The Literary Influence 7: The Witch-cult Hypothesis

Pagans are more known for their ‘live in a field’ aspect than that of ‘live in a library’, but camping out amongst the shelves may just find you a gem or two which has influenced pagan critical thinking about how we see the world around us, and how we view the past.

Throughout most of the history of Christian Europe, the prevailing concept of a ‘witch’ has been of a woman (male witches have fluctuated in recognition over the centuries) possessed of magical power gained through an unholy alliance with Satan. (One wonders if there’s any other kind of alliance with Satan…)

During the 17-1800s, the idea slowly emerged amongst Romanticists and mediaeval/Gothic revivalists that the witches who had for so long been condemned and reviled, and occasionally hunted, in Christian society were not consorting with the Dark One after all, but were actually maintaining an ancient, hidden tradition of organised pagan worship. An 1893 publication called Woman, Church and State by Matilda Joslyn Gage, argued that this tradition was the survival of a pre-Christian matriarchy centred on the worship of a Mother Goddess figure. Charles Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) expanded on this idea.

But it is the publication of Egyptologist Margaret Murray’s work The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) that now defines the culmination of these ideas in what has become known as the ‘Witch-Cult Hypothesis’.

Murray’s book outlined her conclusion – based on research she carried out whilst taking an enforced break from her studies in Egypt – that the witches of Europe were pagan worshippers carrying on their rites and rituals under the noses of the Roman Church. These practices, she argued, included human sacrifice and the worship of a Horned God: this latter she suggested as the true basis of accused witches’ admissions that they ‘worshipped the Devil’.

Over the next few decades Murray further developed her thesis, eventually incorporating many historical events and figures in a shadowy, ongoing struggle between the Christian orthodoxy and the ancient pagan religion: kings and queens and other influential people and agencies rose and fell according to the dynamics of this struggle.

Despite an initial period of popularity amongst other occultists and folklorists, Murray’s thesis has never had any significant academic support and today is considered entirely discredited in historical circles. Nevertheless, it has always enjoyed some popular appeal and influence and even now is embraced as fact, or at least as having some basis in fact, in some strands of Wicca and other modern witchcraft traditions.


[Please note that as with all external links on our site, Chesterfield Pagans has no control over Sacred Texts and we offer no opinion or assessment on the quality of the texts held thereon.]

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