Euro­pean witches were mem­bers of a fer­til­ity cult.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

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.”

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