Witch-cult hypothesis: Wikis


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Francisco de Goya's Sabbat (1789), which depicted the Devil flanked by Satanic witches. The Witch Cult hypothesis states that such stories are based upon a real-life pagan cult that revered a horned god.

The Witch–cult is the term for a hypothetical pre-Christian, pagan religion of Europe that survived into at least the early modern period. The theory of its existence was postulated by some 19th and 20th century scholars based upon the theory that the European witchcraft which had been persecuted in the witch-hunt had been a part of a Satanic plot to overthrow Christianity, and indeed most of the evidence for the theory was compiled by studying the accounts of the persecutors in the witch trials in early modern Europe. The theory notably gave rise to the neopagan religion of Wicca, with its various offshoots and traditions, such as Gardnerianism and Stregheria, in the 20th century.

The theory was pioneered by Romanticist and free-thinking authors such as Karl Ernst Jarcke and Jules Michelet in the 19th century, but received its most prominent exposition with Margaret Murray's 1921 book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and her contributions to the Encyclopædia Britannica. Scholars have criticised the theory and the general consensus is that the Witch Cult never existed and is entirely pseudohistorical;[1]. A small number of scholars, such as Carlo Ginzburg, argue for modified versions of the theory, such as that some limited non-Christian religious practices surviving into the early modern period and contributing to witchcraft stereotypes.[2]

Gerald Gardner claimed that he had discovered the New Forest Coven, a group still practising the religion (which he called Witchcraft) in his 1954 book, Witchcraft Today, a claim which was endorsed by Murray.[3] Similarly, Sybil Leek, Robert Cochrane, Charles Cardell, Rosaleen Norton and Alex Sanders also made claims to having been members of a family line of adherents to the Witch–cult. Some contemporary Wiccans have since distanced themselves from the theory.[4]


Early Modern precedents

The witch-hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries was an organized effort by authorities in many countries to destroy a supposed conspiracy of witches thought to pose a deadly threat to Christendom. According to these authorities, witches were numerous, and in conscious alliance with Satan, forming a sort of Satanic counter-religion. Witch-hunts in this sense must be separated from the belief in witches, the evil eye, and other such phenomena, which are common features of folk belief worldwide. The belief that witches are not just individual villains but conspirators organized in a powerful but well-hidden cult is a distinguishing feature of the early modern witch-hunt.

This idea of an organized witch–cult originates in the second half of the 15th century, notoriously expounded in the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum. In the following two centuries, witch trials usually included the charge of membership in a demonic conspiracy, gathering in sabbaths, and similar. It was only with the beginning Age of Enlightenment in the early 18th century, that the idea of an organized witch–cult was abandoned. The Early Modern testimonies of accused witches "confirming" the existence of a witch cult are considered doubtful. Norman Cohn argued that they were determined largely by the expectations of the interrogators, partly under torture, and free association on the part of the accused, and reflect only popular imagination of the times.[5]

Nevertheless, some historians, including Carlo Ginzburg and Éva Pócs, hold that these testimonies can still give insights into the belief systems of the accused. Ginzburg famously discovered records of a group of individuals in northern Italy, calling themselves benandanti, the "good walkers" who claimed to combat witches (streghe) by magical means. The benandanti were themselves persecuted for heresy in the period of 1575 to 1675.[6]

History of the theory

"Magic Circle" by John William Waterhouse, 1886


Witchcraft and witches were again popularized in 18th century Romanticism, which was in part a counter-movement to the Enlightenment.

In 1749, the Italian Girolamo Tartarotti made the claim that the religion persecuted in the witch-hunt was largely influenced by pagan traditions and iconography, though he did not claim that it was a pagan religion itself.[7 ] He did this in his 1749 treatise De Congresso Notturno Delle Lammie (On the Nocturnal Meeting of Witches), expanded in 1751 as the book Apologia del Congresso Notturno Delle Lammie (Defense of the Nocturnal Meeting of Witches), which defended his argument in the light of criticism.

