Black cats and masked ghouls have begun their autumnal march, drowsy kings are returning to their undermountain lairs, and the moon is kissing the leaves with all the colors of the sun. It is the best time of the year. But it is also a time when we have to be honest about the things that live in shadows.
In the bright of a summer sun, it is the done thing to pretend the world is a place of endless flowerbeds and pool parties. But as fall comes into its own power, we’d be reckless to look away from the darkness lest something slither close while we’re distracted. It’s a bad time to forget that today’s largely benevolent witches weren’t the first beings to lay claim to the title.
All of which makes this moment a fine time to begin our exploration of The Witch. We say begin because we’re a magic shop in the Western tradition That means we spend a lot of time thinking about witches; and that, in turn, makes it hard for us to parse the most important bits for those less immersed in the history and practice of “witchcraft.”
We put quotes around witchcraft because there isn’t even a consensus on how to define the word. Do we mean witchcraft as religion, as practiced in traditional Wicca and its various successor and related traditions? Do we mean a type of magical praxis agnostic to religious faith – the kind of thing an astrologer or Tarot reader might do? Where do the blood-drinking devil-humping nightmares of the medieval imagination fit in? Is there anything in common between the switchboard witches offering Tarot readings by phone and the necromantic prophetesses of the Ancient and Classical world? How does one deal with the willful misinterpretation and mistranslation of “witch” for over a thousand years? Is a Latin striga or malefica the same thing as a Germanic Hexen, Catalan bruxa, or English wicche?
We mercifully don’t have to come up with the answers to these impossible questions. Long ago we realized that we weren’t going to unravel the etymological riddles, and decided that titles were mostly a means of gatekeeping anyway. If someone wants to name their practice or faith with the title of witchcraft, we’re not going to question them. So, instead of trying to tell you what a witch is, we’re going to provide a few strands from the complicated tapestry that is the history of European witchcraft.
Contrary to popular belief, history isn’t the study of the past, at least not directly. It is the study of the records of the past. The best historians are the ones who accurately assess their sources. Determining whether the account of a medieval monk is accurate is the difference between writing history and writing fantasy.
A little over a hundred years ago, witchcraft, for good or ill, attracted the attention of a talented Egyptologist who told a great story, but wasn’t much of a historian. Her name was Margaret Murray, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century she made significant contributions both to archaeological science and to the advancement of women in academia. During the First World War, when travel to Egypt was curtailed, she turned her attention from the Pharaohs to European folklore, and started reviewing records of late medieval witch trials.
She identified many commonalities. These accused witches reported belonging to groups, or covens, of a small number of other believers. They offered worship to a masculine figure, sometimes dressed in a costume with horns. They offered sacrifice, sometimes bloody, to ensure the fertility of the natural world, and were so in tune with that world that they could direct the behavior of animals. Furthermore, as part of their ritual gatherings, or sabbaths, they would occasionally dress in costumes by which they “transformed” into animals.
There are a few ways to interpret these common threads. One is that the inquisitors were operating from a shared playbook, that they went into the field knowing what a witch was supposed to look like. If they knew a witch was supposed to have an animal familiar and sneak off into the woods for rituals, how hard would it have been to find many “witches” who would confess to these things when the interrogation was conducted with torture? The witchfinders wouldn’t necessarily even need to be in communication with one another, they could have just been operating from an earlier model of how heretics were supposed to appear.
Murray, however, despite clearly and appropriately disliking the inquisitors, still took their evidence at face value. If an inquisitor reported a socially marginalized Scottish widow said, after torture, that she cavorted naked with a horned man in the woods, then Murray apparently believed this really happened. Since socially marginalized people all over Europe were reporting similar activities, Murray concluded that they must actually have been happening and were evidence of a robust, widespread, ancient and yet previously unknown religion that really existed throughout Europe.
It is a great story.
In fact, it is such a great story that lots of smart people took it as gospel for decades. Some of those people were crafters of fiction – most notably Robert Graves who popularized the idea of an ancient and persistent European fertility cult with his book The White Goddess. It’s remained a trope of popular culture ever since, as evidenced in movies like The Wicker Man and books like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. But it was also accepted within academia, and still can be found in watered down form in lots of introductory textbooks on the history and art history of Western Europe. Everyone who was ever read about the “Venus” of Willendorf is encountering a dilute form of Murray’s ancient witch religion.
