Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult: How Wicca and Witchcraft Became Entangled

While the problem lessens every year, I still commonly come across those who use Wicca and witchcraft interchangeably. There’s no factual reason for the two to ever be associated: Wicca is a religion, while witchcraft is a magical practice. Most witches are not Wiccans, and many Wiccans are not witches.

However, through a variety of misunderstandings, the two concepts became linked very early. Furthermore, numerous movies, TV shows and books have continued to blur the line, showing Wicca as magic and witchcraft as a religion, and employing the words as synonymous.
How did this happen?

Both Wicca and modern concepts of witchcraft are products of the 20th century. Specifically, they were strongly influenced by an erroneous belief that witchcraft was the ancient, pre-Christian pagan religion of Europe. This theory was most propagated by a woman named Margaret Murray, who, among other things, got to write the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition of witchcraft from 1929 to 1970.
What did she teach?

According to Murray, this witch-cult, also known as the Old Religion:

  •     Is about 25,000 years old, was followed by stone age people,and is the oldest religion in the world.
  •     Survived in secret after the coming of Christianity
  •     Was finally destroyed by the Church at the height of its power via the European Witch-Hunts.
  •     Worshiped a single horned god emulated by priests wearing horned headdresses. Christians, trying to exterminate the cult, claimed this horned god was Satan. Stories of witch gatherings in which Satan was present can thus be explained by a priest wearing a headdress.
  •     Celebrated four major holidays, which correspond to the modern Wiccan Greater Sabbats.
  •     Celebrated esbats, which she all but made up, having found it in a single document written in the Basque language of Spain.

Contributions to Witch Folklore

Murray’s influence extends far beyond Wicca and modern witchcraft movements. Familiar concepts that originated with Murray include:

  •     Covens having 13 members.
  •     The word coven being specific to witch assemblies. Previous to Murray, the word was simply an archaic term for assemblies in general. The words coven and convent are closely related, for example.

Early Wiccans, seeing themselves as followers of what was left of the “witch-cult” described by Murray, identified themselves as witches.  They attempted to reclaim the word, thinking that Christian persecutors has twisted the meaning of it.   They weren’t the bad witches of folklore, but rather survivors of an ancient, pagan, benevolent tradition of witchcraft. But such a group never existed.

Why the Theory is Wrong

There is no evidence supporting it and plenty of evidence contradicting it:

  •     The was never a single religion of Europe until the arrival of Christianity
  •     There’s no evidence of paganism surviving until the time of the European Witch-Craze (approx. late 15th century to mid 17the century), which is when Murray thought the Church finally stamped them out.
  •     The Church was not at the height of its power at the time of the witch-craze, as Murray insists. That happened in the 13th century.
  •     The word witchcraft has never been used to identify a distinct religion.
  •     There’s nothing in the evidence suggesting fear of witches had anything to do with secret religions .
  •     She edited her source material to conform with her theories.

Why did people believe her?

In the 1920s, there were very few English-speaking academics who considered the witch-trials a subject deserving of study or were familiar with the evidence Murray was using. Thus, very few people realized how selective she was being or how badly she abused it.  She was believed out of ignorance.
Was she a fraud?

Murray never claimed a follower of the Old Religion, which she believed had died out, so she had nothing to gain from deception. She honestly thought she was promoting historical truth, although her research methods ranged from ignorant to outright deceptive. For example, she provides several quotes from witch-trial documents which are taken completely out of context, and at least one in which she removed the middle of a paragraph, running the beginning and end of the paragraph together as if they made one complete thought, completely changing the meaning of the text.
How did she get it so wrong?

Lots of issues led to Murray publishing her bizarre theory:

  •     She wasn’t an academically trained historian, which led to her being ignorant of a great many basic principles
  •     She was a Egyptologist by trade with no background in European history
  •     She used a very small number of sources, which she further edited
  •     She took testimony given under torture at face value
  •     She had no grasp of wider witch folklore
  •     She was influenced by a number of modern sources such as James Frazer’s Golden Bough which have likewise been long discredited.

What books that cite her as a credible source fail to mention is her witchcraft theories were thoroughly discredited several decades ago. This is not a controversial topic. No historian considers her witchcraft work valid.

1 Comment to "Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult: How Wicca and Witchcraft Became Entangled"

  1. Lou's Gravatar Lou
    March 20, 2016 - 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info. I’ve realized she was “faking” her expertise in this area and I think she simply enjoyed the fame, attention and notoriety that writing the nonsense gained her. Or maybe she just liked reading her own nonsense.

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