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European Religions

The religious history of Europe was was particularly complex before Christianity firmly established itself, a process which was ongoing until relatively recent times in some areas. Before the spread of Christianity, each country had its own indigenous religious traditions, sometimes maintained in isolation but in more accessible regions absorbing influences introduced by trading and successive waves of invasion. The 1st millennium BCE saw the expansion of the Celtic peoples throughout Europe, reaching as far north as Britain by 450 BCE to be followed by incursions by pre-Christian Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, during the first millennium CE. In 55 CE the Romans invaded Britain, pushing the Celts to the Western fringe of Europe (Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany). The Roman Empire spread pre-Christian religions such as Mithraism and the Imperial cult throughout Europe, before also facilitating the spread of Christianity.

Apart from the invasions of various European tribes into each others' territories, incursions came from the Middle East. Jewish communities in Egypt were Hellenized under Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE, Greek replacing Aramaic as their language, and some Jews formed communities in Greece. Judea became a vassal of the Roman Empire in 63 BCE, and with the growth of the Empire, the Jewish people spread throughout Europe. However, due to the nature of Judaism as a religion based on matriarchal lineage, it remained peculiar to the close knit Jewish communities and thus its religious influence upon other European peoples was limited. The Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah was developed by Jews in Spain, and written down in the 13thcentury, and after the expulsion of Jews from Spain it became known to the rest of Europe, producing a school of Christian Kabbalists, and influencing many peoples up to the present day. But perhaps the main spread of Judaic ideas in Europe came through its two offshoots, Christianity and Islam.

Since Christianity had its origins in Judea when it was under Roman occupation, its message was easily spread throughout the Empire, the Acts of the Apostles recording the first missionary journeys after the death of Christ, some of which were to Greece and Rome. Though there was initially some resistance to the new religion, once Christianity became established it rapidly spread throughout Europe as missionaries made it their goal to convert everyone to the religion of Christ. It was not until the 7th century, however, that Christianity had much success in Northern Europe when missions from Ireland Christianised much of Britain and Northern Europe; but the occupying Saxons resisted until they were converted at swordpoint in 804 CE. Even at this time, Christianity was not secure in North West Europe, for the Norwegian and Danish Vikings, who were not Christianised until the 11th century, were raiding and settling areas of Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands in the 8th-10th centuries CE.

Islam began in Mecca in about 610 CE, and by 634 the Muslims had defeated the Byzantine army and conquered Syria and Palestine in 637. Egypt fell soon after, and the first Muslim incursions into Europe began with the invasions of Spain in 711 and the establishment of an independent Muslim state there in 750. The Muslim armies reached France, but were driven back to the Pyrenees, though they retained their hold on Spain until Christian military pressure finally forced the last Sultan of Granada to surrender in 1492. The long years of religious Crusades between Christians and Muslims led to a greater knowledge of Islam and the re-introduction of knowledge and literature lost to Europe in the Dark Ages but kept secretly in the Muslim areas. The Ottoman Empire of the 15th/16th centuries included much of South-Eastern Europe, and led to Muslim contact with European states of a military, diplomatic and commercial nature. However, it has been largely in modern times, since the end of the Second World War, that Islam has had a deeper influence on European religious life, with some westerners converting to Islam and a large number of Muslims emigrating and settling in Europe.

The colonisation of India in the 18th century led to the first extensive encounters of Eastern religions by Europeans. The Parsis played an important role in the British development of Bombay as a commercial centre in the early 19th century, and many of them became westernised, receiving a British education; three Parsis living in London were elected to represent their constituencies in the House of Commons. Hinduism and Buddhism were especially appealing to Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society, which introduced these religions into the European religious context in the late 19th/early 20th century. The Buddhist Society of England was formed at the beginning of the 20th century, and the west has become increasingly interested in Eastern religions throughout the present century. The mid 20th century saw the spread of Sikhism outside its Punjab homeland, especially after the second world war when many Sikh men made their way to Britain, being joined by their wives and families in the late 1960s, the Sikh Missionary Society being founded in Britain in 1969. The 1960s also saw a growth in interest in Eastern religions such as Taoism and Shinto.

A contemporary organisation of the Theosophical Society , The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical order founded in Great Britain in 1888, brought together influences from Freemasonry, the Jewish Kabbalah, ceremonial magic modernised from the Renaissance, and the latest archaeological research concerning religion in Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as customs and folklore native to the British Isles. This was the first introduction of Classical Mediterranean religions as practical traditions into modern day Europe.

Many of the religious traditions of the Celts, Scandinavians and Germanic tribes were also revived in the course of the late 19th/20th century, based on historical and archaeological findings plus intuitive insight and imagination to fill the gaps in factual knowledge. Though the classical religions of the Mediterranean - Egypt, Greece and Rome - had been well documented, with written records from ancient times and temples being self-evident, this was not the case in Northern Europe; written documentation is rare and places of worship seem to have been in natural surroundings rather than buildings. Nevertheless, enough material came to light through research and archaeology to enable the pre-Christian religions of Europe to be successfully revived in a modern context, such that, as revived religious traditions, they now attract increasing numbers of adherents.

A tradition of witchcraft seems to have existed in Europe in the form of village healers, 'Wise Women' and 'Cunning Men' since the Middle Ages, and there is some evidence of Traditional and Hereditary forms of the Craft also existing before modern Wicca. However, it was not until the 1950s that modern Wicca was introduced by Gerald Gardner, a Freemason, Druid and folklorist. In 1971, the need for an official body to represent the views of the growing number of Pagans in Britain was recognised, and The Pagan Federation was founded. Though in its early days the Federation was composed mainly of Wiccans and published a quarterly journal called The Wiccan, today it is made up of Pagans of many traditions, including Druids, Odinists, Ecopagans, non-aligned Pagans, ceremonial magicians, neo-shamans, as well as Wiccans of many persuasions.

The 1960s counter culture saw the emergence of the New Age religions and practices in the USA, which quickly spread to Britain and which are so prevalent in Europe today. This decade also saw an upsurge in feminism and a resulting quest for spirituality for women. 'Goddess Spirituality', again beginning in the USA but finding its way to Britain and Europe with great speed and becoming an important part of alternative religious traditions in Europe.

The 1980s saw the emergence of the Germanic religions (Odinism, Asatru) in a more organised form, although Asatru has been an official religion of Iceland, along with Christianity, since 1973. Traditional Baltic pre-Christian religions have only recently found widespread popularity, after the downfall of Soviet control; but Scandinavia and the Balkans were Christianised very late compared to the rest of Europe (Scandinavia in the 11th century, Poland in 966, Hungary 1001, and Lithuania in 1387) and so their indigenous religions have lain close to the surface of the culture of these countries and were able to emerge and flower in the 1990s. Shamanism likewise has survived in many different forms in Europe throughout history in tribal religions, but it was only recently that anthropological and historical research enabled modern Western Europeans to glean enough information to allow neo-shamanism to emerge as a form of spiritual ecology in the 1980s.


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1 Philip Shallcrass, Chief, British Druid Order
2 Cecil Williamson, proprietor of the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, Cornwall, England, suggested this figure in the 1950s