and Ireland, in the Christian mediaeval period, long after the decline of Celtic paganism. These sources are in the form of mythological stories, such as the Welsh Mabinogion and the Irish vernacular sources such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. These were initially written in the Welsh and Irish language respectively.

They were written several centuries after Christianity became the dominant religion in these regions, and were written down by Christian monks (at the time, monks would have been some of the few people with the ability to write). Instead of treating the characters as deities, they are allocated the roles of being historical heroes, for instance, in the Irish sources the gods are claimed to be an ancient tribe of humans known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. Because they were written in a very Christian context, these sources must be scrutinized with even more rigour than the classical sources in assessing their validity as evidence for pagan Celtic religion.

While it is possible to single out specific texts which – because of their pagan content – can be strongly argued to encapsulate genuine echoes or resonances of the pre-Christian past, opinion is divided as to whether these texts contain substantive material derived from oral tradition as preserved by bards or whether they were the creation of the mediaeval monastic tradition.

Archaeological Sources

The archaeological evidence does not contain the bias inherent in the literary sources. Nonetheless, our interpretation of this evidence can sometimes be coloured by the 21st century mindset. Various archaeological discoveries have aided our understanding of the pagan religion of the Celts. One is the minted coins of Gaul, Raetia, Noricum, and Britain, and another is the sculptures, monuments, and inscriptions associated with the Celts of continental Europe and of Roman Britain. Most of the monuments, and their accompanying inscriptions, belong to the Roman period and reflect a considerable degree of syncretism between Celtic and Roman gods; even where figures and motifs appear to derive from pre-Roman tradition, they are difficult to interpret in the absence of a preserved literature on mythology. A notable example of this is the horned deity that was called Cernunnos; we have found several depictions and inscriptions of him, but know very little about the myths that would have been associated with him or how he was worshipped.

Celtic Beliefs

Celtic Deities

Celtic religion was polytheistic, believing in many deities, both gods and goddesses. The most notable of these were pan-Celtic, being worshipped across much of the Celtic world, albeit under various regional names and with different associations. Despite the notability of these pan-Celtic deities, they make up only a tiny percentage of Celtic gods; out of the roughly 300 Celtic deities that we know about, only around 60 can be found in more than one region, and of those, only about 20–30 are pan-Celtic. The Celts were also animists, believing in deities existing in most aspects of nature, such as in trees and streams, who were often venerated at local shrines.

According to classical era sources, the Celts worshipped the forces of nature and did not envisage deities in anthropomorphic terms, as other pagan peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did. This appeared to change as the classical peoples grew in influence over the Celtic cultures, as the Celts did begin to give their deities human forms, and they moved from a more animistic-based faith to a more Romanized polytheistic view. Several of these deities, including Lugus and Matrones, exhibited triplism, being found in a set of three. Insular Celts swore their oaths by their personal or tribal gods, and the land, sea and sky; as in, "I swear by the gods by whom my people swear" and "If I break my oath, may the land open to swallow me, the sea rise to drown me, and the sky fall upon me."

Pan-Celtic Deities

Some deities of the Celts were deities of major natural occurrences, such as the sun. The Celts did not worship the sun, but saw it as a symbol for that aspect of divinity. These deities were generally worshipped across the Celtic lands, however, they often went under different names. An example of this was the god Lugus, who appeared in later Irish mythology as Lugh, and in later Welsh mythology, where he appeared as Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Another widespread pan-Celtic god was Taranis, a god of thunder, whose worship has been detected as having occurred in Gaul, Britain and Hispania. Other similar deities included Toutatis, a god of tribal protection in Gaul and Britain, Belenos, a god of healing, and Cernunnos, a horned figure found in Gaul. There were also pan-Celtic goddesses. Examples of this include a mother goddess (such as Danu from Ireland and Dôn from Wales), a goddess of water (such as Sulis), and a goddess of horses (such as Epona in France, Macha in Ireland, and Rhiannon in Wales).

When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands of Gaul, Hispania and Britain, they equated the Celtic gods with their own deities. For instance, they claimed that the Gaulish Celtic god Belenos was the same as their own god Apollo, and that Lugus was the same as their own Mercury. These Roman descriptions comparing Celtic and Roman deities are one of the few sources of literary information that we have about the Celtic gods.

Local Celtic Deities

The Celts were animists, believing that all aspects of the natural world contained spirits, and that these spirits could be communicated with. These animistic deities were often worshipped, so places such as rocks, streams, mountains, and trees may all have had shrines or offerings devoted to a deity residing there. A similar belief is found in modern Shinto in Japan, through the belief of kami. These would have been local deities, known and worshipped by inhabitants living near to the shrine itself, and not pan-Celtic like some of the polytheistic gods.

Among the most popular sites for the veneration of animistic deities were trees; the oak, ash, and thorn were considered to be the most sacred. The early Celts considered some trees to be sacred. The importance of trees in Celtic religion is shown by the fact that the very name of the Eburonian tribe contains a reference to the yew tree, and that names like Mac Cuilinn (son of holly) and Mac Ibar (son of yew) appear in Irish myths. In Ireland, wisdom was symbolized by the salmon who feed on the hazelnuts from the trees that surround the well of wisdom (Tobar Segais). Hot springs and rivers were also popular sites for worship, and were commonly associated with healing.

One of the most popular theories for a belief in fairies (such as knockers, clurichaun, and pixies) in Christianised Celtic areas is that they were a recurring folk belief of these animistic deities, placed under a Christian worldview, where they were seen no longer as nature deities but as malevolant spirits. Sometimes these fairies were treated just the same as previous pagan nature gods had been, with offerings being placed on trees and other shrines to both placate them from committing negative actions and ensuring a good harvest or hunt etc.

Celtic Afterlife

There is no direct information that has survived on what the Celts believed happened after death. However, from archaeological discoveries, Roman accounts, and later mythology, possible ideas of a Celtic afterlife can be established. Celtic burial practices, which included burying food, weapons, and ornaments with the dead, suggest a belief in life after death. The druids, the Celtic learned class which included members of the clergy, were said by Caesar to have believed in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul along with astronomy and the nature and power of the gods. A common factor in later mythologies from Christianised Celtic nations was the otherworld. This was the realm of the fairy folk and other supernatural beings, who would entice humans into their realm. Sometimes this otherworld was claimed to exist underground, whilst at other times it was said to lie far to the west. Several scholars have suggested that the otherworld was the pagan Celtic afterlife, though there is no direct evidence to prove this.

Celtic Practices

Celtic Festivals

Virtually everything that we know about the pagan Celtic religious festivals come from insular sources from Ireland. The Celts of these lands practised four religious festivals a year. These festivals were equidistant from each other, and divided the year into four quarters. The first festival was Samhain, held on October 31st. It marked the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and was similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. The jack o' lantern originated amongst Celtic ideas of scaring away evil spirits that may appear on this day.

The second festival was Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1. It was sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such was a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid. The French scholar Joseph Vendryes compared it to the Roman lustrations. The third festival was Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st. It was devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it. The fourth festival was Lughnasadh, which took place in August. It revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.

Celtic Temples

Classical sources claimed that the Celts had no temples (before the Gallo-Roman period) and that their ceremonies took place in forest sanctuaries. However, archaeologists have discovered a large number of temple sites excavated throughout the Celtic world, primarily in Gaul. In the Gallo-Roman period, more permanent stone temples were erected, and many of them have been discovered by archaeologists in Britain as well as in Gaul. Indeed, a distinct type of Celto-Roman temple called a fanum also was developed. This was distinguished from a common Roman shrine by having an ambulatory on all four sides of the central cella.

Celtic Sacrifice

Celtic religious practice was probably sacrificial in its interactions with the gods. Roman writers stated that the Celts practiced human sacrifice in Gaul: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Suetonius, and Lucan all refer to it, and Pliny the Elder says that it occurred in Britain, too. It was forbidden under Tiberius and Claudius. However there is also the possibility that these claims may have been false, and used as a sort of propaganda to justify the Roman conquest of these territories. There are only very few recorded archaeological discoveries which preserve evidence of human sacrifice and thus most contemporary historians tend to regard human sacrifice as rare within Celtic cultures. There is some circumstantial evidence that human sacrifice was known in Ireland and was later forbidden by St. Patrick, a claim which has also been disputed. The wicker man, a form of human sacrifice that Caesar alleged the Druids, or Celtic pagan priesthood, performed, though no archaeological evidence has been uncovered to support this. There was also a warrior cult that centered on the severed heads of their enemies. The Celts provided their dead with weapons and other accoutrements, which indicates that they most likely believed in some form of an afterlife.

Celtic Ceremonies

An example of a ceremony was the ritual of the oak and the mistletoe. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, describes a religious ceremony in Gaul in which white-clad druids climbed a sacred oak, cut down the mistletoe growing on it, sacrificed two white bulls and used the mistletoe to cure infertility:

"The druids - that is what they call their magicians - hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak.... Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon....Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons."

Pliny was primarily interested in natural history and some scholars have dismissed the testimony in relation to the druids’ ceremony as largely fanciful, particularly as he is the only classical author to mention this ceremony. Yet Pliny specifically associates druids with oak trees. Oaks were held sacred by both druids and Celts alike. Drunemeton, the ‘oak sanctuary,’ is described by Strabo as a place where the Galatian Council met and oak was used to construct the great Iron Age multi-ring timber structure at Navan Fort in County Armagh. The Poole Logboat and the Corlea Trackway were both made of oak in the Iron Age.

Central to Pliny’s statement is the sanctity of the mistletoe, both as a healing agent and as an aid to fertility. Both these concerns are emphasised in Celtic religious expression. Interestingly, in modern pharmacopoeia, mistletoe is reputed to be beneficial to sufferers of insomnia, high blood pressure and certain malignant tumours. Moreover, that mistletoe may have possessed important symbolism for the Celts is suggested by its presence as a motif in early Celtic art. Human heads bearing curious leaf-shaped crowns are common decorative themes on both jewelery and stone monuments. The lobed shape of the leaves on these objects closely resembles the leaves of European mistletoe and, if such an identification be correct, it may be that the faces depicted in this pre-Roman art are those of priests or gods.

In Pliny’s comments, three other points of significance concern banqueting, the moon and bull-sacrifice. All three are familiar to the repertoire of Celtic religion. Ritual banquets are represented in some rich tombs of both the early and late Iron Age of Celtic Europe: the Hallstatt chieftain’s tomb at Hochdorf was furnished with a set of nine drinking horns and a nine-piece dinner service, for the otherworld Banquet, as well as a huge cauldron of mead. certain shrines exhibit abundant evidence of ceremonial banquets: excavators of the sanctuary at Mirebeau, in northern France, found a veritable carpet of bones from butchered animals and broken pots, which appear to be the remains of feasting.

Pliny makes allusions to the moon on its sixth day, a waxing crescent moon, as an instrument of healing: here again there is corroborative evidence in that Celtic goddesses associated with healing and regeneration are sometimes depicted wearing lunar amulets; and the great temple of the healer-goddess Sulis Minerva at Bath, Somerset bears a carving of the Roman moon-goddess Luna. Among the finds at Bath, Somerset was a lunar pendant, possibly once part of a priest’s sceptre.

Lastly, bull-sacrifice is attested in other evidence. Cattle were commonly used as sacrificial animals: the shrine of Gournay in Picardy was the scene of repeated ox-sacrifice and cattle were ritually slaughtered in numerous Celtic sanctuaries. Bull-sacrifice is twice depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron and was probably made in the first century BC. In Irish mythology, the Tarbhfhess, the ‘bull-sleep,’ was a ritual closely associated with druids. : a selected individual was fed on bull flesh before being chanted to sleep by four druids; while he slept he dreamt of the next rightful High King of Ireland and when he awoke he gave this information to his druid attendants.

Celtic Religious Vocations

According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes—the druids, the bards, and the vates. This threefold hierarchy had its reflection among the two main branches of Celts in Ireland and Wales, but is best represented in early Irish tradition with its draoithe (druids), filidh (visionary poets), and Faidh (seers). However these categories are not always fixed, and may be named or divided differently in different primary sources.


A Druid was a member of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They acted as priests, teachers, and judges. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BC. Some scholars have suggested that the Druids were the Celtic counterparts of the Brahmans of India.

Bards and Filid

In Ireland the filid were visionary poets, associated with lorekeeping, versecraft, and the memorization of vast numbers of poems. They were also magicians, as Irish magic is intrinsically connected to poetry, and the satire of a gifted poet was a serious curse upon the one being satirized. To run afoul of a poet was a dangerous thing indeed to a people who valued reputation and honor more than life itself.

In Ireland a "bard" was considered a lesser grade of poet than a fili - more of a minstrel and rote reciter than an inspired artist with magical powers. However, in Wales bardd was the word for their visionary poets, and used in the same manner fili was in Ireland and Scotland.

The Celtic poets, of whatever grade, were composers of eulogy and satire, and a chief duty was that of composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds, and memorizing the genealogies of their patrons. It was essential to their livelihood that they increase the fame of their patrons, via tales, poems and songs. As early as the 1st century AD, the Latin author Lucan referred to "bards" as the national poets or minstrels of Gaul and Britain. In Gaul the institution gradually disappeared, whereas in Ireland and Wales it survived. The Irish bard through chanting preserved a tradition of poetic eulogy. In Wales, where the word bardd has always been used for poet, the bardic order was codified into distinct grades in the 10th century. Despite a decline of the order toward the end of the European Middle Ages, the Welsh tradition has persisted and is celebrated in the annual eisteddfod, a national assembly of poets and musicians.


Celtic Origins

The Celtic peoples originated in the Hallstatt culture of central Europe in the 6th century BC. Over the next three centuries the Celts spread both westward and eastward. They took their religious beliefs with them, however they also adopted local deities that they came across, and attributed deities to local natural phenomenon near to where they settled.


The Celtic peoples of Gaul and Hispania (though not those of further away lands such as Ireland) began to be influenced by the Classical peoples of Greece and Rome. This culminated in the 1st century BC when the Roman Republic conquered Gaul and Hispania and soon annexed it into the Roman Empire. In the 1st century AD they then conquered Britain. The Romans' religion influenced that of the Celts, most notable in introducing the idea of deities having anthropomorphic, human forms.

According to Mircea Eliade, Celtic religion succeeded in retaining a number of pre-Indo-European motifs despite successive accretions from Mediterranean, Roman and Christian religion. Among these motifs were an emphasis on the magico-religious importance of women, and customs connected with the "mysteries" of femininity, destiny, death and the otherworld.


The conversion to Christianity inevitably had a profound effect on this socio-religious system from the 5th century onward, though its character can only be extrapolated from documents of considerably later date. By the early 7th century the church had succeeded in relegating Irish druids to ignominious irrelevancy, while the filidh, masters of traditional learning, operated in easy harmony with their clerical counterparts, contriving at the same time to retain a considerable part of their pre-Christian tradition, social status, and privilege. But virtually all the vast corpus of early vernacular literature that has survived was written down in monastic scriptoria, and it is part of the task of modern scholarship to identify the relative roles of traditional continuity and ecclesiastical innovation as reflected in the written texts. Cormac's Glossary (c. 900) recounts that St. Patrick banished those mantic rites of the filidh that involved offerings to "demons", and it seems probable that the church took particular pains to stamp out animal sacrifice and other rituals repugnant to Christian teaching. What survived of ancient ritual practice tended to be related to filidhecht, the traditional repertoire of the filidh, or to the central institution of sacral kingship. A good example is the pervasive and persistent concept of the hierogamy (sacred marriage) of the king with the goddess of sovereignty: the sexual union, or banais ríghi ("wedding of kingship"), which constituted the core of the royal inauguration seems to have been purged from the ritual at an early date through ecclesiastical influence, but it remains at least implicit, and often quite explicit, for many centuries in the literary tradition. The Celtic cross, a pre-Christian symbol which was later amalgamated with the Christian crucifix.

Nagy has noted the Gaelic oral tradition has been remarkably conservative. The fact that we have tales in existence which were still being told in the 19th century in almost exactly the same form as they exist in ancient manuscripts leads to the strong probability that much of what the monks recorded was considerably older. Though the Christian interpolations in some of these tales are very obvious, many of them read like afterthoughts or footnotes to the main body of the tales, which most likely preserve traditions far older than the manuscripts themselves.

Mythology based on (though, not identical to) the pre-Christian religion is still common place knowledge in Celtic-speaking cultures. Various rituals involving acts of pilgrimage to sites such as hills and sacred wells which are believed to have curative or otherwise beneficial properties are still performed. Based on evidence from the European continent, various figures which are still known in folklore in the Celtic countries up to today, or who take part in post-Christian mythology, are known to have also been worshipped in those areas that did not have records before Christianity.

Neopagan Revival

Various Neopagan groups claim association with Celtic polytheism. These groups range from the Reconstructionists, who work to practice ancient Celtic religion with as much accuracy as possible; to new age, eclectic groups who take some of their inspiration from Celtic mythology and iconography but place little significance on any sort of historical precedent, the most notable of which is Neo-druidry.


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Druidry and Druidism

Neo-Druidry and Neo-Druidism

Neo-druidism or neo-druidry (referred to simply as Druidry by some adherents) is a form of modern spirituality or religion that generally promotes harmony and worship of nature, and respect for all beings, including the environment. It is considered to be a Neopagan faith by some adherents, along with such religions as Wicca and Germanic neopaganism. By other modern druids it is considered to be a philosophical movement that includes religious tolerance, allowing its followers to be adherents of other religions, or to be atheists.

Originally inspired by 17th, 18th and 19th century Romantic movements, modern Druidism was based upon theories about the Iron Age Celtic druids which are no longer considered to be historically accurate. Modern Druidism has no demonstrable historical link to the ancient Celts or their culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, modern druids developed fraternal organizations based on Freemasonry that employed the romantic figure of the British Druids and Bards as symbols of indigenous British spirituality. Some of these groups were purely fraternal and cultural, creating traditions from the national imagination of Britain. Others merged with contemporary movements such as the physical culture movement and naturism. Since the 1980s some modern druid groups have adopted similar methodologies to those of Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, in an effort to create a more historically accurate practice. However, there is still controversy over how much resemblance modern druidism may or may not have to Iron Age or earlier druidism. There are roughly 24,000 neo-druids in the United States.

Druidic Beliefs and Practices

Beliefs vary widely, and there is no set dogma or belief system by which all adherents follow. Indeed, it is a central tenet of many druidic groups that there should not be strict dogmas. There is no central authority over the entire movement, nor any central religious text or religious leader. In most cases, the ideas and inspiration of all Druids is respected.

Nature Centered Spirituality

Many Druids are animists, which is sometimes mischaracterized by modern commentators as "nature worship." Like the Native Americans, most Druids see all aspects of nature as imbued with spirit, a soul if you will, whether or not they interpret that literally or metaphorically. Like the deities of the Celts, the animals and plants are seen as members of a Tuatha, or tribe. The spirits of nature are seen as relatives of an extended family and are therefore honored as kin. The whole of nature along with the other spirits of the unseen realm are seen as a large tribe of tribes, a familial way of describing the interconnectedness of the ecosystem that is the earth. The mother Goddess Danu gives her name to both the tribe of the deities, and the overall tribe of tribes, which in the Gaelic is the "Tuatha De Danaan," the tribe of Danu. The hierarchical concept of worship involving submission and obedience by us as lesser beings is not a concept compatible with Druidry, despite the frequent misunderstanding base on the Judeo-Christian hierarchical concept of worship.

Ancestor Veneration

Respect for the ancestors is another core belief. This idea of great ancestor respect or ancestor worship is common in pagan folk and ethnic religions. Revivalists and Reconstructionist alike agree that knowing as much as possible about the lives of our ancestors and preserving national or tribal heritage is important and good. Archaeological evidence does suggest that the ancient peoples of Britain, Ireland, and other parts of Europe practiced burial customs that we assume imply particular respect for ancestors and probably a belief in life after death in some form.

Druidic Ceremonies

Most modern Druids perform ceremonies within a circle. The circle is commonly made around an altar or central fire. Neo-druids often meet and practice in groups called variously "groves" or "henges." Sometimes they meet at stone circles and other megaliths which are pre-Celtic, but which were traditionally associated with the ancient druids. At the Summer solstice, a druidic ritual is notably held at Stonehenge in England. Another particularly sacred place is Glastonbury in southern England. In parts of the world beyond the range of the original Celtic tribes in Europe and the pre-Celtic megalithic cultures, modern druids seek an understanding of the sacred qualities of landscape and place. This practice is one drawn from existing tribal cultures using the assumption that the ancient druids likely shared such attitudes towards the landscape.

