Sacred-Texts  Neopaganism 

The Works of Margaret Murray

The Witch Cult in Western Europe [1921]

Notes on Margaret Murray

by J.B. Hare

Revised 1/17/2001

The books of Margaret Murray, which appear on the Internet for the first time here at sacred-texts, are ground zero for the modern pagan revival. Murray was one of the first to objectively review the evidence of the 'burning times' witch trials to try to extract a kernel of truth.

If you are a Wiccan or Neopagan and want to understand the intellectual background of the movement, you need to be familiar with Murray's hypothesis. It is important to review the documentary evidence (which she provides in great detail) for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.

Murray had an original approach to the witch trials; she decided to treat the testimony of the accused witches as ethnographic data. The ethnographic approach attempts to analyze the statements of the participants in a culture without prejudice, no matter how how illogical or repulsive they may seem to one's own cultural viewpoint. Eventually Murray put together a framework which explained all of the witchcraft testimony in a very literal way.

The puzzle she was trying to solve was this: why, in an age when there was no mass communication, was the testimony of the witch trials so consistent? Time and again, the women and men accused of witchcraft confessed the same bizarre story: that they had signed a pact with the devil (in person) which was sealed by being tattooed, that they had participated in orgiastic nocturnal ceremonies where they had ritual sexual contact with the devil and other witches, that they had magical powers such as levitation, control over the fertility of humans, animals and fields, and so on, with certain specific details repeated across social and geographic boundaries ad nauseum.

Until Murray, it was believed that this was the result of answers to leading questions, extracted under torture by the witch hunters. It was believed that the witch hunters were 'on the same page' because they all used certain texts such as the ' Malleus Malificarum' ('the Hammer of Witches'), which is a perverse textbook describing how to ferret out witches.

Murray, upon examination of the evidence, concluded that as barbaric as the witch trials were, they were conducted according to long-established legal procedures; that there was material evidence, witnesses corroborated each other, and (perhaps most tellingly) that not all confessions were extracted under torture. In some cases the accused testified willingly. They even went to their deaths unrepentantly insisting that their faith was the true religion and Christianity was false.

Murray's hypothesis was that there was an underground nature religion in Europe which originated in the Neolithic and survived well into the 18th Century. This 'cult' (by which she simply means a belief system without any of the overtones which are popularly assigned to the word) had a cell structure like most underground movements. Murry believed that it was not a goddess religion, at least in the form it survived in during the modern era, although it was not totally male-dominated.

The witches worshiped a horned male god; however women were on a fairly equal footing with men and could rise to leadership roles. Its leader dressed up in an animal costume; when the leader conducted ceremonies dressed in this costume he (or she) was treated as the incarnation of the horned god. In this form the leader of the coven was called called the 'Devil' by Christians, simply known as 'God' by the witches. So when a witch described meeting 'the Devil' in a confession, there was in actuality nothing supernatural happening; this simply meant that they were meeting the leader of their coven dressed up in an animal costume.

This is understandably a controversial proposal; it was so when Murray published her first book, the Witch Cult in Western Europe, in 1921 (at a time when witchcraft was still illegal in Britain). To this day it still arouses fierce debate among the Neopagan intellegensia.

The most controversial aspect of Murray's hypothesis was that the witch cult performed rituals involving human sacrifice and cannibalism (particuarly of unbaptised infants). Naturally this is a very sensitive issue for modern Neopagans, whose practices most emphatically do not include child abuse or human sacrifice, despite what a small but vocal group of (admittedly non-mainstream) Christians claim. For a debunking of the modern witch hunters see this document.

It is hardly neccesary to point out that the medieval Inquisition made identical accusations against Jews. Of course these accusations were and are absurd. It is easy to confirm that there are no such practices by Jews and never have been. It is harder to confirm anything about this hypothetical underground witch cult, since we don't know specifically what they believed or practiced, other than second-hand information extracted mostly under duress.

