The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray

Like Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) is an academic book in part inspired by Frazer’s Golden Bough, and more notable today for its cultural influence than its now-dismissed scholarship. Weston’s book is largely remembered for being mentioned by T S Eliot in connection with The Waste Land, but Murray’s has had a more pervasive and widespread influence (among other things, feeding into the formation of Wicca, but also, I think, providing a key ingredient for a lot of 1960s and 1970s folk horror). I first came across it thanks to H P Lovecraft, who refers to it in “The Horror of Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu”, and whose key idea — that the witches persecuted in the 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century trials in Europe and New England weren’t Satan-worshippers, madwomen, or victims of a mass delusion, but members of an ancient, if decadent, fertility cult, misinterpreted and demonised by their Christian persecutors — is referred to in “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, and his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, where he associates it with Machen’s “The White People”. (Murray subscribed to the idea, which informs a lot of Machen’s weird fiction, that a “dwarf race” once inhabited Europe and “has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves”.)

Margaret Murray

Born in 1863 (and dying 100 years later), Margaret Murray made her initial academic reputation as an Egyptologist, working alongside Flinders Petrie. When the First World War made archeological fieldwork in Egypt impossible, Murray branched out. She at first strayed into Jessie Weston territory, writing a paper on “Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance” (which Weston criticised), before settling on witchcraft in 1917. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was her definitive statement, and because of it she was asked to write the entry on the subject for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (which was still there in the 1968 edition). As Jacqueline Simpson, in an essay entitled “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?” (published in Folklore in 1994, and readable online here), says, in the encyclopedia entry Murray “set out her own interpretation of the topic as if it were the universally accepted one”. Her book had been read by academics, and some accepted it, but others — largely those whose specialities she touched on, it seems — dismissed it; but the encyclopedia article lent authority to her theories and reached a much wider, non-specialist public. Murray wrote a more populist take on the book, The God of the Witches (1931), playing down some elements (the sexual and baby-eating ones) and introducing others, such as the phrases “the Old Religion” and “the Horned God”, which would go on to become folk horror staples. By the 1950s and 1960s, her books had become bestsellers.

Much to the horror, it has to be said, of some of those working in the same field. Jacqueline Simpson says that:

“Precisely because [Murray’s] material is so diverse, the links so tenuous and the tone so dogmatic, untrained readers are naturally mystified, and assume that their own limited knowledge is at fault; overawed, they feel themselves to be in the presence of great scholarship…”

Compounding this, most academics in the same field:

“…deliberately ignored her… Normally this is an effective technique for ensuring the oblivion of bad books, but in this case it backfired, since it left her theory free to spread, seemingly unchallenged, among an eager public.”

Part of this is down to Murray’s approach, which is obvious from a statement she makes early in her book:

“The evidence which I now bring forward is taken entirely from contemporary sources, i.e. the legal records of the trials, pamphlets giving accounts of individual witches, and the works of Inquisitors and other writers. I have omitted the opinions of the authors, and have examined only the recorded facts, without however including the stories of ghosts and other ‘occult’ phenomena with which all the commentators confuse the subject. I have also, for the reason given below, omitted all reference to charms and spells when performed by one witch alone, and have confined myself to those statements only which show the beliefs, organization, and ritual of a hitherto unrecognized cult.”

Which even to me, an untrained reader, sounded like she was ignoring what didn’t support her theory (“the opinions of the authors”), and quoting only what did (“the recorded facts”). (Apparently what she left out, even by the use of a brief “…”, could, at times, turn out to completely undermine what she was using a quote to prove.)

But what’s interesting is the effect her book had. People — particularly novelists, film-makers, poets and 20th century witches — took to it not because it was academically convincing, but because there was a need for the idea it was putting across. There was, as Jacqueline Simpson says above, an “eager public”.