Unfortunately, while the theory is provocative and popular, it is largely speculative and probably not correct in any factual sense. Even at the time she published her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, actual experts on the witch trials pushed back against her interpretations. She wasn’t looking at primary documents in their original form; and, far more importantly, she wasn’t giving enough credit to the context of the people organizing and recording the trials. To use a modern example, she had taken the McCarthy Trial records as evidence that there really was a massive Communist conspiracy, as opposed to opportunistic politicians making use of a paranoid nation’s unfounded fears.
A greater knowledge of the trials reveals four big problems with Murray’s hypothesis. The first, as mentioned above, was that inquisitors already had a template in books like the Malleus Maleficarum for what a witch was supposed to be. All they needed to do was reference their book and start torturing someone until they confessed to having the features described in their witch hunting manual. But, Murray and others protested, what if the Malleus was just a record of the witch cult? If so, then the inquisitors knowing what to look for doesn’t invalidate the witch cult hypothesis.
That brings us to the second problem, outlined nicely in the history of the Malleus presented by Christopher Mackay in the introduction to his definitive 2012 translation of the text. Basically, most of the features attributed by the inquisitors to witches actually predate any discussion of witches by hundreds of years. They can, instead, be traced back to language used to scurrilously condemn various Christian heretics, most notably the Waldensians. This group was a radical Christian sect that believed the path to heaven required poverty and not the guidance of the Roman Church. The Roman Church didn’t like either of these ideas and produced numerous pamphlets calling the Waldensians child murderers and worse. Early anti-witch literature lifts many of its witch descriptions directly from these fictitious portraits of Christian revolutionaries.
The third problem relates to the very scale of the religion Murray posited. Neither before nor after the witch hysteria were their records of anything like a huge religion of nature worshippers hiding throughout Europe. Obviously, the religion was supposed to be occult, but it is still difficult to believe that thousands, perhaps millions, of adherents to it could have kept it a secret for two thousand years except for a brief period of exposure by misogynistic fanatics in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries.
The final problem relates to Murray herself, and to our own contemporary desire for the witches to have been real – not as devil-worshipping murderers, but as powerful women working to resist a tyrannical patriarchy. Genuinely innocent people being trampled is less satisfying than innocent people who still possessed occult knowledge and/or modern social sensibilities. How much cooler are the Salem witches if they were murdered for their secret herbal wisdom or their prescient free thinking rather than just for being poor or disliked by their neighbors?
The witch became a symbol to Murray of contemporary women’s rights. There is nothing wrong with mining history for inspiration, but it comes with the danger of mapping modern sentiment onto the past. Unfortunately for her theory, while most of the women and men who were executed as witches were socially marginalized and many lived within a dogmatic religious culture, almost all still saw themselves as Christians and would have been as terrified of witchcraft or a non-Christian fertility religion as any of their peers. Even the folk healers and practitioners of natural magic would have seen their activities as fitting within the Christian faith. It would have made an inquisitor’s head spin, but copying out a passage from the Bible about health, burning the paper, and then eating the ashes to cure a disease might have seemed both efficacious and devout to a folk witch who was trying to invoke the power of her faith in a material fashion.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been an abundance of great scholarship on the witch hysteria which has revealed that things were more than complicated enough to explain what happened without needing to invoke a secret religion. Europe was convulsing with the religious chaos of Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the resultant protracted and bloody wars. Famine related to those wars and to a period of global cooling stalked the land and served as handmaiden to deadly pestilence. Printing presses and cheap paper allowed for both accurate and false information to spread more rapidly than the wisdom to properly distinguish the two. Legal reforms, most notable the 1532 Law Code of Charles V, took sentencing power away from local communities so that instead of a local ne’er-do-well being publicly humiliated and then sent on her way after the town council convicted her of being a “witch,” she was instead legally bound to tortured, imprisoned, or killed. Rather than a secret pre-Christian religion, Occam’s best answer for all the deaths and fear is simply the frenzy of the Salem Witch trails writ large across turbulent pre-modern Europe. (If you’re interested in an excellent and very readable account of those particular trials, check out Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem 1692.)
