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The Burning of Margaret Murray
Article ID: 13651
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 2,209
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Author: Fire Lyte
Posted: January 24th. 2010
Times Viewed: 7,640
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There existed a pan-European, pre-Christian religion – called the “Old Religion” – that centered on a triple-Goddess and a horned God. This Goddess and God were worshipped by covens of thirteen witches who held ritual sabbats led by a High Priest and High Priestess. The Christian church waged war against these witches, killing 9 million of them in a period called “The Burning Times.” Due to this persecution, witches began using everyday household items that couldn’t be used by the Inquisition as evidence of witchcraft. All of this is why we now have a resurgence of belief in the Goddess and God, keep the sabbats, and use simple tools like cauldrons, knives, herbs, and candles as our craft tools.
Have you heard this? Does it sound like the given history, more or less, of modern neo-paganism? Doesn’t it sound really true?
Meet Margaret Murray. Pardon... Dr. Margaret Murray. Dr. Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist, born in 1863, who began having an interest in European religion and witchcraft in general after she was no longer able to conduct field research in Egypt. Hilda Davidson, a close friend of Murray’s in later years, said, “She behaved in fact rather like someone who was a fully convinced member of some unusual religious sect, or perhaps, of the Freemasons…” What was she convinced of, and how did she come to this conclusion?
Well, for most of the 1800s theories began being pieced together by various folklorists and historians that gave credence to the idea that perhaps the witches persecuted in the witch hunts of Europe and the Americas were not Satanic, but were part of ancient pagan traditions. These theorists took ideas from the mystery cults of Greece and the sacrificial rites of Druids, combined them with pseudo-evidence of an ancient matriarchy, peppered in a bit of Renaissance stereotypes of witchcraft, and came up with a general notion that the priestesses of a Goddess-centric, non-Satanic religion had survived since Neolithic times.
Also included in these theories were the beginnings of conjectures that literary settings like Camelot and Atlantis were real and so were the people in those stories. Murray bought this. Murray bought it lock, stock, and barrel, and took what little evidence there was to support some of these theories and went far beyond the realm of acceptable hypotheses, actually creating much of her ideas out of the thinnest of air.
Her views were published in her first book on the subject in 1921 titled The Witch-cult in Western Europe. It was in this first book that she outlined what she considered irrefutable facts about the covens of thirteen, the Horned God, and, most importantly, that there existed a singular and unified European witchcraft religion. Diana was the Goddess, and Dianus (or Kernunnos) was the Horned God, and they were both aspects of one deity – who eventually was just known as the Horned One.
Modern historians credit her with the creation of the word ‘esbats’ which was a time, she claimed, that these covens met to do business. She also claimed that the High Priest, dressed all in animal skins, was whom Christians turned into the Devil when they said witches met in their covens with Satan. Her book also said that all the pagans of Europe gathered to celebrate Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain – which she called Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and All Hallow’s Eve (the Christian names for these days) . Furthermore, she stated that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were members of this witch-cult.
Her theories lit up the popular, historical world. So much so that by 1929 she was asked to write the article on Witchcraft by the Encyclopedia Britannica, which seemed to legitimize her findings even further. 4 years after this, in 1933, her next book on the subject, titled The God of the Witches, in which she cited Cernunnos and Pan as further faces of the Horned God, cemented her place as chief historian concerning all things dealing with this supposed witch-cult. Her later books continued to spread her theories, and the masses ate up every word. After all, she was the only widely read author spouting these theories, and she did so with such authority and on such a widespread medium as best-selling books.
However, critics were quick to try and shut down her theories. Noted historian C.L. Ewen in 1938 called them “vapid balderdash.” However, the critics that came out in the early 1900s against her theories were published in more obscure peer-reviewed academic journals than her singular books, and therefore were not seen by as many people. Thus, Murray went on to become the leading expert on witchcraft, despite the fact that her findings were not supported by facts.
Many historians have since come out against the findings of Murray, but by the time such equally respected names as Ronald Hutton went against her, she had already found her way into popular culture by way of science fiction and actual religion.
H.P. Lovecraft, who himself created a stir with his fictional accounts of a little book called the Necronomicon, took her theories and ran with them in his works. Other writers like Dennis Wheatley and Robert Graves followed suit. It has even been suggested by modern historian Jacqueline Simpson, along with many others, that Murrayite covens sprung up due to a desire to continue the traditions and beliefs espoused in Murray’s texts. Simpson suggests that it was one of these covens that took in a man named Gerald Gardner, who we all know as the founder and creator of Wicca.
Thus, if this is true, modern Wicca and witchcraft as we know it can all be attributed to the misappropriation of information drummed up by Margaret Murray. Now, I’ll talk about Gardner in a later article, so save your rants about how pure the coven was that took in Gardner until then. I’m just presenting one set of historical theories.
What cannot be denied, however, is that Murray’s theories have taken a permanent hold on popular culture. Nearly any show dealing in magic these days mentions the Old Religion, at least in passing. It is nearly impossible to swing a broomstick in a metaphysical bookstore without hitting a text that cites Murray’s work, or one of her descendant’s, as part of their research. Big named pagans still talk about Murray’s work as if they haven’t read a history book in the last half-century. So, let’s take a look at some of her theories and a quicker look at the facts that dispute them. Don’t worry, I’ll most likely go in-depth into each of them in later articles, but for the sake of time and space I just want to touch on a couple briefly today.
