[What’s That?] A Brief History of the Witch-Cult Hypothesis and Its Eventual Dismissal

I've also seen noting genuinely biographical stating she was anything but a supporter of Wicca, though not a Wiccan herself.

I’ve also seen noting genuinely biographical stating she was anything but a supporter of Wicca, though not a Wiccan herself.

Contrary to what you may have been told by Wicca’s critics (invariably the people I have seen make this claim) Margaret Murray did not invent the infamous Witch Cult Hypothesis, she’s just the writer of the most popular 20th Century book on the subject. In the possible (but likely improbable) event that you’re reading this and are completely unaware of what I mean when I say “witch cult hypothesis”, in short, the most popular version of the Witch Cult Hypothesis is the idea that, once upon a time, practically all of Europe was united through two things: A matriarchal society, and a cult of witches/witchcraft that goverened society. The hypothesis typically goes further to claim that the witch cult, in some form, survived not only the eventual patriarchal societies that were clearly in place by the dawn of recorded history, but the eventual dominance of Christianity and continued for at least a few hundred years after that. If you don’t know much about ancient history, it seems plausible –and certainly, the nature of secret societies makes it seem plausible that such a society can remain undetected for centuries without any evidence surfacing over the hundreds of years. tumblr_lfns8gyCT51qa6x5yo1_400 Unfortunately, a lot of what makes sense about an ongoing matriarchal witch cult surviving underground for centuries, if you really think enough about it, you realise how implausible it really is –and moreover, while there certainly were ancient matriarchal societies, including Crete, and sufficient evidence to suggest that there were certainly at least a few more prehistoric matriarchal societies than what survived to the age of history, there was hardly a single, politically unified matriarchy spread all over prehistoric Europe. Furthermore, the idea of a widespread and somehow unified secret society of witches that is or was allegedly “all over Europe” for centuries just seems preposterous, considering things like language barriers and cultural differences.
This was seriously one of the first twenty pictures in an image search for "dianic pagan" that I just did.  This is one of the reasons why Dianics are seldom taken very seriously.

This was seriously one of the first twenty pictures in an image search for “dianic pagan” that I just did. This is one of the reasons why Dianics are seldom taken very seriously.

This was seriously one of the first twenty pictures in an image search for “dianic pagan” that I just did. This is one of the reasons why Dianics are seldom taken very seriously.[/caption] Now, it seems pretty obvious to me why this apparent “bad archaeology” to recons and academic pagans is more a “sacred mythology” to, say, Dianics, but it’s also fair to keep in mind that fewer and fewer who do hold spiritual value in the witch cult hypothesis are taking it literally any-more, though in spite of this, as recently as 2010 (that I know of), during the annual “Pagan Mediatoberfest” every October on cable, at least one in the family of History Channels runs a “Witchcraft” episode of one of their signature documentary series (I forget which one) that presents the witch cult hypothesis as ostensibly historical. John_William_Waterhouse_-_Undine

As I said before, Margaret Murray was not the first to posit the witch cult hypothesis, her version is merely the most popular. The first to write something suggestent of a hypothesis that would lead to the “witch cult hypothesis” would be Karl Ernst Jarcke, a German professor of the early 1800s; though I haven’t read the original German, it seems what he actually hypothesised was that the victims of the witch hunts in Europe were largely part of some degree of pagan survival that the church decreed to be “satanic”. Now, this is something that others have suggested since, at least in some areas, and the idea of an extremely widespread survival of indigenous polytheism essentially all over Europe isn’t a sieve, it does hold some water, just perhaps not as much as some people might want it to. Bouguereau_Pandora-large

The witch hunts largely targeted women in most areas, which actually helps the hypothesis a bit. Especially amongst the lower and working classes, where working mothers have been common since ancient times, women still end up doing the majority of the child-rearing and homemaking. A friend of mine who is an archaeologist once explained to me a practically worldwide phenomenon that when one culture conquers another, marries the women of the conquered people and so on, food traditions remain, and the “conquering” culture ends up changing, in usually subtle ways that are directly related to childhood development –indeed, one of the ways that China ended up eventually “conquering” a culture that, militarily conquered them was by women preserving the culture, basically raising the younger generation with a Chinese cultural identity. If a pagan survival was to happen amongst people who put the child rearing largely, if not completely onto women, the women pose a genuine threat to the Christian status quo. Where the hypothesis of an especially widespread pagan survival loses water is in the fact that a large amount of surviving testimony from the accused is of basic Christian subversion, or of people who were clearly having something of a property dispute, or it was clearly class-based, and so on, with more cases where another explanation is clearly the best one, based on evidence —Occam’s razor, often misunderstood as “the simplest answer is the best / correct answer” is actually an assessment of probability and means nothing in the event that further evidence nullifies the “simplest answer”. gage

After Jarcke, Franz Josef Mone, a staunch Catholic, reworked Jarcke’s hypothesis as being both Satanic and Hellenic in origin, and was also the first writer I’ve found to claim the inclusion of human sacrifice and orgies, which is basically in line with the accusations during the witch trials. Next is the French writer, Jules Michelet, who first seriously entertained the notions of classism and sexism in the witch hysteria, and hypothesised that it was women of the lower classes who maintained a pagan survival, and this seemed to influence late 19th Century Native American activist, abolitionist, and feminist writer Matilda Joselyn Gage, who added the notion of widespread pre-historic matriarchy (as an aside, Gage was the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, amongst dozens of others, and Baum’s biographers generally believe that Gage’s interest in the witch cult hypothesis was an influence on his witches of Oz). Aradia-title-page Lastly, Charles Leland, an American folklorist, wrote Aradia, which he presented as a sacred text of the witch cult in Italy, but has since been determined to be a composite, including some material that’s likely of Leland’s invention.

