The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray

“He had not read in vain such treatises as Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe; and knew that up to recent years there had certainly survived among peasants and furtive folk a frightful and clandestine system of assemblies and orgies descended from dark religions antedating the Aryan world, and appearing in popular legends as Black Masses and Witches’ Sabbaths.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

“The other manuscript papers were all brief notes, some of them accounts of the queer dreams of different persons, some of them citations from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), and the rest comments on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references to passages in such mythological and anthropological source-books as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

I took a good deal of it at college, and am familiar with most of the standard authorities such as Tylor, Lubbock, Frazer, Quatrefages, Murray, Osborn, Keith, Boule, G. Elliot Smith, and so on.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Margaret Alice Murray was 58 and already a successful Egyptologist when she published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology in 1921. On the strength of that book, she wrote the article on Witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929, which remained in print in various editions until 1969. The influence of that book—and its sequel, The God of the Witches (1931)—has profoundly impacted how entire generations have come to see witchcraft. And it played a critical part in the development of the Lovecraft Mythos.

The book has an odd place in the Mythos. Certainly, Lovecraft was inspired by it, and Murray’s thesis as interpreted through Lovecraft’s own lens strongly influenced “The Festival,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and other stories. He included it among other real works in “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” so it is technically a kind of Mythos tome, although not by any stretch a grimoire akin to the Necronomicon. Subsequent authors have borrowed on its dual status as both a real book and a “Mythos” work as well.

So while never writing a Mythos story or probably reading anything that Lovecraft wrote, Margaret Murray and her Witch-Cult in Western Europe are in the rare position of being adopted into the Mythos. She shares this status with a few others: Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow, Helena Blavatsky and The Book of Dzyan. Yet Murray’s impact on Lovecraft was profoundly greater than the mythology of Hastur or Theosophy. It began in 1924, at the New York Public Library:

The most revealing and stupefying book among those I have been reading is “The Witch Cult in Western Europe”, by Margaret Alice Murray, which was published in 1921 and reviewed with great attention by Burton Rascoe in the Tribune. In this book the problem of witchcraft superstition is attacked from an entirely new angle—wherein the explanation of delusion and hysteria is discarded in favour of an hypothesis almost exactly like the one used by Arthur Machen in fiction [marginal note: The Three Impostors]—i.e. that there has existed since prehistoric times, side by side with the dominant religion, a dark, secret, and terrible system of worship nocturnally practiced by the peasants and including the most horrible rites and incantations. This worship, Miss Murray believes, is handed down from the squat Mongoloid peoples who inhabited Europe before the coming of the Aryans; and reflects the life and thought of a barbarous culture in which stockbreeding had not yet been supplanted by agriculture. This latter feature is clear from the dates of the two great nocturnal feasts and orgies… Roodmas, or April 30, and Hallowe’en, or October 31—dates having a connexion with nothing whatever in agriculture (unlike such agricultural festivals as Easter, Harvest-home, etc.), but corresponding with uncanny fidelity to the breeding-seasons of the flocks and herds. Buttressed by an amazing array of sound documentary evidence taken from witchcraft trial reports, Miss Murray unhesitatingly asserts that the similarities and consistencies in the testimony of witch-suspects cannot be explained on any assumption save one which allows for a certain amount of actuality. In her mind, practically all the confessions treat not of dreams and delusions, but form highly coloured versions of real meetings and ceremonies conducted in deep woods and lonely places betwixt midnight and dawn, attended by secretly annotated peasants stolen thither one by one, and presided over by local cult-leaders clad in animal skins and called the “Devils” of their particular branches or “Covens”. The hideous nature of the cult-rites is amply attested—and the whole subject takes on a new fascination when one reflects that the system probably survived to comparatively recent times. Miss Murray has no difficulty in tracing the cult’s presence in the Salem witchcraft of 1692, and entures to name the Reverend George Burroughs as “Devil” of the particular branch or Coven involved. Cotton Mather thus stands vindicated, and displayed as the suppressor of a movement involving the most loathsome and offensive practices. Another point of interest is the association of Joan of Arc with the witch-cult—a circumstance which makes one weep less at her fiery martyrdom. The use of this newly unearthed lore in a study of American superstition will be quite new, so that I really believe my book will have some degree of interest if it is ever suffered to materialise.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 Mar 1924, Letters from New York 53-54

The book never materialized, but Lovecraft melded Murray’s hypothesis of an underground witch-cult practicing remnants of a pagan religion and married it to the idea of primitive pre-human survivals and their connection with fairies (“the Little People”) in the fiction of Arthur Machen (which he had also lately been reading), and formed his own theory of history—which would go on to inform much of his fiction. Not for nothing would Richard Upton Pickman in “Pickman’s Model” have a Salem Village ancestor hanged for witchcraft in 1692, or that Joseph Curwen would flee from there to Providence, R. I. in the annals of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The combination of Machen and Murray was assisted by Murray including in her work certain euhemeristic ideas and scientific racialism:

