How appropriate it would be if it were on Halloween, 50 years ago today, that I came across Margaret Murray’s The God of the Witches on a bookstore shelf and purchased it and read it through. And became completely hooked on it.
Actually, it was 50 years ago this coming February. But at the distance of half a century, does it really make a difference?
Margaret Alice Murray was born to an English family in Calcutta, about midway through our Civil War, on July 13, 1863. As of Halloween 1963, she was still alive. She died two weeks later, just a tad too early for me to send her a fan letter. Her autobiography, published just before her death, was titled My First Hundred Years.
Lord only knows what she would have done with her second century on this planet. During her first, she created a religion.
By training she was an Egyptologist. Around the age of 50, she branched out into anthropology and European history. In 1921 she published the book that would reshape the religious landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was entitled The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Its sequel, The God of the Witches, came out ten years later.
Murray’s thesis was this: that what the Christian churches called “witchcraft” was nothing more nor less than the pre-Christian religion of Western Europe, which persisted through the Middle Ages as the majority religion of the European peoples. Medieval Christian Europe? Forget about it. It’s a fantasy, the invention of what Murray called “the prejudiced pens of monkish chroniclers.” The true faith of medieval Europe, underneath a superficial Christian veneer, remained a pagan fertility cult focused on the figure of a Horned God, whom the aforesaid “monkish chroniclers” were only too pleased to identify with the Satan of their holy books.
Only at the end of the Middle Ages did the Church become strong enough to move against what Murray calls the “Old Religion.” The witch-persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries were the result. Today we often think of witch-burnings as something medieval; they weren’t. Before about 1500 such executions were practically unknown. But (said Murray) that wasn’t because there weren’t any witches to be burned. It was because they were too many of them; the Old Religion was too entrenched, too powerful. The Church didn’t dare attack its practitioners.
But then the tide turned.
“Towards the end of the [15th] century the Christian power was so well established that the Church felt that the time had come for an organized attack, and in 1484 pope Innocent VIII published his Bull against ‘witches’. All through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the battle raged. The Pagans fought a gallant, though losing, fight against a remorseless and unscrupulous enemy; every inch of the field was disputed. At first victory occasionally inclined to the Pagans, but the Christian policy of obtaining influence over the rulers and law-givers was irresistible. Vae victis [“woe to the defeated”] was also the policy of the Christians, and we see the priests of the Papacy gloating over the thousands whom they had consigned to the flames while the ministers of the Reformed Churches hounded on the administrators of the law to condemn the ‘devil-worshippers’.”
Not much room there for doubt, about the sympathies of this one-time Sunday School teacher. The quote is from the end of the introduction to The God of the Witches; and Murray goes on:
“What can have been the feelings with which those unhappy victims regarded the vaunted God of Love, the Prince of Peace, whose votaries condemned them to torture and death? What wonder that they clung to their old faith, and died in agony unspeakable rather than deny their God?”
How these words echoed within me, when I first read them nearly 50 years ago! I too was a descendant of those who clung to an old faith, who mostly hadn’t died “in agony unspeakable” for their loyalty to it, but who sometimes had. And were forced to watch their torturers’ maddening self-congratulations, their hypocritical smiley-face pose as apostles of pure light and love.
Yay, Pagans! Way to go, Pagans!
Of course, my own Jewish Scriptures weren’t too nice about those who clung to their old “idolatries,” although in the Law of Moses the favored counter-measure was stoning rather than burning. So I had a stake, if you’ll pardon the expression, in both sides of the religious contest Murray had conjured up. Which made it all the more exciting.
Also exciting: that Murray was revealing a new medieval history, one that our high school teachers were too dumb and ignorant to know about. (Medieval historians never took it seriously in the first place, but at first I didn’t know that. When I came to realize it, I figured it was because they were dumb and ignorant too.) At first Murray’s claims in this direction were relatively modest: that European witchcraft was neither devil-worship nor delusion, but a genuine religion that historians needed to reckon with. But by the last chapter of The God of the Witches, entitled “The Divine Victim,” her notions had begun to blossom in their full gorgeous extravagance.