When performing rituals, some modern druids wear ceremonial cloaks and robes, which in some cases imitate the Iron Age style of the Celts. In some orders, robes or tabards of different colors are used to indicate the grade of the druid within the order. In the case of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the colors blue, green, and white are respectively assigned to these grades. Some modern Druids also use ritual staffs, a symbolic magical instrument long associated with both Druids and wizards generally. Many modern druids do not adopt any ceremonial garb.

Druidic Meditation

Some modern druids practice meditation and visualization as a method of self-transformation, particularly engaging the imagery of the four elements of the classical philosophers and the medieval alchemists. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water are considered symbolic of aspects of nature and are sometimes linked symbolically to the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, and the four stages of human life -- that is birth, maturation, old age, and death. Elemental symbolism is fluid and varies from group to group. Some modern druids believe that the ancient Celts did not adopt the Greek system of four elements and prefer to use only a symbolic division of the cosmos into three realms -- Sea (the lower realm), Land (the middle realm), and Sky (the upper realm).

History of Druidism

Neo-Druidism in Britain

The origins of the modern Druid Revival lie in speculation about the historical druids in Early Modern 17th century Britain. William Blake, the artist and poet, was among those who used the image of bards and druids symbolically in his poetry. In Blake's mythos, bards are cast as the noble and admirable advocates for imagination (Divine Imagination as Blake characterized it). Druids, on the other hand, were used most often by Blake in a negative way to symbolize priesthoods of Literalism without imagination. In this poetical symbolism, Blake was inspired by current theories of certain scholars of his day which speculated that the British druids were in fact a remnant of the antediluvian religion of Noah and Adam in the Biblical mythos. Some saw them as the martyred exponents of the true religion taught by God in the Garden of Eden, as distinct from Christian religion as it later developed, which was seen by Nonconformists such as Blake to be corrupt. The theory that ancient druids were the true inheritors of the ancient Patriarchal religion was a move intended to make "True Religion" something British rather than foreign. Such a theory turned on its head the previous view of churchmen that druids had been bloodthirsty pagan priests who worshiped "devils" and were quite rightly stamped out by the superior culture of the Romans.

A more positive view of the druids, portraying them as wise old men arose with the northern European Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. One of the key proponents of the idea that the bards preserved a purer and more universal religion that transcended sectarianism was the Welsh Iolo Morganwg. His writings, though now acknowledged to be partly his own invention claimed to be based on manuscript sources and oral traditions in Wales. His work led to the establishment of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards and influenced the forms of the Welsh National Eisteddfod, celebrations of British culture as distinct from that of the conquering English. The romantic positive figure of the druid and the bard became powerful images within the Welsh and Irish nationalist movements.

Among the ideas and symbols that came out of Iolo's work is the Awen symbol of three rays of light (see above). This symbol serves as a mystic glyph for Revivalist druids who give it varying interpretations. One interpretation is that the three points and three rays represent the Sun at the points of its rising at the solstices and the equinoxes. More mystically, the symbol may be taken as a sign of the Divine Light entering the minds and hearts of the poet as Awen, Welsh for inspiration. The cultivation of personal inspiration is central to the practices of many druid organizations.

Several of the eighteenth century voluntary societies in Britain had a particularly "druidic" flavor, such as the Ancient Order of Druids (founded in 1781), Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (founded in 1874) and the Ancient Druid Order (founded in 1909-10). These organizations. often drew upon Iolo Morganwg for their philosophy and symbolism, including the use of the Druid's Prayer. These organizations were modeled loosely upon Freemasonry and seem to have operated as fraternal societies of a nationalistic character. The substitution of British mythology and bardic or pseudo-bardic terms for the Biblical legends that form the basis for Freemasonry, seems to be a part of this desire to find an indigenous British tradition. Many of Iolo's ideas have since been rejected by both historical and literary scholars as fabrications. Twentieth-century druidic Revivalists nonetheless consider some of Iolo's ideas as visionary, rather than scholarly, insights.

In 1909-10 the colorful figure George Watson MacGregor Reid founded a society called the Brotherhood of the Universal Bond, which despite its name admitted women along with men. Based on Reid's ideas of physical culture and vegetarianism, his interest in Hermeticism, Egyptian religion, and the search for a Universalist religion, this organization also adopted the white robes and accouterments of the Druid Revival. It differed from earlier groups in that it was the first to actually pursue Druidry as a new form of spirituality. Upon the founder's death in 1946, his son Robert assumed leadership of the Universal Bond, which now called itself the Ancient Druid Order-British Circle of the Universal Bond. George Watson MacGregor Reid 1949-1953 fought a highly public battle with Ancient Order of Druid Hermeticists for the right to conduct druidic ceremonies at Stonehenge.

In 1964 when Robert MacGregor Reid, Chief of the Ancient Druid Order, died, a dispute between a group of senior neo-druids broke out over the election of Dr Thomas Maughan as the new chief. Consequently the order split into two branches one of which had Ross Nichols as its Chosen Chief. This new order -- the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids -- was organized to include the three grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid fully recognized in a way that had not previously been done in the Order's modern cycle. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids now represents the largest body of organized Druidry in the world, with over ten thousand members.

Recent decades have seen an explosion of druidic orders and groups in Britain, including the Loyal Arthurian Warband, the British Druid Order, the Secular Order of Druids, the Glastonbury Order of Druids and so on, with the Council of British Druid Orders set up in 1989 to enable meetings and discussions between different Orders to take place. In February 2003, The Druid Network was launched; its aim is to be a source of information and inspiration about the modern druid tradition, its practice and its history.

Neo-Druidism in America

The Reformed Druids of North America

While modern Druidism came to North America first in the form of fraternal druidic organizations in the nineteenth century and orders such as the Ancient Order of Druids in America were founded as distinct American groups as early as 1912, the Neopagan branch of Druidism can be traced to one particular root in the Reformed Druids of North America, which was founded by protesting college students. The history of this organization is interesting and one of the best documented histories of any druidic organization.

The founding of the first congregation of the Reformed Druids of North America, or RDNA, at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, in 1963, though not itself Neopagan proved influential in the birth of other Neopagan organizations. Carleton College's requirement that each student participate regularly in religious services (of the students' choice) caused a minor rebellion among several students who started calling themselves "druids." This tongue-in-cheek religion was designed mainly to challenge the college administration and its attempt to enforce religious attendance. It developed its own religious practices (to conform to the college's definition of "regular religious services"), which to the astonishment of the founders began to draw increasing numbers who saw them as a legitimate spiritual outlet.

This tiny movement came to be called The Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), a pun on the genetic molecule, or just "the Reform". It melded references to Celtic mythology, spiritual eclecticism, more general counter-cultural agitation, and easy-going self-irony. Although the religious attendance requirement was rescinded in 1964, the group persisted and still exists today. Students from Carleton carried RDNA across the United States. The Berkeley Grove became associated with wiccan groups and generally introduced Neopaganism to the movement. The original RDNA services involved periodically gathering in a wooded area, generally referred to as a "Grove". These gatherings were usually weekly, but some groups used astrology to calculate meeting times. Meetings involved several possible components.

  • the ritual consumption of "spirits" (Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey blended with water) called "the water of life" (uisce beatha, or whisky),
  • the singing of religious songs,
  • the performance of ceremonial chanting, and,
  • a meditation, occasionally a sermon, typically exploring other religious traditions.

The written RDNA liturgy calls for a "sacrifice of life", reflecting the core of the Reform, namely plant rather than animal sacrifices, and (for the ordination of a priest) an outdoor vigil. RDNA celebrated the solstices and the High Celtic days of Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc). Later Reformed Druids groups added the equinoxes. These are celebrated with (usually outdoor) parties, religious songs, dancing in circles, etc. Various individuals will also have their own private ceremonies. Often, small groups will break off, and perform their own separated ceremonies before rejoining the general group — these groups are often split along initiatory lines as those of higher degree work their own ceremonies. Individual choice is a major theme of Reformed Druidism. So is ecology, particularly in the sense of living lightly on the land. The major gods are, in RDNA liturgy, the Earth-Mother (addressed as "our Mother"), seen as the personification of all material reality, Béal, the personification of nonmaterial essence, and Dalon Ap Landu, the Lord of Groves. Some individuals prefer to devote most of their praise, however, to other gods, like Health or Music (usually also named in Gaelic). And "A Druid Fellowship" has various scholastic posts and honors, though usually in the arts as devoted to religious praise rather than as formal studies.

Ár nDraíocht Féin

Robert Larson, a priest ordained in the Carleton Grove in 1963 or 1964, relocated to Berkeley, California about 1966, and eventually encountered Isaac Bonewits there. Together they founded a small congregation with affinities to various Wicca groups and to various practitioners of ceremonial magic (or Magick if they were Crowleans). Since then it has had several periods of greater or lesser activity. Currently the most visible offshoot of the RDNA is Ár nDraíocht Féin ("ADF" or "our own druidism" in Irish), with branches present across the United States, in Canada, and some other countries.

The druids or members of ADF often adopt the taxonomy of the organization's founder which distinguishes their Druidry from the earlier Revivalist movement claiming that its is "Neo-Pagan" while such other groups are "Meso-Pagan" on the analogy of archaeological terminology (i.e., Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic). The distinction seems mainly political and is significant as an attempt of some American druids to separate themselves from the traditional Druidism of Britain and Europe. ADF's liturgy is considerably more complex than that of the RDNA, though its roots in the older group are obvious, based on Bonewits's theories of a common pattern to Indo-European worship.

Neo-druidism is often considered a Neopagan religion, though some orders consider Druidry to be a philosophical and spiritual movement rather than a religion along the lines of the major religions with centralized authority structures. It is important, however, to realize that the founders of RDNA intended it to complement or supplement "organized" religion, not to supplant it; most of the founders were practicing Christians. They were very surprised when RDNA continued after the college repealed the religious attendance requirement. As someone put it, "Apparently our disorganized religion appealed to those who couldn't stomach organized religion!" Present-day adherents range from those who are exclusively neo-druids to those for whom it is, indeed, a complement to another faith.

Neo-Druidry Today

Neo-druids in Ireland

In Ireland, neo-druids staged public gatherings for the Midsummer Solstice on the Hill of Tara, intermittently from 1996 to 2005. Currently, a number of Irish neo-druids are working with the various Save Tara heritage campaigns to preserve the Tara-Skryne Valley from the potential environmental impact if the M3 motorway that is planned for the area goes through. The proposed construction would place a large, 38 acre, eight-lane motorway interchange within a mile (1.6 km) of the Hill, making it clearly visible from one of Ireland's most sacred and historic sites, and irreparably damaging important archaeological evidence of Celtic and pre-Celtic history. A number of small orders and groves exist in Ireland, with varying practices and beliefs; most of these have come into existence in the 1990s or later. Druidism in Ireland is still relatively young, is still in the process of establishing links between groves and orders, and so a stable neo-druidic community does not yet exist.

Other European Druid Organizations

In 2002 The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, which already had considerable numbers of members in the Netherlands, began offering their distance learning courses in Dutch, French and German, with local groups soon forming.

The New Order of Druids was opened by David Dom in Belgium in January 2003. It is an online organization, offering a free alternative for people to learn through the means of the Internet, with three main goals: to learn, to grow, to exchange. The New Order of Druids opened the first of its local groves, the Mother Grove called Nervii Nemeton, on September 2, 2005 in Antwerp, Belgium. It may possibly be the first Dutch druid organization of modern Belgium.

Another Belgian druid organization is the Druidic Seat Glastoratin, founded on November 30, 2003, and the Albidatla Druidion Arduina or Assemblée Universelle des Druides d'Arduina, a French druid organization in Belgium founded by Raphaël Zander in 1998.

On November 1, 1980, Gwenc’hlan Le Scouëzec became the "Grand Druid of Brittany In France", of the "Fraternité des druides, bardes et ovates de Bretagne" (Fraternity of Druids, Bards and Ovates of Brittany). Gwenc'hlan is sometimes also considered the "Grand Druid" of France.

Other European druid organizations. are:

  • Le Cercle de l'Ambre (France)
  • La Taverne du Sidh (Switzerland)
  • The Kengerzhouriezh Drouizel an Dreist-Hanternoz (Compagnonnage Druidique d'Hyperborée) founded in 1982 (France)
  • The Kredenn Geltiek Hollvedel (Worldwide Celtic Creed)or Kevanvod Tud Donn (Assembly of the people of the Goddess Ana), founded in 1936 by Raffig Tullou (France)
  • The Order of Clochsliaph — Nemeton Clochsliaph in Hamm, Germany, founded by Uwe Eckert in 2002.
  • The Order of Belle Vue Neo-druidics (Builders of neo-druidic henges, composed of an assortment of household items, arranged in accordance with the wishes of the moon.)

Popular Neo-druidic Organizations

Since the 1960s, a number of modern druidic organizations have been founded, including Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), British Druid Order, The Druid Network (TDN), and Keltria. They all have similar, but distinct beliefs and practices. OBOD is based in the UK, while ADF and Keltria are based in the US, though all three have international reach. ADF is a descendant of the RDNA since its founder, Isaac Bonewits was a member of the RDNA before founding ADF. Keltria (see below) came about as the result of disagreements between several ADF members and Mr. Bonewits on the focus of druidry. There are also many other druid groups in Britain, Europe and America, which may all be considered part of the modern Druidic Movement.

Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids organizes its postal study course into three "grades", with acceptance into each grade requiring completion of the previous grade under direction of a tutor. Initiation ceremonies are sometimes conducted in person within a grove but often individually as a personal ritual. The study course consists of meditations on the four elements and the cycle of life and death, Celtic mythology, and the arts of herbalism, tree lore, stone lore, and self-transformation. It includes the Arthurian legends as they come down from Welsh myth, and it is notable for not excluding Christianity or any other religious practice. OBOD's study course is easily compatible with the practice of other religions and does not require that order members "convert" in any way. Each grade alludes to one of the historical subdivisions of the ancient druids.

  • Bard - The bards cultivated the arts of imagination and language, which is to say the art of symbolism. They learned the complexities of poetry and the arts of memory. Bards were the keepers of lore and were expected to know by heart all the myths, legends, history and even bloodlines of the people.
  • Ovates - Ovates are thought to have been principally seers and ritualists but within OBOD the student devotes time to the study of herb-lore, walking between worlds, meditative work with one's ancestors, and with trees and the ancient Irish writing system the ogham.
  • Druid - Druids within OBOD focus more upon the lore of gods and goddesses, of stones and alignments, and seeking a call or vocation to some form of further practice, either as a teacher, grove leader, or in solitary ways as a contemplative.

Members of OBOD in any of the three grades are considered equals and may pursue a broad range of specialized fields of study and practice within the scope of their grade. There are few formalities about grove organization except that there is a distinction made between OBOD groves, which must have at least two members in the Druid grade, and OBOD seed-groups which have no restrictions. The groves and seed groups are completely autonomous and the study program is administered only through the central office in England by post. Members worldwide maintain contact through an extensive web forum and via e-mail.

Ancient Order of Druids in America

The Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) is another major new group that is a revival of one of the branches of fraternal Druidism that came to North America with European settlers. Descended from Freemasonry and the Ancient Order of Druids, the AODA was revived in the 1990s by John Michael Greer who serves as Grand Archdruid and has been instrumental in bringing the order's teachings up to date. His book The Druidry Handbook lays out the first degree teachings of the order. Like the OBOD and many other esoteric orders descended from Freemasonry, there are three degrees. In addition to ideas inspired from the Druid Revival of the 18th and 19th Centuries, members study natural history, conservationist ecology, ethics, and magical arts. The AODA maintains slightly more connection to the Hermetic traditions of ceremonial magic than does the OBOD.

Ár nDraíocht Féin

Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) teaches s a spiritual practice based on the study of comparative Indo-European religion and linguistics. This is presented as a religion and the act of joining ADF implies that one is a polytheist in some interpretation of that form of religion. Instead of "grades", new ADF members study basic Druidry as "Dedicants" and then move on to the ADF Study Program by joining various Guilds, e.g., Liturgists Guild, Healers Guild, etc., to specialize. These study programs are essentially independent study with some monitoring by a Preceptor who decides when student work is acceptable. Advancement within the Guilds and Special Interest Groups is awarded through passing various "circles" of study culminating in the equivalent of a Master status in a particular pursuit. This guild system attempts to emulate the social structure of ancient and medieval pagan Europe. ADF also has a clergy training program for those who aspire to priesthood. Completion of the Dedicant Program is a prerequisite for both guild and priest work. ADF differs from other neo-druidic groups in that it aims to provide structure and services similar to major organized religion -- for example, paid clergy, formalized religious education, and permanent places of worship. Although it has a great deal of structure under development, it is actually still a fairly loose association of local groves sharing a common liturgy and reporting to the Mother Grove, which is the organization's elected board of directors. Its members can maintain contact with each other through specialized Internet discussion groups and an annual meeting.

Henge of Keltria

Keltrian Druidism is a Celtic Neopagan tradition dedicated to honoring its ancestors, revering the spirits of nature, and worshiping the gods and goddesses of its members' Gaelic heritage. Focus is placed on personal growth through the development of mind, body, and spirit. The group is an initiatory tradition that places special emphasis on the development of spiritual relationships through study and practice of the druidic arts or draíocht. Their national organization, The Henge of Keltria, publishes various resources and acts as a registry for members. It originally broke off as a branch from ADF through disagreements over the pursuit of a pan-Indo-European paganism that went beyond the specifically Celtic cultures associated with the ancient druids.


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Germanic Paganism

Germanic Paganism

Germanic Paganism refers to the myths and cultic practices of the Germanic peoples preceding their Christianization. The best documented version of the Germanic pagan religions is 10th and 11th century Norse paganism, though other information can be found from Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic sources. Scattered references are also found in the earliest writings of other Germanic peoples and Roman descriptions. The information can be supplemented with archaeological finds and remnants of pre-Christian beliefs in later folklore.

The Germanic religion was a polytheistic one with some underlying similarities to other Indo-European traditions. The principal gods of Viking Age Norse paganism were Odin (Old Norse: Óðinn, Old High German: Wodan, Old English: Wōden) and Thor (Old Norse: Þórr, Old High German: Donar, Old English: Þunor). At an earlier stage, the principal god may have been Tiwaz (Old Norse: Týr, Old High German: Ziu, Old English: Tiw).


Most sources documenting Germanic paganism have presumably been lost. From Iceland there is substantial literature, namely the Nordic Sagas and the Eddas, relating to the pagan period, but most of this was written long after Iceland's conversion to Christianity. Some information is found in the Nibelungenlied. The literary source closest to the pagan period may be Beowulf, which some scholars believe was composed as early as the eighth century, and therefore within living memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Limited information also exists in Tacitus' ethnographic work Germania. Further material has been deduced from customs found in surviving rural folk traditions that have either been mildly superficially Christianized or lightly modified, including surviving laws and legislature (Althing, Anglo-Saxon law, the Grágás), calendar dates, customary folktales and traditional symbolism found in folk art.

A great deal of information has been unearthed by recent archaeology, including the Angl-Saxon pagan Sutton Hoo royal funerary site in East Anglia and the royal pagan temple at Gefren/Yeavering in Northumberland. The traditional ballads of the Northumbrian/Scottish borders, and their European counterparts, have also preserved many aspects of Germanic pagan belief. As York Powell wrote, "The very scheme on which the ballads and lays are alike built, the hapless innocent death of a hero or heroine, is as heathen as the plot of any Athenian tragedy can be." Although perhaps singularly most responsible for the destruction of pagan sites, including purported massacres such as the Massacre of Verden and the subsequent dismantling of ancient tribal ruling systems, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne of The Holy Roman Empire is said to have acquired a substantial collection of Germanic pagan songs, which was deliberately destroyed after his death by his successor, Louis the Pious.


The Ansiwiz similar to the Roman Dii Consentes appear as a limited circle of powerful beings, deities or remote ancestors.

