By Jani Farrell-Roberts c2002
There has long been a debate among modern Western Pagans over whether they are part of the flowering of a new religion or of an old religion that never died. My own instinct was that our coven's quiet rituals and blessings in the British countryside were part of an ancient religious tradition. Our path was animistic – again an ancient path.
I had little doubt over this. The beliefs I shared required no church or temple, no book of rules or regulations, no set rituals, no ordained priesthood or hierarchy no pope or bishop or even guru, yet were our religion. The heart of my beliefs arose from experience and instinct, as did our magic. I delighted in the company of spirits, deities, or sacred natural energies. I sought a bonding with Deity. My religion lay in these relationships and in our honouring of them as sacred. My normal way of expressing this was Pagan although I knew there were many different vocabularies in which such ways and truths could be explained.I also shared with the Australian Aborigines, with whom I worked in the 1970s and 1980s, a belief that our sacred sites need to have our energy in every generation, or else they would fade and die. I felt there were always some who shared our beliefs, helped to maintain the sacred places and keep them alive.
When I returned to England in the late 1980s, I was introduced to the works of Pagan historians such as Dr Ronald Hutton. His works were praised — but disconcertingly I found in them the bold assertion that ALL Pagan religions had died out in the British Isles by the end of the 11th century. Had none of my ancestors shared my animism for 900 years? I did not need to have my beliefs vindicated by an historian as they were based on personal experience, but I still found this surprising. Yet I found nothing in his work to prove this. I found instead hints that the opposite might be true. He acknowledged that some had continued to honour sacred wells but he seemingly had dismissed these acts summarily as either Christian or as trivialities.” 
I could understand how he might have been annoyed by Pagans who had wrongly claimed that their rituals had been performed exactly the same for centuries— but such claims were irrelevant to my understanding of a “religion”, and presumably to Ronald Hutton’s, whose book The Triumph of the Moon would give a definition of “religion” as “a belief by humans in spiritual beings and a need for humans to form relationships with them.” A religion thus did not need to have set rituals or institutional structures.
In the mid-twentieth century many Pagans had been pleased that Murray, an Assistant Professor of Egyptology at London University, reported that a form of pagan witchcraft existed in medieval Europe. They thought their magic and Craft had ancient antecedents, but it was good to have the backing of a respected historian. Gerald Gardner thus asked her to contribute an Introduction to his influential 1956 work. Witchcraft Today. Her principal thesis, as presented in The God of the Witches (1933), and in other works, was that a coven-based witchcraft survived in Britain up until at least the 17th century. She based this on witchtrial testimonies. She held that some aspects of this cult, such as the worship of a horned god, were inherited from ancient times.  A century earlier Jacobs Grimm had similarly reported in his Deutsche Mythologie (Gottingen 1835) that witch beliefs were lingering relics of a systematic pre-Christian Teutonic religion.
In her Introduction to Gardner’s work, she gave him the credit for finding that modern witchcraft was ‘a true survival and not a mere revival copied out of books.’ She thought there was an instinctual link between aspects of past and present. She held in Europe ‘the feeling which underlies both the primitive and the civilized is the same’, that humans ‘worshipping together always devise a form of ritual, especially when the worship takes the form of a dance…the rhythmic movements, the rhythmic sounds, and the sympathy of numbers all engaged in the same action, induce a feeling of exhilaration, which can increase to a form of intoxication. This stage is often regarded by the worshippers as a special divine favour, denoting the actual advent of the Deity into the body of the worshipper.’ She concluded that rituals expressing intense gratitude towards God could be experienced in modern Christianity, in other faiths, and in ‘the jumping dance of the medieval “witches”. 
Murray’s work was pioneering but like all work of that period, is now dated. She also suggested that “under a slight change of name, much of the Old Religion still survives in Europe’. The animistic and other central belief-elements might have survived but the practice of the Wicca I know is very different from the medieval Craft she described, and so too is my own more personal Craft. I am thus sceptical about several of her specific claims. Her work is very rich in quotations and I have not checked many of her sources. But I believe her argument that England was not speedily converted but continued to have a significant Pagan population for some centuries requires a deeper study than that provided by Hutton in his work.