The dwarf race which at one time inhabited Europe has left few concrete remains, but it has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves. Nothing, however, is known of the religious beliefs and cults of these early people, except the fact that every seven years they made a human sacrifice to their god—‘And aye at every seven years they pay the teind to hell’—and that like the Khonds they stole children from the neighbouring races and brought them up to be the victims. That there was a strong connexion between witches and fairies had been known to all students of fairy lore. I suggest that the cult of the fairy or primitive race survived until less than three hundred years ago, and that the people who practised it were known as witches. I have already pointed out that many of the witch-belief and practices coincide with those of an existing dwarf race, viz. the Lapps.
—Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 238

The Sámi people (historically Lapps, Laplanders) are an indigenous people in Northern Europe; racial anthropologists in Lovecraft’s time categorized them as “Mongoloid” (along with Asians and Native Americans) as opposed to the majority population of Europe which was “Caucasoid.” Although this was not the primary focus of Murray’s work, Lovecraft took this as concrete scientific evidence to support his existing prejudices. Along with Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890), Murray’s book offers what in the 1920s seemed a very rational, dogmatic, albeit radical re-interpretation of a chunk of European (and at least one episode of American) history.

Not everyone accepted The Witch-Cult in Western Europe as genuine; Jacqueline Simpson in Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why? chronicles some of the academic blowback, including Murray’s misrepresentation and misinterpretation of sources. Lovecraft was at best peripherally aware of this academic debate, with two exceptions:

The witch-cult was an objective example of that element of reaction against mediaeval piety which appears in certain leering gargoyles & in various sinister undertones in literary & other art. As for its origin—I am wholly against Summers & with Miss Murray. Summers has let his serious acceptance of Christianity bias him. He is blind to dozens of points of resemblance betwixt witch-cult practices (especially festival dates) & primitive-reliques of Nature-worship all over Europe, & makes a very weak argument in his earlier witchcraft book which Koenig lent me.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Nov 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 484

The theories of Miss Murray regarding the source of the cult have been attacked from different angles by scholars as antipodal as Joseph McCabe & the Rev. Montague Summers, but I still think they are as plausible as any yet advanced. You will, I think, appreciate “The White People” anew upon giving it a post-Murray re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber, 19 Dec 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 302

Joseph McCabe was a noted atheist, and while Lovecraft doesn’t cite the exact work in question, McCabe made a glowing endorsement of Murray and her book in The Story of Religious Controversy (1929). Montague Summers also addressed Murray’s book at some length in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), commenting at one point:

Miss Murray does not seem to suspect that Witchcraft was in truth a foul and noisome heresy, the poison of the Manichees. Her “Dianic cult,” which name she gives to this “ancient religion” supposed to have survived until the Middle Ages and even later and to have been a formidable rival to Christianity, is none other than black heresy and the worship of Satan, no primitive belief with pre-agricultural rites, in latter days persecuted, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. It is true that in the Middle Ages Christianity hadnot a rival but a foe, the eternal enemy of the Church Militant against whom she yet contends to-day, the dark Lord of that city which is set contrariwise to the City of God, the Terrible Shadow of destruction and despair.

Miss Murray with tireless industry has accumulated a vast number of details by the help of which she seeks to build up and support her imaginative thesis. Even those that show the appropriation by the cult of evil of the more hideous heath practices, both of lust and cruelty, which prevailed among savage or decadent peoples, afford no evidence whatsoever of any continuity of an earlier relgiion, whilst by far the greater number of the facts she quotes are deflected, although no doubt unconsciously, and sharply wrested so as to be patent of the sginification it is endeavoured to read into them. (ibid. 32-33)

Summers’ critique is undercut by his belief that witches were both Satanic and had magical powers; McCabe’s because his antipathy toward religion led him to be too credulous in accepting Murray’s thesis wholeheartedly. While scholars, neither were academics or anthropologists. Lovecraft himself in another letter suggests that Murray’s book is “probably about 85% right” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 463)

There is no reference in Lovecraft’s published letters to Murray’s sequel, The God of the Witches (1931); he apparently never read it, and perhaps never heard of it. Murray herself has very little to say about her witch-research in her autobiography:

Though my Witch Cult in Western Europe did not appear till 1921 the greater part of the research had been done during the war. The book received a hostile reception from many strictly christian sects and reviewers, but it made its way in spite of oppostion.