  • Teiwaz, god of war, "Germanic Mars", Norse Tyr, Old English Tiw, Old High German Ziu, continues Indo-European Dyeus.
  • Wōdanaz, "lord of poetic/mantic inspiration", "Germanic Mercury", Norse Óðinn (Odin), Old English Woden, Old High German Wuotan.
  • Frijjō, wife of Wodanaz, Norse Frigg. "wife", c.f. Sanskrit priyā "mistress, wife". Probably also addressed as Frawjō "lady" (Norse Freya).
  • Fraujaz. "lord", c.f. Norse Freyr
  • Þunraz, "thunder", "Germanic Hercules" (c.f. Hercules' club), Norse Þórr (Thor), West Germanic Donar, Old English Thunor.
  • possibly Austrō, goddess of dawn and springime.

Heavenly bodies may have been deified, including Sowilo the Sun, Mænon the Moon, and perhaps Auziwandilaz the evening star.


Pre-Migration Period

The Common Germanic period begins with the European Iron Age, contemporary to the Celtic La Tene culture to the south, growing out of earlier traditions of the Nordic Bronze Age. Early Germanic history remains in the prehistoric period until the earliest descriptions in Roman ethnography in the 1st century BCE.


The earliest forms of the Germanic religion can only be speculated on based on archaeological evidence and comparative religion. The first written description is in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. He contrasts the elaborate religious custom of the Gauls with the simpler Germanic traditions.

"The Germans differ much from these usages, for they have neither Druids to preside over sacred offices, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report." — The Gallic War

Caesar's description contrasts with other information on the early Germanic tribes and is not given much weight by modern scholars. It is worth mentioning his note that Mercury is the principal god of the Gauls:

"They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions." — The Gallic War

The worship of deities identified by the Romans with Mercury seems to have been prominent among the northerly tribes.


A much more detailed description of Germanic religion is Tacitus' Germania, dating to the 1st century. Tacitus describes both animal and human sacrifice. He identifies the chief Germanic god with the Roman Mercury, who on certain days receives human sacrifices, while gods identified by Tacitus with Hercules and Mars receive animal sacrifice. The largest Germanic tribe, Suebians, also make sacrifices, allegedly of captured Roman soldiers, to a goddess who is identified by Tacitus with Isis.

Another goddess, Nerthus, is revered by Reudignians, Aviones, Angles, Varinians, Eudoses, Suardones and Nuithones. Nerthus is believed to directly interpose in human affairs. Her sanctuary is on an island, specifically in a wood called Castum. A chariot covered with a curtain is dedicated to the goddess, and only the high priest may touch it. The priest is capable of seeing the goddess enter the chariot. Drawn by cows, the chariot travels through the countryside, and wherever the goddess visits, a great feast is held. During the travel of the goddess, the Germanic tribes cease all hostilities, and do not lay their hands upon arms. When the priest declares that the goddess is tired of conversation with mortals, the chariot returns and is washed, together with the curtains, in a secret lake. The goddess is also washed. The slaves who administer this purification are afterwards thrown into the lake.

According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes think of temples as unsuitable habitations for gods, and they do not represent them as idols in human shape. Instead of temples, they consecrate woods or groves to individual gods. Divination and augury was very popular:

"To the use of lots and auguries, they are addicted beyond all other nations. Their method of divining by lots is exceedingly simple. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces. These they distinguish by so many several marks, and throw them at random and without order upon a white garment. Then the Priest of the community, if for the public the lots are consulted, or the father of a family about a private concern, after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made. If the chances have proved forbidding, they are no more consulted upon the same affair during the same day: even when they are inviting, yet, for confirmation, the faith of auguries too is tried. Yea, here also is the known practice of divining events from the voices and flight of birds. But to this nation it is peculiar, to learn presages and admonitions divine from horses also. These are nourished by the State in the same sacred woods and groves, all milk-white and employed in no earthly labour. These yoked in the holy chariot, are accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the Community, who both carefully observed his actions and neighing. Nor in any sort of augury is more faith and assurance reposed, not by the populace only, but even by the nobles, even by the Priests. These account themselves the ministers of the Gods, and the horses privy to his will. They have likewise another method of divination, whence to learn the issue of great and mighty wars. From the nation with whom they are at war they contrive, it avails not how, to gain a captive: him they engage in combat with one selected from amongst themselves, each armed after the manner of his country, and according as the victory falls to this or to the other, gather a presage of the whole."

The reputation of Tacitus' Germania is somewhat marred as a historical source by the writer's rhetorical tendencies. The main purpose of his writing seems to be to hold up examples of virtue and vice for his fellow Romans rather than give a truthful ethnographic or historical account. While Tacitus' interpretations are sometimes dubious, the names and basic facts he reports are credible; Tacitus touches on several elements of Germanic culture known from later sources. Human and animal sacrifice is attested by archaeological evidence and medieval sources. Rituals tied to natural features are found both in medieval sources and in Nordic folklore. A ritual chariot or wagon as described by Tacitus was excavated in the Oseberg find. Sources from medieval times until the 19th century point to divination by making predictions or finding the will of the gods from randomized phenomena as an obsession of Germanic cultures. Or as Tacitus puts it "To the use of lots and auguries, they are addicted beyond all other nations."

While there is rich archaeological and linguistic evidence of earlier Germanic religious ideas, these sources are all mute, and cannot be interpreted with much confidence. Seen in light of what we know about the medieval survival of the Germanic religions as practiced by the Nordic nations, some educated guesses may be made. However, the presence of marked regional differences make generalization of any such reconstructed belief or practice a risky venture. We do know, however, that in Tacitus' day the Germans discerned a divinity of prophecy in women, and virgin prophetesses, such as Veleda, were honored as true and living goddesses.

Migration Period

During the Migration Period, Germanic religion was subject to syncretic influence from Christianity and Mediterranean culture. Jordanes' Getica is a 6th century account of the Goths, written a century and a half after Christianity largely replaced the older religions among the Goths. According to the Getica, the chief god of the Goths was Mars, who they believed was born among them:

"Now Mars has always been worshipped by the Goths with cruel rites, and captives were slain as his victims. They thought that he who is the lord of war ought to be appeased by the shedding of human blood. To him they devoted the first share of the spoil, and in his honor arms stripped from the foe were suspended from trees. And they had more than all other races a deep spirit of religion, since the worship of this god seemed to be really bestowed upon their ancestor." — Getica

Saint Columbanus in the 6th century encountered a beer sacrifice to Woden in Bregenz. In the 8th century, the Germanic Saxons venerated an Irminsul (see also Donar's Oak). Charlemagne is reported to have destroyed the Saxon Irminsul in 772. In the Old High German Merseburg Incantations, the only pre-Christian testimony in the German language, appears a Sinhtgunt who is the sister of the sun maiden Sunna (Sól). She is not known by name in Nordic mythology, and if she refers to the moon, she is then different from the Scandinavian (Mani), who is male. Further, Nanna is mentioned.

The Goths were converted to Arianism in the 4th century, contemporaneous to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire itself. Unfortunately, due to their early conversion to Christianity, little is known about the particulars of the religion of the East Germanic peoples, separated from the remaining Germanic tribes during the Migration period. Such knowledge would be suited to distinguish Proto-Germanic elements from later developments present in both North and West Germanic. The Franks, Alamanni, Anglo-Saxons, Saxons, and Frisians were Christianized between the 6th and the 8th century. By the end of the Migration period, only the Scandinavians remained pagan.

Viking Age

Early medieval North Germanic Scandinavian (Viking Age) paganism is much better documented than its predecessors, notably via the records of Norse mythology in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, as well as the sagas, written in Iceland during 1150 - 1400. Sacrifices were known as blót, seasonal celebrations where gifts were offered to appropriate gods, and attempts were made to predict the coming season. Similar events were sometimes arranged in times of crisis, for much the same reasons. The goddess Frijja seems to have split into the two different, clearly related goddesses Frigg and Freyja. In Nordic mythology there are certain vestiges of an early stage where they were one and the same, such as husbands Óðr/Óðinn, their shamanistic skills and Freyja/Frigg's infidelity.

Middle Ages

In 1000 AD, Iceland became nominally Christian, although continuation of pagan worship in private was tolerated. Most of Scandinavia was Christianized during the 11th century. Adam von Bremen gives the last report of vigorous Norse paganism. Sometimes, the subjects of a lord who converted to Christianity refused to follow his lead (this happened to the Swedish kings Olof of Sweden, Anund Gårdske and Ingold I) and would sometimes force the lord to rescind his conversion (e.g. Haakon the Good). The attempt of the deposed Christian monarch Olaf II of Norway to retake the throne resulted in a bloody civil war in Norway, which ended in the battle of Stiklestad (1030). In Sweden, in the early 1080s, Inge I was deposed by popular vote for not wanting to sacrifice to the gods, and replaced by his brother-in-law Blot-Sweyn (literally "Sweyn the Sacrificer"). After three years of exile, Inge returned in secret to Old Uppsala and during the night the Christians surrounded the royal hall with Blot-Sweyn inside and set it on fire. However, Inge did not immediately regain his throne and the pagan Eirik Arsale briefly came into power before being usurped by Inge. During the High Middle Ages, Scandinavian paganism became marginalized and blended into rural folklore. In folklore and legend, elements of Germanic mythology survived, and appears in the guise of fairy tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm and other folk tales and customs, as well as in medieval courtly literature (Nibelungs).

Modern Influence

Germanic theonyms survive in Germanic given names, in toponymy, and in the names of the days of the week. The days were named after Roman gods in Latin (named after Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn). The names for Sunday through Friday were replaced according to the interpretatio romana of the Germanic gods. Many place names such as Woodway House, Wansdyke, Wednesbury, Thundersley and Frigedene are named after the old deities of the English people.


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Paganism & Neo-Paganism

Paganism & Neo-Paganism

Neopaganism or Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term used to identify a wide variety of modern religious movements, particularly those influenced by pre-Christian pagan beliefs of Europe. Neo-Pagan religious movements are extremely diverse, with beliefs that range widely from polytheism to animism, to pantheism and other paradigms. Many Neopagans practice a spirituality that is entirely modern in origin, while others attempt to accurately reconstruct or revive indigenous, ethnic religions as found in historical and folkloric sources. Neopaganism is a postmodern development in the industrialized countries, found in particular strength in the United States and Britain, but also in Continental Europe (German-speaking Europe, Scandinavia, Slavic Europe, Latin Europe and elsewhere). The largest Neopagan movement is Wicca, though other significantly sized Neopagan faiths include Neo-druidism, Germanic Neopaganism, and Slavic Neopaganism.

Pagan Terminology and Definition

The word "pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, originally meaning "rustic" or "from the country", and later also used for "civilian". The pejorative meaning, "uneducated non-Christian", emerges in Vulgar Latin from the 4th century. Since Christianity first spread to the cities, the rural Europeans were the last to convert to Christianity. The term neo-pagan was coined in the 19th century in reference to Renaissance and Romanticist Hellenophile classical revivalism."Pagan" and "Neopagan", when capitalized, refer to religions, or members of a Pagan or Neopagan religion, "in the same way as one would describe a 'Christian' or a 'Jew'." This usage has been common since the Neopagan revival in the 1970s, and is now used by academics and adherents alike to identify new religious movements that emphasize pantheism or nature-worship, or that revive or reconstruct aspects of historical polytheism.

The term "Neopagan" provides a means of distinguishing between historical Pagans of ancient cultures and the adherents of modern religious movements. The category of religions known as "Neopagan" includes syncretic or eclectic approaches like Wicca, Neo-druidism, and Neoshamanism at one end of the spectrum, as well as culturally specific traditions, such as the many varieties of polytheistic reconstructionism, at the other. Some Reconstructionists reject the term "Neopagan" because they wish to set their historically oriented approach apart from generic "Neopagan" eclecticism.

"Pagan" as a self-designation of Neopagans appeared in 1964 and 1965, in the publications of the Witchcraft Research Association; at that time, the term was in use by "revivalist Witches" in the United States and the United Kingdom, but unconnected to the broader, counter-culture Neopagan movement. The modern popularization of the terms "Pagan" and "Neopagan", as they are currently understood, is largely traced to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, co-founder of "the 1st Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds" who, beginning in 1967 with the early issues of Green Egg, used both terms for the growing movement. Increasingly, however, scholarly writers prefer the term "contemporary Paganism" to cover all new polytheistic religious movements, a usage favored by The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, the leading peer-reviewed journal in the field. "Heathen", "Heathenism" or "Heathenry" as a self-designation of adherents of Germanic neopaganism (Theodism in particular) appeared in the late 1990s.

History of Paganism


The roots of Neopaganism begin with the Renaissance, and the reintroduction of Classicism and the resurgence of interest in Greco-Roman polytheism in the wake of works like the Theologia mythologica of 1532. The Romantic movement of the 18th century led to the re-discovery of Old Gaelic and Old Norse literature and poetry. Neo-druidism can be taken to have its origins as early as 1717 with the foundation of The Druid Order. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in the British Isles and Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These Neopagan currents coincided with Romanticist interest in folklore and occultism, the widespread emergence of pagan themes in popular literature, and the rise of nationalism.

Occultic Revival

During this resurgence in the United Kingdom, Neo-druidism and various Western occult groups emerged, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis, who attempted to syncretize "exotic" elements like Egyptian cosmology and Kabbalah into their belief systems, although not necessarily for purely religious purposes. Influenced by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these early occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, magic, and other supernatural beliefs which was at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Another important influence during this period was the Romantic aesthetic movement, which venerated the natural world and frequently made reference to the deities of antiquity. The Romantic poets, essayists, artists and authors who employed these themes in their work were later associated with socially progressive attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, pacifism and similar issues.

Witchcraft Revival

In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a Witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the witchcraft prosecutions that had been enacted by the ecclesiastical and secular courts. Most historians now reject Murray's theory, as she based it partially upon the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of witchcraft; such similarity is now thought to actually derive from there having been a standard set of questions laid out in the witch-hunting manuals used by interrogators. Murray's ideas nevertheless exerted great influence on certain Neopagan currents; in the 1940s, Englishman Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven. Gardnerian Wicca is used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, differentiating it from similar traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca or more recent Wiccan offshoots.

Germanic Mysticism

In the meantime, Germanic mysticism in Germany and Switzerland had developed into baroque forms such as Guido von List's "Armanism", from the 1900s merging into anti-semitic and national mysticist (völkisch) currents, notably with Lanz von Liebenfels' Guido von List Society and Ostara magazine, which with the rise of Nazism were partially absorbed into Nazi occultism. Other Germanic mysticist groups, such as the Germanische Glaubens-Gemeinschaft of Ludwig Fahrenkrog were disendorsed by the Nazi regime. Such distortions of Germanic mythology were denounced by J. R. R. Tolkien, e.g. in a 1941 letter where he speaks of Hitler's corruption of "...that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light." Because of such connections with Nazism, interest in Neopaganism was virtually eclipsed for about two decades following World War II.

Neopagan Emergence

The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in Neo-Druidism as well as the rise of Germanic Neopaganism and Ásatrú in the United States and in Iceland. In the 1970s, Wicca was notably influenced by feminism, leading to the creation of an eclectic, Goddess-worshipping movement known as Dianic Wicca. The 1979 publication of Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk's The Spiral Dance opened a new chapter in public awareness of Neopaganism. With the growth and spread of large, Neopagan gatherings and festivals in the 1980s, public varieties of Neo-Wicca continued to further diversify into additional, eclectic sub-denominations, often heavily influenced by the New Age and counter-culture movements. These open, loosely-structured or unstructured traditions contrast with British Traditional Wicca, which emphasizes secrecy and initiatory lineage. The 1980s and 1990s also saw an increasing interest in serious academic research and Reconstructionist Pagan traditions. The establishment and growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought rapid growth to these, and other Neopagan movements.

History of Paganism

Many Neopagans and Neopagan traditions attempt to incorporate elements of historical religions, cultures and mythologies into their beliefs and practices, often emphasizing the hoary age of their sources. Thus, Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as "The Old Religion", a term popularized by Margaret Murray in the 1920s, while Germanic Neopaganism is referred to in some of its varieties as (Forn Sed) ("Old Custom"). Such emphasis on the antiquity of religious tradition is not exclusive to Neopaganism, and is found in many other religions. For example the terms Purana, Sanatana Dharma, and the emphasis on the antiquity of the Ancient Egyptian sources of the Hellenistic Mystery religions.

Some claims of continuity between Neopaganism and older forms of Paganism have been shown to be spurious, or outright false, as in the case of Iolo Morganwg's Druid's Prayer. Wiccan beliefs of an ancient monotheistic Goddess were inspired by Marija Gimbutas's description of Neolithic Europe. The factual historical validity of her theories has been disputed by many scholars, including historian Ronald Hutton.

While most Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient traditions are not generally considered to be literally factual by Neopagans, in the sense that the Bible and other Abrahamic texts are often thought of by their followers. Eclectic Neopagans in particular are resistant to the concept of scripture or excessive structure, considering personal freedom to be one of the primary goals of their spirituality. In contrast, some Reconstructionist movements, like those who practice Theodism, take a stricter religious approach, and only recognize certain historical texts and sources as being relevant to their belief system, intentionally focusing on one culture to the exclusion of others, and having a general disdain for the eclectic mentality.

The mythological sources of the various Neopagan traditions are similarly varied, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian and others. Some groups focus solely on one cultural tradition, while others draw from several. For example, Doreen Valiente's text The Charge of the Goddess used materials from The Gospel of Aradia by Charles G. Leland (1899), as well as material from Aleister Crowley's writings.

Some Neopagans also draw inspiration from modern traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others, creating syncretisms like "Christian Witchcraft" or "Buddheo-Paganism". Since many Neopagan beliefs do not require exclusivity, some Neopagans practice other faiths in parallel.

Since eclectic Neopagans take a rather un-dogmatic religious stance, and sometimes see no one as having authority to deem a source "apocryphal", Neopaganism has been notably prone to fakelore, especially in recent years, as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the Internet and in print media. A number of Wiccan, Neopagan and even some "Traditionalist" or "Tribalist" groups have a history of spurious "Grandmother Stories" – usually involving initiation by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other elderly relative who is said to have instructed them in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors. As this "secret wisdom" has almost always been traced to recent sources, or been quite obviously concocted even more recently, most proponents of these stories have eventually admitted they made them up.

Concepts of the Divine

Most Neopagan traditions are polytheistic, but interpretations of the nature of a deity may vary widely. In principle, there is the distinction of hard vs. soft (also, "strong" vs. "weak" or "radical" vs. "moderate") polytheism. Hard polytheism is the notion of the existence of gods and goddesses independent from the human mind and from one another, or as distinct entities but however part of a greater unity, such as The One of Neoplatonism and Panentheism. The mythology of antiquity reflects this kind of understanding of the gods' natures. Soft polytheism considers the plurality of gods as "aspects" of other notions of the divine, including Monism, Pantheism, Panentheism or Deism, Psychologism (Jungianism).

Historically polytheistic religious traditions in the west were not solely concerned with religious belief in gods, but focused on ritual, tradition (ethos) and notions of virtue (arete, pietas). As Christianity became a rising force, Pagan thinkers such as Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian wrote arguments against Christian ideas and in defense of the traditional religions, which give us insight into their contrasting beliefs. Hutton states that the historical Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God", but some types of modern Neopagans believe that there is but a single divinity or life force of the universe, which is immanent in the world. The various manifestations and archetypes of this divinity are not viewed as wholly separate, but as different aspects of the divine which are ineffable.

In Wicca, (especially Dianic Wicca) the concept of an Earth or Mother Goddess similar to the Greek Gaia is emphasized. Male counterparts are usually also evoked, such as the Green Man and the Horned God (who is loosely based on the Celtic Cernunnos.) These Duotheistic philosophies tend to emphasize the God and Goddess' (or Lord and Lady's) genders as being analogous to a concept similar to that of yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy; i.e., two complementary opposites. Many Oriental philosophies equate weakness with femininity and strength with masculinity; this is not the prevailing attitude in Neopaganism and Wicca.[20] Among many Neopagans, there is a strong desire to incorporate the female aspects of the divine in their worship and within their lives, which can partially explain the attitude which sometimes manifests as the veneration of women. Other Neopagans reject the concept of binary gender roles.

Pagan Worship and Ritual

Many Neopagan traditions include occult or "magical" elements in their beliefs and practices. Wicca in particular emphasizes the role of witchcraft and ritual. Other Neopagan traditions may include a belief in the supernatural, but place much less emphasis on the working of magic. Most Neopagan religions celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature through a festival calendar that honors these changes. The timing of festivals, and the rites celebrated, may vary from climate to climate, and will also vary (sometimes widely) depending upon which particular Neopagan religion the adherent subscribes to.

