The Myth Of Pagan Witchcraft

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As the earlier contributions to this series have made clear, by the end of the eighteenth century educated opinion in Europe had virtually ceased to believe in the reality of acts of witchcraft. Such a change made the early modern trials and executions appear to have been a senseless series of atrocities, born of superstition and obscurantism, and that is how they were portrayed by the writers of the Enlightenment. As such, they represented a superb weapon with which to castigate the old order in Church and state. This liberal,- rationalist, discourse became the dominant one in European and American academe until the 1960s; the ending of the trials for witchcraft was repeatedly cited as one of the supreme triumphs of reason and science over the ancient evils of humanity.

There was, however, an alternative scholarly tradition, which first appeared, like so many of the cultural currents in this story, in Germany. It was not, however, a product of the Romantic movement so much as of that period of reaction which followed the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. Two scholars working under authoritarian rulers, Karl-Ernst Jarcke at Berlin in 1828 and Franz-Josef Mone at Baden in 1839, proposed that the victims of the trials had in fact been practising a surviving pagan religion 0arcke, 1828: 450; Mone, 1839: 271-5, 441-5). If this theory was correct, then it made witch persecution rational, and perhaps even excusable. Mone may have arrived at it independendy ofjarcke, and indeed it seems to have been in the air of Germany at this time; in 1832 Felix Mendelssohn's choral work Die Erste Walpurgisnacht portrayed a group of medieval pagans who frighten off Christians trying to disrupt their traditional May Eve festivities by pretending to be witches. Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, written in 1844, incorporated a 'softer' version of it, by suggesting that behind the early modern stereotype of the witch lay memones of pagan beliefs and rites, and an ancient tradition of magic-wielding women (Gnmm, 1883: iii.1044—93).

This idea had the potential to deprive liberalism of one of its favourite means of discrediting the confessional state, and invited a response. It was provided resoundingly by the Frenchman Jules Michelet, one of the century's great radical historians. He was a bitter enemy of the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocracy, an unqualified admirer of the Renaissance and the French Revolution, and an author of vivid and very popular books. He knew virtually nothing of medieval social history except romances and fairy tales, and almost all his information upon witch triais was taken from pamphlets. This did not inhibit him at all. In 1862 he brought out La Sorcière, a best-seller which asserted that, the pagan religion of the witches had been the repository of popular liberties all through the tyranny of the Middle Ages. In his fantasy of it, it was feminist, always led by priestesses, and also nature-loving, joyful, democratic and pacifist. Michelet, indeed, went further than even the most uninhibited modern pagan writer, by claiming that the Renaissance had been produced by the natural wisdom of the witches working its way upward to artists and writers. After La Sorcière it might be said that Wicca was a religion waiting to be re-enacted, but the book appeared too early, and in the wrong country, to act as a direct inspiration. French intellectuals were both too irreligious and lacked an admiration of the rural world.

Michelet:s influence in this respect, therefore, was to be more potent when filtered through writers in English. One of these was the American adventurer Charles Godfrey Leland who, after many travels, came to setde in Italy and publish a succession of works upon Tuscan folklore. Initially, these included wholly traditional tales of malefic witchcraft and of witches' revels, although apparendy not without the habit of embroidery and rewriting which marred Leland's reputation in the eyes of more scholarly folklonsts (Powell, 1903). In 1899, however, he published a work of quite a different, indeed unique, sort, Aradia, which purported to print the gospel of the Italian branch of the old pagan witch religion, given to him by one of its last representatives. Its debt to Michelet was explicit, as was its political purpose; to counter what Leland took to be the unhealthy contemporary nostalgia for the Middle Ages, and to expose them again as a time of repression in which the witches featured as freedom-fighters. In one major respect, his text was still more feminist than that of the Frenchman, for the deity of his vision of the religion was a goddess, Diana, who was both associated with witches by some medieval writers and with the ideal pagan female deity of the nineteenth century. No historian of medieval or early modern Italy has ever found a context for this 'gospel' or accepted it as genuine.

