Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches

Jewish date:  7 Tammuz 5772 (Parashath Ḥuqqath).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Cyril of Alexandria (Roman Catholicism), Lailat al-Miraj (Islam), Feast Day of Andrea (Thelema), Feast Day of St. James Dean (Church of the SubGenius).


Next in the series on Neopaganism, we look at two books by Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Murray "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe:  A Study in Anthropology") and The God of the Witches (Murray The God of the Witches).  Murray was a respected Egyptologist.  However, due to travel restrictions she delved into European history as well in the second half of her life.  And what she came up with is, to say the least, unique.

ּThere are a number of facts of which most of us are at least vaguely aware upon which Murray builds:
  • Magic has been practiced for thousands of years—and the magic discussed here is not stage magic, but the attempt to do what stage magicians only pretend they are doing.
  • Europe has many legends about fairies.
  • Christians at times have been worried (or paranoid) about witches that served Satan.
  • Witches reportedly often had familiars, frequently in the form of animals.
  • Witches reportedly were specially marked by the Devil.
  • Witches reportedly sacrificed humans.
  • Witches reportedly had regular gatherings (“sabbats”) where they worshipped the Devil, often naked and with the Black Mass and other outrageous rites.
  • At times witches reportedly flew to sabbats.
  • Christians have at times engaged in witch-hunts and even tortured, tried, and executed purported witches, often very cruelly.
There is more than one conceivable way to understand these facts, and Murray chose a truly unusual one:  that witches are real.  She did not go so far as to say openly in either book that magic actually works or that Satan really exists, but she interpreted witches as crypto-pagans who worshipped a horned god who was ritually impersonated by one of his followers.  To her, the witch-hunts were attempts by Christians to route out paganism among peasants.  Murray quotes copious examples on each of these facts to better give the reader some idea what was claimed and explains how even the most unlikely sounding of them could be true.  E.g., reported flying to sabbats may be due to use of a hallucinatory ointment and thus reflect subject experience and not objective reality.  Mixed in with this is the idea that fairies were a real race of people living in Britain.  Murray also claims that among these witch-pagans there was the institution of a “sacred king” who ruled a while and was then ritually executed (in person or in the form of a substitute victim), which she deals with at length in The God of the Witches.  She sees hints of the practice even among European royalty and gives a few examples.

Your humble blogger is not an expert on European history, but certain aspects of Murray’s treatment are difficult at best.  One of the most obvious is that much of the testimony she relies upon was obtained under torture or threat of torture—and most of us are aware that under such conditions humans are liable to lie to end or avoid pain.  Murray glosses over this by claiming many confessed freely, but one could easily suggest that such people were complete pain wimps.  There is also the problem that she is relying only on problematic testimony and legends.  To break it down:
  • Murray never produces unambiguous physical evidence that fairies ever existed, even though the remains and artifacts of a whole extra species of human living in an area also populated by Homo sapiens would probably have long ago been noticed.  To compare:  there actually was a race of short near-humans, Homo floresiensis, also known as “hobbits”, which lived in Indonesia maybe as late as 12,000 years ago, and they left behind skeletons and tools.  (They also lived too early to be Murray’s fairies and were on the wrong side of Eurasia.)
  • There is no independent evidence that Murray’s crypto-paganism ever existed.  Hidden religious practices have actually been documented.  For example, one of the targets of the Spanish Inquisition was crypto-Jews.  The practical problem with secrets in general is that they often get leaked.  This is especially true in religion, in which keeping secrets is problematic, as religions are very frequently not limited to single people.  If there were a lot of pagans running around in Europe then, why did no one write about them?  Why do we not have any leaked copies of someone’s Book of Shadows?  Why do we not have any of their ritual tools?  How did they manage to keep themselves out of history except for witch trial records?
  • People confessed to being Satanists.  No one confessed to being a pagan.  The distinction between the two is nontrivial, and one does not need to be theologically sophisticated to understand it.  Why would the reports be so accurate in many aspects yet universally fail in this one?
  • That witches purportedly meet at sabbats (= Shabbath, Sabbath) and in gatherings called “synagogues” smacks of anti-Semitism rather than a faithful representation of crypto-paganism.  What witches reportedly practice and believe is not even vaguely Jewish, and it makes no sense for pagans to use Jewish terminology for their own practices.
  • The evidence for the existence in the Christian era in Europe of sacred kings and substitute victims for them consists purely of hints, bits of anomalous information which fit into her hypothesis.  At no point does she ever tell us anything which qualifies as anything near direct evidence, such as a servant’s testimony that King Henry II was secretly a pagan and he was determined that Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket would be his substitute victim.
Murray also does not deal with alternate explanations for the trial records.  For example, one could easily suggest that there have been mass delusions of Satanic witchcraft, much in the same way that in more recent years people have had mass delusions of alien abduction.  One could also easily suggest that there were moral panics, similar to more recent panics about Satanic abuse cults; people were falsely accused, and many confessed to the imagined crimes of others due to torture.  Both of these possibilities could also have worked together.

Does this mean that there were no crypto-pagans?  No.  Only that Murray is not giving a good argument for their existence.

What do actual Neopagans think about Murray’s hypothesis?  Your humble blogger has one book in his library, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (Adler), which is an academic study of Neopaganism by a Neopagan, and it includes a history of Murray’s hypothesis within the Neopagan community (Adler 47-56); to make a long story short, it was widely believed early on, but with improved scholarship, even those believing in underground survival of paganism came to believe that Murray was inaccurate.  Other material your humble blogger found accuse her of biased selection of source materials and summarize subsequent scholarship making better use of available materials and coming to different conclusions (Gibbons; Evans).

If Murray does a bad job, what is the significance of her work today?  First, whatever the quality of her work or the correctness of her conclusions, her works on witchcraft helped give rise to Neopaganism.  Everyone agrees her hypothesis was commonly believed early in the history of the modern witchcraft movement.  Thus she contributed to the illusion that Neopaganism has more of a history than it really does, and she gave everyone who hated Christians yet another reason to hate them.  Furthermore, ideas were taken over into Wicca:  the Horned God, ritual impersonation of gods, ritual sex, the sabbat, the esbat, ritual dancing, feasting, the working of magic, initiation, vows, and the whole sacred king business.  Murray went off the deep end in writing about witchcraft, but she nevertheless created something still influential today.