Since biblical times, tales of witches and the spells they cast have enchanted people. There have been witch hunts and rumors of witchcraft in every country and culture.
By the time of the famous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the 1690s, Europe had been persecuting witches for hundreds of years. There were between 40,000 to 60,000 executions in Western Europe during the Early Modern period (1450 AD – 1789 AD). The number of “witches” executed is believed to be higher, but the figures do not account for any undocumented lynchings or murders.
What sparked this violent response to witches? It likely started in 1450 AD, when whispers of the existence of a cult of witches swept through Western Europe. These rumors resurfaced again in the early 19th century, and led to the formation of what was known as The Witch-Cult Hypothesis.
What Was The Witch-Cult Hypothesis?
The Witch-Cult Hypothesis was the belief that the witch trials of the Early Modern Period were a way to suppress a pre-Christian religion, one that had survived the Christianization of Europe. It was believed that this pagan religion worshiped a “horned god” and had become a cult in which witchcraft was practiced.
The idea of a cult of witches began in 1450 when a Catholic clergyman wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum. The title has been translated to mean the “Hammer of Witches” and it contains one of the first anthologies of demonology.
Along with demonology, the book states that sorcery and witchcraft are examples of heresy. Torture of accused witches for confessions was an appropriate punishment for these crimes.
In the 15th century, heretics were often burned alive at the stake. With witchcraft seen as heresy, it is the reason why witches have been killed the same way. These barbaric practices were legitimized by the Church in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII overturned previous laws.
In a public statement on the Catholic legal position known as a papal bull, the Pope changed the church’s stance on witchcraft. The bull acknowledged the existence of witches and justified their punishment as heretics.
During this time the Inquisition, the arm of the Church tasked with identifying and punishing heretics, swept the continent. The Inquisition encouraged imprisonment, torture, and punishment of witches for being heretics. The papal bull forced local law enforcement to do what the Inquisitors ordered, or face excommunication.
There were many trials and punishments for the death of witches across Europe until the late 17th century, when they finally halted. It wasn’t until 1921 that the witch-cult hypothesis became popular in Western Europe. While many had contributed to the theory, one scholar pushed the hypothesis into the spotlight. The scholar was British Egyptologist Margaret Murray.
Meet Dr. Margaret Murray
Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist, archeologist, historian, anthropologist, and folklorist. She worked at the University College London (UCL), where she became the first woman to be a lecturer in anthropology.
She was well known in the field of Egyptology, being the first female to unwrap a mummy and for publishing many books about ancient Egypt. She was referred to as “The Grand Old Woman of Egyptology.”
When anthropological digs were paused due to WWI, she began to study folklore. Murray became interested in the witch trials of Early Modern Europe (1450-1789). In 1917 she published a paper that said witches were followers of a legitimate religion. This religion had beliefs, rituals, and structures that had developed into a cult.
In 1921 Murray published the book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. This book went into great detail about the traditions and holidays of this proposed cult, and was also based on documents of the trials of accused witches in the United Kingdom.
The book included scandalous information about sacrificing non-Christian children, orgiastic practices for fertility and sex, and other titillating details about the supposed practices of witches. It was said that the covens of witches always had 13 members, and that they worshipped Satan.
The Witch-Cult in Western Europe received mixed reviews. Some academics loved it, and others hated it, stating that none of the information was valid as the records of confessions she used as sources were gained through torture. In addition, many believed she misinterpreted the records.
Undeterred, in 1931 Murray published her second book, The God of the Witches. It was similar to her first book, but this publication was not written for academics but for a general audience. In The God of the Witches, the tone of her writing changed from very dry and academic to emotional.
She began to call the cult “the Old Religion” and got rid of the details that made the cult look negative. The witches’ god was now called the Horned God. She claimed that the Horned God had been worshipped in Europe since the stone age.
Her academic peers took issue with her witch-cult theory, citing her expertise only in Egyptology, with no training in European History. Again, both books and Murray were criticized for assuming confessions from witch trials in the 15th and 16th centuries were true.
In this she repeated her earlier error in not doubting these confessions, even though many admissions were made during torture. Many spoke about her flawed research, but Murray believed in her research and writing.
Her books were popular with the general public, and she was asked to write the entry on “witchcraft” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. That entry supported her witch-cult hypothesis, claiming that there was a secret underground pagan cult that survived the Christianization of Europe. Her entry was in every publication of the encyclopedia until 1969.
Public access to the encyclopedia and this inflammatory entry impacted British culture. In the 1950s, British occultists began to claim they found small covens of witches, surviving witch cults. The most notable was Gerald Gardner, who used her theories to establish the neo-pagan religion of Wicca.
The Witch-Cult Hypothesis in the 21st Century
Nowadays we have a different viewpoint. The witch-cult hypothesis is considered pseudohistorical and has been entirely discredited. Were there pagans in Western Europe before the Christianization of Europe? Yes, many countries in Europe have known histories of paganism.
However, there were different kinds of paganism and practices. Murray’s idea of a witch cult with universal pagan faith practiced by all witches was impossible. Much of what was written in both of Murray’s books contradicts itself. Information from the trial transcripts was manipulated and exaggerated, primarily to support her ideas and beliefs.
Many historians have stated that her ideas were accepted due to her reputation as an Egyptologist and a lecturer at University College London. Her credentials implied she was an expert in the minds of readers. Or nobody cared that much about the witch-cult hypothesis even to bother researching it further.
The Witch-Cult Hypothesis has been proven academically and historically false. Yet the belief in witches, covens, magic, and that anyone can be a witch occurs today. Even with this flawed theory, witches still fascinate and frighten people worldwide.
Top Image: Was there an organized witchcraft religion in medieval Europe/ Source: mak_alexandra / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
2017. The King James Bible. Thomas Nelson/ HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc.
Russell, J. Alexander, B. 2007. A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans. Thames & Hudson, 2nd edition.
Murray, M. 1921. The Witch-Cult In Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford University Press/ The Project Gutenburg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20411/20411-h/20411-h.htm
Burr, G. 1922. Reviewed Work: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray. The American Historical Review, Vol.27, No.4. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1837549?seq=1
Loeb, E.M. 1922. MISCELLANEOUS: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Margaret Alice Murray. American Anthropologist, 24. Available at: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1525/aa.1922.24.4.02a00150
De Angelis, L. 2019. Witch Hunting in the 16th and 17th Century England. The Histories, Vol. 8. Available at: https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=the_histories
Simpson, J. 1994. Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why? Folklore, 105. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0015587X.1994.9715877