Leland was only the most colourful of a tno of writers m English who took up the idea of a witch religion during the 1890s. Another was the eminendy respectable Sir Lawrence Gomme, whose presidency of the Folk-Lore Society has already been mentioned. In 1893 he mispresented Grimm as having demonstrated the pagan character of traditional European witchcraft, and soared off into the imaginative stratosphere to present readers with a picture of an initiatory faith which had earned on teaching the secrets of Druidry. To Gomme, the witch was the medieval and early modern successor of the Druid pnestess (Gomme, 1893: 48-57). Five years later a professor of mathematics m London, Karl Pearson, took a similar intellectual holiday by opining that witches had been the adherents of a cult of the Great Mother Goddess surviving from prehistoric matriarchy. He suggested that the purpose of its ntuais had been to promote fertility and that Joan of Arc had been one of its leaders. Although generally hostile to the religion which he portrayed, he concluded by proposing that a recognition of its former existence would be beneficial m improving the status of women in the modern world (Pearson, 1897; ii.1-50).

What all these portraits lacked was a systematic basis in research conducted into the early modern trial records, and this was apparendy provided between 1917 and 1921, in a book and series of articles by Margaret Aliie Murray. She was already distinguished as an Egyptologist, and that remained the mainstay of her career. For present purposes, however, it is important that she was a member of the Folk-lore Society and a devoted admirer of the ideas of Sir James Frazer. Her portrait of early modern witchcraft combined Michelet's idea of a pagan peasant cult mosdy staffed by women but venerating a horned nature-god, Leland's characterization of it ¿s 'The Old Religion", Gomme's nodon of an initiatory succession of devotees, Pearson's belief that it had mainly been concerned with fertility rites, and Frazer's concept of the regular sacrifice of sacred kings. She supported each part of it with liberal quotation of evidence from the records of actual trials. Her first papers upon the subject were delivered to the Folk-Lore Society and published in its journal m 1917 and 1920. Encouraged by their reception, which included immediate praise from worthies of the society such as Charlotte Burne, she brought out a first book on the subject in 1921, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, from Oxford University Press.

In the following three decades she produced three more works in the same field. By far the most influential in the academic world was an essay in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute for 1934, which concerned the then enigmatic figures of naked women carved in medieval churches and known by the Irish name of sheela-na-gig. She proposed that they had represented pagan goddesses of fertility, still venerated by the bulk of the population, and exposing further the fragility of the covering of upper-class Christianity which overlay the enduring paganism of medieval Britain. This idea was the direct inspiration for Lady Raglan's theory about the 'Green Man', and remained an orthodoxy among archaeologists until the late 1970s (Hutton, 1991; 308-16).

In 1931 she had published a sequel to The Witch Cult, entided The God of the Witches. It represented in a sense a culmination of the cult of Pan in modern England, for it asserted the doctnne that the horned god of the greenwood had been the oldest male deity known to humans, and traced his worship across Europe and the Near East, from the Old Stone Age up to the seventeenth century. This was achieved by seizing upon every representation of a homed god in European art or literature and identifying it with him, and reasserting the idea that he had been the focus of worship for the witches, and the origins of the figure of the Christian Devil. In doing so, she popularized some of the other names under which horned male deities had been known m the ancient world, notably the Gallic Cernunnos and the Arabic Dhu'l Kamain, applied to the ram-horned images of Alexander the Great.

The book was also notable for revising the picture of the 'Old Religion' given in The Witch Cult m order to make it much more attractive. The earlier work had been both more objective in tone and more inclined to credit witches with some of the more discreditable customs, such as child sacrifice, which had been alleged against them by demonologists. The new book went to some lengths to refute or extenuate these, and to emphasize the joyous and nature-loving aspects of the religion. Furthermore, it took up Pearson's suggestion that Joan of Arc had been a witch priestess, and extended it to include other notable figures such as William Rufus and Thomas Becket as victims representing a divinity of the Frazenan kind, killed according to the traditional faith. This idea was taken still further m a third book, The Divine King in England (1954), which claimed every violent royal death and almost every execution of a prominent politician in England until 1600 to have been a sacrifice of the same sort.

