Date: 11 Jan 1998
It would take a book to describe the differences between real, historical Witchcraft and Margaret Murray's Witch Cult. The following are just a few, to give you a feel for how badly wrong Murray was.
Murray based her theory on Witch hunting propaganda and the confessions that Witch hunters forced Witches to regurgitate. She avoided non-torture trials, made no effort to uncover the Witches' own words. Therefore her "Witch Cult" is simply a reflection of Witch hunters' fears and fantasies, not of real Paganism.
1) Witchcraft was an organized Pagan religion that existed throughout Europe.
Witch hunters feared a conspiracy, therefore they assumed that Witches were organized. The Pagan sects found by modern researchers are very localized. Certain themes show up repeatedly, throughout Europe. But the Italian Benandanti were very different from the Sicilian Ladies From Outside, who in turn were quite different from the Hungarian Taltosok and the English fairy doctors. European Witches may have shared certain beliefs and abilities, but there is no evidence of an organized religion, such as Murray suggests.
2) The supreme deity of the Witches was the Horned God.
Witch hunters believed that Witches were Satanists. When Murray decided that Witches were Pagans, she turned this belief on its head and claimed that Satan "really" was the Horned God. So every time a Witch hunter mentioned Satan, Murray assumed that he was "really" talking about a Pagan god.
In reality, there's no evidence of a Horned God of the Witches. The deities associated with Witchcraft in Pagan times were all goddesses: Hecate, Diana, Freya, etc. Some Pagans did worship some horned gods, but none of them are considered patrons of Witches. Medieval literature agrees with the Pagan evidence. Medieval penitentials rail against Witch goddesses, not gods: Diana again, Frau Holde, Dame Abundia, etc. No medieval manuscript mentions a Horned God of the Witches.
Modern research confirms this. No trials mention a horned god -- just Satan. Goddesses show up frequently, however. Italian Witches claimed they went to the games of Diana. Female Benandanti rode in the train of goddess. A goddess oversaw the celebrations of the Ladies from Outside. All the medieval goddesses -- Diana, Frau Holde, Abundia, etc. -- reappear in the Witch trials.
3) Witches met in groups of thirteen.
This is unique to Murray. No Witch hunter ever believed this, and only one Witch -- Isobel Gowdie -- said that Witches always met in groups of thirteen. Murray's evidence in support of this is exceptionally weak. Basically she'd take all of the accused Witches in a trial (because no innocent people were *ever* accused!) and then add as many suspected Witches as she needed to create a multiple of thirteen. There's no rhyme or reason to her selections, no logic behind them.
Modern research suggests that most Witches were solitaries, or worked with one or two other people. In addition there were some Witch families, which worked in small groups. Witches who said they did meet in groups (like the Benandanti) usually said they did so "in spirit", or astrally. There's also evidence that in urban areas, Witches got together socially to trade spells and experiences. The Venetian Inquisition, for instance, tried a group of women who'd been having the early modern equivalent of Witches' coffee houses! Yet despite the fact that these women swapped spells and recipes, they each appear to have done their actual magick alone.
4) Witches gathered six times a year, at Samhain, Beltane, Candlemas, Lammas, Midsummer, and Yule.
One of Murray's classic mistakes was to assume that all Witches, everywhere, were exactly alike. So if British Witches met on the solstices and the Celtic quarter days, so did German Witches, and Italian Witches, and Basque Witches, and... you get the picture. Modern research suggests that each different area had its own holidays. For instance the Benandanti fought in spirit on the Ember Days, quarterly periods of fasting in the Catholic Church.
5) The major holidays were called sabbats; working meetings were called esbats.
Witch hunters said Witches called their meetings "sabbats." Murray assumed that Witch hunters were basically right, so she assumed that this was the Witches' own word. Again, she never stopped to ask herself why an Italian Strega, a German Hexe, an English Wicce, and a Spanish Brujah would all use the same word to describe their rites. The answer is, they didn't. Each different ethnic version of Witchcraft had its own vocabulary, a vocabulary that the Witch hunters (and Murray) chose to ignore. "Sabbat" was a Witch hunter's word. Only they shared one common language (Latin). And whenever they encountered a native term (like the Basque "akelarre") they substituted their own.
When she claimed that "sabbat" was a Witch-word, Murray hit a slight problem. Linguists agree that sabbat originally had nothing to do with Witchcraft. Sabbat comes from the Latin "sabbatum", which in turn comes from the Hebrew "shabbath", meaning the holy day of the Jews. Murray ignores this. She glibly states that the word "clearly is not connected with the Jewish ceremonial". And then she proposes a couple of spurious etymologies which have not been accepted by any linguist.
In fact, if you read Murray's own evidence, you'll see that sabbat clearly *is* connected to the "Jewish ceremonial." As Murray's own quotes show, Witch hunters described Witches in Jewish terms. The most common word for a group of Witches was a "synagogue" (coven came much later and was only popular in England). Synagogues of Witches met to celebrate sabbats, just like the Jews did. During the Burning Times, sabbatum referred to either a group of Jews or a group of Witches.
Esbat is clearly not a Witch word either. This word only appears once before the 20th century, in the writings of Pierre de Lancre. De Lancre says that one French Witch called a gathering of Witches an "esbat." No other Witch or Witch hunter ever uses this word. In all of the historical record, it only appears once. It seems likely that this Witch either mis-spoke or was trying to say "s'esbattre", "to frolic."
Interestingly, Murray uses the word in ways de Lancre never dreamed of. To de Lancre, esbat was simply another word for the sabbat. Murray however claimed that sabbats and esbats were two different things. A sabbat was a holiday, an esbat was a working meeting where spell work was done. Esbats could be held as often as necessary, up to several times per week. And, she said, all Witches throughout Europe called their working meetings esbats (despite the fact that this word only appears once!).
Gerald Gardner was one of Murray's biggest fans. He either invented a religion based on her theories, or he substantially re-worked his tradition's lore to make it fit her "current scholarly research." Because of this, most modern Witches have inherited a bit of irony: we use the words of Witch hunters, not Witches, to describe our rites!
Those are only a few of the ways that Murray's Witch Cult hypothesis differs from real, historical Witchcraft. If there are any other details you're wondering about, I'd be happy to talk about them!