In 1828, the German Karl Ernst Jarcke, a Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Berlin, was the first to claim that the religion persecuted in the witch hunt was not Satanic, but was in fact pagan in origin[7 ], but he only added it in a brief commentary to the records of a German witch trial that were being published in a professional journal.[8 ] Jarcke's claim was that paganism had lingered on amongst the peasants after Christianisation, and that it had then been declared Satanism by the Church. He further theorised that the pagan religion evolved into Satanism, with the horned deity being considered to be Satan by its followers.[9]

Jarcke's theories were taken up and adapted by another German, Franz-Josef Mone in 1839. Mone was a staunch Roman Catholic and also a Germanic romanticist, and disagreed that the pagan cult (which he believed had involved human sacrifice and nocturnal orgies) had been Germanic in origin, but must have been Hellenic instead, based upon the mystery cults that had been brought to Germany by Greek slaves.[8 ]

In 1844 Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, made the claim that "the early modern image of the witch was a conflation of pagan traditions with later mediaeval stereotypes of heresy"; however, he did not believe the notion that the witch cult had actually been a pagan religion.[7 ]

In 1862, French historian Jules Michelet published La Sorcière (meaning The Sorceress), in which he adapted the theory further. Michelet, who was a liberal and who despised both the Roman Catholic Church and absolute monarchies, claimed that the Witch Cult had been practised by the peasants in opposition to Roman Catholicism, which was practised by the upper classes.[10] He claimed that the witches had been mostly women (he greatly admired the feminine gender, once claiming that it was the superior of the two), and that they had been great healers, whose knowledge was the basis of much of modern medicine.[11 ] He believed that they worshipped the god Pan, who had become equated with the Christian figure of the Devil over time.[12]

In 1893, an American woman, Matilda Joslyn Gage, published Woman, Church and State, in which she claimed that in the prehistoric world, humanity had been matriarchal, worshipping a great Goddess, and that the witches of the witch cult had been pagan priestesses preserving this religion.[13]

In 1897, the English scholar Karl Pearson, who was the professor of Applied Mathematics at University College London and an amateur historian and anthropologist, expanded on Michelet's theory. Pearson agreed with the theory of a prehistoric matriarchal society, and concured with Gage that the witch-cult was a survival of it. Pearson theorised that during the Christian era, the religion became focused around a male deity, which was then equated with the Christian Devil. Pearson also made the claim that Joan of Arc had been of the last few priestesses of the religion. He was, however, unlike Michelet or Gage, opposed to the group and to Goddess worship in general, believing that it was primitive and savage.[14]

Charles Leland was an American folklorist and occultist who travelled around Europe in the latter 19th century and was a supporter of Michelet's theories. In 1899 he published Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, which he claimed had been a sacred text for Italian witches. It made no mention of a horned god, but did mention a male deity known as Lucifer, as well as a female deity, the goddess Diana. Leland's work would provide much of the inspiration for the neopagan witchcraft religion of Stregheria.


In 1921 Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she formulated a theory of a pan-European cult. However, she claimed that she had not previously read the studies of Michelet or Leland, but instead only started researching the topic after someone suggested it to her in Glastonbury, the legendary resting place of King Arthur in southern England[15]. Prior to writing her book, she had written two articles on the theory in the 1917 and 1920 journals of the Folk-Lore Society, and further ones in the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Scottish Historical Review.[16]

The historian Ronald Hutton, a later critic of Murray, said that her first book "rested upon a small amount of archival research, with extensive use of printed trial records in 19th century editions, plus early modern pamphlets and works of demonology", although he also noted that "the book was generally dry and clinical, and every assertation was meticulously footnoted to a source, with lavish quotation". He said that she mixed elements from various different accounts of the witch hunt, mostly from Scotland, and fitted them together to form a set of beliefs and practices which she asserted were practiced as an organised religion across western Europe.[16]

According to the book, the witch-cult had been a pre-Christian, nature-based religion that the Christian authorities had labelled "witchcraft" and persecuted. She claimed that the religion had been based around sexual polarity as the key force behind nature, and they displayed this by having male and females practising together in their rituals.[17] Murray claimed that the deity of the Witches could appear in both male, or female form, who had been seen as the Roman pagan deities Diana and Dianus. For this reason she called it the Dianic cult[18]. However, Murray noted that over the centuries, Diana's role in the faith had diminished, and Dianus, who was depicted as a horned god, became the main deity, explaining why in the accounts of the witch persecutions, worship of a goddess was not mentioned.

A statue of the Roman goddess Diana, who was believed to be one of the two deities of the witch-cult.

Murray claimed that these witches met in groups known as covens, which were led by a High Priest, who dressed in animal skins, and which accounted for the witch-hunters' belief that the Devil himself appeared to the coven. She claimed that the coven met during esbats to do business, and held sabbats that all local pagans attended, on the festivals of Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and All Hallows.[16] She cited both Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais as members of the cult.[16]

Many people at the time, such as folklorist Charlotte Gomme and Henry Balfour,[16] were impressed by Murray's theories, though there were a few critics (see below). She even wrote the entry on Witchcraft for the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1929, an entry that lasted until 1968[19].