Murray was thus wrong about witches, and her theory has lost credibility in academic circles. Paradoxically, however, despite the flaws in her historical understanding, her impact has only grown outside of acdemia. In the mid-twentieth century, searchers for alternatives to Christianity turned to Murray and her Witch Cult. The early history of the resultant religions is far beyond the scope of this little essay, but the curious will find an excellent introduction in Ronald Hutton’s respectful history, The Triumph of the Moon.
In brief, inquisitors imagined a non-Christian religion cobbled together from records of prior slanders against Christian heretics. Then Margaret Murray put those imaginations together into an equally fictive religion. Finally, twentieth century mystics used Murray as a reference for their own religious mysteries. Murray thus served as the midwife to the previously non-existent anti-authoritarian witch religion that the inquisitors were afraid of in the first place.
The history, then, of the European witch is the story of the turbulent birth of modernity. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, were killed during the witch hysteria. They were almost all innocent of being witches, either by their own understanding or by any definition we might retroactively apply. They were just the socially marginalized victims of the period’s overabundance of fear and chaos. The inquisitors imagined an army of Satanic minions, and Murray imagined a secret witch religion. Neither existed, although in a delicious bit of irony, together they facilitated a twentieth and twenty-first century that have been very good for the idea of the witch.
But it’s October, when we speak truth of darkness, and acknowledge that the study of social movements and culture isn’t the totality of the past. If you want to understand the important fundamental features of a civilization then you look at trends and recurring ideas and common behaviors. That’s not, however, where you look if you want to find real monsters. Such creatures are rare, far too infrequent to be the stuff of history. Instead, they lurk in places like the marginalia of the trial reports Murray reviewed. They are notable for the ways they deviated from the enforced commonalities.
Finding a hundred witch trial records in which an innocent woman “confesses” to carnal relations with a devil or to drinking the blood of an unbaptized infant is history – proof of an idea, factual or not, moving throughout a society. Finding the record, written in the shaking hand of a single soul-sick secretary, of an abyss-eyed crone who made necklaces of dried out eyes and who induced a whole hamlet into drinking poison, is something else. Probably what it is, is fiction. That’s certainly the most comforting conclusion.
There is another possibility though, that hiding beneath all the smoke from the pyres there were some true monsters. These things didn’t get rounded up with disliked widows and cantankerous neighbors. In fact, they usually avoided apprehension altogether and when they didn’t, they almost invariably escaped conviction. No two have the same story. One was reported to live in a hut at the edge of woods so dark that angry mobs always remembered someone closer to town they could harass. Another was found sleeping in the bed of the very noble signing the death warrants of “witches.” We only catch glimpses of them in the nightmare diaries of cloistered monks, and in the notes of unbelieving plague doctors.
Let us be clear: even if there were such awful beings terrorizing early modern Europe, their presence doesn’t begin to justify the brutal actions of powerful men who disguised their desire for murder with righteousness. If anything, such creatures would have been better able to hide as neighbor turned on neighbor, and they must have cavorted with delight at the internecine misery all around them. What better habitat than such chaos for beautiful maidens with poisonous apples; twisted hags selling love in exchange for a baby’s fat; and ancient horned gods with a taste for souls?
We’re not saying any such creature is real. By design we’re unreliable sources about the interface between the empirical and the arcane. We just want everyone to be careful, because it’s the season of All Hallows’ Eve. In our limited experience, around this time of year historical truth stops being the only truth. Overcast nights in this most gothic month can birth frightful things usually constrained to stories told around guttering fires, and give form to shadows on overgrown forest paths.
We don’t know what you’d call such cat-eyed claw-fingered things; naming is the business of taxonomists, not sorcerers. But we know that in centuries past they would have basked with unholy glee at being cursed as witches by grasping inquisitors.
Such things are jealous, and we’ve heard tales of them turning a possessive eye on those who claim the name for themselves. So enjoy your tricks and your treats; but don’t trust pretty ladies with apples, and beware what creatures you might offend if you don a pointed hat and costume nose.