Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft
This is a rough and raw version of the paper I read last week at the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa (ASRSA) in Durban. Several people have asked where they could read it, so I thought I would post this version here. One day I may polish it up for possible publication in a journal. This text is copyright by Stephen Hayes. All rights reserved. For more, see my earlier article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.
In a brief forum paper it is not possible to give more than a bare outline of Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft, which have varied from time to time and place to place. With more than ten thousand different Christian denominations in South Africa alone, there are still huge variations.
In his book Pagans and Christians the historian Robin Lane Fox points out that:
In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life (Fox 1987:30).
Most uses of the word pagan today spring from this early Christian slang, and have been used by some groups as a self-description, which often means that such groups understand the term differently from the basic Christian usage.
In antiquity, no group used “pagan” as a self-description. It was an external description, given by Christians to describe people who were not Christians, and saying what they were not does not give much clue about what they were.
As Fox puts it:
“Paganism” is a Christian coinage; a term that suggests a system of doctrine and an orthodoxy as Christianity knows one. But pagan religion was essentially a matter of cult rather than creed. No group of pagans ever called themselves “the faithful”. There was also no pagan concept of heresy – to pagans the term meant a school of thought rather than a false and pernicious doctrine. Among pagans, the opposite of heterodoxy was not orthodoxy but homodoxy, meaning agreement (Fox 1987:31).
What Christians called “paganism” in antiquity was thus not a single religion, and certainly not a doctrine or belief, but a huge mosaic of cults and philosophies, within and beyond the Roman empire.
Christians had ambivalent attitudes towards these cults and philosophies. On the one hand they saw them as seeds of the gospel, preparing the way for Christ, but on the other they saw them as the worship of daemons. In antiquity daemons did not have the connotation of pure evil that they have in later Christian theology. Daemons were inferior deities, superseded, in the Christian view, by the fuller revelation of Christ.
Pagans might worship one or more deities. Just as in modern Hinduism one might find devotees of Shiva or Vishnu, so in antiquity there might be devotees of Minerva or Bacchus or Artemis. Christians, however, spoke of these deities as idols, which was taken from the Septuagint, but was a term that no pagan would use of the higher gods.
There are various ways in which one can look at Christian understandings of paganism. One is to look at it historically as the understandings changed in different periods of history.
One can divide the history of Christian-Pagan relations into several periods:
- The first three centuries – pagans against Christians
- The 4th century – uneasy coexistence
- The 5th and 6th centuries – Christians against pagans
- The 7th to 15th centuries – Christians, Muslims and pagans
- The 16th to 20th centuries – Christians evangelising pagans
- The 21st century – Christians, pagans and neopagans
Such periodisation is not absolute, of course, and I shall try to give a more detailed description of each period.
The first three centuries – pagans against Christians
For the first three hundred years of Christianity, Christians were a sometimes-persecuted minority in a surrounding pagan society. Christianity grew at first mainly within the Roman empire, and since the Roman Empire was a multinational and multireligious one, tolerating all kinds of cults and cultures. Perhaps I need to add a few words of explanation for the persecution. I noted that paganism was a matter of cult rather than creed. But in Christianity cult, creed and philosophy were inextricably linked. The heavenly battle that coloured Christians’ view of life was what got them into trouble with the authorities. This, and the attitude to paganism, is succinctly expressed in Psalm 81/82:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”
Arise O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations.
Christianity appeared in a world in which the institution of divine kingship was quite common. Each nation had a national spirit, and the flesh-and-blood ruler was the embodiment of this national spirit. Christians inherited the Jewish belief (reflected in the Psalm) that God was the great King above all gods, and the gods were judged for the injustice of the earthly rulers who embodied them. The Roman Empire was no exception to this, and the emperor cult was regarded as a test of good citizenship. Christians, however, refused to participate.