Murray followed her initial book with The God of the Witches in 1933, which was similar to her previous book but was more populist in tone. She added new research on the subject of the Horned God, which she claimed was a deity worshipped in the paleolithic and depicted on rock paintings, and also by many ancient peoples, such as the Celts with their horned deity Cernunnos, and the Greeks with their Pan.

In 1954, she published The Divine King of England, in which she greatly extended on the theory, taking in an influence from Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, an anthropological book that made the claim that societies all over the world sacrificed their kings to the deities of nature. In this book, she theorised that all the monarchs of England had followed this religion, and those that had died prematurely had been killed as a sacrifice. In the book she also made the claim that Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, had been killed as a replacement for the king.


During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinrich Himmler organised a branch of the SS to undertake the largest survey of witch-hunt trial records in Europe ever taken, with the dual aim of using it as anti-Christian propaganda, to claim that the inquisition had been a repression of an indigenous Völkisch Celto-Germanic nature religion, and as evidence for reconstructing that religion.[20] This prompted Stuart Clark to dub the Nazi regime "Europe's first and only 'pro-witch' government",[21] and the Nazi regime has had a lasting impact on the popular understanding of witches. One pamphlet, the 1935 The Christian Witch Craze, claimed that the witch-hunts were an attempt to exterminate "Aryan womanhood".[22]

While Murray's theory had received some negative critical attention at the time of its first publication, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that her books became best sellers, and were to influence both popular and historical writers.[23]

In the 1950s, several British occultists claimed they had found remnants of the surviving Witch Cult. The first of these was Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have discovered a coven of such witches - the New Forest Coven, in 1939. Gardner said that he was concerned that the religion would die out, and so inititated more members into it through his Bricket Wood coven. The tradition that he started became Gardnerian Wicca. The New Forest witch Sybil Leek made a similar claim, stating that she followed the religion as many of her family had previously done, and a similar claim came from the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton, whose family had been of Welsh origin. Charles Cardell also made the claim of a hereditary lineage of the witch-cult, and he posited that the horned deity of the witches was known as Atho. Other Britons soon made the claim that they were members of a long line of family Witches. Robert Cochrane made such a claim, and ran a coven called the Clan of Tubal Cain; he inspired the founding of several movements, including the 1734 Tradition. Alex Sanders also made such a claim, and founded Alexandrian Wicca; however, Sanders turned out to be a Gardnerian initiate and had based Alexandrian ritual on Gardnerian Wicca.[24] In 1974 E.W. Lidell made the claim that the occultist Aleister Crowley had been initiated into the witch-cult in 1899 or 1900, after being introduced to it through Allan Bennett, a Golden Dawn friend of his. Lideel continued his claim by saying that the coven's High Priestess expelled Crowley for being "a dirty minded, evilly disposed, vicious little monster". No substantiating evidence has, however, been produced for this.[25]

From the 1960s Carlo Ginzburg documented the beliefs of a number of early modern groups of sorcerers, seers and healers. He claimed they were rooted in pre-Christian paganism, and credited Murray with a "correct intuition" in identifying the remnants of a pre-Christian 'religion of Diana', and in believing that witch-trial testimonies did at times represent actual or perceived experiences.[26] Ginzburg's findings are now corroborated by several other authors.[27]

In the 1970s, the long-standing criticisms of Murray's thesis by a small number of experts in the field having been ignored by more popular writers, there was a new wave of denunciations by scholars.[23]

In 1985 Classical historian Georg Luck, in his Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, theorised that the origins of the Witch-cult may have appeared in late antiquity as a faith primarily designed to worship the Horned God, stemming from the merging of Cernunnos, a horned god of the Celts, with the Greco-Roman Pan/Faunus,[28] a combination of gods which he posits created a new deity, around which the remaining pagans, those refusing to convert to Christianity, rallied and that this deity provided the prototype for later Christian conceptions of the devil, and his worshippers were cast by the Church as witches.[28]

The theory has been purported amongst some Occultic, New Age and Neopagan authors, such as Nigel Jackson in his books, Call of the Horned Piper and Masks of Misrule: The Horned God and His Cult in Europe.