My second book on the same subejct, which is really on the survival of pagan beliefs and rites under a veneer of Christianity, was The God of the Witches. It was a flop and was remaindered in two years. But it was the 1939-45 war that made it known. I think because it was a change from the monotony of the kind of books that are published in and just after a a war. Also as a remainder it was cheap, selling at five shillings.

My view of Joan of Arc roused, and still rouses, fierce opposition. I am not usually a fighter, but when I am attacked with words like “I don’t believe one word you say about Joan of Arc,” I have to defend myself.

I have one effective reply which is, “Have you studied the original documents?” I have always found that these ardent worshippers have to acknowledge, when pressed, that they have not read anything of the kind. then I retort, “Well, I have,” and I reel off the names of the contemporary recorders (and there are a good many of them) while my critic’s eyes get rounder and rounder. I wind up by saying, “It is hardly woht while to continue the discussion, is it? For you and I have such different standpoints. I argue from contemporary documentary evidence, and you from hearsay.” the book was re-published after the war and has proved a best seller.
—Margaret Murray, My First Hundred Years (1963), 104-105

The Lovecraftian legacy of Margaret Murray is embodied in “witch-haunted Arkham” in all of its incarnations, in the “Dreams in the Witch House” and the witch-cult in general that appears in works such as “The Festival” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Works inspired directly by Lovecraft in this vein include “The Salem Horror” (1937) by Henry Kuttner, “Satan’s Servants” (1949) by Robert Bloch, and the graphic novel Providence (2015-2107) by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is referenced by name in Mythos stories such as “The Fairground Horror” (1976) by Brian Lumley and “A Critical Commentary on the Necronomicon” (1988) by Robert M. Price.

The long tail of Murray’s influence on fantasy fiction encompasses more than just Lovecraft and those he influenced. Herbert Gorman in “The Place Called Dagon” (1927), which Lovecraft read, shows a survival of the Salem witch-cult; so does the film I Married A Witch (1942), Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (1943), etc. all the way to Lords of Salem (2013) and American Horror Story: Coven (2014). Her books were a direct inspiration for the creation of Wicca by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, and the prolific occult literature produced from those fertile grounds has, in turn, influenced a great deal of horror and weird fiction…and, of course, Lovecraftian occultism:

In the west, the conjuration, cultivation, or worship of this Power was strenuously opposed with the advent of the Solar, Monotheistic religions and those who clung to the Old Ways were effectively extinguished. The wholesale salughter of those called “Witches” during the Inquisition is an example of this […] The current revival of the cult called WICCA is a manifestation of the ancient secret socieities that sought to tap this telluric, occult force and use it to their own advantage, and to the advantage of humanity, as was the original intent.
—Simon, Necronomicon xxii

Anthropology has pushed back and moved on. Outside of occult circles, there is no strong belief that Murray’s “witch-cult” actually existed. Historians and anthropologists have a better understanding of witch trials in the early modern period, both in Europe and the Americas. Instead of an organized pagan survival, there is a mess of politics, religion, folklore, and disparate human dramas and tragedies.

What does that mean for the Mythos?

For the most part, Mythos fiction reflects the syntax of the period. The Salem Witch Trials are a part of the history of Massachusetts; Lovecraft himself never attributes any of the innocent victims of that hysteria as actual witches in his fiction, instead he added fictional characters such as Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen to the milieu. These characters and their stories are dependent on the historical reality of the witch trials, but the interpretation of that history is still up to contemporary authors and audiences.

The “cult” of the Stella Sapiente in Moore & Burrows’ Providence, for example, looks very little like the 13-member covens that Margaret Murray wrote about in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe, but it retains certain features derived from Murray that feature in Lovecraft’s work. The image of Nyarlathotep as the “Black Man” of the witch-cult remains intact in many Mythos stories, and is derived directly from Murray and Machen as discussed in “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

So Margaret Murray and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe remain a historical touchstone for the Mythos. Both a part of it and oddly apart from it. The book is not “canon” in the sense that its ideas are absolutely true within the fictional reality of the Mythos, yet it is in the canon of works which directly influenced and are referenced by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, alongside The King in Yellow and The Book of Dzyan, Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, etc.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One thought on “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray

  1. As a literary device, the ‘real’ works intermingled with fictional Mythos titles served two purposes. First, they opened a crack in the Western Christian canon, showing that unusual readings of history existed and were available, much like Gnostic gospels and the like. The anthropological accuracy of these works was not as important as the simple fact of their existence which could be verified by any Mythos reader. This lead to the second purpose, that of conveying a sheen of legitimacy to both the fictive grimoires, and to the more controversial ideas of Mythos literature including older cults and religious practices, forgotten races, and the existence of other supernatural realms.

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