The Burning Times. This is perhaps the broadest reaching of all of her theories. It encompasses everything: the war with the church, the pan-European pagan religion, the need for secrecy, and the covens. The information I’d like to look at, specifically, is the number of 9 million witches that were killed for their beliefs. Murray got this theory from flawed estimates created by the German scholar Gottfried Voigt.
I will most definitely be Inciting A Burning Riot in a later podcast in which I delve into the whole notion of the burning times, but I would like to succinctly discuss how this data is simply wrong. Respected modern historians Levack and Hutton give ranges of perhaps 60, 000-40, 000 (respectively) between the 14th and 18th centuries. However, disregarding estimations entirely, if you look at the recorded data, only 12, 545 deaths are attributed to witchcraft related executions. However, in nearly all European countries and the Americas, estimations for these executions are overblown by at least a factor of 10 and upwards of a factor of 1, 000.
What most people don’t realize is that the majority of the witch-hunts took place in a 100-year period in Germany between 1561 and 1670. In that 100 years, a little over 8, 000 people were put do death due to being accused of witchcraft. The next highest number is France with only 775, and the death counts drop off exponentially from there, with many countries only attributing 3 or 10 or less than 50 deaths to witchcraft-guilty executions.
Also, in many countries the vast majority of people accused of witchcraft were men. In Scandinavia, Finland, and Iceland, nearly all of the accused were men. Thus it could not be solely the “Women’s Holocaust” as many feminist pagan authors would put it, as 20-25% of all of those deaths in all countries involved in witchcraft trials were men. Historians point to a number of theories and factually informed possibilities for these deaths. The medical profession was losing money to midwives and their knowledge of herb lore, so they labeled them as witches. But the majority of the time, it is now known, the accusations were political or financial in motive.
Women who were unmarried, had land, and no heirs were targets for accusations, as men wanted their land. Men and women who were in the way of some ambitious politician were also in the crosshairs for being accused. So were adulterers, good and bad business owners – because nobody likes competition, and anyone else that just angered someone else with a big enough mouth and a wild enough imagination.
The Burning Times is a dynamic, well-told myth that plays on our emotions and sounds just good enough that we’d really like it to be real. It is this theory that has caused so much hatred of the Christian church by modern pagans, and I’m here to attempt to tell you…it’s a complete farce. Sorry.
Secondly, the idea that a secret, unified religion existed that worshipped Diana, the Goddess, and Cernunnos, the Horned God, and all of the business about covens and such could also not have happened. While it may be accurate to say that the church was never kind to those that believed in the various non-Christian pantheons of Gods and Goddesses, it is a far cry to assume that all of these polytheists belonged to the same faith.
If that were true, we would not have all of the different Gods and Goddesses of Europe, nor would we have the varying and incompatible practices of those peoples used to worship those deities. While nearly all of the Gods and Goddesses derived from older deities that go back to the beginning of mankind’s history, none of it was from a singular witchcraft cult originating in Europe. Man did not come from Europe, nor did his deities.
Ronald Hutton, religious historian, stated 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.” While her theories are creative, and generally accepted as truth, the information she bases her hypotheses on does not in any way wholly support her findings.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if they did? A beautiful, lush world full of witches and religious wars and secret codes and nondescript household items doubling as craft tools to get around the local Inquisitioner and people dying for their cause… That’s a great movie. That’s a great book. It was, in fact, several best-selling books that she wrote. However, they should really be sold in the fiction section. Many modern pagans are quick to discount Murray as a fraud, but they are not so quick to discredit her findings, because most of us don’t realize how much of our current practices stem back to her imagination.
There is a wealth of gorgeous, historically accurate information out there regarding the true practices of pre-Christian Europe. There are enough religious wars out there that can be studied and salivated over by the proper enthusiast. History shows that there were folk traditions in Europe and Asia and Africa and the Americas that involved magic and a plethora of Gods and Goddesses. Goodness, even the Bible has some excellent stories of ancient Hebrew kings consorting with witches who raised the dead for prophecy. Do the research. It’s fun to live in a magical world, but we must also live in reality.
We cannot pick and choose which historical facts we’re going to believe in. That’s exactly what we accuse Christians of doing with the Bible: selective learning. This is called confirmation bias in psychology. We like a theory, an idea, so much that we only look at the information that goes along with what we believe so we can pretend to have all these facts to support our thesis. When, in reality, there may be a host of data that categorically proves that theory wrong.
Facts can be our friends. You can live in a world of magic and Gods and Goddesses in conjunction with what the data supports. You can admit the origins of deities and where beliefs come from without having to drum up fantastical images of religious wars and pagan martyrs. I understand that at some point you have to go on faith and believe in something that science cannot prove. If you believe in magic at all, then you believe in something science could never prove.
I fall into that category, and I’m proud to do so. However, I also fall into the category of people that don’t just buy what the New Age section of the bookstore sells as facts. And that’s ok too.
But if the Burning Times is where you put your faith along with all the rest of the Murrayite theories, that’s ok as well, as long as you recognize that you believe in them out of faith and not because they’re historically accurate.
Sources cited in article.
Copyright: (c) Fire Lyte of Inciting A Riot 2009
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