In the Christian view, the prayer in the last verse of the Psalm, “Arise O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all nations” had been answered in Jesus, who said of his approaching death “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
In the Christian view, therefore, the gods, including the Genius of Caesar, to whom they refused to burn incense, had been sacked, or at least demoted, and in demanding worship they pretended to an authority that the Christians believed they no longer possessed.
The 4th century – uneasy coexistence
During the fourth century this changed. At the beginning of the century Christians experienced the severest persecution yet, under the Emperor Diocletian. A few years later, in 313, the Emperor Constantine announced a policy of religious toleration, and was regarded by Christians in much the same way as South Africans regarded Nelson Mandela in 1994, as the great liberator. With the external pressures off, Christians began to quarrel among themselves. The Council of Nicaea in 325, which was facilitated by Constantine, rejected the teaching of the Arian party, but in spite of this succeeding emperors supported the Arians. When the Emperor Julian began to restore paganism, many Christians felt insecure. Many older people could remember the persecution under Diocletian, and there was a fear that those days could return. By the end of the century, however, the Christian Emperor Theodosius had made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and moved to protect its position by law. Now the boot was on the other foot, and it was the pagans who were marginalised.
The 5th and 6th centuries – Christians against pagans
The real work of Christianisation, the “great transformation”, took place between 363-529. At the beginning of this period most cities were perhaps half-Christian and their territoria mostly pagan (with some notable exceptions). By its end, Hellenic cult and belief had become a broken reed, the religion of a substantial minority without any institutional basis except that of small urban cliques and isolated village societies (see Trombley 1993).
For three centuries most Christians enjoyed peace and privilege in the Roman Empire, and in some other countries to which Christianity spread, such as Armenia, Ethiopia, and Georgia. Christians remained a persecuted minority in the Persian Empire.
In the 7th century about half the Christian world was conquered by Muslim Arabs, who within a century ruled on the southern, eastern and western shores of the Mediterranean, and effectively cut Christianity off from further expansion in Africa and Asia. Under Muslim rule Christians again became second-class citizens. For some Christian writers Islam was a Christian heresy, and did not seem to fit into the old category of “pagan”.
The 7th to 15th centuries – Christians, Muslims and pagans
From the 7th on century the Christian world was divided into three.
In the south and east Christians had become second-class citizens under Muslim overlords. In the early period of Muslim rule they were the majority in many places, like Egypt, but as time passed the proportion of Christians dwindled while the Muslims increased. Contact with pagans, other than the Muslim rulers, virtually ceased.
The Roman empire, reduced by Muslim conquest in the east and German conquest in the West had its centre of gravity shifted eastwards to Constantinople, so that in a later age Western historians have taken to calling it Byzantine rather than Roman, though its citizens continued to think of themselves as Romans, and regarded the inhabitants of Italy as Franks. Pagans lay beyond the boundaries of the empire, to the north. Sometimes they came to trade, or traders from the Empire went to them. Occasionally a pagan ruler would ask for Christian teachers, and so, over the next few centuries, Christianity spread through the Balkans and to Russia, mainly among the Slavs.
In the West, pagan Germanic tribes invaded what was left of the Western Roman Empire, setting up their own kingdoms. There were different kinds of interactions. Gaul was conquered by the Franks and became France, but the Franks settled down and became Christians. Britain, where Christians and pagans still lived side by side, was conquered by the English, who drove the Romano-British population out to the Celtic north and west, and enslaved those who remained. Celtic and Roman Christian missionaries then began to go deliberately to the English, to spread the Christian faith among them.
In this area, north-western Europe, pagans began to get another name: heathen, those who came from the wild heaths beyond the borders of civilisation to attack the cities. But eventually most of these had become Christian too, and so for most of this part of the world pagans became simply a dim memory of the past.