The witch-cult hypothesis has lost most of its credibility in contemporary scholarship, and has been opposed ever since its conception. When Michelet's La Sorciere was released in France, it was, according to historian Ronald Hutton, "greeted with silence from French literary critics, apparently because they recognised that it was not really history".[11 ]

In 1938, Anglican scholar Elliot Rose called Margaret Murray's theory "vapid balderdash"[29]. Another contemporary critic, religious scholar Mircea Eliade, said that "neither the documents with which she chose to illustrate her hypothesis nor the method of her interpretation are convincing"[30]

Historian Ronald Hutton in the 1990s criticised Murray's theory in both The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy and Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Hutton claimed that her theories "had the curious status of an orthodoxy which was believed by everybody except for those who happened to be experts in the subject".[31] Historians Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander concurred in their A New History of Witchcraft, stating "Murray's use of sources in general is appalling".[32]

The Roman Catholic priest Montague Summers, a contemporary of Murray's, had already proposed that witchcraft represented a real, but diabolical, historical cult; he remarked of Murray's theory "that is a most ingenious suggestion, but a wholly untenable hypothesis", and continued to maintain, in his The History of Witchcraft and Demonology of 1926, that the cult really had been entirely Satanic in origin.[33] Summers' own theories have been equally dismissed by modern historians such as Hutton and Russell.


  1. ^ Michael D. Bailey Witchcraft Historiography (review) in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft - Volume 3, Number 1, Summer 2008, pp. 81-85
  2. ^ Oldridge, Darren (2002). "General Introduction". The Witchcraft Reader. Routledge. pp. 3.  
  3. ^ Witchcraft Today, Gerald Gardner, with an introduction by Margaret Murray, page 15
  4. ^ "We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet. We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians.
    We owe it to ourselves to study the Great Hunt more honestly, in more detail, and using the best data available. Dualistic fairy tales of noble witches and evil witch-hunters have great emotional appeal, but they blind us to what happened. And what could happen, today. Few Pagans commented on the haunting similarities between the Great Hunt and America's panic over Satanic cults. Scholars noticed it; we didn't. We say 'Never again the Burning!' But if we don't know what happened the first time, how are we ever going to prevent it from happening again?" -- Jenny Gibbons Studying the Great European Witch Hunt The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies #5 Summer 1998
  5. ^ Cohn, Norman (1977) Europe's Inner Demons
  6. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath.
  7. ^ a b c The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 137
  8. ^ a b A New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 146
  9. ^ The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 136
  10. ^ A New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 147
  11. ^ a b The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, page 140
  12. ^ The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 140
  13. ^ The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 141
  14. ^ The Triumph of the Moon - The Rise of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 149-150
  15. ^ The New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 152
  16. ^ a b c d e The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton, page 195
  17. ^ The New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 153
  18. ^ The New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 152-153
  19. ^ The New History of Witchcraft, Russell & Alexander, Thames & Hudson, page 154
  20. ^ Hans Sebald, "Nazi ideology redifining deviants: Witches, Himmler's witch-trial survey, and the case of the bishopric of Bamberg" in: Levack (ed.), New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology (2001), pp. 113ff.
  21. ^ Clark, Stuart et al. The Period of the Witch Trials‎ p. 14
  22. ^ Magic and Superstition in Europe, Michael David Bailey, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2006, pp. 236-238
  23. ^ a b The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Reviewed by Ronald Hutton. http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/paper/hutton.html
  24. ^ Sanders, Maxine (2008) Firechild; Hutton, Ronald (1999) Triumph of the Moon.
  25. ^ Hutton, Ronald, (1999), The Triumph of the Moon - A History of Modern Pagan Withcraft, page 218, Oxford University Press
  26. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo (1990) Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. London: Hutchinson Radius. p. 9.
  27. ^ These include Eva Pocs (Between the Living and the Dead, 1999), Emma Wilby (Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, 2005), Gustav Henningsen (The Ladies From Outside, 1993) and E. William Monter (Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 1976), who identified pre-Christian magical and religious themes in the beliefs of accused witches from Hungary, England, Sicily and France respectively.
  28. ^ a b Luck, Georg (1985). Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts.. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 6–7.  
  29. ^ Some Witchcraft Criticism, 1938
  30. ^ A New History of Witchcraft, page 154
  31. ^ Russell, Jeffrey B. & Alexander, Brooks (2007) A New History of Witchcraft, page 155
  32. ^ Russell, Jeffrey B. & Alexander, Brooks (2007) A New History of Witchcraft, page 154
  33. ^ http://www.controverscial.com/Montague%20Summers.htm
  • Margaret Murray, Witch Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology (1921); online version.
  • Jeffrey B. Russell & Brooks Alexander, A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans, Thames & Hudson
  • Montague Summers, Witchcraft and Black Magic (1945); 2000 reprint, ISBN 9780486411255.
  • Pennethorne Hughes, Witchcraft, Longmans, Green (1952).
  • E. W. Taylor, "Medical aspects of witchcraft" in C. Macfie Campbell (ed.), Problems Of Personality (1925), pp- 166-188[1]

See also

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