Diana was the name given to the people’s beloved Goddess, worshipped in Europe for over two millennia and still honoured by pagans today. The devotional love that she once inspired in the wider population reappeared in a very modern form as the almost cult-like reverence of Diana, Princess of Wales, who is back in the news recently, 23 years after her tragic death, and back in people’s thoughts due to the popular TV series The Crown. 23 is considered a very powerful prime number in witchcraft and magical practice suggesting the modern relationship with Diana isn’t over yet, so let’s dive into her deep, ancient roots.
In the ancient world Diana was the Goddess of the Hunt, was associated with the Moon and with the goddess of magic Hecate. Being seen as a nature based deity, she was also known as the Mistress of the Animals. While Roman Gods brought order and discipline, she was the deity of all that was wild, free and untameable. Along with the Greek Artemis, with whom she became identified once the Romans absorbed the Greek civilisation, she had very deep pre-historical roots as the patron of hunters and queen of the wilderness.
At the time of the ancient Roman Empire, as growing urban centres became home to organised, mainly male God-focussed, religious cults, the Goddess Diana became known as the Goddess of the Pagans, meaning the country dwellers. Christians were still calling her that in the late Middle and Early Modern Ages, though for the Church pagan had taken on a much darker meaning. For several centuries after the establishment of the new faith Goddess worship continued in the countryside quietly without drawing too much attention, but from the publication of the Canon Episcopi in the early 10th century it drew more criticism and the Christian authorities became increasingly determined to eradicate all remaining pagan worship. This would culminate in the witch hunts of the mid 17th century.
The Canon Episcopi, published around 905 CE said, –
“Some wicked women… believe and profess that, in the hours of night, they ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans, and in the silence of the night traverse great spaces of earth, and obey her commands as of their lady, and are summoned to her service on certain nights… an innumerable multitude believe this to be true … and return to the error of the pagans.”
The Canon also mentions some men being involved. Note that no witchcraft or evil intent is mentioned, it was Goddess worship that was being attacked. This text was widely known by the mid 12th century, and alleged incidences of the night-flight ritual rose in number until the 14th.
English priest John of Salisbury condemned belief in the cult of Diana in the mid 12th, and later that century the Anglo-Norman penitential of Bartholomew Iscanus dictated that, –
“They who… believe and profess that they go or ride in the service of her whom the stupid crowd call Herodias or Diana with a countless multitude and obey her commands shall do penance for one year.”
In late 13th century France Dominican friar (and Saint-to-be) James of Bevagna rebuked women “who go the chase with Diana”. Auger de Montfaucon, a bishop in the Pyrenees denounced Diana’s rites:
“Let no woman profess that she rides by night with Diana, goddess of the pagans …. and raise a route of women to the rank of deities, for this is a diabolical illusion.”
Pope John XXII in early 14th century set up an investigation into a group of male magicians who were said to be making sex rituals with Diana. In Exeter, 1351, the bishop objected to the earthy, sexual imagery of the statues installed in a chapel, which “reminded one more of the proud and disobedient Eve, or the shameless Diana, than of the humble and most submissive Blessed Virgin Mary.” Gradually the distinction that some were able to make between Goddess reverence and what some writers at the time considered the ‘new’ cult of witchcraft gave way to a general suspicion and intolerance. Some felt the Goddess worship deserved the greater punishment, because at least witches, who were seen as being in league with God’s opponent Satan, believed in the male God, while the Diana followers regarded her as all-powerful.
In the late Middle Ages Diana even became associated with Mohammed, as Crusaders in the Holy Land connected the crescent moon on the Islamic flags with her. She was called at times the ‘Queen of the Jews’ and the ‘Wife of Mohammed’. By late 14th century Christians were forbidden to even accept that tales of goddess worship were true. Historian Randy P. Connor, from whose masterpiece of research ‘The Pagan Heart of the West’ these examples come from, writes that “Christians were duty-bound to believe and argue that those who claimed to revere Diana were in fact worshipping the devil.” The Council of Amiens in 1410 forbade women from professing that they rode at night to meet Diana, calling that “a demonic illusion.” Gradually, Diana worship was becoming fully associated with dark witchcraft. Amiens set out that if a priest should “find a man or woman follower of this wicked sect… eject them, foully disgraced, from their parishes.” The infamous Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 (‘The Hammer of Witches’), that would be such an evil tool in the witch hunts of the 17th century, gave instruction to reject claims of riding with Diana as “in truth they are riding with the Devil, who calls himself by some such heathen names and throws a glamour before their eyes.”
This kind of condemnation continued through the next century with a notable exception from Dominican priest Johannes Cagnazzo de Tabia, who in his Summa of 1515 put the case that while both witchcraft and Goddess sects promoted “voluptuous pleasure“, the witches “work much evil“, including causing sickness and death, while Diana’s followers do “none of these things”.
By the fifteenth century the tactic used by the Inquisition was to simply deny the reality of the Goddess Diana, and the night flights that women (and some men) were said to take with her, seeing all such claims as diabolical delusions, and torturing its victims until they affirmed that to be the case. Yet there were some who distinguished between witchcraft practised with evil intent and the ages – old, and not at all malevolent, reverence of the Goddess of the Pagans. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, while not organised as a formal cult, the worship of Diana continued, and she retained a special place in people’s hearts, throughout the Christian centuries.
Historian Oliver Madox Hueffer (1877-1931), in The Book of Witches, 1908, traced the connections between witchcraft and ancient reverence of the Goddess, especially Diana and concluded that “the worship of Diana which for 600 years persisted side by side with Christianity… is far from being altogether extinct in Italy even today.”
Temples dedicated to Diana had also once existed, probably the oldest and most well known in the world being the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. This Greek Goddess also had agrarian roots and was famously served by virgin priestesses and eunuch priests. This temple was destroyed by Christians by the year 401 but it was at this site that a meeting of Church leaders just 30 years later gave the Virgin Mother Mary be the divine title, Theotokos, Mother of God. This gave the Church what it needed to re-direct the centuries-old deep devotional love for the Goddess towards the new cult of Mary.
In London the cathedral of St Paul was built in year 604 at a site of Diana worship. Yet a thousand years later Diana rites were still sometimes happening here! Antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623) witnessed a Diana ceremony there and Dutch humanist and priest Desideraius Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote of Londoners making a procession to St Paul’s carrying a deer’s head on a spear, accompanied by men blowing horns. As late as the 19th century writer W. Greetheed recorded seeing a stag’s head atop a spear being carried about in the church, “with great solemnity and sounds of horns… Certain it is this ceremony savours more of the worship of Diana and of Gentile errors than of the Christian religions”.
At Cheapside, north of London Bridge, a large Christian cross was frequently defaced (probably by Protestants) and rebuilt in the 16th century. In his Survey of London John Stowe recorded that there was “set up a curiously wrought tabernacle of grey marble, and in the same, an image alabaster of Diana, and water conveyed from the Thames, prilling (ie flowing) from her breast.” Art was made in the Renaissance that depicted Mary standing on a crescent Moon, merging her the with the symbolism of Diana.
The Witchcraft Acts in England, the extreme blood-thirstiness of the Inquisition on mainland Europe and the witch craze of the second half of the 17th century, all served to drive pagan worship even further underground, yet the spirit of Diana has not left us. She was the beloved Goddess of the People for at least 1500-2000 years, she is the Queen of Hearts as her modern avatar Princess Diana became known.
When Lady Di became Princess Di she captured the hearts of the nation, if not the world. Some cultures, especially in the Far East know Britain through magical faerie tales and royal dramas, they see us as the land of myth and mystery, as indeed did the ancient Celtic, Germanic, Roman and Greek worlds. Diana’s story fed this dream of Britain as the New Jerusalem, the home of the Holy Grail, and the dream of the return of the Divine Feminine to her rightful place alongside the male God, a dream that sits as a longing, often unnamed, in the hearts of all souls across the world.
When Princess Diana died in the Paris tunnel (underworld symbol! so many Goddess myths involve her experiencing a journey to the land of death), I was myself hovering between the worlds, sick to the max with full blown AIDS. In July 1997 I had been hospitalised with PCP and had been lucky to survive. My return to health would begin early in 1998, and the second half of ’97 was the lowest physical point of the journey. But spiritually it was one of the most amazing and revelatory. At the start of 1995 I had dropped my atheistic mindset and dived into a spiritual journey of self discovery, inspired and fed by western pagan magic, eastern religion and from mystics of all the world’s magical and religious traditions. My overwhelming impression was that the missing element in all the religious debates and in the modern scientific culture was the Goddess. Spiritual practice and good healing marijuana herb brought me into direct communion with her. My soul came to life as my body faded away.
I learnt that in my soul I am, and have been since many centuries (millennia?), a priest of the Moon. It took me some years to grow in understanding of what this might mean in the world today. Since 2005 I have been hosting FULL MOON DRUM CIRCLES in south London, where several dozen people meet for an evening of rhythm, ritual and dance. From stillness to ecstasy we unite bodies, minds hearts and spirits for a moment of healing, release, rebalancing and community that connects the earth, the skies and us. We go home charged up and nourished.
In this practice I regard the drum circle rites as a chance to explore the ecstatic, communal roots that were the core of the nature based spirituality that stretches back on the British Isles for at least 5000 years (and of such practices the world over, the suppression of which our Christian European forebears were responsible for). This land of magnificent neolithic burial tombs, ritual landscapes and stone circles, was once a bronze age paradise that people across the European mainland feared as the land of the dead, guarded by ferocious tattooed tribes. The name Britannia evolved from Pretanikkai – meaning the painted people, as told to 4th century BCE Greek merchant Pytheas by the Gauls across the Channel, the people of Britain called themselves ‘Pretani’. The name given by the Romans to the unconquerable northern tribe – the Picts – also referred to this body art, as did the Welsh name for the people to the east – Prydyn.
Druids led the religious life of the painted peoples of Britain, a group so powerful and ancient that the first Greek philosophers regarded them as their forebears and the Romans, unlike in most other lands, made no attempt to bring their religion into the umbrella of the Empire’s divine pantheon, they had to be crushed. The ancient practices of the British Isles were lost, but the Romans brought their own deities with them, and Diana worship would have likely synchronised well with the native cult practices. After the Romans came Angles, Saxons and Jutes from northern Germany, bringing the Norse Gods into the mix, and leaving such a mark that we name most of the days of the week after them.
During the Christian hegemony Britain has never entirely lost its connection to its pagan past – during the centuries that the Witchcraft Act was in force there were still plenty of active magical groups, from the Rosicrucians to the Golden Dawn, and in the 20th century the UK gave birth to the now global spiritual path Wicca. But we have lost touch with our history. Yet, as I discovered when hovering between the worlds while living with AIDS, that long journey is still alive inside us. When we let the obsessive grip of the outer world drama drop and turn heart, body and mind to the soul inside, for which there is no better outer symbol than the Moon going through her phases, we can access the light and love of the Mother Goddess to guide us in life.
Diana wants us to know.
Want more? Try this excellent YouTube presentation on the cult of Diana, Goddess of the Pagans
“Diana was the goddess of the hunt and of all newborn creatures. Women prayed to her for happiness in marriage and childbirth, but her strength was so great that even the warlike Amazons worshipped her.
No man was worthy of her love, until powerful Orion won her affection. She was about to marry him, but her twin brother, Apollo, was angered that she had fallen in love. One day, Apollo saw Orion in the sea with only his head above the water. Apollo tricked Diana by challenging her to hit the mark bobbing in the distant sea. Diana shot her arrow with deadly aim. Later, the waves rolled dead Orion to shore.
Lamenting her fatal blunder, Diana placed Orion in the starry sky. Every night, she would lift her torch in the dark to see her beloved. Her light gave comfort to all, and soon she became known as a goddess of the moon.
It was whispered that if a girl-child was born in the wilderness, delivered by the great goddess Diana, she would be known for her fierce protection of the innocent.”
Lynne Ewing, Night Shade (2001)