The Burning Times in Neo-Paganism

A Series of Reviews by Jenny Gibbons

Having posted a number of reviews of academic books on the history of Witchcraft, I'd like to shift gears a little and examine how the Burning Times is portrayed in various books by Neo-Pagan authors. These "reviews" will be a bit different from the earlier ones. With academic books, my concern is accuracy. Does the author know her/his facts? Does s/he do a good job explaining them? Is any evidence overlooked or deleted?

This approach won't work with Neo-Pagan works. Neo-Pagan descriptions of the Burning Times are -- almost without exception -- hideously inaccurate. Few contain any evidence at all. At "best" an author may describe a couple of isolated atrocities, then draw sweeping conclusions from this meager "evidence". But rather than just griping about this, I'd like to start a discussion on *why* our history is so inaccurate.

I don't think the problem is ignorance. Sure, there's a lot of that floating around the world -- but I don't think that's what's happening here. Everyone knows that historians don't believe that nine million people died in the Burning Times. Despite this, many Pagans contine to blithely cite the Nine Million Martyrs. Not because they don't know that this number is dubious. They do it because the inaccurate theory offers a strong emotional, psychological, or spiritual appeal. It's that appeal that I'd like to discuss.

History is a lot like a Rorschach ink-blot test. There are ink-blots (facts) and they do make shapes. But the patterns we see in them often tell us more about ourselves than the past. And when you don't have a lot of ink-blots (evidence) at your disposal, the patterns come almost entirely from inside your head.

Moreover, examining our history helps us see our prejudices and assumptions. People accept theories because they sound reasonable. But if a group has certain preconceptions or prejudices, some highly irrational theories may sound perfectly reasonable. Why did World War II happen? Ask a skin-head, and he may tell you that Jews started it, hoping to get the white races to destroy each other. That sounds reasonable to him. And as long as he hangs out with other white supremists, his assumptions won't be challenged.

That's an extreme example, but something similar happens with the Burning Times. I hope that by contrasting Pagan and mainstream views of history, we can uncover some of the assumptions that lie behind them both. Because the more we know about our motivations, the more we can recognize them and compensate for them.