The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret A. Murray


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Oxford Clarendon Press, 1962.

'The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is a 1921 anthropological book by Margaret Murray, published at the height of success of The Golden Bough by anthropologist James George Frazer. For the book, certain university circles celebrated Margaret Murray as the expert on western witchcraft, though her theories were widely discredited. For the period 1929-1968, she wrote the "Witchcraft" article in the successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

In 1962, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was reprinted by Oxford University Press. Her theory, also known as the witch-cult hypothesis, suggests that the accusations made towards "witches" in Europe were in fact based on a real existing pagan religion that worshiped a horned god.

Murray's Witch-cult hypothesis was preceded by a similar idea proposed by the German Professor Karl Ernst Jarcke in 1828. Jarcke's hypothesis claimed that the victims of the early modern witch trials were not innocents caught up in a moral panic, but members of a previously unknown pan-European pagan religion which had pre-dated Christianity, been persecuted by the Christian Church as a rival religion, and finally driven underground, where it had survived in secret until being revealed in the confessions of those accused in the witch trials. The idea was later endorsed by German historian Franz Josef Mone and French historian Jules Michelet. In the late 19th century, variations on the witch cult hypothesis were adopted by two Americans, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Charles Leland, the latter of whom promoted it in his 1899 book Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches.

One key aspect of Murray's witch-cult hypothesis, later adopted by Wicca, was the idea that not only were historical accounts of witches based in truth, but witches had originally been involved in benevolent fertility -related functions rather than malevolent hexing and cursing as traditionally portrayed. In examining testimony from the early modern witch trials, Murray encountered numerous examples of the kinds of curses and nefarious activities the accused people confessed to. Seeking to fit these into a framework in which descriptions of witchcraft had both a natural and pagan-religious explanation, Murray posited that these malevolent actions were actually twisted interpretations of benevolent actions, altered either under duress during the trials, or by practitioners themselves who had, over the years, forgotten or changed the "original" intent of their practices. For example, Murray interpreted Isobel Gowdie's confession to cursing a farm field by setting loose a toad pulling a miniature plough as originally having been not a curse on the field as Gowdie stated, but a means of ensuring fertility of the crops. Murray stated that these acts were "misunderstood by the recorders and probably by the witches themselves."

With these kinds of interpretations, Murray created for the first time the idea of the witch as a practitioner of good magic and religious rites to ensure fertility of people and the land. This ran counter to all previous ideas about what witchcraft was in history and folklore - even Leland's variant of the witch-cult hypothesis in Aradia depicted witches as not fully benevolent, but rather as revolutionary figures who would use cursing and black magic to exact revenge on their enemies, the upper classes, and the Catholic Church.'

Category Witchcraft