In the 15th century the Roman Empire finally fell to the Turks. It had been pagan for a thousand years, and Christian for a thousand years after that. According to the original definition of over a millennium earlier, the Turks were pagans, since they were unbaptised. But in the course of their career of conquest they had adopted Islam, and conquered the Muslim Arabs as well as the Christian Romans. Unlike the Graeco-Roman paganism of antiquity, the Turks were not polytheists, and in the Renaissance in Western Europe there was a revival of interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, an interest in its art, literature and philosophy, though not in its religion. Ancient pagan deities made their way into English poetry, even poetry written by Puritans like Milton, though there was at that time no attempt to revive the ancient cults.
The 16th to 20th centuries – Christians evangelising pagans
In the time of the Renaissance, too, improvements in navigation enabled Western Europeans to break out of the Muslim encirclement that insulated them from the pagan world. They sailed to America, Africa and India, and renewed contact with polytheistic pagans. This contact led to renewed missionary efforts by Christians in the West, though with a difference. After centuries of isolation, they were not quite sure how to approach pagans, and most of those they encountered in Africa and America were less technologically advanced than the West, with essentially premodern cultures, while modernity, starting with the Renaissance, was rapidly changing the Western culture and outlook. Many of the Western Europeans were not interested in Christian mission at all, but only in exploitation, profit and conquest. So in Western culture “pagan” acquired connotations of cultural inferiority. But this was not absolute. What Toynbee called the “cultured despisers of Christianity” in the West – atheists, agnostics and secularists — also called themselves pagans, using the original Christian meaning of the term. A book of Christian apologetics aimed at such people was called The good pagan’s failure.
Some Christians, who were aware of the negative connotations, tried to avoid terms like “pagan” and “non-Christian” altogether; students in the theology faculty at the University of South Africa, for example, were advised not to use such terms, which creates something of a dilemma when dealing with Neopagans, who use “pagan” as a term of self description.
The 21st century – Christians, pagans and neopagans
I’ve described the historical changes to try to give a picture of how Christian understanding of the term “pagan” has changed over time, and even today there is a huge variety of attitudes.
In our time there has been a revival of paganism among the peoples of Western Europe and their offshoots, attempting to revive the preChristian religions of Western Europe. This is often called Neopaganism, and is often very different from the original religions, which belonged to a particular kind of society.
Modernity and religion
The historical approach I have described can be complemented by another approach, which, though also historical in some sense, is also related to philosophy, culture and worldview. I refer to the differences between the modern, premodern and post-modern worldviews.
This is based, in part, on the habit of Western historians of dividing history into three: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. This division is based on a Western European viewpoint, of course, and makes most sense if one is studying Western European history, but the modern period is also one in which the people of Western Europe exercised great influence in other parts of the world through colonialism, imperialism and globalisation, so it still makes sense to understand something of this division.
Very roughly, Ancient history is before 500, Medieval between 500 and 1500, and Modern history is from 1500 to the present. The three main influences in Western European history that shaped modernity were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
For our purpose, modernity gave us the concept of “religion” that we use today.
In Western Europe modernity has brought its own understanding of religion, and much of the way in which “religion” is conceived is based on, and sometimes seen as, a product of Western modernity. Just as Western historians invented the “Byzantine” Empire, which never existed in history (the people we call “Byzantine” thought of themselves as Romans, and those from Rome in Italy they called “Franks”), but only in the conceptual framework of the historians, so Western conceptualising produced religions like Hinduism, fitting the mosaic of Indian culture and spirituality into a conceptual pattern congenial to Western modernity (see Peter Harrison’s “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment).
Premodern people no doubt saw what we call “religion” as composed of the same elements of cult, creed and philosophy, but understood their relations differently. Modernity gave us the discipline of “religious studies”, and part of the modern understanding of religion is concern about the boundaries between religion, magic and science, something that would have seemed alien to premoderns, and even to postmoderns, for whom a far more important category is perhaps entertainment.
This modern understanding of “religion” as a discrete entity led many Western visitors to Africa to conclude that Africans had no religion, because in Africa religion had not been separated from the rest of life as it had in the West.
