The Witch Cult in Western Europe


A Study in Anthropology


Margaret Alice Murray


Clarendon Press




Witches SabbathTHE mass of existing material on this subject is so great that I have not attempted to make a survey of the whole of European ‘Witchcraft’, but have confined myself to an intensive study of the cult in Great Britain. In order, however, to obtain a clearer understanding of the ritual and beliefs I have had recourse to French and Flemish sources, as the cult appears to have been the same throughout Western Europe. The New England records are unfortunately not published in extenso; this is the more unfortunate as the extracts already given to the public occasionally throw light on some of the English practices. It is more difficult to trace the English practices than the Scotch or French, for in England the cult was already in a decadent condition when the records were made; therefore records in a purely English colony would probably contain much of interest.

The sources from which the information is taken are the judicial records and contemporary chroniclers. In the case of the chroniclers I have studied their facts and not their opinions. I have also had access to some unpublished trials among the Edinburgh Justiciary Records and also in the Guernsey Greffe.

The following articles have already appeared in various journals, to whose editors I am indebted for kind permission to republish: ‘Organization of Witch Societies’ and ‘Witches and the number Thirteen’ in Folk Lore; ‘The God of the Witches’ in the Journal of the Manchester Oriental Society; ‘Child Sacrifice’, ‘Witches’ Familiars’, ‘The Devil’s Mark’, ‘The Devil’s Officers’, ‘Witches’ Fertility Rites’, ‘Witches Transformations’, in Man; and ‘The Devil of North Berwick’ in the Scottish Historical Review.

My thanks are due to Georgiana Aitken, W. Bonser, and Mary Slater for much kind help, also to Prof. C. G. Seligman for valuable suggestions and advice as to lines of research.









1. As God.

2. As a Human Being.

3. Identification.

4. As an Animal.



1. General.

2. The Introduction.

3. The Renunciation and Vows.

4. The Covenant.

5. The Baptism.

6. The Mark



1. The Sabbath, Method of going. The site. The date. The hour.

2. The Esbat. Business. The site. The time.



1. General.

2. Homage.

3. The Dances.

4. The Music.

5. The Feast.

6. Candles.

7. The Sacrament.

8. Sacrifices: Of animals. Of children. Of the God.

9 Magic Words.


VI. THE RITES, continued.

1. General.

2. Rain-making.

3. Fertility.



1. The Officer.

2. The Covens.

3. Duties.

4. Discipline.



1. The Divining Familiar.

2. The Domestic Familiar.

3. Methods of obtaining Familiars.

4. Transformations into Animals.


APPENDIX I. Fairies and Witches.


APPENDIX II. Trial of Silvain Nevillon. Taken from De Lancre’s L’Incrédulité et Méscréance.



A. Covens and Names of Members.

B. Index of Witches’ Names, with Notes.


APPENDIX IV. Notes on the Trials of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais.






THE subject of Witches and Witchcraft has always suffered from the biassed opinions of the commentators, both contemporary and of later date. On the one hand are the writers who, having heard the evidence at first hand, believe implicitly in the facts and place upon them the unwarranted construction that those facts were due to supernatural power; on the other hand are the writers who, taking the evidence on hearsay and disbelieving the conclusions drawn by their opponents, deny the facts in toto. Both parties believed with equal firmness in a personal Devil, and both supported their arguments with quotations from the Bible. But as the believers were able to bring forward more texts than the unbelievers and had in their hands an unanswerable argument in the Witch of Endor, the unbelievers, who dared not contradict the Word of God, were forced to fall back on the theory that the witches suffered from hallucination, hysteria, and, to use the modern word, ‘auto-suggestion’. These two classes still persist, the sceptic predominating. Between the believer who believed everything and the unbeliever who disbelieved everything there has been no critical examination of the evidence, which presents a new and untouched field of research to the student of comparative religion.

Among the believers in witchcraft everything which could not be explained by the knowledge at their disposal was laid to the credit of supernatural powers; and as everything incomprehensible is usually supposed to emanate from evil, the witches were believed to be possessed of devilish arts. As also every non-Christian God was, in the eyes of the Christians, the opponent of the Christian God, the witches were considered to worship the Enemy of Salvation, in other words, the Devil. The greater number of these writers, however, obtained the evidence at first hand, and it must therefore be accepted although the statements do not bear the construction put upon them. It is only by a careful comparison with the evidence of anthropology that the facts fall into their proper places and an organized religion stands revealed.

The common beliefs as to the powers of the witches are largely due to the credulous contemporary commentators, who misunderstood the evidence and then exaggerated some of the facts to suit their preconceived ideas of the supernatural powers of the witches; thereby laying themselves open to the ridicule of all their opponents, past and present. Yet the ridicule is not fully deserved, for the facts are there, though the explanation is wrong; for even the two points, which are usually considered the ultimate proof of the absurdity and incredibility of the whole system–the flying on a broomstick through the window or up the chimney, and the transformation into animals–are capable of explanation. The first can be accounted for when the form of early mound-dwellings is taken into consideration, and when it is remembered that among savage tribes there are often taboos connected with the door, the two-faced god being essentially a deity of the door. Besides this the fertility rites connected with the broom should be taken into account. The second should be compared with similar accounts of transformation into animals among the cults of other nations. Mr. A. B. Cook’s comment on the Greek ritual applies quite as well to Western as to Eastern Europe: ‘We may venture on the general statement that within the bounds of Hellenic mythology animal-metamorphosis commonly points to a preceding animal cult.'[1]

It is interesting to note the class of mind among those contemporary writers who believed in the reality of the facts confessed at the trials as compared with those who disbelieved. It will be seen that the most brilliant minds, the keenest intellects, the greatest investigators, were among the believers: Bodin, Lord Bacon, Raleigh, Boyle, Cudworth, Selden, Henry More, Sir Thomas Browne, Matthew Hale, Sir George Mackenzie, and many others, most of whom had heard the evidence at first hand. The sceptics were Weyer, pupil of the occultist Cornelius Agrippa; Reginald Scot, a Kentish country squire;

[1. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1894, p. 160. The italics are in the original.]

Filmer, whose name was a byword for political bigotry; Wagstaffe, who went mad from drink; and Webster, a fanatical preacher.[1] The sceptics, with the exception of Weyer, appear to have had little or no first-hand evidence; their only weapon was an appeal to common sense and sentiment combined; their only method was a flat denial of every statement which appeared to point to supernatural powers. They could not disprove the statements; they could not explain them without opposing the accepted religious beliefs of their time, and so weakening their cause by exposing themselves to the serious charge of atheism; therefore they denied evidence which in the case of any other accusation would have been accepted as proof.

The evidence which I now bring forward is taken entirely from contemporary sources, i.e. the legal records of the trials, pamphlets giving accounts of individual witches, and the works of Inquisitors and other writers. I have omitted the opinions of the authors, and have examined only the recorded facts, without however including the stories of ghosts and other ‘occult’ phenomena with which all the commentators confuse the subject. I have also, for the reason given below, omitted all reference to charms and spells when performed by one witch alone, and have confined myself to those statements only which show the beliefs, organization, and ritual of a hitherto unrecognized cult.

In order to clear the ground I make a sharp distinction between Operative Witchcraft and Ritual Witchcraft. Under Operative Witchcraft I class all charms and spells, whether used by a professed witch or by a professed Christian, whether intended for good or for evil, for killing or for curing. Such charms and spells are common to every nation and country, and are practised by the priests and people of every religion. They are part of the common heritage of the human race and are therefore of no practical value in the study of any one particular cult.

Ritual Witchcraft–or, as I propose to call it, the Dianic

[1. See James Crossley’s Introduction to Potts’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, Chetham Society, pp. v-xii.]

cult-embraces the religious beliefs and ritual of the people, known in late mediaeval times as ‘Witches’. The evidence proves that underlying the Christian religion was a cult practised by many classes of the community, chiefly, however, by the more ignorant or those in the less thickly inhabited parts of the country. It can be traced back to pre-Christian times, and appears to be the ancient religion of Western Europe. The god, anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, was worshipped in well-defined rites; the organization was highly developed; and the ritual is analogous to many other ancient rituals. The dates of the chief festivals suggest that the religion belonged to a race which had not reached the agricultural stage; and the evidence shows that various modifications were introduced, probably by invading peoples who brought in -their own beliefs. I have not attempted to disentangle the various cults; I am content merely to point out that it was a definite religion with beliefs, ritual, and organization as highly developed as that of any other cult in the world.

The deity of this cult was incarnate in a man, a woman, or an animal; the animal form being apparently earlier than the human, for the god was often spoken of as wearing the skin or attributes of an animal. At the same time, however, there was another form of the god in the shape of a man with two aces. Such a god is found in Italy (where he was called Janus or Dianus), in Southern France (see pp. 62, 129), and in the English Midlands. The feminine form of the name, Diana, is found throughout Western Europe as the name of the female deity or leader of the so-called Witches, and it is for this reason that I have called this ancient religion the Dianic cult. The geographical distribution of the two-faced god suggests that the race or races, who carried the cult, either did not remain in every country which they entered, or that in many places they and their religion were overwhelmed by subsequent invaders.

