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Folk-Lore/Volume 33/Review/The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology. Margaret Alice Murray. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press. 1921. Pp. 303. Price 16s.

"Rogo vos, oportet credatis, sunt mulieres plussciae, sunt nocturnae, et quod sursum est deorsum faciunt."[1] Miss Murray is as earnest as Trimalchio; it is likely in consequence that I shall find myself written down in her black books in the good company of Reginald Scot as an unscientific sceptic. But Miss Murray has laid herself open to an obvious retort. If quotations taken from their context may give rise to misleading interpretations, still more misleading is the treatment of a series of documents torn from the background of their own age and divorced from the serious study of their immediate historical antecedents. For obvious reasons, before propounding a theory of the origin of the superstitions connected with witchcraft couched in terms of a nebulous and hypothetical primitive religion, it is the duty of the investigator to make some attempt to master the historical development of medieval thought and superstition and the late classical ideas upon which they were largely based.

Upon general grounds the supposition that an organised cult of primeval antiquity survived into the seventeenth century a.d. without attracting the notice of any previous historian is one which is not easy to take upon trust. We are told that such a religion existed and that it was a fertility-cult, but its outlines are quite indeterminate. The two classical references given have no evidential value, and for detail we are, in fact, referred to what the eye of faith can deduce in the reports on witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The hypothetical dwarf race, to memories of which the origin of fairies has by some been attributed (a view which I do not personally share) seems to have something to do with the matter, together with some still more elusive race or races which are thought to have carried the worship of Ianus and Diana into Italy. Incidentally, the supposed existence of a pre-historic two-faced god in Italy (p. 12) is based upon a misapprehension. In fact, there is nothing but dubious etymology to connect Ianus and Diana. The former was not anthropomorphically conceived in the earliest stage of Roman religion, and his representation by art in human form cannot precede the later monarchy; while the Diana of medieval lore is, of course, derived not from the aboriginal Italian divinity but from the Graeco-Roman Diana-Artemis-Hecate.

The evidence for the continuity of this religion is not more convincing than that for its existence. Miss Murray quotes a number of passages, but they do not, in fact, prove more than the following indisputable but, for her argument, irrelevant facts. 1. The practice of magic was regarded as anti-social, and as such condemned by the State. This was equally true of classical antiquity.[2] 2. The worship of heathen gods was discountenanced by Church and State. Miss Murray is not entitled to claim a special sense for the word "demons." Christians believed that all heathen gods were devils, but the pagans did not admit or suppose that in continuing the religious rites of their fathers they were worshipping the Devil or devils.[3] 3. The Church endeavoured to discountenance as pagan certain popular seasonal festivals at which masquerade was worn. This is common knowledge, and is true of the Eastern Church no less than of the Western.

With regard to the trial of Alice Kyteler, who is stated to have been accused both of operative and of ritual witchcraft, the charges were neither more nor less ritual than those brought against Apuleius[4] or Piso.[5] I can find no evidence in the records of the alleged cult organisation associated with sixteenth century witchcraft.

The difficulty raised by Miss Murray on p. 16, as to how the inquisitors could arrive at a systematic theory of what witches were supposed to do except from the facts elicited at trials, is less real than it appears. Long before the handbooks for inquisitors were put into circulation at the end of the fifteenth century,[6] there existed a quite definite conception of the nature of witches and their activities which was generally accepted throughout Europe. The civilisation of the Middle Ages was an international European civilisation, the common views of which found expression mainly in a common language, Latin. The various ingredients of its superstitions, among which those ultimately derived from classical literature and tradition predominated, were fused in the crucible of medieval thought and given definite shape and system by the voluminous if misdirected learning of scholasticism. Thanks to the work of such writers as John of Salisbury, Gervase of Tilbury and their fellows, medieval demonology was systematised, and an established doctrine became current throughout Western Europe.

