Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Long Shadows of Montague Summers and Margaret Murray

Over the next few weeks I want to discuss some modern representations of witchcraft or uses of the term witch. I want to compare and contrast them with early modern examples. In order to do this, I want to briefly air some of my thoughts on the figure of ‘the witch’ in modern culture. I have been working on a piece on witches in a television series for publication elsewhere, and the process has caused some related thoughts to coalesce.

It could be witches
Some evil witches -
Which is ridiculous
'Cause witches, they were persecuted
Wicca good and love the earth
And women power and I'll be over here

~ Xander Harris, “I’ve Got a Theory”, from  “Once More with Feeling”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 7

In the early twentieth century two authors wrote a series of works which argued that the idea of a secret cult within Christian Europe - often found in early modern witchcraft tracts and trials - had a basis in fact. The eccentric author and clergyman, Montague Summers believed that ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and witches were real.[i] While the folklorist Margaret Murray argued that early modern witches were part of a pre-Christian fertility cult.[ii]

Though this idea has been roundly dismissed by modern witchcraft historians,[iii] the idea still has great popular currency, not least because it suits a number of different agendas.

From genre fiction, to popular television shows, to modern wiccans, some feminist authors, and some atheists, the idea that witchcraft trials were the persecution of a religious minority by an oppressive Christian church is a rather appealing idea. Modern Wiccans and Satanists often believe their traditions extend from antiquity, not that they were inventions of the last two centuries (like so many other ‘traditions’), so calling those who died during ‘theBurning Times’ their sisters and brothers has some appeal.

In America associations between witchcraft and Satanism remain fairly strong compared to other countries, and modern day panics about satanic cults and secret religious societies are still a recurring theme of both public life and popular culture. Although I have noted another correlation with another popular conspiracy: alien abduction. For some people it seems that the Devil has been replaced by little green (or grey) men who may or may not be here to extract you organs, and may or may not be in league with Uncle Sam (their very own modern day Antichrist).

For some feminists the ‘gendercide’ of witchcraft remains a rallying cry against the patriarchy. While I am myself a feminist, I do wish people would at least attempt to get their facts right before explaining to me (again) that a million women burned, or that no men died in the witch trials. Or, worst of all, that witches were members of Margaret Murray’s female fertility cult.

And some atheists have pointed to the European witch trials as part of Christianity's oppression of those who think differently, or are different. Quite often you can find these ideas connected to one another, with the oppressive church targeting women, who were the last remnant of an oppressed religion with its own healing practices.

For Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) witches got one of their many outings in genre television in the 1990s. The first appearance of a witch on the show was an evil, deceitful, and vain mother. But regular characters who had ‘wicca’ powers were, for the most part, portrayed more favourably.

Which is ridiculous
'Cause witches, they were persecuted
Wicca good and love the earth
And women power and I'll be over here

Is part of a verse from song “I’ve Got a Theory” in the musical episode “Once More with Feeling”, which captures the ‘wicca-fertility-cult/real-witches-that-were/are-empowered-women’ concept that underlay some representations of witches in the 1990s. This idea has ongoing resonance for some people, and continues to affect the way in which some people conceive of men and women killed for witchcraft in the early modern period.

 Around this time of year I am regularly reminded of David Mitchell's amusing discussion of the way in which distance removes the sting of actual historical events. Mitchell pointed out that the term "Rape and Pillage" has become an amusing term even though we would not find either rape or pillage amusing today. I don't wish to sound like a stick in the mud, nor do I find most genre depictions of witchcraft in anyway offensive. But occasionally I find the way people casually make some correlation between their own situation with that of early modern people who actually died for a crime that most likely they didn't commit (diabolism), or which from my point of view, they couldn't have committed (maleficium), somewhat problematic.  

I cannot count the number of times this concept has been raised by people when I tell them about the topic of my dissertation. In the past I have occasionally directed people to a few places where they might find facts to replace common misconceptions.

This post is not meant as a replacement for that, but as background for future posts on modern representations of witchcraft, particularly in genre fiction and television between now and Halloween.

[i] Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, (1956).
[ii] Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, (1921); Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches, (1933); Margaret Murray, The Divine King of England, (1954).
[iii] See James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness, (1995): pp. 7-8; Brian P. Levack,  The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, (2006): pp. 19, 294-295.

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