The dates of the two chief festivals, May Eve and November Eve, indicate the use of a calendar which is generally acknowledged to be pre-agricultural and earlier than the solstitial division of the year. The fertility rites of the cult bear out this indication, as they were for promoting the increase of animals and only rarely for the benefit of the crops. The cross -quarter-days, February 2 and August 1, which were also kept as festivals, were probably of later date, as, though classed among the great festivals, they were not of so high an importance as the May and November Eves. To February 2, Candlemas Day, probably belongs the sun-charm of the burning wheel, formed by the whirling dancers, each carrying a blazing torch; but no special ceremony seems to be assigned to August 1, Lammas Day, a fact suggestive of a later introduction of this festival,

The organization of the hierarchy was the same throughout Western Europe, with the slight local differences which always occur in any organization. The same organization, when carried to America, caused Cotton Mather to say, ‘The witches are organized like Congregational Churches.’ This gives the clue at once. In each Congregational Church there is a body of elders who manage the affairs of the Church, and the minister who conducts the religious services and is the chief person in religious matters; and there may also be a specially appointed person to conduct the services in the minister’s absence; each Church is an independent entity and not necessarily connected with any other. In the same way there was among the witches a body of elders–the Coven–which managed the local affairs of the cult, and a man who, like the minister, held the chief place, though as God that place was infinitely higher in the eyes of the congregation than any held by a mere human being. In some of the larger congregations there was a person, inferior to the Chief, who took charge in the Chief’s absence. In Southern France, however, there seems to have been a Grand Master who was supreme over several districts,

The position of the chief woman in the cult is still somewhat obscure. Professor Pearson sees, in her the Mother-Goddess worshipped chiefly by women. This is very probable, but at the time when the cult is recorded the worship of the male deity-appears to have superseded that of the female, and it is only on rare occasions that the God appears in female form to receive the homage of the worshippers. As a general rule the woman’s position, when divine, is that of the familiar or substitute for the male god. There remains, however, the curious fact that the chief woman was often identified with the Queen of Faerie, or the Elfin Queen as she is sometimes called.

This connexion of the witches and fairies opens up a very wide field; at present it is little more than speculation that the two are identical, but there is promise that the theory may be proved at some later date when the subject is more fully worked out. It is now a commonplace of anthropology that the tales of fairies and elves preserve the tradition of a dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe. Successive invasions drove them to the less fertile parts of each country which they inhabited, some betook themselves to the inhospitable north or the equally inhospitable mountains; some, however, remained in the open heaths and moors, living as mound-dwellers, venturing out chiefly at night and coming in contact with the ruling races only on rare occasions. As the conqueror always regards the religion of the conquered as superior to his own in the arts of evil magic, the dwarf race obtained the reputation of wizards and magicians, and their god was identified by the conquerors with the Principle of Evil. The identification of the witches with the dwarf or fairy race would give us a clear insight into much of the civilization of the early European peoples, especially as regards their religious ideas.

The religious rites varied according to circumstances and the requirements of the people. The greater number of the ceremonies appear to have been practised for the purpose of securing fertility. Of these the sexual ritual has been given an overwhelming and quite unwarranted importance in the trials, for it became an obsession with the Christian judges and recorders to investigate the smallest and most minute details of the rite. Though in late examples the ceremony had possibly degenerated into a Bacchanalian orgy, there is evidence to prove that, like the same rite in other countries, it was originally a ceremonial magic to ensure fertility. There is at present nothing to show how much of the Witches’ Mass (in which the bread, the wine, and the candles were black) derived from the Christian ritual and how much belonged to the Dianic cult; it is, however, possible that the witches’ service was the earlier form and influenced the Christian. The admission ceremonies were often elaborate, and it is here that the changes in the religion are most clearly marked; certain ceremonies must have been introduced when another cult was superimposed and became paramount, such as the specific renunciation of a previous religion which was obligatory on all new candidates, and the payment to the member who brought a new recruit into the fold. The other rites–the feasts and dances–show that it was a joyous religion; and as such it must have been quite incomprehensible to the gloomy Inquisitors and Reformers who suppressed it.

Much stress has always been laid by the sceptical writers on the undoubted fact that in many cases the witch confused dreams with reality and believed that she had visited the Sabbath when credible witnesses could prove that she had slept in her bed all the time. Yet such visions are known in other religions; Christians have met their Lord in dreams of the night and have been accounted saints for that very reason; Mahomed, though not released from the body, had interviews with Allah; Moses talked with God; the Egyptian Pharaohs record similar experiences. To the devotee of a certain temperament such visions occur, and it is only to be expected that in every case the vision should take the form required by the religion of the worshipper. Hence the Christian sees Christ and enters heaven; Mahomed was caught up to the Paradise of the true believers; the anthropomorphic Jehovah permitted only a back view to His votary; the Egyptian Pharaohs beheld their gods alive and moving on the earth. The witch also met her god at the actual Sabbath and again in her dreams, for that earthly Sabbath was to her the true Paradise, where there was more pleasure than she could express, and she believed also that the joy which she took in it was but the prelude to a much greater glory, for her god so held her heart that no other desire could enter in. Thus the witches often went to the gibbet and the stake, glorifying their god and committing their souls into his keeping, with a firm belief that death was but the entrance to an eternal life in which they would never be parted from him. Fanatics and visionaries as many of them were, they resemble those Christian martyrs whom the witch-persecutors often held in the highest honour.

