Paganism and witchcraft (Paganism 101 Ch. 8)

Witch With her Broom
Photo by Thirdman, accessed via Pexels

Thanks to many, many centuries of misinformation, paganism and magic are inextricably linked in pop culture. Progress has been made — the word “pagan” is less likely to make people think of dark rites, blood magic, and ritual orgies in the twenty-first century than it was in, say, the seventeenth century. Even so, if you tell someone you identify as pagan, you’re bound to eventually get the question: “So, are you, like, a witch?”

The answer, like so many things in paganism is that it depends on the pagan.

Before we get into modern pagans and their views on magic, I think it’s helpful to understand the historical roots of the association of paganism with witchcraft. And for that, we have to travel back to the Middle Ages, when Christianity was already well-established as the dominant religion in Europe, and the Catholic Church was well on its way to becoming a hegemonic superpower. The beginning of the witch hunts was just around the corner.

In her book The Study of Witchcraft, Deborah Lipp claims that two very different understandings of what it meant to be a witch were both at work in the medieval witch trials.

The first concept of witchcraft, which Lipp identifies as the “folk witch,” was much older and much less Christian. These were people who used dark magic, such as hexes, to cause harm and mischief. Though they may not have been called “witches,” folk witches or witch-like figures have existed in virtually every culture in some form. Examples include British witches, Irish changelings, and Navajo skin-walkers. The one consistent feature of these diverse creatures is an association with magic and a tendency to cause harm. They were seen as a threat to the community, and these types of witches were persecuted long before the rise of Christianity.

(For what it’s worth, the fact that witches were disliked by ancient pagans doesn’t mean that all magic was. Most of the ancient cultures that inspired modern paganism also had their own magical practice, and in many cases magic does not seem to have been controversial or taboo. But again, those who used magic for good would not have been considered witches before the twentieth century.)

The second concept of witchcraft identified by Lipp is the “Satanic witch,” which is an exclusively Christian concept. These people were heretics of the worst kind, members of a cult of Satan worshipers who had sexual relations with demons and plotted against the Church. They were a threat to the faithful Christians in their community.

The only unifying factor in these definitions is a sense of deviancy. Both folk witches and Satanic witches were people who deviated from the norm. It’s no coincidence that those accused of witchcraft were often those who broke societal norms in some way, such as single mothers or women who owned property.

These two distinct definitions of witchcraft would collide in the Middle Ages, with those who were tried for witchcraft often accused both of causing harm to the community by blighting crops or killing animals, and of worshiping Satan. It was commonly believed that these witches tormented the community with evil powers given to them by Satan.

But what does all this have to do with paganism?

While it’s possible that some of the people executed for witchcraft in Europe were secretly practicing the old pagan religions, they definitely wouldn’t have been the majority or even a significant minority. Supposed witches were almost always accused of worshiping Satan, not pagan gods. Most of the people who were accused, tried, and executed for witchcraft were probably accused for social reasons, not religious ones. Most if not all of them were probably not witches as we would recognize them today.

The accusation of devil worship is one that medieval “witches” have in common with pagans. Many of Satan’s names were originally the names of pagan deities, such as Beelzebub (a Philistine god), Moloch (a Canaanite god), and Dagon (another Philistine god). This association of Satan with pagan deities reflects real-world political conflict between the Hebrew people (and later the early Christians) and the cultures who worshiped those deities. Like the label of “witch,” this serves a political function and creates a clear “us vs. them” mindset.

However, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that medieval Christians thought that witch = pagan, or that they thought pagan = devil worship. During the conversion period (several hundred years before the Middle Ages), it seems that Christians largely viewed pagan gods as just that — other gods who were in competition with their own. There are records of Christians and pagans living in relative peace in some parts of Europe — something that surely wouldn’t have been possible if Christians believed that all pagans were devil worshipers.

