Apparently anthropology didn’t need real sources…
Much of the nonsense you might hear uttered about the history of Wicca and witchcraft started with an anthropologist named Margaret Murray. She first published a book on the subject of European witchcraft in the 1920s, despite the fact that her entire academic background was in Egyptology. You will see her name in the bibliographies of many, many books on Wicca, particularly older books. I generally take mention of her as a reason NOT to purchase a book. What the Wiccan books that cite her generally fail to mention is that her witchcraft theories were thoroughly discredited several decades ago due to a painful and unprofessional lack of evidence.
Was she a sham?
Murray never claimed to be Wiccan or Pagan or a follower of the Old Religion, so she had nothing to gain from deception. She probably honestly thought she was promoting historical truth, although her research methods ranges from ignorant to outright deceptive. For example, she provides several quotes from witch-trial documents which are taken completely out of context, and at least one in which she removed the middle of a paragraph, running the beginning and end of the paragraph together as if they made one complete thought, completely changing the meaning of the text.
What did she teach?
She believed, in short, that there was an ancient Old Religion in Europe far predating Christianity and that it secretly survived for centuries despite the Church’s attempt to destroy it, culminating in the great witch-hunts, which Wiccans have taken to calling the Burning Times.
According to Murray, the witch-cult was the oldest religion in the world and was practiced by Stone-Age people. Her evidence is two cave paintings, neither of which, according to historian Ronald Hutton, depict what Murray claims they depict. Even if they did, the evidence is way too slight to make such a sweeping claim. One image is supposedly a group of people dancing in a circle. The second is supposedly a priest in animal skins with deer antlers on his head.
Murray’s theoretical witch-cult worshipped a single horned god which priests emulated by wearing horned headdresses. Christians, trying to exterminate the cult, claimed this horned god was Satan. Stories of witch gatherings in which Satan was present can thus be explained by a priest wearing a headdress. She initially believed that this cult survived until the 17th century, when the witch-trials finally wiped them out, although Gerald Gardner got her to write an introduction for his Witchcraft Today in 1954.
She provided several “facts” about witches that are now embedded within Wicca. For one, she claimed that covens always had thirteen members. For another, she listed the four holidays we now accept as the Major Sabbats. She also linked the word coven specifically to witches, even though the word originally merely meant an assembly, not a witch assembly.
Why did people believe her?
In the 1920s, there simply were very few English-speaking academics who considered the witch-trials a subject deserving of study. The trials had ended in large part because people stopped believing in magic and witchcraft. If there is no witchcraft, then there could have been no witches, and trial victims were accepted to be victims of a hysteria, end of story. Very few people were familiar with the evidence Murray was using. Thus, very few people realized how selective she was being or how badly she abused it.
The English world’s ignorance of witchcraft is highlighted by the fact that the Encyclopedia Britannica allowed Murray to write their definition of witchcraft in 1929, even though Murray had published only a single book on the subject. That was Britannica’s idea of a witch expert! The definition was published for forty years.
The very bizarre members of Murray’s witch-cult
One of Murray’s theories was that this secret pagan cult practiced voluntary human sacrifice. Every nine years a believer had to die. She puts forward several such victims, including King William Rufus (William II) of England, Saint Thomas Becket, and Saint Joan of Arc. Yes, note the “Saint” in two of those names.
Rufus was a bore of a man and detested by nearly everyone during his life, so much so that his body was quickly secured and buried before anyone could defile it. He died on a hunting excursion, when a friend “accidentally” shot him with an arrow. Ironically, historians tend to think it really was an accident. Murray suggests that this friend was in fact a fellow pagan carrying out Rufus’s wishes: they had already willingly separated from the rest of a hunting party and were therefore alone.
Similarly Becket’s murderers were in fact fellow pagans, according to Murray, flying straight into the face of all accepted history of the saint. Becket was a personal friend of King Henry II, and Henry arranged for him to become archbishop of Canterbury, as the politics between Church and State were not at their healthiest at the time. But Becket had a change of heart. Perhaps it was simply a bit of a power trip for him, or perhaps he did indeed experience a religious reverie. Regardless, Becket began opposing the King much as his predecessor had, until one night, while drunk, Henry famously uttered, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took this to be an order, rode hard to Canterbury, and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. Henry was profoundly wracked by guilt, was censured by the Church, and submitted to a whipping by Church officers in penance.
The only odd fact of this whole story is that Becket had warning of the knights’ arrival, and when his subordinates attempted to spirit him away, he refused. But instead of accepting this final act as submission to God’s will (and one of the reasons why he was canonized), Murray spins this fantastical and quite illogical tale of secret religions and pagan sacrifice.
Joan of Arc’s story is the most bizarre of Murray’s fables. Instead of having her fellow pagans slaughter her, she allowed herself to be captured and burned at the stake at the hands of the Christian Church. What religious purpose can possibly be served at the hands of a nonbeliever? If this rather sophomoric religion that Murray depicts merely needed a death, then why did she not simply fall upon her sword, poison herself, even throw herself from a high wall? Instead, she was tortured, humiliated and possibly raped before suffering one of the most horrific and painful methods of execution possible.
To make such claims without a shred of evidence is just plain irresponsible. To take two great heroes of someone else’s religion and claim they were, in fact, pagans is outright insulting. And even if this crazy religion did actually exist, why on earth would modern Wiccans want to be associated with it? I’ve never seen a Wiccan claim Joan or Becket as among our ranks, but the idea that we would associate ourselves at all with Murray’s nonsense is depressing.