Hutton in his 1991 book, The Pagan Religions of the British Isles, said Murray’s thesis had been completely discredited by authors he endorsed. They had proved, he claimed, that she had omitted from the testimony of the witchtrial victims she cited anything that would have discredited them. Thus his attack was not just on her credibility but also the credibility of the witchtrial victims she cited. There was thus no need to take seriously their description of their Craft. Hutton is an eminent academic and his conclusions had a devastating impact on her credibility — and on that of these witchtrial victims. His conclusions soon became “established wisdom”.
At a conference I asked Hutton about the evidence on which he based his discrediting of Murray. This was just after we had listened to a speaker on the “real” Margaret Murray who had seemingly repeated Hutton’s line. He referred me to just two books, Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas and Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn. I had hoped for more since I was unsure about the soundness of these works. He had singled them out earlier: “Two [authors] in particular, Keith Thomas in 1971 and Norman Cohen in 1975 exposed her misrepresentation of evidence”. His book had also listed without quotation or summary local studies that he alleged showed certain people persecuted, as witches were definitely not “practitioners of an Old Religion”. Again he had made a sweeping statement that begged the question of what was an old religion.
It seemed that he had taken on a mission to reform modern paganism by removing from it a false history and sense of continuance. He wrote that pagan proponents of false histories were his book’s “natural opponents”. This partly explained what he told me when I visited him at home to discuss his critique – and to warn him that Cohn’s research on Murray was highly flawed. He replied by telling me, to my surprise, that he had been angry when he wrote The Pagan Religions of the British Isles.
He normally did not hint at this – nor say if he had any personal religious commitments that might affect his objectivity. He is thus perhaps wrongly cited as an objective neutral and a “non-pagan” for he happens to be a very active member of the British Pagan community. In Pagan Religion he wrote; “In the case of Wicca, its initiates have paid no attention to the most important recent work upon either ancient paganism or the Great Witch Hunt.” He particularly severely criticised Vivienne Crowley’s work “Wicca” and Margot Adler’s “Drawing down the moon” for “taking some fleeting notice of Norman Cohn’s attack upon the Murray thesis, but only to dismiss it with a few general and quite inadequate remarks, ignoring the vast bulk of a detailed, meticulous and formidable book”.
He told me that he hoped I would find less angry his forthcoming work, Drawing down the Moon. But when I read it, I found that, while he allowed the possibility of some forms of modern witchcraft having an ancestry predating the 1930s, he still supported Cohn’s critique of Murray. He now stated that Cohn had “exposed the tactics by which Margaret Murray had distorted evidence to support” her thesis.
Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick in the A history of Pagan Europe, similarly relied on Cohn to provide their principal argument for dismissing Murray. They said Murray had omitted from accounts of witch-trial testimony “fantastic details such as shape shifting, flying through the air, making rideable horses out of straw and so on".
I had come across references to the two authors Hutton recommended in a work by the scholar Karen Armstrong. She wrote; "To deny, as male scholars like Norman Cohn or Keith Thomas have both done recently, that the Witch Craze bore any special malevolence to women is to ignore a substantial amount of evidence in the principal writers on witchcraft at the time of the craze." Hutton had also seriously under-rated the effect of the witchtrials on women when he protested that the numbers of women killed were “miniscule compared with those [men] killed on other criminal charges or in battle”. This comparison was invidious. Men killed in battle were afterwards honoured, not despised beforehand and ridiculed as creatures of the devil.
Cohn also alleged Murray omitted the following testimony to make a source credible. "I was in the Downie-hills and got me from the Queen of Fairie, more than I could eat. The Queen of Fairie is bravely clothed in white linen." But Murray quoted this at length. She also told how Aberdeen witches honoured the "Queen of Elfin" who “has a grip of all the craft”. In folk belief "downie Hills" or "fairy mounds" were the Otherworld homes of the "Little Folk" as well as ancestral sacred places or burial mounds. The fairies were said to be led by Queens or Goddesses. The Goddess Bride wore white. Professor Eva Pocs described many cases of "fairy witches" who honoured such spirits in her unique study of two thousand central European witchtrials entitled Between the Living and the Dead, published in 1999, the same year as The Triumph of the Moon.
