As Christianity (a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Christ) became the prevalent religion in Europe, ancient traditions were increasingly pushed toward the fringes of society. At the beginning of the transition period, however, there was minimal conflict between Christians and those who continued traditional practices. In fact, traditional practices were often combined with Christian rituals (religious ceremonies). The first converts to Christianity were people who belonged to the upper classes and the nobility. Thus being a Christian became a sign of high social and political status. Peasants and members of the lower class, known as "pagans" (from the ancient Latin word for peasant or country dweller), were generally left to practice their versions of the old religion as long as they posed no threat to the church and ruling class. Over time non-Christian beliefs came to be called "paganism" by the Christians. Although Christians built churches directly on top of significant pagan worship sites, in the early years they did not devote significant money or energy to converting inhabitants in rural regions. Often craftsmen hired to build the new churches were non-Christians who incorporated aspects of the old religion into the new. For instance, they left carvings of horned gods and fertility goddesses (pagan images of life-giving forces) inside these new monuments.
Paganism and Christianity were blended in other ways. Two altars (worship centers) were erected side by side in some Christian churches so that worshipers could make offerings to both Christ and various pagan gods simultaneously. As late as the thirteenth century many Christian priests continued leading their congregations in fertility dances (to influence success in conceiving children) and practicing magic in private. Early laws discouraged the practice of pagan religions throughout Europe. Yet these were relatively lenient attempts to gradually wean the people from their so-called superstitions rather than a calculated campaign to eliminate paganism. In a.d. 600 the Christian pope (the supreme head of the church),
Gregory the Great (540-604), proclaimed that "all the gods of the heathens are demons" and should be punished. That message did not take root until several hundred years later.
Anti-witchcraft literature was being published and studied long before the Puritans ever came to the New World. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.
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