Main Pagan Currents and Denominations

The term "Neopaganism" encompasses a very broad range of groups and beliefs. Syncretic or eclectic approaches are often inspired by historical traditions, but not bound by any strict identification with a historical religion or culture. These are contrasted by a focus on historicity (reconstructionism), on folklore, or on occultist or national mysticist claims of continuity from racial memory. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, British Traditional Wicca, and variations such as Dianic Wicca are examples of eclectic traditions, as are Neo-druid groups like Ár nDraíocht Féin.


Wicca is the largest Neopagan religion in the United States. It was first publicized in 1954 by Gerald Gardner. Gardner claimed that the religion was a modern survival of an old witch cult, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe and existing in secret for centuries. Various forms of Wicca have since evolved or been adapted from Gardner's British Traditional Wicca or Gardnerian Wicca such as Alexandrian Wicca. Other forms loosely based on Gardner's teachings are Faery Wicca, Kemetic Wicca, Judeo-Paganism or "jewitchery", Dianic Wicca or "Feminist Wicca" - which emphasizes the divine feminine, often creating women-only or lesbian-only groups. The common denominator amongst all the variants of Wicca are a reverence for nature and active ecology, venerations of a Goddess with or without a consort, such as the Horned God, elements of a variety of ancient mythologies, a belief in and practice of magic and sometimes the belief in reincarnation and karma.


Neo-Druidism forms the largest neopagan sub-denomination after Wicca, and like Wicca in turn shows significant heterogeneity. It draws several beliefs and inspirations from the Druids, the priest caste of the ancient Pagan Celts. With the first Druid Order founded as early as 1717, the history of Neo-Druidism reaches back to the earliest origins of Neopaganism. The Ancient Order of Druids founded in 1781 had many aspects of freemasonry, and practiced rituals at Stonehenge since 1905. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids was established in 1964 and the British Druid Order in 1979. Neo-Druidism reached the United States together with Wicca, in the 1960s. The Reformed Druids of North America was established in 1963 and Ár nDraíocht Féin in 1983 by Isaac Bonewits.

New Age Syncretism and Nature Worship

Neopaganism emerged as part of the counter-culture, New Age and Hippie movements in the 1960s to 1970s. Reconstructionism rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of Neopagans are not committed to a single defined tradition, but understand Paganism as encompassing a wide range of non-institutionalized spirituality, as promoted by the Church of All Worlds, the Feri Tradition and other movements. Notably, Wicca in the United States since the 1970s has largely moved away from its Gardnerian roots and diversified into eclectic variants.

Neopaganism generally emphasizes the sanctity of the Earth and Nature. Neopagans often feel a duty to protect the Earth through activism, and support causes such as rainforest protection, organic farming, permaculture, animal rights and so on. Some Neopagans are influenced by Animist traditions of the indigenous Native Americans and Africans and other indigenous or shamanic traditions. Eco-Paganism and Eco-magic, which are off-shoots of direct action environmental groups, have a strong emphasis on fairy imagery and a belief in the possibility of intercession by the fae (fairies, pixies, gnomes, elves, and other spirits of nature and the Otherworlds).

Some Unitarian Universalists are eclectic Pagans. Unitarian Universalists look for spiritual inspiration in a wide variety of religious beliefs. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, or CUUPs, encourages their member chapters to "use practices familiar to members who attend for worship services but not to follow only one tradition of Paganism."

Occultism and Ethnic Mysticism

Historically the earliest self-identified revivalist pagans were inspired by Renaissance occultism. Notably in early 20th century Germany with Germanic mysticism, which branched into Ariosophy and related currents of Nazi occultism. Outside Germany, occultist Neopaganism was inspired by Crowleyan Thelema and Left-Hand Paths, a recent example being the "Dark Paganism" of John J. Coughlin. In the United States, ethnic mysticist approaches are advocated in the form of anti-racist Asatru Folk Assembly founder Stephen McNallen's "metagenetics" and by David Lane's openly white supremacist Wotanism. Occultist currents persist in neo-fascist and national mysticist Neopaganism, since the 1990s revived in the European Nouvelle Droite in the context of the "Integral Traditionalism" of Julius Evola and others (Alain de Benoist, Werkgroep Traditie).


In contrast to the eclectic traditions, Reconstructionists are very culturally oriented and attempt to reconstruct historical forms of Paganism, in a modern context. Thus, Hellenic, Roman, Kemetic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic Reconstructionists aim for the revival of historical practices and beliefs of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, the Celts, the Germanic peoples, the Balts and the Slavs, respectively.


In the early 2000s, a "Traditionalist" or "Folklorist" current of Neopaganism emerged in Scandinavian Neopaganism, advocated by Jon Julius Filipusson (of Foreningen Forn Sed, Norway), Paul Jenssen (Denmark) and Keeron Ögren (Samfälligheten för Nordisk Sed, Sweden), which rejects Reconstructionism and syncretism alike, advocating a strict focus on regional folklore and folk religion.

Pagan Demographics estimates that there are roughly one million Neopagans worldwide (as of 2000), including "Wicca, Magick, Druidism, Asatru, neo-Native American religion and others". High estimates by Neopagan authors may reach several times that number. A precise number is impossible to establish, because of the largely un-institutionalized nature of the religion and the secrecy observed by some traditions, - sometimes explained by fear of religious discrimination.

North America

In the United States, the ARIS 2001 study, based on a poll conducted by The Graduate Center at The City University of New York found that an estimated 140,000 people self-identified as Pagans; 134,000 self-identified as Wiccans; and 33,000 self-identified as Druids. This would bring the total of groups largely accepted under the modern popular western definition of Neopagan to 307,000.


A study by Ronald Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major UK organizations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines, etc.) and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This estimate accounted for multiple membership overlaps as well as the number of adherents represented by each attendee of a Neopagan gathering. Hutton estimated that there are 250,000 Neopagan adherents in the United Kingdom, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.

A smaller number is suggested by the results of the 2001 Census, in which a question about religious affiliation was asked for the first time. Respondents were able to write in an affiliation not covered by the checklist of common religions, and a total of 42,262 people from England, Scotland and Wales declared themselves to be Pagans by this method. These figures were not released as a matter of course by the Office of National Statistics, but were released after an application by the Pagan Federation of Scotland. From a British population of 59 million this gives a rough proportion of 7 pagans per 100,000 population. This is more than many well known traditions such as Rastafarian, Bahá'í and Zoroastrian groups, but fewer than the 'Big Six' of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism. It is also fewer than the adherents Jediism, whose campaign made them the fourth largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. The UK Census figures do not allow an accurate breakdown of traditions within the Pagan heading, as a campaign by the Pagan Federation before the census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others all to use the same write-in term 'Pagan' in order to maximize the numbers reported.


Neopaganism in Scandinavia is dominated by Ásatrú (Forn Sed, Folketro). The Swedish Asatru Society formed in 1994, and in Norway the Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost formed in 1996 and Foreningen Forn Sed formed in 1999. They have been recognized by the Norwegian government as a religious society, allowing them to perform "legally binding civil ceremonies" (i. e. marriages). In Denmark Forn Siðr also formed in 1999, recognized in 2003 and in Sweden Nätverket Gimle formed in 2001, as an informal community for individual heathens. Nätverket Forn Sed formed in 2004, and has a network consisting of local groups (blotlag) from all over the Sweden.

Continental Europe

In German-speaking Europe, Germanic and Celtic neopaganism co-exist with Wicca and Neoshamanism. Neopaganism in Latin Europe (France, Italy, Spain) focuses on Neo-Druidism and Esotericism based on megalith culture besides some Germanic neopagan groups in areas historically affected by Germanic migrations (Lombardy). Neopaganism in Eastern Europe and parts of Northern Europe is dominated by Baltic and Slavic movements, rising to visibility after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, there have been organized Hellenic groups practicing in Greece.


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Shamanism is a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world and several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Shamans are intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. According to believers, they can treat illness and are capable of entering supernatural realms to provide answers for human beings.


The term "shaman" is a loan from Turkic word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which also gained currency in wider Turco-Mongol and Tungus cultures in ancient Siberia. The word's etymology is uncertain. It is sometimes connected to a Tungus root ša- "to know". Other scholars assert that the word comes directly from the Manchu language, and would therefore be "the only commonly used English word that is a loan from this language".

Shamanism Beliefs

There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world; and several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Common beliefs identified by Eliade (1964) are the following:

  • Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  • The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
  • Spirits can be good or evil.
  • The shaman can treat sickness caused by evil spirits.
  • The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on "vision quests".
  • The shaman's spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  • The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
  • The shaman can tell the future, scry, throw bones/runes, and perform other varied forms of divination.

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. In contrast to organized religions like animism or animatism which are led by priests and which all members of a society practice, shamanism requires individualized knowledge and special abilities. Shaman operate outside established religions, and, traditionally, they operate alone, although some take on an apprentice. Shamans can gather into associations, as Indian tantric practitioners have done.

Functions of Shamans

Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures: healing; leading a sacrifice; preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs; fortune-telling; acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”). In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person. The necromancer in Greek mythology might be considered a shaman as the necromancer could rally spirits and raise the dead to utilize them as slaves, soldiers and tools for divination.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one-at-a-time or in a cumulative group, depending on culture), and/or curing (healing) of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions -- such as disease, which may be cured by flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying some supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if "fraudulent", is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient's body) --, or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions -- such as persistent terror (on account of some frightening experience), which may be likewise cured by similar methods. Usually in most languages a different term other than the one translated "shaman" is applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites ("priest"), or to a raconteur ("sage") of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams. To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy."


Shaman act as "mediators" in their culture. The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman's objects and symbols. E.g. among the Selkups, a report mentions sea duck as a spirit-animal: ducks are capable of both flying, and diving underwater, thus they are regarded as belonging to both the upper world and the world underneath. Similarly, the shaman and the jaguar are identified in some Amazonian cultures: the jaguar is capable of moving freely on the ground, in the water, and climbing trees (like the shaman's soul). In some Siberian cultures, it is some water fowl species that are associated to the shaman in a similar way, and the shaman is believed to take on its form. “The Shaman's Tree” is an image found in several cultures (Yakuts, Dolgans, Evenks, etc.) as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath; its trunk belongs to the middle, human-inhabited world; and its top is related to the upper world.

Distinct Types of Shaman

In some cultures there may be additional types of shaman, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shaman may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shaman. Among Huichol, there are two categories of shaman. This demonstrates the differences among shaman within a single tribe.

Ecological Aspect

Resources for human consumption are easily depletable in tropical rainforests. In some rainforest cultures, such as the Tucano, a sophisticated system exists for the management of resources, and for avoiding the depletion of these resources through over-hunting. This system is conceptualized in a mythological context, involving symbolism and, in some cases, the belief that the breaking of hunting restrictions may cause illness. As the primary teacher of tribal symbolism, the shaman may have a leading role in this ecological management, actively restricting hunting and fishing. The shaman is able to “release” game animals (or their souls) from their hidden abodes, The Desana shaman has to negotiate with a mythological being for souls of game. Not only Tucanos, but also some other rainforest Indians have such ecological concerns related to their shamanism, for example Piaroa. Besides Tukanos and Piaroa, also many Eskimo groups think that the shaman is able to fetch souls of game from remote places; or undertake a soul travel in order to promote hunting luck, e.g. by asking for game from mythological beings (Sea Woman).

Soul Concept and Spirits

The variety of functions described in the above section may seem to be rather distinct tasks, but some important underlying concepts join them.

Soul Concept

In some cases, at some cultures, the soul concept can explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena:

may be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman. It may consist of the retrieving the lost soul of the ill person. See also the soul dualism concept.
Scarcity of hunted game
can be solved by “releasing” the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can let themselves to be caught and killed. The ecological aspect of shamanistic practice (and the related beliefs) has already been mentioned above in the article.
Infertility of women
can be cured by obtaining the soul of the expected child to be born.


Also the beliefs related to spirits can explain many different phenomena too, for example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system: a person who is able to memorize long texts or songs (and play an instrument) may be regarded as having achieved this ability through contact with the spirits (for example among Khanty people).

Shamanic Knowledge

Cognitive, Semiotic, Hermeneutic Approaches

As mentioned, a (debated) approach explains the etymology of word “shaman” as meaning “one who knows”. Really, the shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view on it in their mind with certainty of knowledge. The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shaman express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance. Meanings may be manifested in objects, such as amulets. The shaman knows the culture of his or her community well, and acts accordingly. Thus, their audience knows the used symbols and meanings — that is why shamanism can be efficient: people in the audience trust it. Such belief system can appear to its members with certainty of knowledge — this explains the above described etymology for the word “shaman”.

There are semiotic theoretical approaches to shamanism, (“ethnosemiotics”). The symbols on the shaman's costume and drum can refer to animals (as helping spirits), or the rank of the shaman. There were also examples of “mutually opposing symbols”, distinguishing “white” shaman practicing at day contacting sky spirits, and “black” shaman practicing at night contacting evil spirits for bad aims. Series of such opposing symbols referred to a world-view behind them. Analogously to the way grammar arranges words to express meanings and convey a world, also this formed a cognitive map. Shaman's lore is rooted in the folklore of the community, which provides a “mythological mental map”. Juha Pentikäinen uses the concept “grammar of mind”. Linking to a Sami example, Kathleen Osgood Dana writes:

"Juha Pentikäinen, in his introduction to Shamanism and Northern Ecology, explains how the Sámi drum embodies Sámi worldviews. He considers shamanism to be a ‘grammar of mind’, because shaman need to be experts in the folklore of their cultures."

Some approaches refer to hermeneutics, “ethnohermeneutics”, as coined and introduced by Armin Geertz. The term can be extended: Hoppál includes not only the interpretation of oral or written texts, but also that of “visual texts as well (including motions, gestures and more complex ritual, and ceremonies performed for instance by shamans)”. It can not only reveal the animistic views hiding behind shamanism, but also convey their relevance for the recent world, where ecological problems made paradigms about balance and protection valid.

Ecological Approaches of Shamanism

Other field works use systems theory concepts and ecological considerations to understand the shaman's lore. Desana and Tucano Indians have developed a sophisticated symbolism and concepts of “energy” flowing between people and animals in cyclic paths. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff relates these concepts to the changes how modern science (systems theory, ecology, some new approaches in anthropology and archeology) treats causality in a less linear way. He suggests also a cooperation of modern science and indigenous lore.

Other Qualities of Shamanism

According to Vladimir Basilov and his work Chosen By the Spirits, a shaman is to be in the utmost healthy conditions to perform their duties to the fullest. The belief of the shaman is most popular through the people located in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The traditions of the shamanism is also imbedded in the Tadzhiks and Uzbeks regions. The shaman’s bodies are to be formed in a strong manner, someone having a small build would be turned away at once. Age is a requirement as well, definitely being over the age of fifty would disqualify those that want to be involved in serving the spirits. The shaman are always of the higher intellect and are looked at in a different perspective, they have a way that makes them quick on their feet and at ill will curing those in need.

One of the most significant and relevant qualities that separate a shaman from other spiritual leaders is their communications with the supernatural world. As early as the beginning of the century self-hypnosis was very highly thought of by those who worship. Another characteristic of the shaman is the talent to locate objects and discover thieves, shocking those of their tribe and those others also around to witness. The belief in the spirits or the supernatural is what attracts those to believe in the shaman. Those who have ill children or are in failing health of their own is what draws them to the shaman spiritual healings. Although the shaman are still in existence, the population is surely declining.

Career of a Shaman

Initiation and Learning

In the world's shamanic cultures, the shaman plays a priest-like role; however, there is an essential difference between the two, as Joseph Campbell describes:

"The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)

A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning and dreaming of thunder to become a Heyoka, or by a near-death experience (e.g., the shaman Black Elk), or one might follow a "calling" to become a shaman. There is usually a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of the method of induction. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting the distant world of spirits, meeting a spiritual guide, being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery of initiation generally speaks of transformation and the granting powers to transcend death and rebirth.

In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in other places of the world shaman are considered to have been "called" and require lengthy training. Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that "Western" bio-medical clinicians would perhaps characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian peoples may interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shaman are called in their dreams. In other societies shaman choose their career. In North America, American Indian peoples would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; whereas South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shaman. Similarly the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia have an elaborate cosmological system predicated on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca. Coupled with millenarian impulses, Urarina ayahuasca shamanism is a key feature of this poorly documented society.

Putatively customary shamanic "traditions" can also be noted among indigenous Kuna peoples of Panama, who rely on shamanic powers and sacred talismans to heal. As such, they enjoy a popular position among local peoples.

Shamanic Illness

Turner and colleagues mention a phenomenon called shamanistic initiatory crisis. A rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.

Shamanic Practice

Underlying Beliefs of Practice

The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Often the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".

While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".

The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.

By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.

Shamanic Methods

Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a transition of consciousness, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods employed are diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for effecting such trances:

Plants (often psychoactive) Other
  • Psychedelic mushrooms
  • Cannabis
  • Tobacco
  • San Pedro cactus
  • Peyote
  • Ayahuasca
  • Cedar
  • Datura
  • Deadly nightshade
  • Fly agaric
  • Iboga
  • Morning glory
  • Sweetgrass
  • Sage
  • Salvia divinorum
  • Drumming
  • Dancing
  • Singing
  • Listening to music
  • Icaros / Medicine Songs
  • Vigils
  • Fasting
  • Sweat lodge
  • Vision quests
  • Mariri
  • Swordfighting / Bladesmithing

Shamans will often observe dietary or customary restrictions particular to their tradition. Sometimes these restrictions are more than just cultural. For example, the diet followed by shamans and apprentices prior to participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony includes foods rich in tryptophan (a biosynthetic precursor to serotonin) as well as avoiding foods rich in tyramine, which could induce hypertensive crisis if ingested with MAOIs such as are found in Ayahuasca brews.

Shamanic Music & Songs

Just like shamanism itself, music and songs related to it in various cultures are diverse, far from being alike. In some cultures and several instances, some songs related to shamanism intend to imitate also natural sounds, sometimes via onomatopoiea. Of course, in several cultures, imitation of natural sounds may serve other functions, not necessarily related to shamanism: practical goals as luring game in the hunt; or entertainment (katajjaqs of Inuit).

Tools of Shamans

As mentioned above, cultures termed as shamanistic can be very different. Thus, shamans may have various kinds of paraphernalia.


Drum is used by shamans of several peoples in Siberia; the same holds for many Eskimo groups, although its usage for shamanistic seances may be lacking among the Inuit of Canada. The beating of the drum allows the shaman to achieve an altered state of consciousness or to travel on a journey. The drum is for example referred to as, “‘horse’ or ‘rainbow-bridge’ between the physical and spiritual worlds”. The journey mentioned is one in which the shaman establishes a connection with one or two of the spirit worlds. With the beating of the drum come neurophysiological effects. Much fascination surround the role that the acoustics of the drum play to the shaman. Siberian shamans' drums are generally constructed of an animal-skin stretched over a bent wooden hoop, with a handle across the hoop.

There are two different worlds, the upper and the lower. In the upper world, images such as “climbing a mountain, tree, cliff, rainbow, or ladder; ascending into the sky on smoke; flying on an animal, carpet, or broom and meeting a teacher or guide”, are typically seen. The lower world consists of images including, “entering into the earth through a cave, hollow tree stump, a water hole, a tunnel, or a tube”. By being able to interact with a different world at an altered and aware state, the Shaman can then exchange information between the world in which he lives and that to which he has traveled.

Eagle Feather

These feathers have been seen used as a kind of spiritual scalpel. The Eagle is seen, in several traditions (Buryat, Ojibwe, Anishinabe) as the messenger of the Great Spirit or Gods. The gift of an Eagle feather, is therefore, a very great honor and a favorable message from the spirits commending the receiver.


Found mostly among South American and African peoples. Also used in ceremonies among the Navajo and in traditional ways in their blessings and ceremonies.


Often found through South East Asia, Far Eastern peoples.

Didgeridoo and Clap Stick

Found mainly among the various aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Shaman Gender and Sexuality

While some cultures have had higher numbers of male shamans, others such as native Korean and some African Nguni cultures have had a preference for females. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest known shamans—dating to the Upper Paleolithic era in what is now the Czech Republic—were women.

