Date: 11 Jan 1998
Most people know that there are problems with Margaret Murray's Witch Cult hypothesis. That scholars have criticized her research techniques and logic. Yet because modern scholars *are* finding evidence of Pagan Witches, some people believe that Murray has been vindicated. Perhaps her techniques were wrong, but her basic ideas were sound. She was right for the wrong reasons, if you will.
This isn't true. Murray's Witch Cult hypothesis is still as wrong as it ever was. The Pagan sects we're finding today look nothing like her Witch Cult. In fact, the Witch Cult is almost the exact *opposite* of real Pagan Witchcraft.
In another post I'll show some of the ways that real Witchcraft differed from Murray's Witch Cult. Here, I'd like to explain why this happened: why did a person who set out to investigate Pagan Witchcraft end up describing a "cult" that was its exact opposite?
The answer lies in Murray's choice of evidence -- and what she did to that evidence. Murray's primary source of information was Witch hunting literature: the manuals, pamphlets, and sermons written by Witch hunters. For instance, the whole outline of Murray's cult comes from the writings of Witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, who books are quoted once every four pages in _The Witch Cult in Western Europe_. De Lancre, I should add, used extensive torture in his investigations. In addition, Murray used information from a handful of Witch trials. Like de Lancre's investigations, almost all of these trials involved extensive torture.
By comparison, modern researchers seek trials which involved as little coersion as possible. Trials where we have a Witch's own words are particularly good -- and far more common than you might think. The Inquisition wrote down a Witch's responses during questioning, therefore a well-run trials will have a "transcript" of sorts.
Once she'd gathered her information, Murray faced a serious "problem": part of the Witches' "confessions" seemed to make sense, but parts were just plain "insane". Witches testified that they flew in animal shape, that they sailed across the ocean on sieves, that the dead joined them at their celebrations. Faced with this jumble, Murray decided that the "nonsensical" bits were interpolations -- garbage on the line, so to speak. Murray didn't believe in magick. She didn't believe in ghosts or astral projection or the idea that a shaman's soul had an animal form. And so when she encountered something "irrational" she deleted it.
Thus it's no wonder that Murray's investigations explain nothing about real Witches. First, the evidence she used was guaranteed to tell us the maximum amount about Witch hunters and the minimum amount about Witches. Murray used Witch hunting literature and trials where Witch hunters had forced Witches to answer in a certain way. She chose to base her theory on our worst and most misleading evidence. Second, whenever she encountered anything magickal, she erased it or rationalized it. Ironically, the details that Murray covered up are the true evidence of a Pagan strata to Witchcraft beliefs.
Because of her choice of evidence and the ways in which she misused it, Murray's theory was wrong in a thousand and one ways. Almost everything she said about Witches was the opposite of what was true.