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.

Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.