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The Burning Times

Caesar made it as far west as the British Isles with his legions before returning to Rome, and consolidating power to become the first Roman Emperor.  Caesar was a Pagan, and saw several of the Roman Gods and Goddesses in the Deities that were worshipped in Britain.  Because the Romans were able to see the similarities between their Gods and those worshipped in the areas they conquered, they had no problem with letting those peoples continue to worship as they wished.

Druids worhipping in a Sacred GroveOver the centuries that followed, the Christian Church gained status in Rome.  No longer were Christians thrown to the lions for public amusement.  When the Roman Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. the Christian Church jumped in status to become the official religion of the Empire, and gained political power.

The Archbishop of Rome was elevated to the title of Pope, and became the sole leader of Christians everywhere in the world.  This held true until 1014, when the Eastern Orthodox Church, split irrevocably from the Roman Catholic Church.

In the 164 years between the Conversion of Constantine, and the fall of Rome (476 C.E.) the Christian Church set about solidifying its hold on all the peoples of the Empire.  In the beginning, the Christian Church was relatively tolerant of other Spiritual Paths. There are texts by Christian Missionaries from Rome, which speak of discussions, respect, and even friendships between the Missionaries and the Druids of England.  The Missionaries for the most part, seemed to look at the Druids and other native clergies as equals.

Eventually, the Druids were massacred by the Roman Legions for sowing the seeds of rebellion among the peoples they guided.  Rome had always been a harsh mistress, but as the Roman Emperors grew weak or frivolous, the Church grew in power.  It became more and more important to the Church that everyone be Converted to Christianity.  Religious zeal, coupled with political power created the atmosphere for a once peaceful, oppressed religion, to become the One True Way.

As the power of the Church grew, it attracted men who were much more ambitious than pious.  There were also the men who in their zealous piety, had the power to make others bend to their will.  In either case, the old saying about absolute power, applies very well.  This change didn’t happen overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did it fall in a day, or even a single pillaging by the Barbarian Hordes.  There were actually three.

When Rome did finally fall, and cease to be a political power, the Christian Church had been sending out Missionaries for over a century and a half.  These monks had gone into the wilds of the Frontier to seek out those they could Convert to the Christian Faith.  Progress was slow, each group of Missionaries worked separately, but thanks to the roads built by their ancestors, they had relatively fast and easy access to the central authority in Rome.  All roads truly did lead to Rome.

By the fall of Rome, the Christian Church had set up an entire network throughout Europe.  When Missionaries discovered better ways to convert people, they sent word to Rome, which then passed it on to all the other Christian outposts. 

One of the most effective ways to convert people, was to use their own culture to explain Christianity. This is how the three leaf clover became a symbol for the Trinity in Ireland.  This worked so well that the Pope sent down official edicts to build churches in places already Sacred to the native peoples. 

When Rome fell, the only vestige left of the Old Empire, was the Christian Church. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the only entity capable of filling it, was the Church.  So the Christian Church became the main political force in all of Europe, and parts of the Middle East. 

With each new Convert, the Church grew.  The Church spent a lot of time and effort in Converting the leaders and Chieftains of the various tribes throughout Europe.  By Converting the leaders to Christianity, the Church also gained the people who followed them.

Some Converted sincerely, others did not.  To some, this new religion made a lot of sense, when explained in terms they were familiar with.  Others simply saw political advantage in aligning themselves with such a powerful entity, but continued to worship as they always had, in secret.  Christian Churches were built in Sacred Groves.  It was easier to get people to go to church if they were going to these places anyway.

Another thing the Christian Church did, was change its Holy Days so that they were celebrated on the same days that native peoples celebrated.  This is why the Bible states that when Jesus was born, the lambs were in the fields, indicating spring time, yet his birth is celebrated at the Winter Solstice.  Other Holy Days such as Easter, even get their name from the original Pagan holiday Ostara, which celebrates the rebirth of the land, and the animals on it. 

Ostara is a fertility celebration, which is why we still use rabbits and eggs in Easter celebrations.  These are both symbols of fertility. The egg is obvious, but March is when rabbits mate, and their behavior becomes quite odd.  You’ve heard the saying ‘Mad as a March Hare’?  It’s a reference to the rabbit’s behavior during mating season.

There were other advantages to joining the Christian Church.  Churches and Monasteries were places of learning.  They were in fact the only places that boys could get an academic education.  Girls were not allowed, being inferior. 

As populations multiplied, and tribes became nations, the Church gained power.  Chieftains became Kings, and villages became cities. Each city had a church at its center, and soon cities were trying to outdo each other for the title of having the grandest church.

Those who lived in the cities were, publicly at least, Christian.  Those who lived out in the countryside still retained their link to the Old Ways.  This is in fact where we get the term Pagan.  Those who lived out in the country were called pagans. 

Over time, the fact that they also still followed the Old Ways came to be synonymous with the word used to describe them...Pagan.  For the most part, the Christians and the Pagans lived together peacefully.  The only times they really interacted were on market days, or festivals.

There were other groups not living in the cities. In the south of England, those who lived on the Heaths were called Heathens.  That term also came to describe the fact that they were not Christian. 

These were the people who still worshipped the Mother Earth, and the Horned God of the Hunt.  City dwellers had been Christian for generations now. They had no living memory of the Old Gods their ancestors worshipped before Christianity came.  In fact, they were taught that Christianity had always been.  They had the story of Adam and Eve as proof.

