Elizabethans and Pagan Beliefs

May Day dances around the maypole are a pagan tradition as popular in Elizabethan England as they are today.
... Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Elizabethan England was an era of relative peace and prosperity, with Catholic and Protestant religions vying for position and a queen who kept most excesses in check. But the past was very much present in the arts, customs and politics of the times. Pagan beliefs from ancient Greece and Rome mixed with a heritage of Celtic practice and lore to enrich the lives of some Elizabethans and endanger others.

1 Bewitched

Wise women who healed with herbs and worked closely with the rhythms of nature were revered in European pagan cultures and were central figures in their communities. But times had changed by the reign of Elizabeth I. Gutenberg's press made the Bible widely available. The "Malleus Maleficarum," a witch-hunt manual used to identify and decide punishment for witches, was also broadly circulated. Accusations of malfeasance against the pagan herbalists took on religious overtones -- "devil worship," "heresy" and "dark magic" were terms used to describe women, and a few men, who ran afoul of neighbors or curates. In 1562, early in Elizabeth's reign, "An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts" was passed that specified penalties for the crime of witchcraft. Pagans who believed in the divinity of nature could be regarded as suspect on a whim.

2 Party Like a Pagan

Elizabethan holidays and celebrations had a distinctly pagan flavor. Some feasts, like yule or Christmas, had a strong Christian overlay, meant to transform the pagan celebration of the return of light on the winter solstice into a sacred commemoration. But the old Celtic pagan traditions had an unshakable hold on the people who observed pagan Samhain (All Hallow's Eve), spring equinox fertility rituals, May Day dances around the maypole and the summer solstice with bonfires and visits to ancient sacred sites like Stonehenge. Decorations for Elizabethan holidays were, and remain, pagan inventions. Christmas mistletoe was a legacy from the Druids, as were the holly and ivy used for garlands and wreaths. Bringing greens, including trees, indoors at the time of the winter solstice was an ancient pagan practice of renewal and regeneration.

3 Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Lear is a pagan king. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a pagan marriage feast. Richard III's deformities were believed by pagans to be a curse that doomed his crown. One way Elizabeth I kept the peace in her religiously-fractious realm was by banning morality plays in the theater. That didn't give Shakespeare a moment's pause. The bard borrowed from everywhere, including the rich trove of material he found in classic literature, which was translated for an avid Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare used classical narratives that reflected the pagan beliefs of his time for such works as "Romeo and Juliet," "Titus Andronicus" and "The Tempest." He played on well-established beliefs and forebodings about witches, prophecies and the elements in "Macbeth." Shakespeare, a favorite of Elizabeth, who was a patron of his work, recognized the power of pagan beliefs and wove them freely throughout his dramas.

4 Symbolic Pagan Dance

In Elizabeth's court, dancing was a daily activity of lords and ladies adorned in the latest fashions from France, bobbing and weaving in the Galliard, the Almain and the Pavane. The rest of Elizabethan England kept the dances handed down for generations, old pagan rituals like the fertility ring of maypole dancing and the somewhat bawdy fertility rite of the morris dance. Dancing on festival days remained a pagan tradition designed to purify the dancers and celebrate pleasure. The lower classes danced around and leapt over bonfires on midsummer's eve to ward off evil and evoke the abandon of Dionysus. They added archaic pagan circle and chain dances to the singing of Christmas carols during the winter solstice holidays, when the year comes full circle.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .