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Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 00:49 GMT
Witches' fury with encyclopaedia
witchcraft graphic
by BBC News Online's Chris Summers

As most of us prepare to "celebrate" Halloween, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has run into trouble with millions of pagans worldwide over its definition of witchcraft.

The Pagan Federation, which represents Britain's 60,000 pagans, has written to the Encyclopaedia Britannica to protest at the description of witchcraft as "harmful and evil".

There are even vague threats of legal action if the definition is not changed.

The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, or Winter's Eve.

The festival marked the arrival of winter, a season often associated with death in pre-Christian Europe.

The encyclopaedia - and its online version - describes witchcraft as "the use of supernatural means for harmful or evil ends".

'Crass'

It goes on to mention sorcery and the "evil eye".

Pagan Federation spokesman Andy Norfolk told BBC News Online the definition was "crass" and based on years of disinformation.

He said it would be a good definition of "black magic" but pointed out that most devotees of witchcraft used it for positive reasons.

Last year the publishers of the encyclopaedia switched their emphasis from door-to-door book selling to the web. The encyclopaedia is now available online and the company generates its money from advertising and promotions.

Mr Norfolk said: "There are three million people who call themselves witches in the US. We are not sure how many there are in the UK, but the last estimate was 60,000."

'Nature-based religion'

He said it was entirely wrong to suggest witchcraft was harmful or evil.

He said witchcraft was practised by millions of pagans and added: "Paganism is a nature-based religion and a central tenet of wicca, which is one of the main strands of paganism, is not to do harm to others.

Avebury stone circle
The stone circle at Avebury: A relic of British paganism
"We have nothing to do with Satanism or black magic but have our roots in pre-Christian Britain."

He said: "It should be relatively easy for them to update the encyclopaedia, if it's on the internet.

"If they decide not to, perhaps we will reconsider what should be done," said Mr Norfolk, who said there may be pagans out there who were willing to take legal action.

Mr Norfolk said the inaccuracy of the definition "undermines the credibility of the online Encyclopaedia Britannica".

Rebecca Theim, Britannica.com's executive director of public relations, told BBC News Online the sections on witchcraft, wicca, magic and sorcery were to be updated for the 2001-2002 edition of the encyclopaedia and would go online next month.

'Impeccable scholarship'

She said: "We think these updates will take into account a more comprehensive, international and modern view of the subject.

"Encyclopaedia Britannica has not survived for 238 years without being authoritative and accurate.

"We take protests from anybody seriously and have impeccable scholarship and credentials."

Ms Theim told BBC News Online: "From time to time we get letters from people complaining. It's the same with any publication and everybody has a different definition of the truth."

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was founded in 1762 by a strongly Presbyterian family but Ms Theim said this did not influence any of its definitions.

"The company has been in a position to recruit some of the top scholars in the country to work on it and individual religious beliefs do not come into the definition," she said.

Ms Theim said plans for UK and Australian versions of the online encyclopaedia had been "put on hold" because of a downturn in business.

This means the only online version of the encyclopaedia is American and contains US spellings.

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See also:

28 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Britannica.crash.com
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Britannica now rules the web
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