My Friends, the Witches

Since at least one witch who (to judge from the comment) knows less about witchcraft than I do had the temerity to question my qualifications to report what it is that neopagans believe, it behooves me to produce my credentials, such as they are.

Because of the diversity of pagan belief and neopagan belief, the writer (me) was careful to mention and to emphasize that I was only speaking of the Witches I know personally, namely: a friend from lawschool I used to live with, whose coven and family I visit, at whose pagan marriage ceremony I was one of the grooms; another friend from lawschool; yet another school friend, a pretty young witch who used to share a house with my family; and a sickly Lesbian neighbor who was cruelly thrown out of her house onto the street. After the Commonwealth of Virginia took her children away, and I invited her and her nonboyfriend and her cat to live in my basement rent-free for several months.

The claim that I don’t know what I am talking about is hard to support. At one point in my life, I knew more witches and more intimately than I knew Christians, and I mean we lived under one roof, saw each other daily.

(I am happy to report that the pretty young witch has since broken her charming wand and drowned her books, married a fine upstanding young man, and been baptized into the Catholic Church. She left behind her cat, which I assume was a familiar, to spend the rest of its days with us. And at least one of the witches to whom we extended charity came to church service with us to express thanks. Her cat, which I also assume is a familiar, is also still with us.)

I will also emphasize my disqualifications: my comments are limited to those witches I know personally, and what they told me, some years ago, was their theology and belief. Things may have changed since then. Since there is a wide variety of neopagan movements, Asatru and so on, I am not making a general comment about all — or even most — witches.

Some witches claim to be rediscovering a primordial Indo-European folk belief of a Triple Goddess and Horned Consort, whose various aspects and different names were used by the several tribes and civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East, before the Christian Church, in a well organized campaign, systematically obliterated all signs and traces of it.

This claim is roughly as credible as Erich von Daniken’s claims about Ancient Astronauts: and the most incredible part is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is capable of running an organized campaign to do anything in a systematic fashion.

But let us grant that neopaganism can claim roots older than Robert Grave’s very imaginative THE WHITE GODDESS or older than the Romantic movement of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Let us be generous and grant that, between when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when there was a pan-Indo-European matriarchal culture whose cult was much like what modern neopaganism attests.

Even granting this, I submit that syncretic and inclusive nature of the neopagans, including not just those I’ve met but also those I’ve read, is not the same in metaphysical outlook as the syncretic cults that swarmed through pre-Christian Rome.

Let us consult the esteemed historian Edward Gibbon for his opinion of the matter:

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancour; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.


The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed in peace their local and respective influence; nor could the Roman who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile.


Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference than to the resemblance of their religious worship. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their inspection altars, easily persuaded themselves that, under various names and with various ceremonies, they adored the same deities.

Gibbon’s portrait, albeit charming, is only slightly more historically accurate than that of Robert Graves.

The Empire was willing to tolerate cults, and made a great show of believing aliens gods were their Roman gods under different names (as when Odin is called the Mercury of the Germans), provided those new gods were of the same character and caliber as the old gods, and affirmed the social order.

When they were not, as when the worship of Cybele, or Isis, or Yahweh was introduced in Rome, they newcomers were prosecuted, their temples and fanes torched, their votaries scourged  or crucified. Examples from history are extensive and easy to find, even in Mr Gibbons’ day.

I remember stumbling across references in the writings of Arrian of a time when Epictetus the Stoic, and all philosophers, were banished from the city by Domitian — and these were sages promoting no particular rites or rituals.

I will pause to quote at length to remind (or to introduce) the reader of the witch craze Livy describes when pagans, not Christians, sought to extirpate demoniacs from their midst.

The Historian Livy reports the official investigations of Roman consul thus (

Both the consuls were charged with the investigation into the secret conspiracies. A low-born Greek went into Etruria first of all, but did not bring with him any of the numerous arts which that most accomplished of all nations has introduced amongst us for the cultivation of mind and body. He was a hedge-priest and wizard, not one of those who imbue men’s minds with error by professing to teach their superstitions openly for money, but a hierophant of secret nocturnal mysteries. At first these were divulged to only a few; then they began to spread amongst both men and women, and the attractions of wine and feasting increased the number of his followers. When they were heated with wine and the nightly commingling of men and women, those of tender age with their seniors, had extinguished all sense of modesty, debaucheries of every kind commenced; each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust he was most prone to. Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals.


At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the very sum of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair dishevelled, rushed down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished, as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been rapt away by the gods; these were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take a part in their crimes or submit to pollution. They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women.

Whatever we might make of this talk of “pollution” and “uncleanness” the easy going spirit of tolerant welcome for alien religious rites lauded by Gibbon is noticeably absent.

The witch hunts started, and the panic, and the false accusations. Thousands were denounced. Some fled the city and were caught at the gates. Some escaped by suicide. There were rumored to be more than seven thousand cunjuari (sworm conspirators). Novices new to the cult suffered but imprisonment, but the rest were burned or crucified or killed in the variety of imaginative and sadistic ways for which the Romans are still famed.

The consuls followed the ancient policy of allowing the paterfamilias (the man of the house) to carry out the death sentence on any of his daughters, aunts or mother or wife in the privacy of his home, and this historian cannot estimate how many these were.

According to the (perhaps inflated) figures given in records of this and other witch hunts, the numbers killed far exceeds the number of witches killed in the Christian days.

There is more than one theory why the witches in Livy and the witches among the Protestant witch-hunts had so many similar features. Perhaps the witches really performed such rites and crimes both in earlier ages and later. Or perhaps the psychology of man is such that he is likely to say and to believe certain false accusations that follow certain patterns; or perhaps the later Christians, being classically trained, followed the pattern established by their pagan forefathers. But no matter the theory to explain the recurrence, the picture of tolerant pagans succeeded by intolerant monotheists cannot include nor explain away this witch-hunt, nor the two other witch-hunts Livy records.

Sufficient to say that the men of Late Antiquity could not conceive, even in their most tolerant and syncretic moments, of the essential Nietzschean idea that a man by his willpower creates his reality (or, as the postmoderns say, his “narrative”) around him. If the ancients thought the Northman called Mercury by the name Woden, that is not because they thought Mercury was manmade.

On the other hand the neopagans, at least those who have explained themselves to me at the times when I inquired (I make no claims about any other persons or times) described reality as a fluid thing, essentially unknowable or void,  which must be given a mask before it looks human and is able to see and speak. And it is the witch who gives the goddess her mask to wear.

I submit that logically, whether the witch who believes this says so or no, as a matter of metaphysical principle the worldview thus described (namely, a world where the manifestations of ineffable and transcendent reality are determined by the observer) is a type of radical relativism possible if and only if there is no objective truth. The metaphysical doctrine that there is no truth is called nihilism.

By no coincidence, metaphysical nihilism is also the posture of the most ancient and most often reoccurring of heresies, called Gnosticism. But that is a discussion for another day.

I hope this has established not that I am an expert, but that I am a layman informed enough to have a solid basis for my opinion about pagans and witches.

If not, I will nonetheless post an entirely gratuitous picture of Neaera from HISPANIA, merely so that we can see a fictional pretty young pagan:

And (why not?) a picture of the Halliwell sisters from CHARMED, so we can see a fictional pretty young witches:

Are you saying to yourself, dear reader, that these pictures of pagans are absurdly prettified and fictional? You would be correct if you were speaking not of these, but of the picture offered by Edward Gibbon.