In some societies, shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress, attributes, role or function of the opposite sex, gender fluidity and/or same-sex sexual orientation. This practice is common, and found among the Chukchi, Sea Dayak, Patagonians, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Indeed, these two-spirited shamans were so widespread as to suggest a very ancient origin of the practice. See, for example, Joseph Campbell's map in his The Historical Atlas of World Mythology [Vol. I: The Way of the Animal Powers: Part 2: pg 174] Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful, and Shamanism so important to ancestral populations that it may have contributed to the maintenance of genes for transgendered individuals in breeding populations over evolutionary time through the mechanism of "kin selection." [see final chapter of E.O. Wilson's "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis] They are highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their mates. Duality and bisexuality are also found in the shamans of the Dogon people of Mali (Africa). References to this can be found in several works of Malidoma Somé, a writer who was born and initiated there.

Position in Society

In some cultures, the border between the shaman and the lay person is not sharp:

"Among the Barasana, there is no absolute difference between those men recognized as shamans and those who are not. At the lowest level, most adult men have some abilities as shamans and will carry out some of the same functions as those men who have a widespread reputation for their powers and knowledge."

The difference is that the shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, but the majority of adult men knows many myths, too. Similar can be observed among some Eskimo peoples. Many laic people have felt experiences that are usually attributed to the shamans of those Eskimo groups: experiencing daydreaming, reverie, trance is not restricted to shamans. It is the control over helping spirits that is characteristic mainly to shamans, the laic people use amulets, spells, formulae, songs. In Greenland among some Inuit, there are laic people who may have the capability to have closer relationships with beings of the belief system than others. These people are apprentice shamans who failed to accomplish their learning process.

The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or "second spirit") knows many things about the associated beliefs: he/she accompanies the rituals, interprets the behavior of the shaman. In spite of this, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For his/her interpretative, accompanying role, it would be even unwelcome to fall into trance.

The way shamans get sustenance and take part in everyday life varies among cultures. In many Eskimo groups, they provide services for the community and get a “due payment” (some cultures believe the payment is given to the helping spirits), but these goods are only “welcome addenda.” They are not enough to enable shamanizing as a full-time activity. Shamans live like any other member of the group, as hunter or housewife.

History of Shamanism

Hypotheses on Origins

Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, dating back to the Paleolithic, and certainly to the Neolithic period. Archaeological evidence exists for Mesolithic shamanism. In November 2008, researchers announced the discovery of a 12,000-year-old site in Israel that they regard as one of the earliest known shaman burials. The elderly woman had been arranged on her side, with her legs apart and folded inward at the knee. Ten large stones were placed on the head, pelvis and arms. Among her unusual grave goods were 50 complete tortoise shells, a human foot, and certain body parts from animals such as a cow tail and eagle wings. Other animal remains came from a boar, leopard, and two martens. "It seems that the woman … was perceived as being in a close relationship with these animal spirits," researchers noted. The grave was one of at least 28 at the site, located in a cave in lower Galilee and belonging to the Natufian culture, but is said to be unlike any other among the Natufians or in the Paleolithic period.

Historical Times

Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion.

The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of monotheism in Europe and the Middle East. In Europe, starting around 400, institutional Christianity was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism (if in fact "shamanism" can even be used to accurately describe the beliefs and practices of those cultures).

The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in Mongolia.

Decline and Revitalization of Shamanism

In many areas, former shamans ceased to fill the functions in the community they used to, as they felt mocked by their own community, or regarded their own past as a deprecated thing, sometimes even unwilling to talk about it to an ethnographer.

Moreover, besides personal communications of former shamans, even some folklore texts narrate directly about a deterioration process. For example, a Buryat epic text details the wonderful deeds of the ancient “first shaman” Kara-Gürgän: he could even compete with God, create life, steal back the soul of the sick from God without his consent. A subsequent text laments that shamans of older times were stronger, possessing capabilities like omnividence, fortune-telling even for decades in the future, moving as fast as bullet; the texts contrast them to the recent heartless, unknowing, greedy shamans.

In most affected areas, shamanistic practices ceased to exist, with authentic shamans died and their personal experiences following. The loss of memories is not always lessened by the fact the shaman is not always the only person in a community who knows the beliefs and motifs related to the local shamanhood (laics know myths as well, among Barasana, even though less; there are former shaman apprentices unable to complete the learning among some Greenlandic Inuit peoples, moreover, even laics can have trance-like experiences among Eskimos; the assistant of a shaman can be extremely knowledgeable among Oroqen). Although the shaman is often believed and trusted exactly because he/she "accommodates" to the "grammar" of the beliefs of the community, but several parts of the knowledge related to the local shamanhood consist of personal experiences of the shaman (illness), or root in his/her family life (the interpretation of the symbolics of his/her drum), thus, these are lost with his/her death. Besides of this, in many cultures, the entire traditional belief system has become endangered (often together with a partial or total language shift), the other people of the community remembering the associated beliefs and practices (or the language at all) became old or died, many folklore memories (songs, texts) went forgotten — this may threaten even such peoples which could preserve their isolation until the middle of the 20th century, like the Nganasan.

Some areas could enjoy a prolonged resistance due to their remoteness.

  • Variants of shamanism among Eskimo peoples were once a widespread (and very diverse) phenomenon, but today are rarely practiced, and they were already in the decline among many groups even in the times when the first major ethnological researches were done, e.g. among Polar Eskimos, in the end of 19th century, Sagloq died, the last shaman who was believed to be able to travel to the sky and under the sea — and many other former shamanic capacities were lost in that time as well, like ventriloquism and sleight-of-hand.
  • The isolated location of Nganasan people allowed shamanism to be a living phenomenon among them even in the beginning of 20th century, the last notable Nganasan shaman's séances could be recorded on film in the 1970s.

After exemplifying the general decline even in the most remote areas, let us mention that there are some revitalization or tradition-preserving efforts as a response. Besides collecting the memories, there are also some tradition-preserving and even revitalization efforts, sometimes led by authentic former shamans (for example among Sakha people and Tuvans). However, according to Richard L. Allen, Research & Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation, they are overwhelmed with fraudulent Shaman. "One may assume that anyone claiming to be a Cherokee "shaman, spiritual healer, or pipe- carrier," is equivalent to a modern day medicine show and snake-oil vendor." In fact, there is no Cherokee word for Shaman or Medicine Man. The Cherokee word for "medicine" or is Nvowti which means "power".

Besides tradition-preserving efforts, there are also neoshamansistic movements, these may differ from many traditional shamanistic practice and beliefs in several points. Admittedly, several traditional beliefs systems indeed have ecological considerations (for example, many Eskimo peoples), and among Tukano people, the shaman indeed has directly resource-protecting roles, see details in section Ecological aspect.

Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practices continue today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and even in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially true for Africa and South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.

Regional Variations in Shamanism


While shamanism had a strong tradition in Europe before the rise of monotheism, shamanism remains as a traditional, organized religion in Uralic, Altaic people and Huns; and also in Mari-El and Udmurtia, two semi-autonomous provinces of Russia with large Finno-Ugric minority populations. Shamanism in Scandinavia may be represented in rock art dating to the Neolithic era and was practiced throughout the Iron Age by the various Teutonic tribes and the Fino-Baltic peoples. Some peoples, which used to live in Siberia, have wandered to their present locations since then. For example, many Uralic peoples live now outside Siberia, however the original location of the Proto-Uralic peoples (and its extent) is debated. Combined phytogeographical and linguistic considerations (distribution of various tree species and the presence of their names in various Uralic languages) suggest that this area was north of Central Ural Mountains and on lower and middle parts of Ob River. The ancestors of Hungarian people or Magyars have wandered from their ancestral proto-Uralic area to the Pannonian Basin. There are currently no historically verifiable accounts that compare the practices of the Druids of Britain to Shamanistic practices. Shamanism is no more a living practice among Hungarians, but some remnants have been reserved as fragments of folklore, in folktales, customs.



Siberia is regarded as the locus classicus of shamanism. It is inhabited by many different ethnic groups. Many of its Uralic, Altaic, and Paleosiberian peoples observe shamanistic practices even in modern times. Many classical ethnographic sources of “shamanism” were recorded among Siberian peoples. Among several Samoyedic peoples shamanism was a living tradition also in modern times, especially at groups living in isolation until recent times (Nganasans). The last notable Nganasan shaman's seances could be recorded on film in the 1970s. When the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949 and the border with Russian Siberia was formally sealed, many nomadic Tungus groups that practiced shamanism were confined in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. These include the Ewenki and the Oroqen. The last shaman of the Oroqen, Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu), died in October 2000. In many other cases, shamanism was in decline even at the beginning of 20th century (Selkups).


Shamanism is still practiced in South Korea, where the role of a shaman is most frequently taken by women known as mudangs, while male shamans (rare) are called baksoo mudangs. Korean shamans are considered to be from a low class. A person can become a shaman through hereditary title or through natural ability. Shamans are consulted in contemporary society for financial and marital decisions. The Korean shamans' use of the Amanita Muscaria in traditional practice is thought to have been suppressed as early as the Choseon dynasty. Another mushroom of the Russula genus was renamed as the Shaman's mushroom, "Mu-dang-beo-seot 무당버섯". Korean shamans are also reputed to use spiders over the subject's skin. Colorful robes, dancing, drums and ritual weapons are also features.

Other Asian Traditions

There is a strong shamanistic influence in the Bön religion of some Central Asians, and in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchu beginning in the eighth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as the state religion under the Mongolian Yuan dynasty and the Manchurian Qing dynasty. However, in the shamanic cultures still practiced by various ethnic groups in areas such as Nepal and northern India, shamans are not necessarily considered enlightened, and often are even feared for their ability to use their power to carry out malicious intent.

In Tibet, the Nyingma schools in particular, had a Tantric tradition that had married "priests" known as Ngakpas or Ngakmas/mos (fem.). The Ngakpas were often employed or commissioned to rid the villages of demons or disease, creations of protective amulets, the carrying out of religious rites etc. The Ngakpas should however, been grounded in Buddhist philosophy and not simply another form of shaman, but sadly, this was most often not the case. There have always been, however, highly realized and accomplished ngakpas. They were in their own right great lamas who were of equal status as lamas with monastic backgrounds. The monasteries, as in many conventional religious institutions, wished to preserve their own traditions, sometimes at the expense of others. The monasteries depended upon the excesses of patrons for support. This situation often led to a clash between the more grassroots and shamanic character of the traveling Chödpa and Ngakpa culture and the more conservative religious monastic system.

Shamanism is still widely practiced in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), where shamans are known as 'Nuru' (all women) and 'Yuta'. 'Nuru' generally administrates public or communal ceremonies while 'Yuta' focuses on the civil or private matters. Shamanism is also practiced in a few rural areas in Japan proper. It is commonly believed that the Shinto religion is the result of the transformation of a shamanistic tradition into a religion. Forms of practice vary somewhat in the several Ryukyu islands, so that there is, e.g., a distinct Miyako shamanism.

Some practices also seem to have been preserved in the Catholic religious traditions of aborigines in Taiwan and some Kazakhs. In Vietnam, shamans conduct rituals in many of the religious traditions that co-mingle in the majority and minority populations. In their rituals, music, dance, special garments and offerings are part of the performance that surround the spirit journey.

Inuit and Eskimo Cultures

Eskimo groups comprise a huge area stretching from Eastern Siberia through Alaska and Northern Canada (including Labrador Peninsula) to Greenland. Shamanistic practice and beliefs have been recorded at several parts of this vast area crosscutting continental borders.

As for terminology used in the article: the term Eskimo has fallen out of favor in Canada and Greenland, where it is considered pejorative and the term Inuit has become more common. However, Eskimo is still considered acceptable among Alaska Natives of Yupik and Inupiaq (Inuit) heritage, and is preferred over Inuit as a collective reference. To date, no replacement term for Eskimo inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people has achieved acceptance across the geographical area inhabited by the Inuit and Yupik peoples. The Inuit and Yupik languages together constitute one branch within the Eskimo-Aleut language family alongside the Aleut branch. (The Sireniki Eskimo language is sometimes proposed to form a third branch of the Eskimo, but sometimes it is regarded as belonging to the Yupik languages.) The languages of the Eskimo branch have certain common characteristics (compared to Aleut) which justifies "splitting off" the Eskimo branch inside the Eskimo-Aleut family.

Shamanistic Features

When speaking of “shamanism” in various Eskimo groups, we must remember that (as mentioned above) the term “shamanism” can cover certain characteristics of various different cultures. Mediation is regarded often as an important aspect of shamanism in general. Also in most Eskimo groups, the role of mediator is known well: the person filling it in is actually believed to be able to contact the beings who populate the belief system. Term “shaman” is used in several English-language publications also in relation to Eskimos. Also the Asian Eskimo's term is translated as “shaman” in the Russian and English literature. The belief system assumes specific links between the living people, the souls of hunted animals, and those of dead people. The soul concepts of several groups are specific examples of soul dualism (showing variability in details in the various cultures). Like most cultures labeled as “shamanistic”, the Eskimo groups have several special features, or at least ones that are not present in all shamanistic cultures. Unlike in many Siberian cultures, the careers of most Eskimo shamans lack the motivation of force: becoming a shaman is usually a result of deliberate consideration, not a necessity forced by the spirits.

Diversity (with some similarities)

Another possible concern: do the belief systems of various Eskimo groups have such common features at all, that would justify any mentioning them together? There was no political structure above the groups, their languages were relative, but differed more or less, often forming language continuums. There are some similarities in the cultures of the Eskimo groups together with diversity, far from homogeneity.

The Russian linguist Bacchantic, an expert of Siberian Yupik and Sireniki Eskimo languages (while admitting that he is not a specialist in ethnology) mentions, that the shamanistic seances of those Siberian Yupik and Sireniki groups he has seen have many similarities to those of Greenland Inuit groups described by Fridtjof Nansen, although a large distance separates Siberia and Greenland. There may be certain similarities also in Asiatic groups with some North American ones. Also the usage of a specific shaman's language is documented among several Eskimo groups, used mostly for talking to spirits. Also the Ungazighmiit (belonging to Siberian Yupiks) had a special allegoric usage of some expressions.

The local cultures showed great diversity. The myths concerning the role of shaman had several variants, and also the name of their protagonists varied from culture to culture. For example, a mythological figure, usually referred to in the literature by the collective term Sea Woman, has factually many local names: Nerrivik “meat dish” among Polar Inuit, Nuliayuk “lubricous” among Netsilingmiut, Sedna “the nether one” among Baffin Land Inuit. Also the soul conceptions, e.g. the details of the soul dualism showed great variability, ranging from guardianship to a kind of reincarnation. Conceptions of spirits or other beings had also many variants (see e.g. the tupilaq concept).


Some forms of African traditional religion are sometimes also subumed under "shamanism". In central Mali, Dogon sorcerers (both male and female) claim to have communication with a head deity named Ama, who advises them on healing and divinatory practices. In the early 19th century traditional healers in parts of Africa were often referred to in a derogatory manner as "witch doctors" practicing Juju by early European settlers and explorers.The San or Bushmen ancestors who were primarily scattered in Southern Africa before the 19th century, are reported to have practiced a practice similar to shamanism. In areas in Eastern Free State and Lesotho, where they co-existed with the early Sotho tribes, local folklore describes them to have lived in caves where they drew pictures on cave walls during a trance and were also reputed to be good rain makers.

  • The term "sangoma", as employed in Zulu and congeneric languages, is effectively equivalent to 'shaman'.
  • The term "nganga" is equivalent to 'shaman' as used by the Karanga, among whom remedies for ailments are discovered by the nganga being informed in a dream, by a deity, of the herb able to effect the cure and also of where that herb is to be found.


Native American and First Nations cultures have diverse religious beliefs. There was never one universal Native American religion or spiritual system. Though many Native American cultures have traditional healers, ritualists, singers, mystics, lore-keepers and "Medicine People", none of them ever used, or use, the term "shaman" to describe these religious leaders. Rather, like other indigenous cultures the world over, their spiritual functionaries are described by words in their own languages, and in many cases are not taught to outsiders.

Many of these indigenous religions have been grossly misrepresented by outside observers and anthropologists, even to the extent of superficial or seriously mistaken anthropological accounts being taken as more authentic than the accounts of actual members of the cultures and religions in question. Often these accounts suffer from "Noble Savage"- type romanticism and racism. Some contribute to the fallacy that Native American cultures and religions are something that only existed in the past, and which can be mined for data despite the opinions of Native communities.

Not all Indigenous communities have roles for specific individuals who mediate with the spirit world on behalf of the community. Among those that do have this sort of religious structure, spiritual methods and beliefs may have some commonalities, though many of these commonalities are due to some nations being closely-related, from the same region, or through post-Colonial governmental policies leading to the combining of formerly-independent nations on reservations. This can sometimes lead to the impression that there is more unity among belief systems than there was in antiquity.

Navajo medicine men, known as "Hatałii", use several methods to diagnose the patient's ailments. These may include using special tools such as crystal rocks, and abilities such as hand-trembling and trances, sometimes accompanied by chanting. The Hatałii will select a specific healing chant for that type of ailment. Navajo healers must be able to correctly perform a healing ceremony from beginning to end. If they do not, the ceremony will not work. Training a Hatałii to perform ceremonies is extensive, arduous, and takes many years, and is not unlike priesthood. The apprentice learns everything by watching his teacher, and memorizes the words to all the chants. Many times, a medicine man cannot learn all sixty of the traditional ceremonies, so he will opt to specialize in a select few. Santo Daime, also known as the União do Vegetal or UDV Church, is a syncretic religion with elements of shamanism. They use an entheogen called Ayahuasca to connect with the spirit realm and receive divine guidance.

Meso-American Shamanism

The Maya people of Guatemala, Belize, and Southern Mexico practice a highly sophisticated form of shamanism based upon astrology and a form of divination known as "the blood speaking", in which the shaman is guided in divination and healing by pulses in the veins of his arms and legs. In contemporary Nahuatl, shamanism is known as cualli ohtli ('the good path') leading (during dreaming by 'friends of the night') to Tlalocán.

Mesoamerica's Northern Boundaries

Mesoamerica was defined by the culture of corn cultivation which allowed a food independence that provided the time and stability to create great urban and ceremonial cultures. The Mayans were influenced by the Toltecs, a more legendary culture that left its mark in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the mystical, rather than the (Aztec) administrative priorities defined the preHispanic cultures. Throughout Mesoamerica there was an agrarian calendar that worked, the more successfully managed, the better the crops, giving rise to bigger working populations to erect the pyramids. The calendar's effectiveness was not going to be abandoned by natives, and evangelizing Christian colonists had to mesh the native agrarian calendar with their Christian holidays: this is where the key ceremonies continue alive and well in Mexico, with a gilded veneer of Catholicism that is inseparable from millennial traditions, i.e., the cult of Quetzalcoatl in Guanajuato, Tula in Hidalgo, Teotihuacan's old culture in the State of Mexico and Chichen Itza in Yucatan.

There are ancient ceremonies that revere caves, the source of the ancient pilgrimages to found Tenochtitlan, and it is in the night-long vigils that one lives timeless moments, and walks through a threshold that destroys time barriers, where one walks out a very strong and wise noble, to serve others, and is liberated from pain and duality. The pyramids were buried intentionally and abandoned, and are soon to be open to visitors in Guanajuato. There are horizontal lines on the murals of the temple burial newly discovered. The magic was in the sky, it turns out. And to this day the real ceremony is with offerings, offrendas, with candles used to light the way, prayers to powerful protective ancestors, and purification with the aid of the chief or his designated compadre. It takes years to really figure out what is going on, as it is not really explained directly within the authentic groups.

Parades in San Miguel de Allende's San Miguel Archangel ceremony are really linked to the most ancient Mesoamerican traditions, and have grown in participation, including participants who may be unaware of the original reasons for the events or who the real keepers are for the ceremony. People watching parades may be unaware that the leaders often did not sleep at all the night before and that there is a poignant reverence for the Divine that gives them uncanny vitality and stamina for the arduous preparations, dancing, and serving meals late into the day's conclusions, all without having slept the night before. Marcela Andre Lopez de la Cerda, reinitiating conchsounding after 800 years on the round Quetzalcoatl adoratory which is newly excavated, called the rain on 3 May 2008. Rainfall increased threefold. In San Miguel Allende, Marcela Andre Lopez de la Cerda is the Lord Keeper of the Sacred Conch and was named Malinche Mayor by Don Felix Luna Romero in 2006, these are renewed ceremonies in the oldest descendants of Chichimeca royalty who founded San Miguel Allende and is the author of the preceding text on the Northern Boundary of Mesoamerica.

Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland

Shamanic practices are also present in tribes in northern Canada, such the animism and shamanism of the Chipewyan and of the Cree.


In the Peruvian Amazon Basin and north coastal regions of the country, the healer shamans are known as curanderos. Ayahuasqueros are Peruvian shamans who specialize in the plant medicine ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea used for physical and psychological healing and divine revelation. Ayahuasqueros have become popular among Western spiritual seekers, who claim that the shamans and their ayahuasca brews have cured them of everything from depression to addiction to cancer.

In addition to Peruvian shaman’s (curanderos) use of rattles, and their ritualized ingestion of mescaline-bearing San Pedro cactuses (Trichocereus pachanoi) for the divinization and diagnosis of sorcery, north-coastal shamans are famous throughout the region for their intricately complex and symbolically dense healing altars called mesas (tables). Sharon (1993) has argued that the mesas symbolize the dualistic ideology underpinning the practice and experience of north-coastal shamanism. For Sharon, the mesas are the, "physical embodiment of the supernatural opposition between benevolent and malevolent energies” (Dean 1998:61).

In the Amazon Rainforest, at several Indian groups the shaman acts also as a manager of scarce ecological resources. The rich symbolism behind Tukano shamanism has been documented in some in-depth field works even in the last decades of the 20th century. For variations in shamanism among the several Tukano tribes, see : "Shamans, Prophets, Priests, and Pastors." For individual tribes of the Tukano, separate reports have been published, such as "Desana Shamanism". The yaskomo of the Waiwai is believed to be able to perform a soul flight. The soul flight can serve several functions:

  • healing
  • flying to the sky to consult cosmological beings (the moon or the brother of the moon) to get a name for a new-born baby
  • flying to the cave of peccaries' mountains to ask the father of peccaries for abundance of game
  • flying deep down in a river, to achieve the help of other beings.

Thus, a yaskomo is believed to be able to reach sky, earth, water, in short, every element. Shamanism among the Yąnomamö (of the Venezolano Amazonas and the Brazilian Roraima) is described in Tales of the Yanomami by Jacques Lizot. There is Asuriní shamanism of Pará, Brazil. Harakmbut shamanism (of Peru) involves curing by dream-interpretion. Among other literature on South American tropical forest shamanism are:

  • In Darkness and Secrecy (for various tribes north of the Amazon)


Among the Mapuche people of South America, the community "shaman", usually a woman, is known as the Machi, and serves the community by performing ceremonies to cure diseases, ward off evil, influence the weather and harvest, and by practicing other forms of healing such as herbalism.


Although Fuegians (the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego) were all hunter-gatherers, they did not share a common culture. The material culture was not homogenous, either: the big island and the archipelago made two different adaptations possible. Some of the cultures were coast-dwelling, others were land-oriented. Both Selk'nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk'nams believed them to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather. Their figure appeared in myths, too. The Yámana corresponds to the Selknam.


On the island of Papua New Guinea, indigenous tribes believe that illness and calamity are caused by dark spirits, or masalai, which cling to a person's body and "poison" them. Shamans, such as the one pictured to the right, are summoned in order to "purge" the unwholesome spirits from a person. Shamans also perform rain-making ceremonies and can allegedly improve a hunter's ability to catch animals. In Australia various aboriginal groups refer to their "shamans" as "clever men" and "clever women" also as kadji. These Aboriginal shamans use maban or mabain, the material that is believed to give them their purported magical powers. Besides healing, contact with spiritual beings, involvement in initiation and other secret ceremonies, they are also enforcers of tribal laws, keepers of special knowledge and may "hex" to death one who breaks a social taboo by singing a song only known to the "clever men". See for example, Umbarra (King Merriman).

Criticism of the Term “Shaman” or “Shamanism”

Certain anthropologists, most notably Alice Kehoe in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking, are highly critical of the term. Part of this criticism involves the notion of cultural appropriation. This includes criticism of New Age and modern Western forms of Shamanism, which may not only misrepresent or 'dilute' genuine indigenous practices but do so in a way that, according to Kehoe, reinforces racist ideas such as the Noble Savage.

Kehoe is highly critical of Mircea Eliade's work. Eliade, being a philosopher and historian of religions rather than an anthropologist, had never done any field work or made any direct contact with 'shamans' or cultures practicing 'shamanism', though he did spend four years studying at the University of Calcutta in India where he received his doctorate based on his Yoga thesis and was acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi. According to Kehoe, Eliade's 'shamanism' is an invention synthesized from various sources unsupported by more direct research. To Kehoe, what some scholars of shamanism treat as being definitive of shamanism, most notably drumming, trance, chanting, entheogens and hallucinogenics, spirit communication and healing, are practices that

  • exist outside of what is defined as shamanism and play similar roles even in non-shamanic cultures (such as the role of chanting in Judeo-Christian rituals)
  • in their expression are unique to each culture that uses them and cannot be generalized easily, accurately or usefully into a global ‘religion’ such as shamanism.

Because of this, Kehoe is also highly critical of the notion that shamanism is an ancient, unchanged, and surviving religion from the Paleolithic period. Mihály Hoppál also discusses whether the term “shamanism” is appropriate. He recommends using the term “shamanhood” or “shamanship” for stressing the diversity and the specific features of the discussed cultures. This is a term used in old Russian and German ethnographic reports at the beginning of the 20th century. He believes that this term is less general and places more stress on the local variations, and it emphasizes also that shamanism is not a religion of sacred dogmas, but linked to the everyday life in a practical way. Following similar thoughts, he also conjectures a contemporary paradigm shift. Also Piers Vitebsky mentions, that despite really astonishing similarities, there is no unity in shamanism. The various, fragmented shamanistic practices and beliefs coexist with other beliefs everywhere. There is no record of pure shamanistic societies (although, as for the past, their existence is not impossible).

Shamanism and the New Age movement

The New Age movement has appropriated some ideas from shamanism as well as beliefs and practices from Eastern religions and Native American cultures. As with other such appropriations, the original practitioners of these traditions frequently condemn New Age use as misunderstood, sensationalized, or superficially understood and/or applied. Some Nanai shamans experienced performances on the stage as dangerous: inappropriate (untimely, superfluous) invocation of the helping spirits can raise their anger.

There is an endeavor in some occult and esoteric circles to reinvent shamanism in a modern form, drawing from core shamanism - a set of beliefs and practices synthesized by the controversial Michael Harner - often revolving around the use of ritual drumming and dance, and Harner's interpretations of various indigenous religions. Harner has faced much criticism for implying that pieces of diverse religions can be taken out of context to form some sort of "universal" shamanic tradition. Some of these neoshamans also focus on the ritual use of entheogens, as well as chaos magic. Allegedly, European-based Neoshamanic traditions are focused upon the researched or imagined traditions of ancient Europe, where many mystical practices and belief systems were suppressed by the Christian church. Some of these practitioners express a desire to practice a system that is based upon their own ancestral traditions. Some anthropologists and practitioners have discussed the impact of such "neoshamanism" as 'giving extra pay' (Harvey, 1997 and elsewhere) to indigenous American traditions, particularly as many Pagan- or Heathen-'shamanic practitioners' of legitimate cultural traditions do not call themselves shamans, but instead use specific names derived from the older European traditions - the völva or seidkona (seid-woman) of the sagas being an example.

Many New Age spiritual seekers travel to Peru to work with ayahuasqueros, shamans who engage in the ritual use of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea which has been documented to cure everything from depression to addiction. When taking ayahuasca, participants frequently report meeting spirits and receiving divine revelations. Shamanism has also been used in New Age therapies which use enactment and association with other realities as an intervention.

Shamanism In Fiction

In the novel The White Mary by Kira Salak, one of the main characters is a Papua New Guinean shaman named Tobo. Salak's book gives a detailed account of the beliefs and practices common among shamans on the island of New Guinea. Her novel is based on her own extensive experience visiting shamans and indigenous tribes around the world. In the popular online RPG World of Warcraft, one of the playable classes is the Shaman. The class is portrayed as being deeply connected with the elements and uses elemental totems as means of attacking and defending. The class calls upon the elements to lend the player their powers in order to cause damage to those who would harm them and heal the player or his/her allies, even reuniting a 'dead' player with their fallen body. Of these shamans, the most prolific and skilled is Zergz, on the Spinebreaker server. The PlayStation 3 game Zen Pinball features a "Shaman"-themed table. The manga and TV series Shaman King is based on shamans who uses spirits as weapons to fight other shamans in a tournament called "Shaman Fight" that is held every 500 years, to determine who would be the "Shaman King".


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Spirituality is matters of the spirit, a concept tied to a spirit world, a multidimensional reality and one or more deities. Spiritual matters regard humankind's ultimate nature and purpose, not as material biological organisms, but as spirits with an eternal relationship beyond the bodily senses, time and the material world. Spirituality implies the mind-body dichotomy, which indicates a separation between the body and soul.

The spiritual is contrasted with the physical, matter and the temporary. A sense of connection is central of spirituality — connection to a reality greater than the physical world and oneself, which may include an emotional experience of awe and reverence. Spirituality may also include the development of the individual's inner life through practices such as meditation and prayer. Spirituality is the personal, subjective aspect of religion and mysticism.

The Spiritual and the Religious

While the words religion and spirituality are often incorrectly used interchangeably, an important distinction exists between spirituality in religion and spirituality outside of religion. In recent years, spirituality outside of religion often carries connotations of a believer having a faith more personal, less dogmatic, more open to new ideas and myriad influences, and more pluralistic than the doctrinal/dogmatic faiths of mature religions. There are, however, non-creedal mature religions (e.g., Unitarian Universalism) whose adherents can be spiritual in the sense of having a more personal faith. It also can connote the nature of believers' personal relationship or "connection" with their god(s) or belief-system(s), as opposed to the general relationship with a Deity and the rites of group worship shared by all members of a given faith.

Those who speak of spirituality outside of religion often identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and generally believe in the existence of many "spiritual paths" and deny that there is an objectively definable best path to follow. Such people often emphasize the importance of finding one's individual path to the divine. Some 24% of the United States population identifies itself as spiritual but not religious. Secular spirituality is consistent with holding any supernatural belief, or with holding none. Many adherents of orthodox religions who regard spirituality as an aspect of their religious experience tend to contrast spirituality with secular "worldliness" rather than with the ritual expression of their religion.

People of a more New-Age disposition tend to regard spirituality not as religion per se, but as the active and vital connection to a force/power/energy, spirit, or sense of the deep self. As cultural historian and yogi William Irwin Thompson (1938 - ) put it, "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization." (1981, 103) Some modern religions see spirituality in everything: see pantheism and neo-Pantheism. Religious Naturalism in a similar vein has a spiritual attitude towards the awe, majesty and mystery seen in the natural world. For a Christian to refer to themself as "more spiritual than religious" implies relative deprecation of rules, rituals, and tradition while preferring an intimate relationship with God. Their basis for this belief is that Jesus Christ came to free man from those rules, rituals, and traditions, giving them the ability to "walk in the spirit" thus maintaining a "Christian" lifestyle through that one-to-one relationship with God. Some excellent resources that further explain the "spiritual Christian" are found in the Bible, Gospel of John 4:24 for example, and in the works of Watchman Nee. Nee probes deeply into the building blocks of mankind and derives that we are Spirit, Body and Soul.

Spirituality and Personal Well-Being

Though many people practice prayer and believe it affects their health (for example adherents of Christian Science), no scientific evidence supports the efficacy of prayer. In keeping with a general increase in interest in spirituality and complementary and alternative treatments, prayer has garnered attention among some behavioral scientists. Masters and Spielmans have conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of distant intercessory prayer, but detected no discernible effects.

Spirituality has played a central role in self-help movements such as Alcoholics Anonymous: "...if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead...."

If spirituality is understood as the search for or the development of inner peace or the foundations of happiness then spiritual practice of some kind is essential for personal well being. This activity may or may not include belief in supernatural beings. If one has such a belief and feels that relationship to such beings is the foundation of happiness then spiritual practice will be pursued on that basis: if one has no such belief spiritual practice is still essential for the management and understanding of thoughts and emotions which otherwise prevent happiness. Many techniques and practices developed and explored in religious contexts, such as meditation, are immensely valuable in themselves as skills for managing aspects of the inner life.

Relationship to Science

A number of authors have suggested that there are spiritual consequences of quantum physics. Examples are physicist-philosopher Fritjof Capra; Ken Wilber, who proposes an "Integral Theory of Consciousness"; theoretical nuclear physicist Amit Goswami, who views a universal consciousness, not matter, as the ground of all existence (monistic idealism); Ervin László, who posits the "quantum vacuum" as the fundamental energy- and information-carrying field ("Akashic field") that informs not just the current universe, but all universes past and present (collectively, the "Metaverse"). Since 1954 the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science has debated the merits of combining scientific thinking with religious perspectives.

Near-death experience - If consciousness exists apart from the body, which includes the brain, one is attached not only to the material world, but to a non-temporal (spiritual) world as well. This thesis is considered to be analyzed by testing the reports from people who have experienced death. According to Mr. Anil K. Rajvanshi, If the brain is dead but consciousness lives on it would prove the existence of something outside the material world and open up an interesting scientific study of the soul. However, some researchers consider that NDEs are actually REM intrusions triggered in the brain by traumatic events like cardiac arrest.


The scientific method takes as its basis empirical, repeatable observations of the natural world. Critics such as William F. Williams have labeled as pseudoscientific and opposed ideas and beliefs that include supernatural forces yet are presented as having a scientific character, citing the imprecision of spiritual concepts and the subjectivity of spiritual experience.

Positive Psychology

Spirituality has been studied in positive psychology and defined as the search for "the sacred," where "the sacred" is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. Spirituality can be sought not only through traditional organized religions, but also through movements such as the feminist theology and ecological spirituality. Spirituality is associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping. It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.

Relationship to Technology

Renewable energy practitioner Anil K. Rajvanshi has written extensively on the relationship of spirituality and technology. His thesis is that spirituality together with technology can lead to sustainable development.

History of Spirituality

Spiritual innovators who operated within the context of a religious tradition became marginalised or suppressed as heretics or separated out as schismatics. In these circumstances, anthropologists generally treat so-called "spiritual" practices such as shamanism in the sphere of the religious, and class even non-traditional activities such as those of Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being in the province of religion. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, often opposed to clericalism and skeptical of religion, sometimes came to express their more emotional responses to the world under the rubric of "the Sublime" rather than discussing "spirituality". The spread of the ideas of modernity began to diminish the role of religion in society and in popular thought. Schmidt sees Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) as a pioneer of the idea of spirituality as a distinct field. Phineas Quimby (1802-1866) and New Thought played a role in emphasizing the spiritual in new ways within Christian church traditions during the 19th century.

In the wake of the Nietzschean concept of the "death of God" in 1882, people unpersuaded by scientific rationalism turned increasingly to the idea of spirituality as an alternative both to materialism and to traditional religious dogma. Important early 20th century writers who studied the phenomenon of spirituality include William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)) and Rudolph Otto (especially The Idea of the Holy (1917)).

The distinction between the spiritual and the religious became more common in the popular mind during the late 20th century with the rise of secularism and the advent of the New Age movement. Authors such as Chris Griscom and Shirley MacLaine explored it in numerous ways in their books. Paul Heelas noted the development within New Age circles of what he called "seminar spirituality": structured offerings complementing consumer choice with spiritual options. In English the word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath" (compare spiritus asper), but also "soul, courage, vigor", ultimately from a PIE root *(s)peis- (to blow). In the Vulgate, the Latin word translates Greek (πνευμα), pneuma (Hebrew (רוח) ruah), as opposed to anima, translating psykhē. The word was loaned into Middle English via Old French.

The Study of Spirituality

Many spiritual traditions promote courses of study in spirituality. Building on both the Western esoteric tradition and theosophy, Rudolf Steiner and others in the anthroposophic tradition have attempted to apply systematic methodology to the study of spiritual phenomena. This enterprise does not attempt to redefine natural science, but to explore inner experience — especially our thinking — with the same rigor that we apply to outer (sensory) experience.

Overall, scholars in disciplines such as theology, religious studies, psychology (but more accurately parapsychology--'beyond psychology'--pneumatology, monadology, and esoteric philosophical logic,) anthropology and sociology sometimes concentrate their researches on spirituality, but the field remains ill-defined. In the late 19th century a Pakistani scholar Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi started writing books and teaching the somewhat hidden science of Islamic spirituality, of which the best known form remains the Sufi tradition (famous through Rumi and Hafiz) in which spiritual discipline is transmitted to students by a spiritual master or "pir".


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Wicca is a neopagan, nature-based religion. It was popularized in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, who at the time called it Witchcraft and its adherents "the Wica." Wiccans, as followers of Wicca are now commonly known, typically worship a God (traditionally the Horned God) and a Goddess (traditionally the Triple Goddess), who are sometimes represented as being a part of a greater pantheistic Godhead, and as manifesting themselves as various polytheistic deities. Other characteristics of Wicca include the ritual use of magic, a basic code of morality, and the celebration of eight seasonal-based festivals. There is dispute as to what actually constitutes Wicca. Initially, this spelling referred to the lineage of one of Gardner's rivals, Charles Cardell, although in the 1960s it began to refer instead only to lineages stemming from Gardner and operating as initiatory Mystery Priesthoods (such as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca). These are now collectively known in North America as British Traditional Wicca. A third usage, which has grown in popularity in recent years, and which was debatably the original usage, considers Wicca to include other forms of Goddess-oriented neopagan witchcraft that are similar to but independent of that lineage, including Dianic Wicca and the 1734 Tradition; these are sometimes collectively termed Eclectic Wicca.



Although Wiccan views on theology vary, the vast majority of Wiccans venerate a Goddess and a God. These are variously understood through the frameworks of pantheism (as being dual aspects of a single godhead), duotheism (as being two polar opposites) or polytheism (being comprised of many lesser deities). In some pantheistic and duotheistic conceptions, deities from diverse cultures may be seen as aspects of the Goddess or God.

The God and the Goddess

For most Wiccans, Wicca is a duotheistic religion worshipping both a God and a Goddess, who are seen as complementary polarities (akin to the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang), and "embodiments of a life-force manifest in nature." The God is sometimes symbolized as the Sun, and the Goddess as the Moon.

Traditionally the God is viewed as a Horned God, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality and hunting. The Horned God is given various names according to the tradition, and these include Cernunnos, Pan, Atho and Karnayna. At other times the God is viewed as the Green Man, a traditional figure in art and architecture of Europe, or as a Sun God (particularly at the festival of Litha, or the summer solstice). Another depiction of the God is as the Oak King and the Holly King, one who rules over Spring and Summer, the other who rules over Autumn and Winter.

The Goddess is usually portrayed as a Triple Goddess with aspects of 'Maiden', 'Mother' and 'Crone', though she is also commonly depicted as a Moon Goddess. Some Wiccans see the Goddess as pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all; the God is the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven. In some traditions, notably feminist Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all, though this has been criticized by members of other traditions. Secondarily, the God is also sometimes viewed in a triple form (possibly in a reflective religious homage to the triple Goddess, referencing their complementary polarity) that being the aspects of 'Son', 'Father' and 'Sage'.

According to Gerald Gardner, the gods of Wicca are prehistoric gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on this claim, however various different horned gods and mother goddesses were worshipped in the British Isles in the ancient and early mediaeval period.


The duotheism of the God and the Goddess is often extended into a kind of dual pantheism through the belief, in the words of Dion Fortune, that "all gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess" — that is, the gods and goddesses of all cultures are, respectively, aspects of one supernal god and goddess. For instance, a Wiccan may regard the Germanic Eostre, Hindu Kali, and Christian Virgin Mary each as manifestations of one supreme Goddess—and, likewise, the Celtic Cernunnos, the ancient Greek Dionysus and the Judeo-Christian Yahweh as aspects of a single, archetypal God.

A more polytheistic approach holds the various gods and goddesses to be separate and distinct entities in their own right. Pantheistic systems may conceive of deities not as literal personalities but as metaphorical archetypes or thought forms. While these conceptualizations of deity—duotheism, polytheism and pantheism—may seem radically different from each other, they need not be considered mutually exclusive: Some Wiccans may find it spiritually beneficial (or magically practical) to shift among one or another of these systems, depending upon time and circumstance. Wiccan writers Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone have postulated that Wicca is becoming more polytheistic as it matures, tending to embrace a more traditionally pagan worldview.


