Margaret Alice Murray
The Witch-Cult in Western Europe
Lisbon: Portuguese Institute of Higher Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences, 2015
Seeing as Halloween (Sam Hain, Winter Nights, call it what you will) is upon us, I feel that it is the perfect time to review a book that has been a standard of the Craft since its original publication in 1921. There are — honestly — dozens of reprints of The Witch Cult in Western Europe out there. The book has long since passed into public domain, every real publisher, every indie publisher and every would-be publisher can legally and freely reprint and distribute it, and in these days of Amazon.com and CreateSpace, everyone seems to be doing just that.
So, should you, the reader, be interested in any one particular modern publisher’s particular reprint of this classic tome of Witchcraft? Yes, you should.
The particular edition I am reviewing is published by the IAEGCA (initials for what is translated into English as the Portuguese Institute of Higher Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences), and designed by no other than Flávio Gonçalves (see chapter 5 of this reviewed book, and also this series). This is a title in a longer series of titles, reprinted to further the exploration and exultation of (among other things) traditional European spiritual metaphysics. Every reprint that adds to our folkway is a positive one, every reprint that comes from a publisher who is part of our folkway is the best of these positives . . . and the one to choose when purchasing a copy. But, don’t let the fact that this publisher is worth supporting sway you—let the fact that this edition is worth owning do the sway.
Because it is always the cover that people judge the book by, despite common wisdoms to the contrary, I will begin my real review (as opposed to my preamble) of this particular edition here. The cover fits the book—combining straight forward back-cover information and an easy to read American style (running from top to bottom) spine with a haunting woodsy/pentagram-embellished image on the front— all done in shades and tones of dark on light. Stark? Not at all. Striking? Absolutely.
The text of the original is reprinted wholly, and there has been no attempt to sanitize or revise any of the content by editorials or notes inserted by the current publisher. Another feature of this edition, which is in keeping with the original, is that the extensive German, French, and archaic English testimonies and court records that Murray draws from as examples have not been translated: “les Sourciers neatmoins vont quelquefois de pied au sabbat . . .” or updated: “. . . they daunced together, and the ground under them wes all fyre flauchter.” The reader, then, does not have to trust that a translator has not (consciously or unconsciously) colored any of the meanings in any way. It can get a little inconvenient at times to have to puzzle out what is being stated (at least for this reviewer who has only a little German, and slightly more French—although I do have a knack for archaic English) but it is certainly not impossible—particularly with the overall context of most of the texts being narrowly focused, and the entire internet at our disposal to clarify anything that really bugs us.
All in all, a very decent copy from an excellent publishing house—what more can one ask for on the practical side of things? Okay, then, on to the intellectual side!
The Witch Cult in Western Europe is compelling reading — both from a historical point of view, and from a spiritual point of view. I am not a witch. I am a heathen — and, granted, for many readers of this review the distinction I make is hardly there, but for the rest of us, it is a wide enough gulf to be considered. So while I found some of the same sort of testimonials a little tedious — How many witches do we need tell us that the devil’s hand is “weire cold”? Quite a few, evidently, the evidence goes on for 3 pages — I never found any part of this book to be completely devoid of interest. Whether Murray’s extrapolated theories jell with accepted witchcraft lore is not in the scope of this reviewer. I will note, however, that this book seems to be always mentioned as “controversial” when it is mentioned in witchcraft circles at all. But I certainly found her theories plausible and her intentions to establish the fact of an indigenous European witchcraft religion laudable.
As the early historical records of these islands were made by Christian ecclesiastics, allowance must be made for the religious bias of the writers, which caused them to make Christianity appear as the only religion existing at the time But thought the historical records are silent on the subject the laws and enactments of the different communities, whether lay or ecclesiastical, retain very definite evidence of the continuance of the ancient cults.
From the mid 1400s to about the end of the 1600s, huge numbers of men and women in Western Europe (and North America) were accused of witchcraft. These accused were duly tried and many were executed, others were not. Indeed, some were accused more than once, and found not guilty more than once — “Widow Coman, for instance, was ‘ducked’ on three separate occasion at her own request” — which I found surprising as, in this era of Christian-bashing, we would be led to believe that merely being accused of witchcraft in those days was tantamount to a death sentence at the hands of the intolerant narrow-minded hard-hearted Christians. Hmmm . . . The courts of the times meticulously recorded the words of the witches as they gave evidence and when they stood trial, and Murray developed her theories about the survival of the ancient “witch cult” from these legal records. As well, she studied laws governing witchcraft in the communities, knowing that laws are not created against mere superstition: “the laws against the practice of certain heathen rites became more strict as Christianity grew in power, the Church tried her strength against ‘witches’ in high places and was victorious, and in the fifteenth century open war was declared against the last remains of heathenism in the famous Bull of Innocent VIII.”
Witchcraft, or the witch cult, was very real, it worshipped a god “manifest and incarnate,” and met on specific dates throughout the year at specific places: “De Lancre himself notes that the Sabbath must be held near a lake, stream, or water of some kind.” Evidence of commonly held rituals (“the novice was then marked by a scratch from a sharp instrument”) and deeply held beliefs (“‘No’ said she, ‘I will not be other than I am; I find too much content in my Condition.’”), —which run from Breton to Scotland (and “when carried to America, caused Cotton Mather to say ‘The Witches are organized like Congregational Churches.’”)—shore up Murray’s theory that a single unified and organized cult existed prior to the Christian faith and then continued underneath it (so to speak). It was organized, self-sufficient, and secret: “One of the clearest cases . . . is that of March of Dunstable in 1649, ‘whom Palmer confessed to be head of the whole Colledge of Witches that hee knows in the world: this Palmer hath been a witch these sixty years (by his own confession) long enough to know and give in the total summe of all the conjuring conclave, the Society of Witches in England.”