Many Neopagans, however, tend to be postmodern and eclectic, bringing together bits and pieces of different religions to create a kind of spirituality that they feel comfortable with. There are also African Neopagans, those who revive African traditional religion in a very different environment from that which shaped it. Sometimes this is syncretist, where African traditional religion has adapted to urbanisation and the influence of other religions like Christianity, and become something different from its roots, a new religion that has borrowed elements from older religions, but has become something different from them. An example is Mathole Motshekga, the former Gauteng premier, and his Kara Heritage Institute.
Some Neopagans, however, are eclectic in a different and modern, rather than a postmodern way. Hellenism, for example, is an attempt to revive the worship of the Olympian gods, while Asatru is a revival of the Norse gods. But this seems to be based on the modern understanding or religion, seeing “religion” as a distinct phenomenon that can be isolated from the rest of life.
Christian understandings of neopaganism vary almost as much as the understandings of paleo-paganism. For some Christians, Neopagan movements are just another example of non-Christian religions, but for others, aware that many Neopagan religions are post-Christian and many of their practitioners former Christians, Neopaganism has a taint of apostasy that paleopaganism does not. For such Christians, Neopagans are to be avoided as evil. In the 1970s and 1980s certain Western evangelical Christians wrote books about the dangers of what they called “the occult”, and this included all forms of divination, witchcraft, sorcery and magic. This reaction was exacerbated when some Neopagans described themselves as “witches”. That confused not only Christians, but some African paleopagans as well, for whom witchcraft is the very definition of evil. But that probably belongs in the next section, on Christian understandings of witchcraft.
Christian understandings of witchcraft and sorcery have also varied greatly in different times and places.
“Paganism” was originally a Christian construct, but ideas of witchcraft and sorcery were already current in the world in which Christianity first appeared and spread. Modern anthropologists such as Evans-Pritchard have distinguished between witchcraft and sorcery. They have used the term “sorcery” to refer to the use of magical substances and potions to harm others, and witchcraft to refer to an innate ability to harm others, such as the evil eye. While the distinction can be useful, it is not one that has always been made. In English “witchcraft” has often been used as a wider term, and is seen to include sorcery. Christians inherited the Hebrew concept of kheshef, Greek pharmakia and Latin veneficium from the cultures around them. Pharmakia is, of course, the origin of our “pharmacy”, which we associate with the use of drugs to heal, but in antiquity it was just as likely to be associated with poison or harmful magical substances. Nowadays we know more about the physiological effects of harmful substances that are ingested, which we call poison, and magical substances, which may or may not be ingested, and may or may not have physiological effects. In antiquity, and in premodern societies generally, the distinction was not so clear.
Hutton (1991:255) sums up the position in the world in which early Christians found themselves thus:
The pagan Romans, like most ancient peoples and modern tribal societies, prescribed the death penalty for those who killed or who harmed property by witchcraft: in a system which believes in magic and has capital punishment for normal murder and arson, there is no other logical situation.
Christians, however, took a somewhat different view of it. In the Christian view the source of evil was the devil, or satan, an angel who was the prosecutor in the heavenly court. “Satan” is a noun rather than a name and signifies the prosecuting function, one who brings accusations in court. In the Christian view, the prosecutor was ambitious, thought the judge was too soft on criminals, and thought that it was better that the innocent should suffer than that the guilty should escape. The satan went so far as to tempt people to sin in order to be able to accuse them, as in the story of Job, and one sees it today when police offer drugs for sale, and then arrest those who buy them.
The satan went too far in the case of Jesus, however. He succeeded in winning his case in the earthly courts, and Jesus was put to death, but in the final court of appeal in heaven he lost his case. The guilty verdict was reversed. Not only was the verdict reversed, but the sentence was reversed too, by Jesus being raised from the dead.
As Stewart (1991:146) sums it up, therefore,
The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil… Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force.