There are many other scholars who follow the same line as Pocs. Max Dashu noted; “Hutton's failure to address the growing body of European scholarship on pagan cultural themes in the witch hunts, including such eminent writers as Giuseppe Bonomo, Carlo Ginsberg, Bengt Ankarloo, Gustav Henningsen, Eva Pocs and Tekla Dömötor, is a serious omission.” I would add that the eminent Professor Hans Kung, Head of the Theology faculty at Tubingen, a frequent target in the 20th century of the “Holy Office”, the renamed Inquisition, also found a strong pagan element existed among those accused in witchtrials.
Cohn also saw as damning to Murray’s research the following alleged omission; "All the coven did fly like cats, jackdaws, hares and rooks … rode on a horse that we would make of a straw or a beanstalk" - and that a witch allegedly turned herself into a horse. But Murray dealt at length with such testimonies, quoting many similar cases. There was an ancient and Europe-wide folk-belief in the magically adept's ability to so identify with other creatures that they could shape-shift and fly. This could also relate to dreams or experiences in trance. Magical straw horses were common symbols - and described in the ancient German grimoire quoted below. Pocs noted that the accused frequently claimed to fly to witch gatherings, and that flying was a symbolic expression of a journey to the other world.
Cohn quoted another quite terrible testimony as allegedly a Murray omission. It was that one of the accused dug up the corpse of a baby to eat its flesh. Again Cohn does Murray a great injustice. She wrote about it at length. (It should be remembered that cannibalism accusations were falsely also aimed at early Christians and Jews.)
Cohn also alleged she had omitted; "they [went] through at a little hole like bees and took the substance of the ale". He insisted, if Murray had not omitted this, it would have been obvious her source was lying. I could not find this particular quotation in Murray but this was a harsh judgement by Cohn. "Small holes" represent, in shamanic accounts, entries to the Otherworld. Cohn forgot that he himself had cited as authentic the ancient story that the followers of the Goddess entered houses through small holes to take food and drink left out for them while leaving presents or blessings. Feasting was commonly associated with witches' gatherings - as reported by Murray, Pocs and others.
I should stress that it is the defaming work of Norman Cohn that my criticism mostly focuses on as far as Murray is concerned - and the works of others insofar as they gave uncritical credibility to his defamation of Murray.
However I also found flawed the other author on which Hutton told me he relied. This was Keith Thomas of Religion and the Decline of Magic, whose whole thesis I found flawed. But specifically on Murray; Thomas quoted her as saying: "the only explanation of the numbers of witches who were legally tried and put to death in Western Europe is that we are dealing with a religion which was spread over the whole continent." He dismissed this by saying: "the absence of any organisation, co-operation, continuity or common ritual among witches makes it impossible to speak with Margaret Murray of a "witchcraft" let alone of the "old religion." However Pocs and other researchers have since shown that there was on the contrary a remarkable continuity of witchcraft belief and practice across Europe. Pocs based this on studies on witchcraft in France, England, Belgium, Germany and in Eastern Europe.
Thomas had presumed, as seemingly had Hutton, that a "religion" could not exist unless it was more tightly organised than demanded by the dictionary definition of "religion". Thomas also maintained, as would Hutton, that; "accused witches had no demonstrable links with a pagan past." Yet the very texts quoted in Cohn as “omitted” were evidence of such links.
Thomas' worldview was not that of the time of the witch-trials. I quote here Normal Cohn, with whom I do not always disagree! He wrote; "The early church already regarded all magical practices as manifestations of paganism". The Church thus regarded the witch's magic as essentially Pagan even if beneficial or couched in Christian terms. Pocs wrote of the "taltos" put on trial in this period, saying these were the equivalent of the pre-Christian shaman. She concluded; "the belief systems of European shamanism and witchcraft developed as twin siblings from common parentage and were closely bound to each other. This is how we see things in the light of both German and Slav documentation." She also suggested that shamanistic witchcraft traditions continued into modern times.