Another objection is that, as the evidence of the witches at the trials is more or less uniform in character, it must be attributed to the publication by the Inquisitors of a questionary for the use of all judges concerned in such trials; in short, that the evidence is valueless, as it was given in answer to leading questions. No explanation is offered by the objectors as to how the Inquisitors arrived at the form of questionary, nor is any regard given to the injunction to all Inquisitors to acquaint themselves with all the details of any heresy which they were commissioned to root out; they were to obtain the information from those who would recant and use it against the accused; and to instruct other judges in the belief and ritual of the heresy, so that they also might recognize it and act accordingly. The objectors also overlook the fact that the believers in any given religion, when tried for their faith, exhibit a sameness in their accounts of the cult, usually with slight local differences. Had the testimony of the witches as to their beliefs varied widely, it would be prima facie evidence that there was no well-defined religion underlying their ritual; but the very uniformity of their confessions points to the reality of the occurrence.

Still another objection is that the evidence was always given under torture, and that the wretched victims consequently made reckless assertions and accusations. In most of the English and many of the Scotch trials legal torture was not applied; and it was only in the seventeenth century that pricking for the mark, starvation, and prevention of sleep were used. Even then there were many voluntary confessions given by those who, like the early Christian martyrs, rushed headlong on their fate, determined to die for their faith and their god.

Yet even if some of the evidence were given under torture and in answer to leading questions, there still remains a mass of details which cannot be explained away. Among others there are the close connexions of the witches with the fairies the persistence of the number thirteen in the Covens, the narrow geographical range of the domestic familiar, the avoidance of certain forms in the animal transformations, the limited number of personal names among the women-witches, and the survival of the names of some of the early gods.

In England the legal method of executing a witch was by hanging; after death the body was burnt and the ashes scattered. In Scotland, as a rule, the witch was strangled at the stake and the body burned, but there are several records of the culprit being sentenced to burning alive. In France burning alive was the invariable punishment.

In cases where popular fury, unrestrained by the law, worked its own vengeance on individuals, horrible scenes occurred; but these were the exception, and, examining only the legal aspect of the subject, it will be found that witches had a fair trial according to the methods of the period, and that their punishment was according to the law. There was, however, one popular method of dealing with a person accused of witchcraft which is interesting as showing the survival of a legal process, obsolete as regards the law itself, but remaining in full force among the people. This is the ordeal by water. In the Laws of Athelstan the full detail of this ordeal is given: after the person who was to undergo the ordeal had been prepared by prayer and fasting, he was tied, the right thumb to the right big toe, the left thumb to the left big toe, and was then cast into the water with suitable prayers to the Almighty to declare the right; if he sank he was considered innocent, if he floated he was guilty. The witch was ‘tried’ in the same way, except that she was tied ‘crossways’, i.e. the right thumb to the left big toe, and the left thumb to the right big toe. So great was the belief in this test that many women accused of witchcraft insisted on undergoing this ordeal, which was often conducted with solemnity and decency under the auspices of the minister of the parish and other grave persons. Unless there was strong feeling against the woman for other reasons, the mere fact of her floating did not rouse the populace against her, and she merely returned home; Widow Coman, for instance, was ‘ducked’ on three separate occasions at her own request.

The theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were greatly exercised by the conclusive evidence which proved that people known to be devout and professing Christians had been present at the Sabbath, joined in the ceremonies, and worshipped the witches’ god. The Inquisitors recognized the fact, and devote many pages of their books to the discussion of the course to be followed in the case of Christian priests, coming finally to the conclusion that if a priest merely went to the Sabbath but was not in any way in an official position there his sacred character preserved him from evil. The theologians of the Reformed Churches, who could not accept the sanctity of the priesthood with the same ease and were also desirous of finding some means of accounting for the presence of the devout laity, boldly evolved the theory that the Devil could for his own purposes assume the shape of good Christians in order to mislead the witches. By this plea the accused often succeeded in escaping when the examiners were religious ministers, but it was of no value to them when the trial was in a court of law, and the fact of their presence at an illegal assembly was proved. Lord Coke’s definition of a witch summed up the law on the subject: ‘A witch is a person who hath conference with the Devil, to consult with him or to do some act’, and any person proved to have had such conference was thus convicted of a capital offence and sentenced accordingly. This accounts for the fact, commented on by all students of witch-trials, that a witch was often condemned even though she had invariably used her skill for good and not for evil; for healing the sick, not for casting sickness. If it were proved that she had obtained her knowledge from the ‘Devil’ she had broken the law and must die.