Margaret Murray was a British Egyptologist who, at the time she basically consolidated the above ideas, was unable to do field work in Egypt. In spite of a clearly academic background, a lot of historians, including Ronald Hutton, consider her works on the witch cult hypothesis to be unprofessional and discredited. On the other hand, there are a handful of other historians who’ve basically taken out some of her more ridiculous claims (like certain individuals in history, including devout Christians, like Jean d’Arc, were willing human sacrifices of the witch cult), and refined the hypothesis into a hypothesis of incomplete Christian conversion in Europe, which the “witch trials” served a partial function in “correcting” –again, this is assisted by the fact that some of those put on trial were clearly herbalists practicing a craft passed down for generations, but again, this doesn’t amount for everything, and in many cases, the issue is clearly more an iron-fisted quashing of more subversive Christians or “folk Christianity” that, though indisputably “Christian” by modern standards, retained clearly “pagan” elements.

More Isadora Duncan --I can't get enough of this woman.

More Isadora Duncan –I can’t get enough of this woman.

Murray wasn’t completely talking from her arse, and as I recall, she was clearly a fan of Gage, and she certainly had the opportunity to be aware of the precursors to her own version of the hypothesis (though she denied previous familiarity with Jarcke’s and Michlet’s take on the hypothesis, in spite of the fact that her own version mirrors elements of both of theirs –but it’s also not all that uncommon for people, even in academia, to fail at giving credit where it’s due) but her more fantastic ideas seem more like something out of a tract by a conspiracy theorist and slipped behind the wiper on a car’s windscreen than history, by today’s standards, and this has certainly overshadowed the more realistic elements that her supporters in current academia prefer to stress and build from.

So what about “The Burning Times”? Well, later in the 20th Century, a Canadian documentarian, Donna Read (not to be confused with the funny and [actually quite subversive, for the 1950s] Donna Reed) made a film about the witch cult hypothesis and the witch trial hysteria. In spite of facts already established that suggest, overall, the hysteria was rooted in class and subversive takes on religion as much as sexism (though the main reason may have varied by location), in an spite of the fact that, in some parts of Europe, men were just as likely (and in one particularly peculiar town, far more likely) to be tried and executed as “witches”, the film concentrates on women as the ultimate victims and sexism the ultimate reason, with one interviewee going so far as to call the witch hysteria “the Women’s Holocaust”, and even made its own fantastical claims, like “nine million witches executed”, when the historical data suggests a minimum of 60,000 and a max of 100,000 were executed over the 200-300 year course of the witch hysteria. Just a basic look at world census estimates for the period (and of course adjusting to largely consider only Europe and also North American colonial populations) reveal that executing “nine million women” throughout Europe between approximately 1450 and 1750 would have been impossible —at some point, there would have literally been entire cities with absolutely no women left! Considering that there is no such record of even the tiniest villages rendered all-male by witch hysteria, the more conservative, academic estimates based on extant historical data and adjusted for potentially lost records is far more likely, and it’s fair to assume that, at the height of the witch hysteria, not even a quarter million people (much less a quarter-million of just women) were executed throughout the 300+years of mass hysteria.

Unfortunately, this “documentary” that is only loosely based on the actual history, still manages to be enduring through the pagan community, in part from featuring prominent Neopagan women at the time, including Margot Adlet and Starhawk, and also a soundtrack featuring Loreena McKennitt.

Damn, Ruadhán, you talk a lot. TL;DR version, pls? kthxbai!

* Contrary to the most common assumption I have personally seen in the pagan community, Margaret Murray WAS NOT the first person who suggested the witch cult hypothesis. The witch cult hypothesis pre-dates Murray’s work on witchcraft by about a hundred years in academia, and the idea may possibly have floated around earlier only to be formalised in the very early 19th Century.
* Murray wrote the most popular version of the witch cult hypothesis, and it incorporated elements of previous versions of the thesis. Some of these elements were more realistic than others. Murray also added some elements, possibly from her own imagination, that are easily regarded as, to use professional terminology, complete nonsense.
* Not everyone discredits the witch cult hypothesis, in its milder form, which is essentially a hypothesis of Europe incompletely “Christianised” prior the “witch trial hysteria” redubbed “The Burning Times” by a popular, though not completely factual, Canadian documentary of the same name circa 1990. There are reasons for and against this “extended pagan survival” hypothesis, and even if it is assumed to be that the hypothesis is a complete theory, considering the known politics of the witch trials, it’s highly unlikely to be a universal theory for every person accused of witchcraft during that time, just one that would be true for some instances and potentially more likely for some regions than others.
* That said, it should go without saying that there was never a Paneuropean matriarchy with an equally Paneuropean witchcraft religion in any historical sense; the closest hypothesis taken seriously in anthro-archaeology today is “PIE society”, which, being a hypothesis, is barely more than coincidence, and has no real evidence of being inherently matriarchal. On the other hand, some Dianics have refined the pre-historic matriarchy of Gage’s imagination into a mythos in its own right; this is no less valid a mythology than Hesiod’s ages of humankind (we’re in the Bronze age, by the way), or the Garden common to Abrahamic religions.


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