Gardner stated that a being higher than the God and the Goddess was recognized by the witches as the Prime Mover, but remains unknowable. Patricia Crowther has called this supreme godhead Dryghten, and Scott Cunningham called it "The One". This pantheistic or panentheistic view of God shares similarities with beliefs such as the Hindu Brahman.


Wicca is essentially an immanent religion, and for some Wiccans, this idea also involves elements of animism. A key belief in Wicca is that the Goddess and the God (or the goddesses and gods) are able to manifest in personal form, most importantly through the bodies of Priestesses and Priests via the rituals of Drawing down the Moon or Drawing down the Sun.


Beliefs in the afterlife vary among Wiccans, although reincarnation is a traditional Wiccan teaching. Raymond Buckland said that a soul reincarnates into the same species over many lives in order to learn and advance one's soul, but this belief is not universal. A popular saying amongst Wiccans is "once a witch, always a witch", indicating that Wiccans are the reincarnation of earlier witches.

Typically, Wiccans who believe in reincarnation believe that prior to this, the soul rests for a while in the Otherworld or Summerland, known in Gardner's writings as the "ecstasy of the Goddess". Many Wiccans believe in the ability to contact the spirits of the dead who reside in the Otherworld through spirit mediums and ouija boards, particularly on the sabbat of Samhain, though some disagree with this practice, such as High Priest Alex Sanders, who stated "they are dead; leave them in peace". This belief was likely influenced by Spiritualism, which was very popular at the time, and which Gardner had had experience with.

Despite some belief in it, Wicca does not place an emphasis on the afterlife, focusing instead on the current one; as the historian Ronald Hutton remarked, "the instinctual position of most pagan witches, therefore, seems to be that if one makes the most of the present life, in all respects, then the next life is more or less certainly going to benefit from the process, and so one may as well concentrate on the present".


Wiccans believe in magic that can be manipulated through the form of witchcraft or sorcery. Some spell it as "magick", a term coined by occultist Aleister Crowley, though this spelling is more commonly associated with the religion of Thelema than Wicca. Wiccans cast spells during ritual practices inside a sacred circle, in an attempt to bring about real changes (which are further explained in the "Ritual practices" section). Common Wiccan spells include those used for healing, for love, for fertility, or to banish negative influences.

Many Wiccans agree with the definition of magic offered by ceremonial magicians. Aleister Crowley, for instance, declared that magic was "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will", and MacGregor Mathers stated that it was "the science of the control of the secret forces of nature". Wiccans believe magic to be a law of nature, as yet misunderstood by contemporary science. Other Wiccans do not claim to know how magic works, merely believing that it does because they have seen it work for them.

Many early Wiccans, such as Alex Sanders and Doreen Valiente, referred to their own magic as "white magic", which contrasted with "black magic", which they associated with evil and Satanism. Some modern Wiccans however have stopped using this terminology, disagreeing that the color black should have any associations with evil.

The scholars of religion, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, claimed, in 1985, that Wicca had "reacted to secularization by a headlong plunge back into magic" and that it was a reactionary religion which would soon die out. This view was heavily criticized in 1999 by the historian Ronald Hutton, who claimed that the evidence displayed the very opposite, that "a large number [of Wiccans] were in jobs at the cutting edge [of scientific culture], such as computer technology."


Wiccan morality is largely based on the Wiccan Rede, which states "an it harm none, do what ye will". This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one's actions and minimizing harm to oneself and others. Another common element of Wiccan morality is the Law of Threefold Return which holds that whatever benevolent or malevolent actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force, similar to the eastern idea of karma. Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honor, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente's poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also observe a set of 161 Wiccan Laws, commonly called the Craft Laws or Ardanes. Valiente, one of Gardner's original high priestesses, argued that these rules were most likely invented by Gerald Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the by-product of inner conflict within his Bricket Wood coven. Although Gerald Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down "the curse of the goddess", it is now generally accepted in all traditions of Wicca.

The Five Elements

Wiccans believe in the five classical elements, although unlike in ancient Greece, they are seen as symbolic as opposed to literal. These five elements are invoked during many magical rituals, notably when consecrating a magic circle. The five elements are; Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Aether, or "Spirit", which unites the other four. Various analogies have been devised to explain the concept of the five elements, for instance, the Wiccan Ann-Marie Gallagher used that of a tree. A tree is composed of Earth (with the soil and plant matter), Water (sap and moisture), Fire (through photosynthesis) and Air (the creation of oxygen from carbon dioxide). All these are united through Spirit.

Traditionally, each element has been associated with a cardinal point of the compass; Air with east, Fire with south, Water with west, Earth with north and the Spirit with center. However, some Wiccans, such as Frederic Lamond, have claimed that the set cardinal points are only those applicable to the geography of southern England, where Wicca evolved, and that Wiccans should determine which directions best suit each element in their region, for instance, those living on the east coast of North America should invoke Water in the east and not the west because the colossal body of water, the Atlantic ocean, is to their east. The five elements are symbolized by the five points of the pentacle (or pentagram), the most prominently used symbol of Wicca.


Various different symbols are used by Wiccans, similar to the use of the crucifix by Christians or the Star of David by Jews. The most notable of these is the pentacle (or pentagram), which has five points, each representing one of the five classical elements in Wicca (earth, air, fire, water and spirit) and also the idea that the human, with its five appendages, is a microcosm of the universe. Other symbols that are used include the triquetra and the triple Moon symbol of the Triple Goddess.


In Wicca there is no set sacred text such as the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an, but there are various texts that were contained in Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows. Many of these texts he claimed to have at least partially rewritten, since the rituals of the group into which he was initiated were fragmentary. The most notable among these is the Charge of the Goddess, which contained material from Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) and the works of 19th-20th century occultist Aleister Crowley. Other texts which are important to Wiccan beliefs and rituals include Eko Eko Azarak and the Wiccan laws.


Ritual Practices

When practicing magic and casting spells, as well as when celebrating various festivals, Wiccans use a variety of rituals. In typical rites, the coven or solitary assembles inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Casting the circle may involve the invocation of the "Guardians" of the cardinal points, alongside their respective classical element; Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Once the circle is cast, a seasonal ritual may be performed, prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked. Common tools in the Wiccan practice include a special set of magical tools. These usually include a knife called an athame, a wand, a pentacle and a chalice, but other tools include a broomstick known as a besom, a cauldron, candles, incense and a curved blade known as a boline. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed and representations of the God and the Goddess may be displayed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked and the circle is closed.

A sensationalized aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia, Charles Leland's supposed record of Italian witchcraft. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes with cords tied around the waist, "Renaissance-faire"-type clothing or normal street clothes. Each full moon, and in some cases a new moon, is marked with a ritual called an Esbat.

The Wheel of the Year

Wiccans also follow the Wheel of the Year and celebrate its eight festivals known as Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are Greater Sabbats, coinciding with Celtic fire festivals, and these were initially the only four sabbats. The other four are known as Lesser Sabbats, and comprise of the solstices and the equinoxes, and were only adopted in 1958 by the Bricket Wood coven. The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures. The eight sabbats, beginning with Samhain, which has long been thought of as Celtic new year:

  • Samhain - Greater Sabbat of the dead
  • Yule - Lesser Sabbat, the Winter solstice
  • Imbolc - Greater Sabbat
  • Ostara - Lesser Sabbat, the Spring equinox
  • Beltane or May Eve - Greater Sabbat
  • Midsummer, or Litha - Lesser Sabbat, the Summer solstice
  • Lughnasadh, or Lammas - Greater Sabbat of the Harvest
  • Mabon - Lesser Sabbat, the Autumn equinox

Gardner made use of the English names of these holidays; "The four great Sabbats are Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Halloween; the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated also.", but other names are now also commonly found.

Rites of Passage


When a person joins a coven and begins to study the craft, they go through an initiation ritual. In this way, all British Traditional Wiccans can trace their initiatory lineage back to Gerald Gardner, and from him to the New Forest coven. Gardner himself claimed that there was a traditional length of "a year and a day" between when a person began studying the craft and when they were initiated, although he frequently broke this rule with initiates.

In British Traditional Wicca, initiation only accepts someone into the first degree. To proceed to the second degree, an initiate has to go through another ceremony, in which they name and describe the uses of the ritual tools and implements. It is also at this ceremony that they are given their craft name. By holding the rank of second degree, a BTW is therefore capable of initiating others into the craft, or founding their own semi-autonomous covens. The third degree is the highest in BTW, and it involves the participation of the Great Rite, either actual or symbolically, as well as ritual flagellation. By holding this rank, an initiate is capable of forming covens that are entirely autonomous of their parent coven. The Cochranian tradition, based upon the teachings of Robert Cochrane, does not have the three degrees of initiation, merely having the stages of novice and initiate. Some solitary Wiccans also perform self-initiation rituals, to dedicate themselves to becoming a Wiccan. Several self-initiation rituals have been published, in books designed for solitary Wiccans such as in Scott Cunningham's book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.


Handfasting is another celebration held by Wiccans, and is the commonly used term for their weddings. Some Wiccans observe the practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some traditions hold should be contracted on Lammas (Lughnasadh), as this was the traditional time for trial, "Telltown marriages" among the Irish. A common marriage vow in Wicca is "for as long as love lasts" instead of the traditional Christian "till death do us part". The first ever known Wiccan wedding ceremony took part in 1960 amongst the Bricket Wood coven, between Frederic Lamond and his first wife, Gillian.


Infants in Wiccan families may be involved in a ritual called a Wiccaning, which is analogous to a Christening. The purpose of this is to present the infant to the God and Goddess for protection. Despite this, in accordance with the importance put on free will in Wicca, the child is not necessarily expected or required to follow a Pagan path should they not wish to do so when they get older.

Book of Shadows

In Wicca a private journal or core religious text known as a Book of Shadows is kept by practitioners, similar to a grimoire used by magicians. In lineaged groups, such as Gardnerian Wicca, the Book's contents are kept secret from anyone but the members of the lineage concerned (i.e., those initiating and initiated by a particular coven). However, several proposed versions of the Book have been published. Sections of these published versions, such as the "Wiccan Rede" and the "Charge of the Goddess", as well as other published writings about Wicca, have been adopted by non-initiates, or eclectic Wiccans. For many eclectics, they create their own personal books, whose contents are often only known by themselves.


A "tradition" in Wicca usually implies the transfer of a lineage by initiation. There are many such traditions and there are also many solitary or Eclectic Wiccans who do not align themselves with any particular lineage, some working alone, some joining in covens. There are also other forms of witchcraft which do not claim origins in Wicca. Traditions within the United States are well described in Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon, Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, and Chas S. Clifton's Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America.

The lack of consensus in establishing definitive categories in Wiccan communities has often resulted in confusion between Lineaged Wicca and the emergence of Eclectic traditions. This can be seen in the common description of many Eclectic traditions as traditional / initiatory / lineaged as well. In the United States, where the confusion usually arises, Wiccans in the various lineages extending from Gardner may describe themselves as British Traditional Wiccans.

Covens and Solitary Wiccans

Lineaged Wicca is organized into covens of initiated priests and priestesses. Covens are autonomous, and are generally headed by a High Priest and a High Priestess working in partnership, being a couple who have each been through their first, second and third degrees of initiation. Occasionally the leaders of a coven are only second-degree initiates, in which case they come under the rule of the parent coven. Initiation and training of new priesthood is most often performed within a coven environment, but this is not a necessity, and a few initiated Wiccans are unaffiliated with any coven. A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at "open" rituals. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or "hive") into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.

Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by a waiting period of at least a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a "dedication" ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion. In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these "solitaries" do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Eclectic Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.



The origins of Wicca are much debated. Gerald Gardner brought the religion to public attention in the early 1950s. He claimed that, after returning to England on his retirement from a career spent in Asia, he encountered a coven of witches located in the New Forest in southern England, (the "New Forest coven") and was initiated into it. In line with the popular Witch-cult hypothesis, he claimed that the religion practiced by the coven was a survival of a pagan religion of pre-historic Europe, known as Witchcraft to its adherents. Subsequently fearing that the religion would die out, he published details of its beliefs and practices in a series of books: his novel High Magic's Aid (1949) and his non-fiction works Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). These books helped to attract many new initiates to a coven that he formed, the London-based Bricket Wood coven. Gardner reported that the rites of the New Forest coven were fragmentary, and that he substantially rewrote them. Many of the rituals and precepts that he promoted can be shown to have come from the writings of earlier occultists (such as Aleister Crowley) and other writers (including Rudyard Kipling and Sir James Frazer). The remaining original material is not cohesive, and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley describes Gardner's texts as a "patchwork".

The veracity of Gardner's statements cannot be independently proven, however, and it is possible that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s. Even the very existence of the New Forest coven has been called into question. It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner invented the witch rituals in their entirety, incorporating elements from the writings of Dr. Margaret Murray, incantations from Aradia and practices deriving from ceremonial magic. Some of Gardner's historical claims are consistent with ideas that were current in the earlier part of the 20th century but are in conflict with later scholarship. The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess, for example, was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God—especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus—was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time. Some writers, such as Isaac Bonewits, have been unwilling to believe either that Gardner fabricated his religion out of nothing or that it represented a genuine survival of a historical pagan cult. They have suggested instead that it was constructed at some point in the 20th century prior to Gardner's initiation, perhaps by the New Forest coveners. Bonewits writes:

"Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their pagan past."

Although some have described Wicca as a twentieth century phenomenon—"the only religion that England has ever given the world," many Wiccans themselves disagree, claiming it stems from very ancient practices."

Later Developments

Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. Wicca was introduced to North America by Raymond Buckland, an expatriate Briton who visited Gardner's Isle of Man coven to gain initiation. Interest in the USA spread quickly, and while many were initiated, many more non-initiates compiled their own rituals based on published sources or their own fancy. In the United Kingdom, initiates of Gardner had begun to perform their own initiations, and a number of lines of Gardnerian descent began to arise. From one of these (although it was originally claimed to derive from a traditional, non-Gardnerian source) came the line known as Alexandrian Wicca. Increasing popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries, along with the increasing availability of published material, meant that many people started to practice a form of Wicca without being part of a coven or having participated in an initiation. In response to this, traditionally initiated Wiccans in North America began to describe their version as British Traditional Wicca.

Another significant development was the creation by feminists in the late sixties and seventies of an eclectic movement known as Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca has no connection of lineage to traditional Wicca, and creatively interprets published materials on Wicca as a basis for their ritual structure. This specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy and lineage as irrelevant. Rituals were created for self-initiation to allow people to identify with and join the religion without first contacting an existing coven. This contrasts with the Gardnerian belief that only a witch of opposite gender can initiate another witch.


Isaac Bonewits points out some of the practical problems in establishing the numbers of any neopagan group. Nevertheless some estimates have been attempted. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey estimated that at least 134,000 adults identified themselves as Wiccans in the United States, compared to 8,000 in 1990. In the UK, census figures do not allow an accurate breakdown of traditions within the Pagan heading, as a campaign by the Pagan Federation before the 2001 Census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others all to use the same write-in term 'Pagan' in order to maximize the numbers reported. For the first time, respondents were able to write in an affiliation not covered by the checklist of common religions, and a total of 42,262 people from England, Scotland and Wales declared themselves to be Pagans by this method. These figures were not immediately analyzed by the Office of National Statistics, but were released after an application by the Pagan Federation of Scotland., an independent website which specializes in collecting estimates of world religions, cites over 30 sources with estimates of numbers of Wiccans (principally from the USA and UK.). Their median estimate for Wiccan numbers is 800,000 worldwide.


The spelling Wica first appears in the writings of Gerald Gardner (Witchcraft Today, 1954, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, 1959). He used the word as a mass noun referring to the adherents of his tradition of witchcraft ('the Wica'), rather than the religion itself. He referred to the religion as witchcraft, never Wica. The word seems to be based on the Old English word wicca; similarly, wicca and its feminine form wice are the predecessors of the modern English witch. Gardner himself claimed he learned the term from existing members of the group who initiated him into witchcraft in 1939: "I realized I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word Wica which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed." The spelling Wicca was not used by Gardner and the term Wiccan (both as an adjective and a noun) was not used until much later, but it is now the prevalent term to refer to followers of Wicca.

Wicca and Paganism

Wicca is a neopagan religion with distinctive ritual forms, seasonal observances and religious, magical, and ethical precepts. Wiccans practice a form of witchcraft, but not all witches are Wiccans—other forms of witchcraft, folk magic and sorcery exist within many cultures, with widely varying practices. Most Wiccans call themselves Pagans, though the umbrella term Paganism encompasses many faiths that have nothing to do with Wicca or witchcraft. Wicca is commonly described as a Neopagan faith though Isaac Bonewits, the influential Neo-druid has claimed that early Wicca (at a time when it was still called "Witchcraft") was in fact a Mesopagan path. Since there is no centralized organization in Wicca, and no single orthodoxy, the beliefs and practices of Wiccans can vary substantially, both among individuals and among traditions. Typically, the main religious principles, ethics, and ritual structures are shared, since they are key elements of traditional teachings and published works on the subject.

As practiced by initiates in the lineage of Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a variety of witchcraft founded on religious and magical concepts. As such it is distinguished not only by its beliefs, but by its practice of magic, its ethical philosophy, initiatory system, organizational structure and secrecy. Some of these beliefs and practices have also been adopted by others outside of this lineage, often termed Eclectic Wiccans, who generally discard the institutions of initiation, secrecy and hierarchy, and have more widely varying beliefs. Some Eclectic Wiccans neither perform magic nor identify as witches. Within traditional forms of Wicca there are three degrees of initiation. First degree is required to gain membership of a coven; those who aspire to teach may eventually undergo second and third degree initiations, conferring the title of "High Priest" or "High Priestess" and allowing them to establish new covens. At initiation, some Wiccans adopt a craft name to symbolize their spiritual "rebirth", to act as a magical alter-ego, or simply to provide anonymity when appearing as a witch in public.

Acceptance of Wiccans

The use of the inverted pentagram by the Church of Satan has led to the misidentification of Wiccans as Satanists. In the United States, a number of legal decisions have improved and validated the status of Wiccans in that country, especially Dettmer v. Landon in 1985. However, there is still hostility from some politicians and Christian organizations. According to the traditional history of Wicca as given by Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times). Since then theories of an organized pan-European witch-cult have been largely discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials.

There have been assertions made that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions, such as the lack of a Satan-like figure in Wiccan theology. Due to negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet". Some people have accused Wicca of being anti-Christian, a claim disputed by Wiccans such as Doreen Valiente, who stated that whilst she knew many Wiccans who admired Jesus, "witches have little respect for the doctrines of the churches, which they regard as a lot of man-made dogma". Some have asserted that Wicca is simply an off-shoot of the New Age movement, a claim which is fiercely denied by Wiccans and also by historians such as Ronald Hutton, who noted that Wicca not only predates the New Age movement but also differs in its general world view.


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History of Witchcraft

Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers. Witchcraft can refer to the use of such powers in order to inflict harm or damage upon members of a community or their property. Other uses of the term distinguish between bad witchcraft and good witchcraft, the latter involving the use of these powers to heal someone from bad witchcraft. The concept of witchcraft is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community. A witch (from Old English wicce f. / wicca m.) is a practitioner of witchcraft.

Belief in witchcraft, and by consequence witch-hunts, are found in many cultures worldwide, today mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. in the witch smellers in Bantu culture), and historically notably in Early Modern Europe, where witchcraft came to be seen as a vast diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, and accusations of witchcraft led to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Germanic Europe. The "witch-cult hypothesis", a controversial theory that European witchcraft was a suppressed pagan religion, was popularised in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the mid 20th century on Witchcraft has become the self-designation of a branch of neopaganism, especially in the Wicca tradition following Gerald Gardner, who claimed a religious tradition of Witchcraft with pre-Christian roots.


The terms 'witch' and 'witchcraft' have slightly different meanings in different fields of study.

Social Anthropology

Social-anthropological interpretations were pioneered in E. E. Evans-Pritchard's 1937 study of 'witchcraft' among the Azande. By such interpretations, witchcraft accusations are seen as a means of explaining human misfortune and regulating community conflicts, whereby calamities are blamed on someone within the community believed capable of causing harm by supernatural powers. This model identifies a web of functional relationships between malefactor, bewitched, witch identifier and healer. Those individuals who consciously and verifiably performed some physical 'bewitching' act (positive or negative) are normally termed 'sorcerers' rather than 'witches'; for the remainder of cases, the question of whether the accused person performed such an act or had any awareness of being a 'witch' is generally treated as irrelevant.