It is true that certain features of sixteenth century witchcraft, to which Miss Murray draws attention, do not belong to this tradition. Their source is probably to be found in the reaction of the events of religious history upon superstition. For obvious reasons popular fear and hatred are easily aroused against the practice of Black Magic, and from the thirteenth century onwards the charge of witchcraft, so prejudicial to the accused and so insusceptible of disproof, was freely used as a political weapon against individuals and by the Church against heretical sects. The view that witches were organised in the same sort of way as heretical sects thus probably arose from the association of Black Magic with the ritual of such bodies as the Waldenses and Templars.

When Miss Murray says of the Black Mass that it may have been the earlier form and influenced the Christian, her hobby horse has surely taken the bit between its teeth. Hoc est corpus meum is not derived from hocus pocus, nor the Lord's Prayer from the use in magic of its words reversed. The coven similarly proves to be the parody of a Christian institution,[7] a fact which undermines Miss Murray's strongest position. In medieval Christianity "the holy covent" was used in a technical sense to denote Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Probably not much earlier than the fourteenth century (1290 is the earliest reference given in the Dictionary) companies of "religious" persons, whether constituting a separate community or sections of a larger one, were formed upon the model of this holy prototype, and consisted of twelve members and a superior. Thus Strype speaks of "all . . . houses of religion . . . whereof the number in any one house is or of late hath been less than a covent, that is to say under thirteen persons."

But even if, as I believe. Miss Murray's main thesis is completely mistaken, and the characteristic features of sixteenth century witchcraft derive from (a) the system of demonology created by the scholastics, and (b) from the association of witchcraft with persecuted heretical sects, there still remains an interesting question. How far did the sixteenth century witches actually form an organised sect or secret society? This is not an easy question to answer with certainty. I am myself inclined to be sceptical as to the extent and efficiency of the organisation. The evidence though voluminous is untrustworthy. The interrogators had fixed prepossessions of a definite kind. The character, age and sex of many of the witnesses and accused inspires little confidence. The conduct and circumstances of the trials too frequently illustrate the low standards of procedure which often disgraced the courts of the period. It is further difficult to believe that had anything like an organised secret society existed it would not have played an important part in the political struggles of the period. At least the menace of its possible manipulation would have been known and denounced openly, which it was not, even by King James.[8] The alleged business part of the Sabbath rites, the adjudication by the Devil upon reports of wickednesses committed, shows a close affinity with popular ideas. It is the sort of thing that devils do, as the familiar folktale of True and Untrue illustrates.

To discuss the detail of the various chapters is not possible in the space at my disposal, but I am bound to point out that a good deal of the so-called evidence consists, in fact, of an interpretation of the documents, the plausibility of which depends upon the previous acceptance of the main thesis of the book. Further, Miss Murray rationalises arbitrarily; sometimes the evidence is taken at its face value, at others it is "interpreted." She too often assumes that when a witness was reported to have met the Devil in an animal form, what was really meant was a man dressed up in an animal disguise, which those of us, who visit pantomimes, know to be something quite distinguishable. Similarly, both accusers and accused would be likely to repudiate the view that a man masquerading as the Devil is equivalent to the Devil in human shape. If Miss Murray were to turn to the practitioners of astrology and white magic belonging to the period, she would find that the occurrence of analogous supernatural encounters are believed and stated in perfect good faith.[9] The discussion of animal transformations clearly demands a study of a wider range of facts, nor can the familiars of witches be considered apart from the familiars of other practitioners of the Magic Arts both earlier and contemporary. The argument that the magical rites of witches, which, like the magic of all times and places (e.g. that denounced in the Roman twelve tables), are concerned with injuring the fertility of man, beast and field, are therefore inverted survivals from rites originally intended to promote fertility is very unconvincing. The argument that the peculiar voice of the Devil points to the use of a mask will appear flimsy to those familiar with the stridor characteristic of Roman witches who did not wear masks.[10] The relation of the riding of horses by witches to popular superstition as to the cause of nightsweating in the stable has not been considered, nor the possible connection of the lighted candles of the witches' revels with "fairy lights" and corpse candles.[11] The alleged frigidity of witches rests upon a medieval theory which may be found in Nider's Formicarium.[12] Broomsticks, again, and their magical use carry us back beyond the Middle Ages to Lucian[13] and the flying ointment to Apuleius.[14] It is pleasant to have an analysis of the latter and to learn its physiological properties; but more entertaining still would it be to learn the prescription for that which Fotis gave to Lucius by mistake for it.

