Wednesday, April 27, 2022

#AtoZChallenge2022: W is for Witch Cult Hypothesis

The A to Z of Conspiracy Theories W
The A to Z of Conspiracy Theories: W is for Witch Cult Hypothesis

This is a conspiracy theory / modern myth that is more or less implicit in all of my games.  And something a little different than what I have been doing this month.

The hypothesis (and I could argue it is a testable one) is that there has been a more or less unbroken line of pagan magic practitioners and nature worshipers that has existed in Europe and elsewhere since pre-history dating back to at least a time of Goddess worship.  The witch-trails of Europe were an attempt to irradicate these "Witches" in favor of...well, let's look into that.

Ok, that is a lot of variables for a proper hypothesis.  Let's see what we are talking about here.

This idea was put forth by a number of different scholars over the years. The biggest "name" in this was  Margaret Murray, who gave us The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921).  It built off of the popularity of James George Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1917) which was also a study in European and before Pagan practices and Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899).

Murray's central thesis was that these witches have existed for centuries and were a vital part of the pagan community.   With the rise of monotheism and proliferation of just one god (and a Male God at that) these witches were hunted down by members of the Church and State or at the very least with their implicit, if not tacit, approval.   That would be Conspiracy #1.

The trouble it Murray's work is not very good.  She makes a lot of fundamental errors in her book including pointing out that the lack of evidence is evidence that they had been wiped out.

I will admit I was even taken it by the idea when I first read it so many years ago. I have since re-read it after several years of grad school and designing research that I can only see the errors, missteps and sadly outright fabrications.  It is a fun read, but has about as much to do with witches as the Wizard of Oz.  

The second wave of the Witch Cult Hypothesis came in the 20th Century.  Typically post-WWII/1950s thinking.  Building on Murray's work there were those that wanted to see what a witch cult, ala Murray, would have been like if it had survived into the 20th Century.   

Taking this in with other works you folks like Gerald Gardner who invented Wicca and claimed to have these roots. Other writers, like Raymond Buckland, were a bit more honest about what they were doing, but you still had a number of others taking Murray not only at face value but also the "gospel truth."

This brings us to Conspiracy #2.  Not only were these witch cults wiped out, but it continues to this day with the discrediting of anything that might show it to be true.  A stretch maybe, but really no more strange than what any other religion believes about their origins. 

I have also read theories that the witch trials (often called the Burning Times) were the result of the growing professional medical professions (ie. Doctors) trying to get rid of their competition, the local herb woman, healer, and midwife.  A variant on Conspiracy #1. 

The truth is that Murray, not just through her own works but the works of others, has been so deeply embedded in this notion of a pre-Christian witch cult that is difficult to tease out her effects.   Her ideas, wrong or not (no, they were wrong, sorry) are with us now forever.

Maybe that is ok.  Just don't base an intellectual career on it.

young Celtic witch with read hair


Well. Basically. In NIGHT SHIFT everything Murray ever said was true. Yup. The whole lot of it. Whether she meant it to be true or not doesn't really matter here. In the world(s) of NIGHT SHIFT it is.

Again, this largely follows most of the work I do with witches in all my games. Gygax even did the same with his Druids imagining the Celtic priestly caste surviving to the Middle Ages (500 to 1,000 years later).   I do the same with witches.  Here I have a collection of pre-Christian, largely European (but there are other influences), pagan witch cults that have existed in secret for thousands of years.

Intellectually I have let Murray go, but in my games, not so much.

Witches are a big part of NIGHT SHIFT, regardless of where they come from.

The NIGHT SHIFT RPG is available from the Elf Lair Games website (hardcover) and from DriveThruRPG (PDF).


PT Dilloway said...

I had not heard of those theories but I do frequently write stories with "witches" or other unexplained magic-using characters in them. One story the witches were kind of like mutants in X-Men where they'd suddenly get magic abilities around puberty and they were being hunted almost to extinction by secret hunters employed by the government, so that would play into a couple different conspiracy theories you've mentioned.

I saw this article on Facebook and thought you might find it interesting:

M. Oniker (Em) said...

Oh wow, I'm stopping by since you stopped by over at my place for the A-to-Z Challenge. I love your theme! I have bookmarked your blog so I can come back and read this stuff. Great use of the challenge. :)

Enchanted Words said...

This post is very interesting!! I'm personally inclined to believe the first theory, just because I've come across it the most through various sources.

Kristin said...

So are you saying there were no "witches" or they weren't killed or ...?

Prakash Hegade said...

Interesting Read!

- prakash hegade (

Live and Learn said...

What an interesting theme for the A-Z challenge. I'll have to admit that I didn't know much about today's subject.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Kristin, far from it! Certainly women and men (and children) were killed. There were also certainly pockets of paganism, folk belief, and other practices still in use by the 18th century.

It just didn't happen the way Murray said it did.
This is a topic I have gone into great length about in the rest of my blog here.