The Church saw the Pagans and Heathens as a problem though.  They were not under the control of the Church, and that meant the Church did not have total control.  So they devised a way to Convert those people, or turn them into the enemy.  While the Bible states that Lucifer was the fairest of the Angels, the Church decided that when he was cast into the pit, his form must have changed.  After all, he had been removed from the glory of God, so his outward appearance must have changed to mirror His inner evil.

Baphomet - One of the Old Gods who was changed to be the Christian DevilThe Church chose what it considered to be a hideous and politically expedient form for the devil, that of the Horned God.  Suddenly everyone was being taught that the Devil was among them, and that He had worshippers all around, out in the woods.  The Devil had the horns of a goat, cloven hooves, and a tail.  Any picture or statue that had the shape of a man, and the horns of an animal was an image of Satan.  The Gods of the Old Religion had become the Devil of the New Religion.

This idea burned slowly at first.  Most of the average population wasn’t too worried about the Devil walking the earth, and those that served Him.   Now and then someone would be accused of Witchcraft, or some other similar offense, but generally they could be absolved by saying prayer, and reconfirming their faith in the Lord.  Witchcraft was just country superstition.  While everyone believed in Witches, they were for the most part confined to stories told by travelers.  Then came the Wrath of God.

The Plague hit Europe in 1347, and lasted until 1350.  It killed one third of the population of Europe.  Its cause was the Oriental Rat Flea, but no one knew that at the time.  It seemed to come out of nowhere, and nowhere was safe from it.  In their panicked search for a reason for the Black Death, the superstitious people only made it worse.

Priests were preaching that this was the Wrath of God, a punishment for not following His Word, and for allowing Evil into their lives.  The people should go out and rid themselves of all things evil, and so they did.  Cats had long been associated with Witches, especially black cats.  Cats were hunted and killed by the thousands, either outright, or captured and burned, in a misguided attempt to rid communities of evil.  Because they had no idea that the plague was caused by a flea, they didn’t realize that they were in fact ridding themselves of their best defense against it.  The cat had gone from Egyptian Deity, to Devil’s Advocate.

Witches Sabbath - Hans Baldung Grien 1510Witches were hunted, and when found they were burned along with the cats.  The only reason it didn’t turn into a full-fledged Witch Hunt at the time, is because the people were scared to go out at all.  Dead piled up on the streets and in their houses.  Entire villages were wiped out.  It is from this event that we get the children’s nursery rhyme, “Ring Around The Rosey”.  The words describe the physical symptoms of Bubonic Plague, and the flowers used to try and cover the smell.  The final words of the rhyme were originally, “…we all fall dead”.

Over a century later, two Dominican Friars in Germany, named Jakob Spreger, and Heinrich Kramer, wrote a text called The Malleus Maleficarum.  The English translation is, The Hammer od Witches.  The text, first published about 1486, told how to identify a Witch, how to extract information from the Witch, and then how to deal with the confessed Witch.  At first, the Church ignored the text, it was vague in areas of identification, and extreme in methods of extracting information.

The Witches Hammer stated that Witches could be identified by marks or brands put on them by the Devil.  It didn’t say what those marks should look like.  Two centuries earlier Pope Innocent III had institutionalized a format for finding and dealing with those who were considered heretics in Rome. It was called The Inquisition.  Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition, in 1233, to combat the heresy of the Abilgenses, a religious sect in France.  By 1255, The Inquisition was in full force throughout Europe, though it was never instituted in England or Scandinavia.

At first, The Inquisition was only concerned with Christian Heresies, but over time that edict grew.  The Hammer of Witches gave The Inquisition the perfect tool to use in its Holy War against Evil.  Because of how vague certain information was in the text, any mark be it a birthmark, or a mole, could be used to identify someone as a Witch.  Once identified, the Witch was tortured until she confessed.  Most of those accused were women, though later when Witch Hunts were used for monetary and political gain, men also were accused.

Typically when the Inquisition first started, if the accused confessed during the grace period, they were allowed to live, though they were punished.  They might be physically abused, or their lands confiscated, or banished from being in public.  After the grace period, accusations could be made.  If the accused confessed, they would be strangled before burning at the stake.  If they maintained their innocence throughout, and were found guilty, they were burned alive.

The Inquisition found ways to rid themselves of other undesirables as well.  Many times, homosexual men were tied and placed in with the fire wood for the burning.  That is where the term faggot, used to refer to a gay man, comes from.  A faggot was a piece of wood used to light a fire. 

The Inquisition was not a single event, but many.  The Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century were an offshoot.  There were other Inquisitional events in the New World, including Mexico and Brazil.  The Inquisition didn’t fully run its course until the 18th century, when it was finally shut down.  The last of the anti Witchcraft laws in England weren’t repealed until the 19th century, when they were last used against the growing Spiritualist Movement there.

Today, in America at least, Witchcraft enjoys the protections given in the Bill of Rights.  Unfortunately, because it is still misunderstood by the majority of people, it still suffers from the images imprinted in popular culture over centuries.  Witchcraft has become more mainstream to an extent, but it’s still better press if there is an element of evil to it. Two thousand years ago, the Romans were accusing Christians of eating babies.  Now they say the same about us, when one parent wants to take advantage in a custody case, and the other parent is a Witch. 

Are the Burning Times really just history?

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