Fear and paranoia regarding Satan and his followers didn’t become a large part of Christianity until the Middle Ages. Before that, Satan was a relatively minor figure, less the embodiment of evil and more of an annoyance. He was even used for comic relief in religious plays! It was in the Middle Ages that Satan began to take on a more prolific, antagonistic role. Again, this coincided with the Church becoming a hegemonic political entity.

I’m by no means an expert on European history, but it sure seems to me like the witch hunts and Satan paranoia of the Middle Ages were more about controlling the people and punishing deviance than about genuine religious conviction. Just saying.

By the time the witch hunts began, paganism (a.k.a., pre-Christian religion) had all but died out in Europe. Worship of the old gods had either ceased entirely or had been incorporated into Christianity in the form of regional tradition and superstition. Thus, “witches” were accused of worshiping Satan who, at the time, would have been a much more recognizable figure than Jupiter or Anubis.

So, to make a very long story short, there really isn’t a historical connection between paganism and witchcraft, except for both of them having been in conflict with Christianity at some point. It’s important to remember that witchcraft (in this case defined as harmful magic) is a concept that predates Christianity and that witches were treated with suspicion in pagan as well as Christian communities.

That’s not to say the two aren’t connected. In fact, modern paganism is much more closely linked to witchcraft than its historic counterparts.

If you read enough older books about paganism, especially Wicca and other neopagan religions, you will likely find references to “the Burning Times.” This is an exaggerated, largely fictionalized, and thoroughly disproved narrative that was popular with early neopagans, including Gerald Gardner, the father of Wicca. The “Burning Times” refers to the idea that, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the witch hunts were a genocidal attack on self-identified witches and pagans, in an attempt to wipe out these ancient belief systems. This is almost entirely false.

Belief in the “Burning Times” requires belief in Margaret Murray’s witch-cult hypothesis, which has been almost totally discredited by historians and archaeologists. Murray believed that the medieval witch trials were an attempt to wipe out a widespread pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. Murray claimed that this witch cult spanned much of Europe and worshiped a horned deity, who was referred to as the Devil by Christians.

Again, Murray’s theory has been completely discredited. There is no evidence whatsoever of a continent-spanning pagan religion, much less one that survived into the Middle Ages. If a book, website, or teacher refers to Murray’s theory or to the “Burning Times” as if they were historical fact, they are not a good resource for your study of paganism. Remember, paganism had been largely displaced by Christianity before the European witch hunts really got going!

But Murray’s theory, although false, has still had an impact on our modern understanding of witchcraft and paganism. As previously mentioned, Gerald Gardener was inspired by Murray’s ideas and incorporated some of them into Wicca. Noticeably, the Wiccan God often appears in prayers, poetry, and artwork as the Horned King, clearly inspired by the god Murray wrote about. Wicca was also the first pagan religion to make magic an integral part of ritual, thus marrying paganism with witchcraft.

The rising popularity of Wicca, and of self-identified witches, has helped destigmatize the label. Wiccans are, for the most part, lovely people who strive to use magic only for good. This is very different from the historic understanding of a witch as one who causes harm, and it’s been great PR for the witch archetype.

Nowadays the word “witch” can refer to anyone who practices magic, although some magic practitioners choose to use different labels. “Witch” no longer has connotations of evil, mischief, or malicious intent. The witch’s pop culture makeover has also been aided by popular fiction that portrays witches in a positive light, like the sitcom Bewitched, the Harry Potter franchise, and the TV show Charmed. This new definition has caused thousands of people, pagan and non-pagan alike, to use witchcraft and the witch label as a means to empower themselves and improve their lives.

Modern pagans may or may not identify as witches. Personally, I am both a pagan and a witch — but my paganism and my witchcraft are two different parts of my spiritual identity. For other pagans, witchcraft and magic are an essential part of their religious practice.

Say it with me, now: it all depends on the pagan!


  • The Study of Witchcraft by Deborah Lipp
  • Witches, Sluts, Feminists by Kristen J. Soleee
  • The British History Podcast, “94 — Dark Age Beliefs”
  • Irish History Podcast, “Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of 1324 (Part I)” and “Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of 1324 (Part II)”
  • Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin

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