In these later years, also, her attitude to witchcraft seems to have shifted once more, meshing with her preoccupation with the theme of human sacrifice obvious in that last book. During the late 1940s she took an interest in a number of unsolved murders recorded in England during the previous 10 years, and came to the conclusion that they were evidence that witch groups were still operating in the country and despatching victims in rituals dedicated to devil-worship. She was particularly interested in an exceptionally brutal killing near Lower Quinton, Warwickshire, and when the villagers indignantiy denied her claims, she responded with the traditional contempt of learned folklonsts for popular opimon, by declaring that they were obviously concealing their true beliefs. She printed her views m The Birmingham Post (2 September 1951) and imparted them to a writer of popular works on crime, who made them the theme of a book which he wrote upon the two most sensational of the cases concerned (McCormick, 1968: 64-80).

In 1954, however, she was persuaded to act formally as the godmother of Wiccaf, in the sense that she contributed an approving forward to the first book which announced the existence of that religion to the world, Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today. The work concerned asserted that Wicca was no revival, but a genuine survival into modem times, of the historic witch faith described m her own publications. That the faith had survived should itself have been no difficult thing for Murray to believe, as she had so recendy been suggesting the same thing; her problem was, rather, that she had been warning the public that it had been corrupted into something evil and dangerous, and now she had to cope with the suggestions that other lines of it had come down to the present in a benign form. Her response was to state that she took Gardner's word, both for the genuine nature of the survival and the postive nature of its activities, and then to inform readers that all good religious rituals must honour the same God. She suggested that Christianity did so 'more decorously although not more sincerely' than witchcraft.

Colleagues of Margaret Murray in the Folk-Lore Society were convinced that* she herself was !a whole-hearted sceptic and rationalist5 in matters of religion (Simpson, 1994: 89), and she informed readers o{ The Sunday Dispatch ( 4 November 1951) that the power of witches resided only in the credulity of others. These attitudes were not wholly consistent. She was certainly not a Christian, and acquired a detestation of the more enthusiastic adherents of that faith because of the attacks which some made upon her portrait of'the Old Religion (Murray, 1963: 103; Oxford University Press Archive, 881053). Towards the end of her life, however, she began to testify to her awareness of '"an Almighty Power' which rules the universe and of which she would obtain higher knowledge upon death (Murray, 1963: 197-204). In her preface to Witchcraft Today she gave this power a gender, flagrandy ignoring the duotheism of the religion actually described m the book to declare that all religious ritual was gratitude to the Creator and hope for the constance of His goodness'. She also believed herself to be a witch, and put curses upon people; the proof of this is contained in a letter preserved in the archive of Oxford University Press (881053). One example of a public demonstration of her techniques is recounted m the entry upon her m the Dictionary of National Biography, although its author assumed rather uneasily that she was joking.

Her influence was powerful, if complex and uneven. No academic seems to have taken seriously her theones about Joan of Arc, William Rufus, and other historical celebrities, although they were developed by 4pop' historians such as Hugh Ross Williamson and Michael Harrison. Her original work upon early modern witchcraft as a pagan religion, by contrast, convinced such distinguished scholars as Sir Steven Runciman, Chnstopher Hill and Sir George Clark. These were, admittedly, not experts m the field concerned. Those found fault with her suggestions from the very beginning (Thomas, 1971: 514—19), and eventually utterly disproved them m the period 1970-90. It is also true that she met with opposition even in her stronghold of the Folk-Lore Society, and The Witch Cult received a withenng review in its journal (Simpson, 1994: 89—96). On the other hand, there were also regular demonstrations of support for her ideas m the same society (Hutton, 1996: 424), and as the case of Frazer has spectacularly: illustrated, public acclaim and influence can actually flourish m inverse proportion to expert opinion.

In the 1920s her picture of the witch religion, no doubt reinforced by the older writings of Michelet, Leland, Gomme and Pearson, had already been taken up by occultists (as the contributions to The Occult Review make plain} and by the very popular novelist John Buchan, who built it into Witch Wood (1927). Her books on the subject, none the less, sold slowly until the 1940s, when The God of the Witches suddenly enjoyed a runaway success which continued for the next two decades, producing a reprinting of The Witch Cult and the appearance of The Divine King (Murray, 1963: 104-5; Oxford University Press Archive, 881053). In 1947-8 alone, her theories were endorsed by a serious study of folklore by Arne Runeberg, a scholarly survey of witchcraft beliefs by R. Trevor Davies, and a novel and a sensational work of amateur history by Hugh Ross Williamson. It will be argued that these years were also critical in the formation of Wicca, which m this respect was one, and the most important, aspect of the vogue for her writings at this time.

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