European witches were members of a fertility cult.
The idea that witches were members of an ancient fertility cult was floated repeatedly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most prominent proponent of this theory was the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued, for instance, in her 1931 work, “The God of the Witches,” that accused witches were actually followers of a religion far older than Christianity, which had been kept alive by a special race of beings known as “fairies.” These ideas helped inspire Wicca, whose adherents sometimes complain that Trump’s use of the term “witch hunt” in relation to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe evokes times when people who may have been practitioners of Wicca were rounded up and killed.
Despite their continued influence, Murray’s theories have been consistently and repeatedly debunked by scholars, and were never even taken seriously by the scientific community when they were presented. The most important reason is that Murray quotes her sources selectively and superficially to avoid the fact that the allegations made against witches were simply not credible — eliding that the initial accusations of witchcraft had no basis in fact. As Cohn notes, Murray must have been aware of the fantastic features of the accounts she quotes in support of her theory. As he puts it, “she nevertheless contrives, by the way she arranges her quotations, to give the impression that a number of perfectly sober, realistic accounts of the sabbat exist.”