Carlo Ginsburg, in Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, linked the witchtrial stories of witches' sabbats or gatherings back to ancient shamanic traditions, as did also Pocs and Doreen Valiente. Pocs summarised the evidence to “unambiguously refute” the suggestion that the witchtrial evidence on these gatherings was greatly distorted by torture. The same was said by the tortured and the untortured. She saw their testimony as based on remarkably uniform “visionary experience.” Pocs also found that the practice of “contacting the Supernatural through trance in order to achieve community tasks’, often with the help of a guide or spirit, was common both to European witchcraft and to Shamanism strictly so-called, or as practiced in Siberia.
The medieval grimoire described in Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the 15th Century contained directions for creating illusions like to the flying straw horses mentioned by Murray. It’s author, Kieckhefer, commented that illusion spells "done for entertainment" sadly “became sources of Boschian nightmares of the witch-trials.”
I am not arguing here that Murray’s description of a Medieval Craft was accurate, but that her academic reputation has been wrongly damaged by unjustified specific allegations. My issue is that certain scholars of high repute have helped destroy the reputation of a woman of considerable achievement by relying on the work of Cohn without checking to see if he were accurate. I think her spirit deserves some apologies!
But Murray did make mistakes. I think one of the main ones was that she defined Pagan religion too narrrowly, ironically much as does Ronald Hutton. When she found something of the old fairy-honouring religion in Joan of Arc, she declared that Joan was Pagn in a much combative sense than she really was, as if she adhered to Religion diametrically opposed to Christianity, rather than having a religion that strong elements from both the Pagan and the Christian past. This Joan did not do. She seems to have honoured Christ while not obeying the bishops. She saw herself as owing her prime allegiance to her visions, to her conversations with otherworld beings.
The medieval Bishops thus saw witchcraft as adherence to an inner authority, to the inner voices, as giving primacy to inner knowledge and to our personal relationships with Deities or spirits, rather than acknowleging the right of external authorities to govern our spiritual lifes. If that is witchcraft, then that definitely is my path.
As far as I can judge, Murray did not argue that the Craft she found in witchtrial records was identical with that of the pre-historic past, but maintained that some elements of it were truly old. She also did not look for links to ancient shamanism - but then this was then little understood. She also did not investigate if other Pagan traditions might have survived in Britain.
Hutton maintained that such beliefs and practices did not constitute a religion. Was it that we defined religion differently? My Oxford Dictionary gives several alternate definitions. These were a belief in God or Gods, the honouring of these in worship or “a system of faith and worship”. The Latin origin for the word indicated a bond between God and Man. Religions seemingly had no need of hierarchical structures or institutions. There was also nothing to prevent a religion from including elements from other religions.
Perhaps his difficulty lay in the way he separated “Christian” from “Pagan” practices? If a vicar in a Derbyshire parish blessed a sacred well, keeping up a very ancient custom, is he being Pagan or Christian? Perhaps the honest answer is that he is being both - that his system of belief is not entirely inherited from Israel but incorporates local Pagan elements. But Hutton said these elements were no longer Pagan for "It is necessary to demonstrate that certain things, although now existing within a Christian structure, kept alive a memory of, and a reverence for, the old deities. Otherwise they were part of Christianity." I would suggest that honouring a well is not part of the Christian Revelation but a belief that comes from a far older origin. It keeps alive a reverence for the Sacred Earth, a Pagan belief that has existed from pre-Christian times.
The answer is, I think, that the religions of Europe have always mixed and matched. If we believe in a religion founded on a personal relationship with the Divine, then it lies beyond sets of doctrines or hierarchies. Labels can only limit. Nothing prohibits sharing. For me, my spiritual brothers and sisters are not those with whom I only share a label, but those with whom I share a relationship with the spirits and Deities of Nature.
This article is summarised from a small part of the author’s new book "The Seven Days of My Creation: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender.
This book weaves the story of an extraordinary personal spiritual journey from a fey child who joined a near-medieval and very patriarchal, religious community but who secretly knew she had been labelled into the wrong gender, to Christian Priest, to excommunication, visted by Mother Teresa of Calcutta who tried to save her, to worker with Aborigines, among whom she came to celebrate her femalehood, finding that she had been gifted a very old shamanic path, and thus finally to her work as an investigative journalist on social justice issues, and as a witch and priestess in the ancient sacred places of the British Isles.