Witchcraft Historiography

Historians of European witchcraft have found the anthropological definition difficult to apply to European and British witchcraft, which doesn't match African models. The presence or absence of magical techniques seems to have been of little concern to those participating in witch trials, and some of the accused really had attempted to cause harm by mere ill-wishing. As in anthropology, witchcraft is seen by historians as an ideology for explaining misfortune, however this ideology manifested in diverse ways. There were a few varieties of witch in popular belief, and a few types of people accused of witchcraft for different reasons. Richard Kieckhefer places the accused into three categories: Those caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery; well-meaning sorcerers or healers who lost their clients' or the authorities' trust; and those did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbours. To these Christina Larner adds a fourth category: those reputed to be witches and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs. Éva Pócs in turn identifies three varieties of witch in popular belief:

  • The 'neighbourhood witch' or 'social witch': a witch who curses a neighbour following some conflict.
  • The 'magical' or 'sorcerer' witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife, or a person who has through magic increased her fortune to the perceived detriment of a neighbouring household; due to neighbourly or community rivalries and the ambiguity between positive and negative magic, such individuals can become labelled as 'witches'.
  • The 'supernatural' or 'night' witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in visions and dreams.

'Neighbourhood witches' are the product of neighbourhood tensions, and are found only in self-sufficient serf village communities where the inhabitants largely rely on each other. Such accusations follow the breaking of some social norm, such as the failure to return a borrowed item, and any person part of the normal social exchange could potentially fall under suspicion. Claims of 'sorcerer' witches and 'supernatural' witches could arise out of social tensions, but not necessarily; the supernatural witch in particular often had nothing to do with communal conflict, but expressed tensions between the human and supernatural worlds; and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe such supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.


Under the monotheistic religions of the Levant (namely, Christianity and Islam), sorcery came to be associated with heresy and apostasy. Among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Late Medieval/Early Modern period, fears regarding witchcraft rose to fever pitch, and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into a diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had lands and possessions confiscated. The majority of those accused were women, though in some regions the majority were men. Accusations of witchcraft were frequently combined with other charges of heresy against such groups as the Cathars and Waldensians.

The Malleus Maleficarum, a famous witch-hunting manual used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, outlines how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely to be a witch, how to put a witch to trial and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. In the modern Western world, witchcraft accusations have often accompanied the satanic ritual abuse moral panic. Such accusations are a counterpart to blood libel of various kinds, which may be found throughout history across the globe.

"White" Witches

In England, the term 'witch' was not used exclusively to describe malevolent magicians, but could also indicate cunning folk. "There were a number of interchangeable terms for these practitioners, ‘white’, ‘good’, or ‘unbinding’ witches, blessers, wizards, sorcerers, however ‘cunning-man’ and ‘wise-man’ were the most frequent." The contemporary Reginald Scott noted “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch’ or ‘she is a wise woman’”. While cunning-folk could command a lot of respect, public perceptions of them were often ambivalent and a little fearful, for many were deemed just as capable of harming as of healing. Throughout Europe many such healers and wise men and women were convicted of witchcraft (Éva Pócs' 'sorcerer witches'): many English 'witches' convicted of consorting with demons seem to have been cunning folk whose fairy familiars had been demonised; many French devins-guerisseurs were accused of witchcraft; and over half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers.

Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds, roughly equivalent to shamans. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits or the dead, often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an 'other-world'. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were explicitly described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, often presided over by a female divinity who teaches magic and gives prophecies; and participation in battles against evil spirits, 'vampires' or 'witches' to win fertility and prosperity for the community.

Alleged Practices

Practices to which the witchcraft label has historically been applied are those which influence another person's mind, body or property against his or her will, or which are believed, by the person doing the labelling, to undermine the social or religious order. Some modern commentators consider the malefic nature of witchcraft to be a Christian projection. The concept of a magic-worker influencing another person's body or property against his or her will was clearly present in many cultures, as there are traditions in both folk magic and religious magic that have the purpose of countering malicious magic or identifying malicious magic users. Many examples can be found in ancient texts, such as those from Egypt and Babylonia, where malicious magic is believed to have the power to influence the mind, body or possessions, malicious magic users can become a credible cause for disease, sickness in animals, bad luck, sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes. Witchcraft of a more benign and socially acceptable sort may then be employed to turn the malevolence aside, or identify the supposed evil-doer so that punishment may be carried out. The folk magic used to identify or protect against malicious magic users is often indistinguishable from that used by the witches themselves.

There has also existed in popular belief the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent. Many neopagan witches strongly identify with this concept, and profess ethical codes that prevent them from performing magic on a person without their request. Where belief in malicious magic practices exists, such practitioners are typically forbidden by law as well as hated and feared by the general populace, while beneficial magic is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people – even if the orthodox establishment objects to it.

Spell Casting

Probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch was the ability to cast a spell, a "spell" being the word used to signify the means employed to accomplish a magical action. A spell could consist of a set of words, a formula or verse, or a ritual action, or any combination of these. The most important part of a spell is of course the energy the practitioner puts into it -- this being done in a variety of ways by many different people. Spells traditionally were cast by many methods, such as by the inscription of runes or sigils on an object to give it magical powers; by the immolation or binding of a wax or clay image (poppet) of a person to affect him or her magically; by the recitation of incantations; by the performance of physical rituals; by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions; by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination; and by many other means.

Conjuring the Dead

Strictly speaking, "necromancy" is the practice of conjuring the spirits of the dead for divination or prophecy - although the term has also been applied to raising the dead for other purposes. The Biblical Witch of Endor is supposed to have performed it (1 Sam. 28), and it is among the witchcraft practices condemned by Ælfric of Eynsham: "Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arise from death."

By Region


Persecution of witches. Current scholarly estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft vary between about 40,000 and 100,000. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known for certain to have ended in executions is around 12,000. In Early Modern European tradition, witches have stereotypically, though not exclusively, been women. European pagan belief in witchcraft was associated with the goddess Diana and dismissed as "diabolical fantasies" by medieval Christian authors. The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences. The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user developed over time. Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, its concern with magic lessened.

The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle Witches, commonly involves a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards addicted to such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments; observe "the witches' sabbath" (performing infernal rites which often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church); pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness; and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that a Devil's Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witch's skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children's well-being, or revenge against a lover.

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for bad occurrences. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. In 1307 the trial of the Knights Templar shows close parallels to accusations of witchcraft, maleficium, and sorcery and may have been the beginning of the great European witch-hunt. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.

The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188-186). However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful practicers of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wiseman. The term "witch doctor" was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)

"In the north of England, the superstition lingers to an almost inconceivable extent. Lancashire abounds with witch-doctors, a set of quacks, who pretend to cure diseases inflicted by the devil... The witch-doctor alluded to is better known by the name of the cunning man, and has a large practice in the counties of Lincoln and Nottingham."

Such "cunning-folk" did not refer to themselves as witches and objected to the accusation that they were such. Records from the Middle Ages, however, make it appear that it was, quite often, not entirely clear to the populace whether a given practitioner of magic was a witch or one of the cunning-folk. In addition, it appears that much of the populace was willing to approach either of these groups for healing magic and divination. When a person was known to be a witch, the populace would still seek to employ their healing skills; however, as was not the case with cunning-folk, members of the general population would also hire witches to curse their enemies. The important distinction is that there are records of the populace reporting alleged witches to the authorities as such, whereas cunning-folk were not so incriminated; they were more commonly prosecuted for accusing the innocent or defrauding people of money.

The long-term result of this amalgamation of distinct types of magic-worker into one is the considerable present-day confusion as to what witches actually did, whether they harmed or healed, what role (if any) they had in the community, whether they can be identified with the "witches" of other cultures and even whether they existed as anything other than a projection. Present-day beliefs about the witches of history attribute to them elements of the folklore witch, the charmer, the cunning man or wise woman, the diviner and the astrologer. Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos. The Russian word for witch is ведьма (ved'ma, literally "the one who knows", from Old Slavic "to know").

North America

The most famous witchcraft incident In the British North America were the witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so. At least five more of the accused died in prison. Despite being generally known as the "Salem" witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover, as well as Salem Town, Massachusetts. The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. All twenty-six who went to trial before this court were convicted. The four sessions of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693, held in Salem Town, but also in Ipswich, Boston, and Charlestown, produced only three convictions in the thirty-one witchcraft trials it conducted. Likewise, alleged witchcraft was not isolated to New England. In 1706 Grace Sherwood the "Witch of Pungo" was imprisoned for the crime in Princess Anne County, Virginia.

Ancient Near East

The belief in sorcery and its practice seem to have been widespread in the past. Both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part, as existing records plainly show. It will be sufficient to quote a short section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 B.C.). It is there prescribed,

"If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him."

Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible references to sorcery are frequent, and the strong condemnations of such practices found there do not seem to be based so much upon the supposition of fraud as upon the abomination of the magic in itself. The King James Bible uses the words 'witch', 'witchcraft', and 'witchcrafts', wherever the masoretic text, from which it is translated, has כשף (kashaph or kesheph) and קסם (qesem), and the Septuagint has φαρμακεια (pharmakeia); similarly in the New Testament it uses 'witch', 'witchcraft', and 'witchcrafts' to translate the φαρμακεια (pharmakeia) of the underlying Greek text. Traditional translations of verses such as Deuteronomy 18:11-12 and Exodus 22:18 therefore produce "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" which was seen as providing scriptural justification for Christian witch hunters in the early Modern Age. However, Kashaph more literally means either mutterer (from a single root) or herb user (as a compound word formed from the roots kash, meaning herb, and hapaleh, meaning using); the equivalent pharmakeia of the Septuagint means poison. As such a closer translation would be potion user (additionally, pharmakeia implies further malevolent intent), or more generally one who uses magic to harm others, rather than a very general term like witch. The Bible provides some evidence that these commandments were enforced under the Hebrew kings:

"And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?."

The Hebrew verb Hichrit (הכרית) translated in the King James as cut off, can also be translated as excommunicate, or as kill wholesale or exterminate. Note that the Hebrew word ob, translated as familiar spirit in the above quotation, has a different meaning than the usual English sense of the phrase; namely, it refers to a spirit that the woman is familiar with, rather than to a spirit which physically manifests itself in the shape of an animal.

New Testament

The New Testament condemns the practice as an abomination, just as the Old Testament had (Galatians 5:20, compared with Revelation 21:8; 22:15; and Acts 8:9; 13:6), though the overall topic of Biblical law in Christianity is still disputed. The word in most New Testament translations is "sorcerer"/"sorcery" rather than "witch"/"witchcraft".


Jewish law views the practice of witchcraft as being laden with idolatry and/or necromancy; both being serious theological and practical offenses in Judaism. According to Traditional Judaism, it is acknowledged that while magic exists, it is forbidden to practice it on the basis that it usually involves the worship of other gods. Rabbis of the Talmud also condemned magic when it produced something other than illusion, giving the example of two men who use magic to pick cucumbers (Sanhedrin 67a). The one who creates the illusion of picking cucumbers should not be condemned, only the one who actually picks the cucumbers through magic. However, some of the Rabbis practiced "magic" themselves. For instance, Rabbah created a person and sent him to Rabbi Zera, and Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied every Sabbath evening together and created a small calf to eat (Sanhedrin 65b). In these cases, the "magic" was seen more as divine miracles (i.e., coming from God rather than pagan gods) than as witchcraft. Judaism does make it clear that Jews shall not try to learn about the ways of witches (Devarim 18: 9-10) and that witches are to be put to death. (Shemot 22:17)


Divination and Magic in Islam encompass a wide range of practices, including black magic, warding off the evil eye, the production of amulets and other magical equipment, conjuring, casting lots, astrology and physiognomy. Muslims do commonly believe in magic (Sihr) and explicitly forbid its practice. Sihr translates from Arabic as sorcery or black magic. The best known reference to magic in Islam is the Surah Al-Falaq (meaning dawn or daybreak), which is known as a prayer to Allah to ward off black magic.

"Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practise secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy." (Quran 113:1-5)

Also according to the Quran:

"And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind sorcery and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel, Harut and Marut.... And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew." (al-Qur'an 2:102)

However, whereas performing miracles in Islamic thought and belief is reserved for only Messengers and Prophets; supernatural acts are also believed to be performed by Awliyaa - the spiritually accomplished. Disbelief in the miracles of the Prophets is considered an act of disbelief; belief in the miracles of any given pious individual is not. Neither are regarded as magic, but as signs of Allah at the hands of those close to Him that occur by His will and His alone. Some Muslim practitioners believe that they may seek the help of the Jinn (singular--jinni) in magic. It is a common belief that jinn can possess a human, thus requiring Exorcism. Still, the practice of seeking help to the Jinn is prohibited and regarded the same as seeking help to a devil. The belief in jinn is part of the Muslim faith. Imam Muslim narrated the Prophet said: "Allah created the angels from light, created the jinn from the pure flame of fire, and Adam from that which was described to you (i.e., the clay.)". Also in the Quran, chapter of Jinn:

"And persons from among men used to seek refuge with persons from among the jinn, so they increased them in evil doing." (The Holy Qur'an) (72:6)

To cast off the jinn from the body of the possessed, the "ruqya," which is from the Prophet's sunnah is used. The ruqya contains verses of the Qur'an as well as prayers which are specifically targeted against demons. The knowledge of which verses of the Qur'an to use in what way is what is considered "magic knowledge". Students of the history of religion have linked several magical practises in Islam with pre-islamic Turkish and East African customs. Most notable of these customs is the Zar Ceremony. In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft.


Africans have a wide range of views of traditional religions. African Christians typically accept Christian dogma as do their counterparts in Latin America and Asia. The term witch doctor, often attributed to Zulu inyanga, has been misconstrued to mean "a healer who uses witchcraft" rather than its original meaning of "one who diagnoses and cures maladies caused by witches". Combining Roman Catholic beliefs and practices and traditional West African religious beliefs and practices, particularly West African Vodun, are several syncretic religions in the Americas, including Vodou, Obeah, Candomblé, Quimbanda and Santería. In Southern African traditions, there are three classifications of somebody who uses magic. The thakathi is usually improperly translated into English as "witch", and is a spiteful person who operates in secret to harm others. The sangoma is a diviner, somewhere on a par with a fortune teller, and is employed in detecting illness, predicting a person's future (or advising them on which path to take), or identifying the guilty party in a crime. She also practices some degree of medicine. The inyanga is often translated as "witch doctor" (though many Southern Africans resent this implication, as it perpetuates the mistaken belief that a "witch doctor" is in some sense a practitioner of malicious magic). The inyanga's job is to heal illness and injury and provide customers with magical items for everyday use. Of these three categories the thakatha is almost exclusively female, the sangoma is usually female, and the inyanga is almost exclusively male.

In some Central African areas, malicious magic users are believed by locals to be the source of terminal illness such as AIDS and cancer. In such cases, various methods are used to rid the person from the bewitching spirit, occasionally Physical abuse and Psychological abuse. Children may be accused of being witches, for example a young niece may be blamed for the illness of a relative. Most of these cases of abuse go unreported since the members of the society that witness such abuse are too afraid of being accused of being accomplices. It is also believed that witchcraft can be transmitted to children by feeding. Parents discourage their children from interacting with people believed to be witches. As of 2006, between 25,000 and 50,000 children in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes. On April, 2008, Kinshasa, the police arrested 14 suspected victims (of penis snatching) and sorcerers accused of using black magic or witchcraft to steal (make disappear) or shrink men's penises to extort cash for cure, amid a wave of panic. Arrests were made in an effort to avoid bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 alleged penis snatchers were beaten to death by mobs. It was reported on May 21, 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft. In Tanzania in 2008, President Kikwete publicly condemned witchdoctors for killing albinos for their body parts which are thought to bring good luck. 25 albinos have been murdered since March 2007. In the Meatu district of Tanzania, half of all murders are “witch-killings”.

Complementary remarks about witchcraft by a native Congolese initiate : "From witchcraft ... may be developed the remedy (kimbuki) that will do most to raise up our country." "Witchcraft ... deserves respect ... it can embellish or redeem (ketula evo vuukisa)." "The ancestors were equipped with the protective witchcraft of the clan (kindoki kiandundila kanda). ... They could also gather the power of animals into their hands ... whenever they needed. ... If we could make use of these kinds of witchcraft, our country would rapidly progress in knowledge of every kind." "You witches (zindoki) too, bring your science into the light to be written down so that ... the benefits in it ... endow our race." Among the Mende (of Sierra Leone), trial and conviction for witchcraft has a beneficial effect for those convicted. "The witchfinder had warned the whole village to ensure the relative prosperity of the accused and sentenced ... old people. ... Six months later all of the people ... accused, were secure, well-fed and arguably happier than at any [previous] time; they had hardly to beckon and people would come with food or whatever was needful. ... Instead of such old and widowed people being left helpless or (as in Western society) institutionalized in old people’s homes, these were reintegrated into society and left secure in their old age ... . ... Old people are 'suitable' candidates for this kind of accusation in the sense that they are isolated and vulnerable, and they are 'suitable' candidates for 'social security' for precisely the same reasons."


Modern practices identified by their practitioners as "witchcraft" have arisen in the twentieth century which may be broadly subsumed under the heading of Neopaganism. However, as forms of Neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Contemporary witchcraft often involves the use of divination, magic, and working with the classical elements and unseen forces such as spirits and the forces of nature. The practice of natural medicine, folk medicine, and spiritual healing is also common, as are alternative medical and New Age healing practices. Some schools of modern witchcraft, such as traditional forms of Wicca, are secretive and operate as initiatory secret societies. There have been a number of pagan practitioners such as Paul Huson claiming inheritance to non-Gardnerian traditions as well. More recently a movement to recreate pre-Christian traditions has taken shape in polytheistic reconstructionism, including such practices as Divination, Seid and various forms of Shamanism.


During the 20th century interest in witchcraft in English-speaking and European countries began to increase, inspired particularly by Margaret Murray's theory of a pan-European witch-cult originally published in 1921, since discredited by further careful historical research. Interest was intensified, however, by Gerald Gardner's claim in 1954 in Witchcraft Today that a form of witchcraft still existed in England. The truth of Gardner's claim is now disputed too, with different historians offering evidence for or against the religion's existence prior to Gardner.

The Wicca that Gardner initially taught was a witchcraft religion having a lot in common with Margaret Murray's hypothetically posited cult of the 1920s. Indeed Murray wrote an introduction to Gardner's Witchcraft Today, in effect putting her stamp of approval on it. Wicca is now practised as a religion of an initiatory secret society nature with positive ethical principles, organised into autonomous covens and led by a High Priesthood. There is also a large "Eclectic Wiccan" movement of individuals and groups who share key Wiccan beliefs but have no initiatory connection or affiliation with traditional Wicca. Wiccan writings and ritual show borrowings from a number of sources including 19th and 20th century ceremonial magic, the medieval grimoire known as the Key of Solomon, Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis and pre-Christian religions. Both men and women are equally termed "witches." They practice a form of duotheistic universalism. Since Gardner's death in 1964 the Wicca that he claimed he was initiated into has attracted many initiates, becoming the largest of the various witchcraft traditions in the Western world, and has influenced other Neopagan and occult movements.


Stregheria is an Italian witchcraft religion popularised in the 1980s by Raven Grimassi, who claims that it evolved within the ancient Etruscan religion of Italian peasants who worked under the Catholic upper classes. Leland's account depicts the followers of Italian witchcraft as worshipping the Goddess Diana, along with her brother Dianus/Lucifer, and their (alleged) daughter Aradia (a claim which makes little sense, as Diana is said to be perpetually virginal). Leland's witches do not see Lucifer as the evil Satan of Christian myth, but a benevolent god of the sun and moon. The ritual format of contemporary Stregheria is roughly similar to that of other Neo-Pagan witchcraft religions such as Wicca. The pentagram is the most common symbol of religious identity. Most followers celebrate a series of eight festivals equivalent to the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, though others follow the ancient Roman festivals. An emphasis is placed on ancestor worship.

Feri Tradition

The Feri Tradition is a modern witchcraft practice founded by Victor Anderson and his wife Cora. It is an ecstatic tradition with strong emphasis is placed on sensual experience and awareness, including sexual mysticism, which is not limited to heterosexual expression. Most practitioners worship three main deities; the Star Goddess, and two divine twins, one of whom is the blue God. They believe that there are three parts to the human soul, a belief taken from the Hawaiian religion of Huna as described by Max Freedom Long.


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