It is known the ancient mystery religions (of which ancient Christianity is only one example) were based on a mythological cycle about the death and rebirth of a sun-god, as described in great detail in Sir James Frazers' the Golden Bough. This may have been enacted in an actual ritual at some point involving human sacrifice and cannibalism, which softened at a later date to a symbolic ceremony where proxies were used. It has also been pointed out that the rituals Murray described have similarities to ceremonies practised in other parts of the world (such as certain archaic Tantric rituals); this information was not available to Murray at the time, so it tends to support her.

Another controversial aspect of her thesis was her assertion that there were covens of witches very highly placed in the court of James VI, who tried to use magic and poison to assasinate the King; and advance the cause of their leader, Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell, who was a successor to the throne of Scotland, and potentially of England. Murray also hypothesized that Joan of Arc and her companion Giles de Rais were avatars of the witch god, ritually assasinated at the end of their reigns.

Murray's interpretation of history is not provable by the strict standards of the historian. She was highly selective about which historical evidence she utilized, which left her open for criticism by the academic establishment.

Murray also proposed that Fairies (and Elves, Dwarves, Brownies, etc.) were an actual subculture of (full-sized, if slightly stunted by their diet) human beings who lived secretively in the British Isles, persecuted along with the witches. She speculated that the Fairies were a survival of a pastoralist neolithic culture. This culture survived, like the Romany (Gypsy) people, on the periphery, avoiding contact with the dominant culture. The fairy hills of legend were descriptions of their underground residences. They were later converted into the 'wee folk' of legend by Shakespeare, and the folklorists. One interesting aspect of her hypothesis about Faries is that they appeared to have a matriarchial culture. She presents incidental documentary evidence for the existence of a subterranian fairy race, but to my knowledge there is no actual material evidence. I am unaware of any other scholar, either in academia or Wiccan circles, who wholeheartedly endorses this hypothesis about the Fairies.

As for levitation, Murray noted that the witches used herbal ungents which contained known hallucinogens before 'flying', which would have produced ecstatic effects. In addition, the description of the witches' ceremonials included prolonged dancing. It is now known that Shamans used similar techniques, resulting in altered mental states including the sensation of flying. This portion of the hypothesis has been corroborated by other scholars.

As Margot Adler has pointed out in her contemporary book, Drawing Down the Moon, it may be Murray's age in addition to her role as an outspoken academic iconoclast which has caused her ideas to be treated with disdain to the present day. Murray was in her sixties when 'Witch Cult' was published. It might reasonably be argued that her gender has caused academia to ignore her as well. She responded to her noteriety with typical British reserve in the preface to her popularization God of the Witches, published in 1933:

"I have received many letters containing criticisms, some complimentary, some condemnatory, of that book [the Witch Cult in Western Europe]. If other correspondents honour me with similar private criticisms of the present volume, I ask of them that they will sign their communications, even when the opinions they express are adverse. Anonymous letters, of which I received a number, reflect no credit on their writers."

Indeed, we received a flurry of anxious emails after we posted this work at sacred-texts, several quite hostile, in specific, to Murray's Joan of Arc thesis. There are several other 'disgraced' authors' books enshrined here at sacred-texts, e.g. Atlantis, The Antidiluvian World, none have which have elicited any personal hate mail (at least yet...). In any case, I have re-edited this essay based on some of the more rational feedback.

This little ripple from one stone thrown into the pond of western thought has in time grown into a tidal wave. Selective portions of Murray's thesis were used as a basis for the Neopagan doctrine of Gerald Gardner. Other influences on Gardner and his circle were Robert Graves' The White Goddess and Charles Lelands' Aradia, which added a Goddess-oriented component.

Whether or not Murrays literalistic intepretation of the Witch trial evidence is correct, whether or not all Neopagans accept all of her views, Murrays' ideas are at the basis of modern Neopaganism, and as such deserve serious study, as well as a healthy dose of critical thinking.

This page Copyright © 2000 J.B. Hare. Redistribution or reposting requires permission of the author.