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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray was published in 1921, at a time when the influence and success of The Golden Bough[1] by anthropologist James George Frazer was at its height. In those days Margaret Murray was celebrated in university circles as the expert on western witchcraft. In the period 1929-1968 she even wrote the article on witchcraft in the successive editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1962, her main work was reprinted by Oxford University Press. Her theory, also known as the witch-cult hypothesis suggests that the things told about witches in Europe were in fact based on a real existing pagan religion that worshiped a horned god.

Murray's theory

Murray's theory, as she explained in this book and the subsequent The God of the Witches (1933), consists of the following elements:

  • Until the 17th century there was a religion, much older than Christianity, which all over Western Europe had supporters both among ordinary people and the ruling classes.
  • Central to the worship stood a horned god with two faces, known to the Romans as Janus or Dianus. (This cult of Dianus was of the type James Frazer described in detail in “The Golden Bough”).
  • The horned god represented the cycle of seasons and harvests. It was believed that he died and periodically returned to life.
  • On earth, the horned god was represented by chosen human beings. There were some celebrities among them, such as William Rufus, Thomas Becket, Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais. They all died a tragic death as a ritual sacrifice to insure the resurrection of the god and the renewal of the earth.
  • In the villages the witches meetings were presided by the horned god. Pre-Christian observers of this events might have thought that these witches were worshiping the devil, when in reality they were celebrating the pre-Christian god Dianus.
  • The preservation of this ancient religion was entrusted to a variety of indigenous peoples, small in stature, who were driven out from their land with each new invasion. This would also explain the stories about fairies, gnomes and other ‘small people’. These creatures were very shy but were able to pass the knowledge of their religion to ordinary people. The witches were their pupils and thus the heirs of the ancient religion.
  • According to Murray, the (local) covens consisted of thirteen members: twelve ordinary men and women, and an officer. All members were required to hold a weekly meeting (named 'esbat' by Murray) and to attend the larger Sabbats.
  • There was a strict discipline in the covens, and whoever missed a meeting could be severely punished and was sometimes put to death.
  • The organization and structure were so good that Christianity had to wait until the Reformation before getting a stronger grip on the population. A blatant attack on the influential rival was needed, and that occurred with the great witch persecutions.

Reception of the theory by modern scholars

The idea of a witch cult that until early modern times managed to survive, is now largely obsolete. Most but not all modern scholars of witchcraft generally dismiss it as romantic nonsense.

From the 1920s on, Margaret Murray’s theory was assailed by critics such as George Lincoln Burr, Hugh Trevor-Roper and more recently by Keith Thomas. Other scholars, however, insisted that despite the exaggerated claims she made there is still some truth in her theory. One of them, Arno Rune Berg, noted in his book Witches, Demons and Fertility (1947) a number of 'ordinary' elements that were cited in descriptions of the Sabbath. This could be an indication there had actually been meetings, which would have transformed into phantasmagoria later, under the influence of the imagination.

Most modern scholars of the history of witchcraft agree that it is very unlikely that such a witch-cult really existed, or that this cult or religion came to an end because the Christian church wanted to eridicate the followers of a pagan tradition. One of these modern critics, social anthropologist Alan Macfarlane criticized Murray's work in his book Witchcraft Prosecutions in Essex, 1500-1600: A Sociological Analysis. He says that his main criticism on Murray's work is that she used all sorts of things of European folklore, pulling them out of context thus creating a totally wrong image of European witchcraft. He argued that she had taken the things that people believed as a representation of what actually happened. Although in her book she had shown that people believed in a witch-cult, she failed to show that there really had been such a thing. From his own research on witchcraft in Essex Macfarlane concluded that he did not find much of the claims she had made: no traces of a Sabbath, Coven or the demonic pact were found, except perhaps with the witch trials of 1645. In his study he had found no evidence that there had been a pagan, underground cult, nor any organization of people who where called witches. Likewise Keith, Thomas criticises Murray for her selective use of evidence and what he calls 'the deficiencies of her historical method'.

Recently, however, feminist scholars have taken up Murray's thesis about persecuted witches in Medieval Europe as members of a religion of the Mother Goddess which originated in the Paleolithic era.[2] Also, professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann's description of modern witches in her book Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England does not resemble in any way the devil-worshipping creatures to be feared like the ones pictured in the Malleus Maleficarum.[3]

Influence on modern witchcraft

Charles Leland's idea of an 'old religion' and Murray's surviving pagan cult would inspire subsequent 20th century modern witchcraft movements like Wicca.[4]


  • The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999,
  1. ^ Frazer, James George, "Chapter III: Sympathetic Magic; 1. The Principles of Magic", The Golden Bough: A study of magic and religion, Project Gutenberg 
  2. ^ Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology: 'Witchcraft and Sorcery'
  3. ^ T.M. Luhrmann, 'Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England', 1989.
  4. ^ Diane Purkiss, The witch history: early modern and twentieth-century representations
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