I think that Murray was quite correct in her theory that ancient spirituality did not end with the dawn of European Christianity, and while I think that some of her included examples of witchcraft are distorted and/or imprecise (“Reginal Scot  says that the ointment ‘whereby they ride in the aire’ was made of the flesh of unbaptized children” — remember, when reading things like this, that nowadays we have flowers called ‘foxglove’ which contain no foxes and no gloves . . .) others are exactly right: (“We enjoin that every priest zealously promote Christianity and totally extinguish heathenism, and forbid well worshipings, and necromanicies and divinations, and enchantments, and man worshipings, and the vain practices which are carried on with various spells and with ‘frithsplots’, and with elders, and also with various other trees, and with stones, and with many various delusions, with which men do much of what they should not.—And we enjoin, that every Christian man zealously accusation his children to Christiainity, and then them the Paternoster and the Creed. And we enjoin, that on feast days heathen songs and devil’s games be abstained from”). Pagan Europe did survive.
The book is arranged in an eminently civilized manner: main chapters being devoted to origins, ceremonies, rites, assemblies, organizations, and familiars, with subsections within discussing matters such as the appearance of Satan (what he wore: “clad in a black tatie gown, and an evil-favoured scull bonnet on his head” as well as what animal guise he took: “. . . he went before us in the likeness of a rough tanny-Dog, playing on a pair of Pipes, and his tail played ey wig wag wig wag”. . .), the vows made (“. . . renoncer & renier son Createur . . .’), the feasts laid on (“The divill and the witches did drinke together having flesh, bread and aile”), the dances performed (“The ring dances were usually round some object, sometimes a stone, sometimes the Devil stood or was enthroned in the middle”) and even the offices held by leaders of the religion which Murray calls the witch cult: (“The Chief or supreme Head of each district was known to the recorders as the ‘Devil’. Below him in each district, one or more officers –according to the size of the district — were appointed by the chief. The officers might be either men or women . . .”).
It is as fascinating as it is compelling.
Murray does a good job of taking whole cloth court records and cutting them into particulate notes — giving us the parts of records that pertain to the subject being examined — and still managing to retain the integrity of each piece. She manages in quite a few places to bring the very spirit of the individual witches back to life: “Isobel Gowdie’s confession gives a wealth of detail, as usual: ‘We would go to several houses in the night time. We were at Candlemas last in Grangehill, where we got meat and drink enough. The Devil sat at the head of the table, and all the Coven about. That night he desired Alexander Elder in Earlseat to say the grace before the meat, which he did, and is this — ‘We eat this meat in the Devil’s name’. And then we began to eat . . .”
The contents of the appendices are as interesting as the book itself — concerning fairies, trolls, a complete trial transcript (entirely in French . . . tant pis), three recipes for flying ointments, names of witches in covens, and even the names of witches themselves:
The lists of witch-names bring to light several facts as regards the women. One of these is the entire absence of Saxon names, such as Gertrude, Edith, Hilda; Old Testament names are so few in number as to be negligible, Scandinavian names are not found; the essentially Puritan names, such as Temperance, hardly occur, but the great mass of names fall under eight heads with their dialectical differences: 1, Ann (Annis, Agnes, Annabel); 2, Alice (Alison); 3, Christian (Christen, Cirstine); 4, Elizabeth (Elspet, Isobel, Bessie); 5, Ellen (Elinor, Helen); 6, Joan (Jane, Janet, Jonet); 7, Margaret (Margot, Meg, Marjorie); 8, Marion (Mary).
Almost concluding the appendices, and also the book, is a wonderful, if dated (but, really, do books of this nature go out of date?) bibliography listing materials from 1597 (James’ Demonologie) to 1914 (John Hale: A Modest Inquiry).
Like I said earlier, this book is as fascinating as it is compelling.
For Christians, I’d say, it is very good to read this book if only to know that not everything heathens and pagans say is a modern fabrication designed to undermine Christianity, as the records quoted in the book are authentic ones — recorded by Christians of the time, with no consideration at all for what 21st-century pagans might make of them.
And there is a lot of be made of them.
For Heathens, I’d add, it is important to read books of this nature, and this book in particular is a reminder that the heathen path did not develop in a vacuum and that it did not begin in a Viking Longhouse either, underlining the fact that modern heathenry comes from a long line of indigenous European spiritual folk and that heathenism belongs to the European people as firmly and as fixedly as the European people belong to this earth.
The Witch Cult in Western Europe is — if you are anything like I am — one of those rare sorts of books that you pick up to satisfy one intellectual facet (I knew nothing about early witchcraft and thought it would be interesting to read about) but you find, suddenly, that you are satisfying another facet altogether (for me the notion of “witchcraft within what is perceived as normal society” aspect is riveting). This is, of course, the unmistakable sign of a great work — as this book surely was, is and shall continue to be throughout its many editions and publishers — there is something within it that can be of interest to everyone.
Perhaps it is magic. Perhaps it is good authorship. Either way, as they say in the ancient circle:
1. I’m not saying it is un-controversially a standard—just that it is a standard
2. I said that, not the publisher.
3. There is a strange seven name listing from 1324 (the earliest record) of accused Irish witches at the actual conclusion of this book.