The malice that lies at the root of witchcraft, therefore, is inappropriate for Christians. Christians are to avoid, as far as possible, harming others. Not only should Christians not practise witchcraft, but they should not fear the harm that witches intend to cause.
It is important, when considering the premodern period, to bear in mind the distinction between “satanic” and “satanist”. For Christians, all evil behaviour is “satanic” in the sense that sin places one closer to the devil. The most characteristically satanic activity is the making of accusations, especially false ones (the word “satan” means “accuser”). For a Christian to accuse someone of witchcraft was not merely sinful, but also heretical, because it showed doubt in Christ’s victory over the evil powers.
The death penalty for witchcraft was also found among the pagan Germans. As Cohn (1975: 147-149) puts it
Maleficium was the doing of harm by occult means, and it was an ancient custom for those who believed maleficium was being used against them or their kin to take personal retaliation. It was common among the Alemanni, the Lombards and the Saxons when they were conquered by Charlemagne towards the end of the eighth century. Death by burning continued to be regarded as a proper penalty.
When Christian emperors came to power in the Roman Empire from the 5th century on, there was, to some extent a Christianisation of the pagan empire, but there was also a paganisation of Christianity. When Christianity encountered the Germanic tribes of northern Europe, the conflict between Christian and heathen values was even sharper, as Mayr-Harting notes:
Sigbert, king of the East Saxons, was murdered by his kinsmen, and when they were asked why they had done it, they had no better answer than that they were incensed ‘because he was too apt to spare his enemies and forgive the wrongs they had done him’. Barbarian society imposed a positive duty of revenge on all men; but in addition the thing a king could not afford to do, if he wanted to fulfil his warriors’ expectations of rewards, was to forgive his enemies; it was a fatal virtue.
Christians initially tried to put an end to the heathen practice of burning witches or suspected witches, but in early modern Europe witch burning came back with a vengeance.
The Christian understanding of witchcraft in the premodern period was not simple. Theologically, as I have pointed out, belief in the power of witches to harm was seen as a lack of faith and therefore a sin to be confessed. But the civil law, taken over from pre-Christian societies, was often harsher. And Christians often not only believed in the power of witches, but still practised witchcraft themselves. Clergy sometimes rebuked kings and emperors and their families for practising witchcraft. They found it almost as hard to give that up as to forgive their enemies.
A radical change of outlook came in the late medieval period, with the rise of scholasticism in the West. Western Christianity had then become “Christendom”. The whole society had become nominally Christian. There were no more pagans in their midst, and western Christians were cut off not only from pagans, but were cut off by schism and Islam from eastern Christians. The switch was quite dramatic.
A witch was no longer seen as someone given to perverse fantasies and illusions, trying to harm others by invisible means, but rather a slave of the devil. As I pointed out earlier, for Christians all sin brings one closer to the devil. But this was something different. Witchcraft had formerly been seen as a sin driven by fantasies of malice and revenge. But from the 13th century on, in the West, it came to be seen as apostasy from the Christian faith, and a witch was someone who had made a deliberate pact with the devil in exchange for certain powers (Baroja 1964:80).
Speaking broadly I see modernity as being Western European culture (and its offshoots) as shaped by such movements as the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. As with paganism, Western Christian perceptions of witchcraft changed greatly, as evidenced by the great European witch hunt in Early Modern Europe, and changed again with the Enlightenment (when witch-hunting was abandoned).
The early modern period saw a reversal of some of the earlier Christian understandings of witchcraft. Whereas previously the belief in the powers of witches to harm was regarded as heretical, it now became obligatory. Where previously the accusation as well as the deed had been punished, now the accusation was rewarded. For two centuries thousands of people were killed because they had been accused of witchcraft. Witches were seen as having made a pact with the devil, and people believed that there was a satanic conspiracy against the Christian faith.