  1. Petronius, Sat. 63.
  2. A convenient summary of Roman legislation will be found in Abt, Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei (Giessen, 1909), pp. 9 foll. [1]
  3. In the middle of the nineteenth century Rawlinson is prepared to accept the view that the oracles of Delphi were delivered through the agency of an "evil spirit" (see his note on Herod. i. 47). With this view, which, of course, was generally held by early Christians, compare the language of sixteenth century travellers in India, e.g. "All the pictures around the said chapel are those of devils and on each side of it there is a Sathanas seated in a seat," Ludovico di Varthema, Travels (Hakluyt Society, 1868), p. 136.
  4. For cock sacrifice, cf. Apuleius, Apologia, 47. It is, of course, a frequent feature of classical magic.
  5. Tacitus, Annals, ii. 69; iii. 13.
  6. The Malleus Malificarum of Sprenger was first published in 1492. This, the Formicarium of Nider and a number of less famous tracts, are collected in a volume entitled Malleorum quorundam maleficarum tam veterum quam recentiorum authorum published at Frankfort in 1582.
  7. The evidence may be consulted in Murray's New English Dictionary, ii. pp. 935, 1100 svv. convent and coven.
  8. I cannot agree with Miss Murray's account of the Bothwell episode. I find no evidence of his having been the Devil except her desire to believe it. That he consulted witches he confessed; that quite probably he was implicated in the attempt upon the king's life by magical means may be true, though he denied it. But his final collapse in the long struggle with Maitland was due not to the breaking of a witch organisation of which he was head, but to the hostile action of the Kirk upon the publication of his correspondence with Huntly and the Catholic earls. It would be, in fact, a strong reason for denying any effectiveness to the witch organisation, if Bothwell were its head, since he would infallibly have turned its machinery to account. But the alleged plot upon the king's life employed solely magical means, nor is there any evidence of any secular use of a secret organisation.
  9. E.g. Aubrey, Miscellanies, pp. 169 foll. A closer study of the period might lead Miss Murray to modify the unreal importance which she attaches to some points of detail, e.g. the wearing of his hat indoors by the Devil has no esoteric significance. The widow of Lilly's master "next day at dinner made me sit down at dinner with my hat on my head and said, that she intended to make me her husband." Lilly's History of His Life and Times (London, 1774), p. 28.
  10. This characteristic of classical witches is well discussed by Flower Smith, Hasting's Enc. Rel. Eth. s.v. Magic (Greek and Roman).
  11. Sunt et aliae ludificationes malignorum spirituum, quas faciunt interdum in nemoribus et locis amoenis, et frondosis arboribus ubi apparent in similitudine puellarum aut matronarum, ornatu muliebri et candido, interdum etiam in stabuhs cum luminaribus cereis, ex quibus apparent distillationes in comis et collis equorum et comae ipsorum diligenter tricatae; et audies eos qui talia se vidisse fatentur, dicentes veram ceram esse quae de luminaribus huiusmodi stillaverat. Guil. Alvernus, Bishop of Paris, De Universo (thirteenth century), quoted by Thomas Wright, Proceedings against Dame Alice Kyteler (Camden Soc. 1843), p. xxxiv. For corpse candles, see Aubrey, Miscellanies, 176. Cf . the superstition of sailors in the seventeenth century with regard to the phosphorescent lights visible at the masthead in stormy weather. Covel's Diaries in Bent, Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant (Hakluyt Society, 1893), p. 127.
  12. Malleorum, etc., i. p. 712.
  13. Lucian, Philopseudes, 35. Cf. the magic arrow upon which Abasis rode through the air (Porphyry, Vit. Pythag., 29).
  14. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, iii. 21 foll.

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