Part of this is down to the ideas held about witches at the start of the 20th century. Murray wasn’t the first to suggest witches were part of a single pre-Christian cult — that idea had been around in Germany and France a hundred years before — but coming at the time it did, her book seemed to provide a third way into a subject otherwise split between two increasingly unrealistic alternatives. As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, on the one hand there was the likes of Montague Summers, “maintaining that [witches] really had worshipped Satan, and that by his help they really had been able to fly, change shape, do magic and so forth.” On the other, there was a more widespread but frankly less interesting idea held by “sceptics who said that all so-called witches were totally innocent victims of hysterical panics whipped up by the Churches for devious political or financial reasons”.

Murray asserted that the witch-cult was a real thing, but explained away the supernatural elements. The Devil, she said, was present before the witches because he was a man (or sometimes a woman) in a mask and costume. This also explained why so many witches claimed the Devil was cold to the touch. (And, Murray says, “when the woman admitted having had sexual intercourse with the Devil, in a large proportion of cases she added, ‘The Devil was cold and his seed likewise’”, which Murray explains in part through use of an “artificial phallus”, a necessary requirement, she adds, because a mortal man playing the part of the Devil couldn’t be expected to perform without one for a whole coven of witches.)

(…And a note on covens: Margaret Murray is, apparently, the sole source of the idea that a coven of witches must have thirteen members, something she admitted getting from a single quotation from one Scottish witch trial.)

Another aspect of the witch-cult were witches’ marks which, she says, were of two types, either an artificial mark given to the witch when she or he was initiated (and which Murray suggests was most likely a tattoo, as it was caused by pricking of the skin and was often coloured), the other type being a “little teat”, which Murray says was probably a pre-existing supernumerary nipple, something she takes pains to prove occurs more commonly than is generally thought.

Meanwhile, of a witch’s ability to transform herself into an animal, she says:

“In many cases it is very certain that the transformation was ritual and not actual; that is to say the witches did not attempt to change their actual forms but called themselves cats, hares, or other animals.”

What struck me, on reading the book, and considering the way it aggravated some academics (the Wikipedia article on “the Witch-cult hypothesis” is full of quotes from reviewers pouring scorn on just about every aspect of Murray’s scholarship) yet was accepted by artists and writers, was that Murray’s ideas may not have been historically true, but they certainly met an imaginative need. The way witches were presented, through Murray’s extracts from the trials, seems to me to be painting a picture that’s very much the shadow image of the more intolerant side of Christianity that would have prevailed at the time. All the key characteristics of the “witch-cult” as Murray presents it — a mostly female priesthood, folk-style magic and fertility rituals, close ties with natural cycles and the natural world, plus lots of dancing, eating, and general carnality — were things repressed by Christianity but a vital part of humanity.

(This isn’t to say it was all about fun. In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe — though not in The God of the Witches — Murray does go into the witches’ practice of baby-eating which, she says, being only ever of un-baptised babies, was at least probably only practised on the cult’s own children.)

Whatever Murray’s academic reputation, the idea that witches are part of a single belief, rather than being a scattering of lone-wolf wise-women lumped together simply because they didn’t fit anywhere else, is certainly the one you’ll meet with in horror films to this day, so much so it’s become part of the accepted lore of fictional witches. In a way, Murray’s Witch-Cult is as important to witches in their fictional incarnations as, say, Dracula is to vampires — an essential cultural foundation, but not to be taken as factually accurate. In this way, then, it fits perfectly with the other (mostly fictional) books H P Lovecraft grouped it with when he mentions it in his stories — a book that straddles the shady boundary between weird fact and dark fantasy, and so becomes a perfect gateway to that realm of the real-seeming weird he was trying to conjure.

You can read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe at Project Gutenberg.

Comments (3)

  1. Interesting stuff! I think we really need a term for when supposed analysis of folklore becomes a form of folklore in its own right.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Fakelore? No, that’s no quite right… Anyway, Happy New Year, Gavin!

  3. I guess it would have to be a combination of fakelore, astroturfing and the predestination paradox. How you combine all those into a snappy phrase for the young folks to text each other I’ve no idea! ‘Turflore’ is the best I can do. Which probably proves I’m no good at this sort of thing.

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