In the Enlightenment era the Western Christian attitude to witchcraft changed again. Many of the witch trials were so over the top that many began to doubt that the accused were witches at all, or that they had done any of the things they were accused of doing. The evidence was simply lacking. Secondly, doubts arose about whether any witches had any of the powers that were attributed to them. People came to believe that there were no such things as witches, and the idea of witches was ridiculed, and witches became figures of fun.
The Enlightenment view of witchcraft in Europe shaped the attitude of Christian missionaries to Africa towards African witchcraft. For the most part, African culture was premodern, and the witch was a symbol of evil similar to the devil in Christian Europe. Premodern Christian missionaries in Europe would have found it far easier to communicate with Africans about witchcraft than the post-Enlightenment missionaries who actually came to Africa in the 19th century. One of the reasons African independent churches grew so much faster than Western-initiated churches is that they often understood the Bible (a premodern book) better than European and American missionaries, who read it from a worldview shaped by modernity.
The European witch craze and the post-Enlightenment reaction against it show huge changes in the way in which European and North American Christians saw witchcraft.
There have also been changes in the ways in which Christian theologians and other scholars have interpreted these changes. I won’t go into details of this, because I don’t think people really want to hear a paper on metadebates about debates, and I’m not sufficiently au fait with the views of different scholars to deal with it anyway. I do know, however, that one black Dutch Reformed theologian, who has often advised the government in Limpopo on witch hunts, takes the Enlightenment view — belief in witches is a barbarous backward superstition to be eliminated, and educated and civilised people don’t believe that sort of stuff. I shouldn’t imagine that that attitude cuts a lot of ice with paleopagan practitioners of African traditional religion in Limpopo, who probably think they know a lot of things that he doesn’t, and probably regard him as a theological coconut.
In Africa, therefore, the Western-initiated Churches (who sometimes like to call themselves “mainline”) have taken the view that belief in witchcraft is a barbaric superstition, and the answer to problems of witches and witchcraft is to teach people that witches do not exist, and that witchcraft is a figment of the imagination. Many of the rank and file, however, do not believe this for an instant, and if their own churches cannot help them they consult prophets of African Independent Churches (AICs) or even sangomas to deal with problems that they believe are caused by witchcraft.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
To summarise, then, for Christians the term “pagan” originally meant anyone who wasn’t Christian, and there are two different ways of looking at paganism, when it is interpreted as any non-Christian religion or philosophy. It may be seen positively, as a preparation for the Christian gospel, or negatively, as a corrupt form of religion, caused by the devil’s deception of the human race. These views may be held together, but sometimes Christians see them as one or the other.
Modernity brought a new understanding of the concept of “religion” as a distinct phenomenon, which could be separated from the rest of life and studied on its own. In modernity paganism came to be seen as a distinct group of religions, mainly polytheistic nature religions. Neopaganism can be seen as a revival of pre-Christian and premodern religions. For some Christians, Neopagan religions are just seen as being like any other religion, in which Christians may or may not take an interest. Members of such religions may be seen as rivals or as dialogue partners, or may simply be ignored. Others, however, see neopagans as a linked to witchcraft.
Concerning witchcraft, most Christians would understand it as an attempt to harm others though invisible means, and therefore not to be practised by Christians. Christians who practise witchcraft need to repent, both of the malice behind the acts and the means used to achieve them. In the early modern period, the view changed, particularly in the West, where witchcraft came to be seen as a satanic conspiracy, and witchcraft was linked to, and sometimes identified with Satanism.
After the Enlightenment the view changed again, and Western Christians believed that witchcraft was impossible, and that there was no such thing. Christians from premodern backgrounds, such as those in Africa, continued to see witchcraft as an evil thing, and like premodern Christians in Europe, urge witches to repent, and the Zionists, in particular, often help to protect people against witchcraft. There is a rather disturbing emerging trend, among some Neopentecostal denominations, of seeing witches as incorrigible, and in places like the DRC children have sometimes been accused of witchcraft and driven from their homes.
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