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Science & Religion

Diviners, Druids and Witches

Not being a scholar in any of these areas, a main source of information was "The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft" by Rosemary Ellen Guilly, Facts on File Inc, 1989



The OED says that: "Divination is insight into or discovery of the unknown or future by supernatural means".

This has been done from ancient times, by people who have been called priests, priestesses, shamans, medicine men etc.

Some of the ways people have given interpretations of the future are by

• natural events (augury - the movement of birds), or

• markings on sheep's livers (haruspicy), or the

• patterns formed by sticks, stones and bones thrown into the air (I Ching), or

• concentrating on an object till visions appear (scrying e.g. crystal balls), or

• oracles produced in trances (Delphi, necromancy etc), or

• interpreting dreams.

At Delphi, the Priestess of the Python inhaled fumes from an underground source and her utterings were then interpreted for the inquirer. One famous General asked if he should take his army out to battle. He was told "if you go you will defeat a great army". Thus encouraged he went out, but the army he defeated turned out to be his own!



By the 5th Century BCE, the Celts inhabited parts of Britain, Ireland, Europe Turkey and the Balkans.

The Druids were Celtic priests, but little is known about them.

Even the little that is said about them is not necessarily reliable, because their enemies and destroyers wrote it.

They seemed to have interpreted omens, sacrificed animals, administered justice, kept check on the calendar, mixed herbs for healing (mistletoe), composed poems etc.

The Roman emperor Claudius banned Druidism.

In 60 or 61 ACE the Romans captured and razed the Druid's Angelsey home base and their influence rapidly declined.

John Aubrey (17th Century) speculated that Druids built Stonehenge.

William Stuckeley (in 1717) and Henry Hurle (in 1781) are the authors of modern Druidism, which observes eight seasonal holidays and has no apparent connection with the earlier Druids.



The word "witch" comes through Old English "wicce" (wiche) from the German root "wic" to turn. Thus witches were said to control forces that bend events to their wishes.

Before the 10th Century ACE, the prevailing "world view" (zeitgeist) among Christian authorities in Europe was that God was in complete control and so Christians were safe from the evil machinations of the Devil or Satan.

After the 10th Century ACE, this "world view" changed to one where the Devil was now seen to have permission from God to deceive, destroy and enslave people.

It arose possibly because of

• theorising about the new "millenium" (the release of the Devil or Satan in the Apocalypse of John) and/or,

• a revival of Aristotelian philosophy (that said no natural magic existed so magic must be either divine or demonic) and/or

• the Roman Church authorities claiming not only autonomy but supremacy in religious affairs (Innocent III said that he was the Vicar of Christ not just the Vicar of Peter and was set between God and man).


One way the Roman Church authorities asserted their new claims was by associating all "witchcraft" with evil magic, heresy and Devil worship.

Thomas Aquinas (the faith-and-reason Doctor of the Church) said that witches copulated with demons; flew though the air; were shape-changers; brought on storms and were associated with all kinds of evil because of an implicit pact they made with the Devil.

The Malleus Maleficarum (Witch hammer) of Kramer and Sprenger (no connection with Seinfeld or Jerry) has an authorising bull from Pope Innocent VIII (1484) in its introduction and it became the main instrument for identifying, prosecuting and torturing (with unspeakable horror) those accused of witchcraft.

During the Inquisition many "witches" that were accused were probably just mid-wives and women who provided simple herbal remedies and potions.

Many others (both men and women) were accused from personal envy or hatred.

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) added to the problem because "witch" was a preferred translation for other words.

For example,

in 1 Samuel the necromancer of Endor became the "witch" of Endor, and

in Exodus 22:18 "you shall not let a diviner /poisoner(=Pharmacist) live" became "you shall not let a witch live".

Gerald Gardner (1884 - 1964) and Arnold & Patricia Crowther seem to be the main definitional force behind the modern revival of witchcraft (or Wiccan) which has no apparent connection with older versions of witchcraft or Druidism.

See also Margot Adler, Victor Anderson, Isaac Bonewits, Raymond Buckland, Zsusanna Budapest, Laurie Cabot, Gavin & Yvonne Frost, Scott Cunningham, Charles Leland, Alexander Sanders, Doreen Valiente, Marion Weinstein, Carl Weschke etc.

Modern witches may subscribe to the Wiccan Rede.

"Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill;

An' it harm none, do what ye will."

Also related is the Threefold law of Return: that an action is not returned in equal measure but magnified three times.

Modern witches may belong to covens, hold sabbats and compile a book of shadows.

Sabbats may be held at the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, Summer and Winter solstices and the days at the mid-time between these.

A similar event, an Esbat may be held at full Moons.


For differences between witches and wicca, see the page on Welsh Witchcraft



Contact: Peter Eyland