Seems that the kings of medieval Europe, being really Pagan Divine Kings–the capitals are Murray’s–were periodically sacrificed to insure the fertility of their land, as Divine Kings tended to be in the theories made popular by Frazer’s Golden Bough. Unless they could find a substitute to die in their place.
Like, say, an Archbishop of Canterbury. Like, say, Thomas Becket.
“It is possible that, as wherever there had been a flamen of the Pagan religion a bishopric had been founded and an archbishop had replaced an archflamen, the duties of the archflamen of Canterbury descended to his Christian successor. If this were so, was perhaps one of those duties that the archflamen should act as the substitute for the king when a royal victim was required?”
Wow. So that was what the quarrel between Becket and Henry II was really about–not all the boring institutional stuff our history books tried to make us believe. At age 16, how was I supposed to know that this “archflamen of Canterbury” was pure fantasy, the spontaneous creation of Murray’s imagination?
What did a 16-year-old do in the 1960s to find out whether something was really true or not? Go to that touchstone of stuffy authority, the Encyclopedia Britannica–right? And the article on “Witchcraft” in the Britannica gave a resounding endorsement to Murray’s claims. Naturally. It was Margaret Murray who’d written the article.
So crypto-history is the real history, just as the crypto-science of UFOlogy is the real science. What’s in the textbooks is just cover-up. Peel away that covering, and it all makes sense.
This is the revelation that made Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, with its expose of the true origins of Christianity, a runaway best-seller. (Also a nasty sniping at the Catholic Church–a stand-in for your bad parents–which, as you’ve surely noticed, Murray was also capable of engaging in.)
Murray’s books became best-sellers too. They found plentiful echoes among multitudes of people, most of whom weren’t a 16-year-old Jewish UFOlogist with a grudge against the religion that made the nicest girls in his high school off limits for him. Taught by Murray about the “Old Religion,” many began to “remember” their own benevolent Pagan past. To cast it in the teeth of a Christianity that, uptight as it was, at least no longer burned people at the stake for being witches.
Or, as they now began calling themselves, “Wiccans.”
This part of the story I know only at second hand. I have to admit that I haven’t read Gerald Gardner’s seminal Witchcraft Today–published in 1954, with an introduction by Margaret Murray–in which Gardner described how 15 years earlier he’d been initiated into a witch coven in southern England that claimed to have survived from pre-Christian times. “Halfway through the ceremony,” says Wikipedia, Gardner “heard the word ‘Wica’, and he recognised it as an Old English word for ‘witch’.”
Thus “Wicca” was born. Gardner’s initiation was in 1939, eight years after the appearance of The God of the Witches. Life imitated art: in the decades that followed, thousands of spiritual seekers in the English-speaking countries–inspired by Murray’s ideas even if they’d never heard her name–fashioned an “Old Religion” for the new age. It’s a benign, nature-oriented religion, goddess-centered even though Murray herself had favored the male “Horned God” as its focus.
The witch as a cackling meanie? A lie, spread by witchcraft’s bigoted enemies. In 1929 the historian George Lyman Kittredge, trying to make sense of what he (like nearly all historians) regarded as the witch-delusion, wrote that the witch “is hunted down like a wolf because she is the enemy of mankind.” Another lie! The real-life witch, female or male, is a friend to mankind and womankind, children and animals and the whole green earth.
And so this Halloween, Alberta witch Trey Capnerhurst can complain about the holiday’s negative stereotyping of her faith, which she likens to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “Hanging up witch decorations at Halloween is no better than wearing blackface costumes or taking a slur, like ‘Redskins,’ as the name of your football team,” Capnerhurst is paraphrased as saying in CNN’s “Belief Blog.” “Unless one actually is a witch, dressing up as stereotypical witches is bigotry.”
Witches aren’t “consigned to the flames” these days. But they are the objects of unfunny jokes, cartoons showing them boiling children in cauldrons, which real-life witches would never dream of doing. Like any unfairly dumped-on minority, they protest.
Margaret Murray, whose historical dreamings birthed their “Old Religion” into the 20th century, would have nodded her approval.
by David Halperin
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