Myth or reality?

As mentioned on the home page, the sabbat is mainly a phantasm of the Church. Black masses have existed and still exist but the traditional description of the Sabbat belongs to the folklore.

Moreover the “Witch Cult” as described by Margareth Murray is simply a reflection of Witch hunters’ fears and fantasies.

Murray based her theory on Witch hunting propaganda and the confessions that Witch hunters forced Witches to regurgitate.

1) Witchcraft was an organized Pagan religion that existed throughout Europe.

The Church feared a conspiracy, therefore they assumed that Witches were organized. The Pagan sects found by modern researchers are very localized. Certain themes show up repeatedly, throughout Europe.

But the Italian Benandanti were very different from the Sicilian Ladies From Outside, who in turn were quite different from the Hungarian Taltosok and the English fairy doctors. European Witches may have shared certain beliefs and abilities, but there is no evidence of an organized religion, such as Murray suggests.

2) The supreme deity of the Witches was the Horned God.

Witch hunters believed that Witches were Satanists. When Murray decided that Witches were Pagans, she turned this belief on its head and claimed that Satan “really” was the Horned God. So every time a Witch hunter mentioned Satan, Murray assumed that he was “really” talking about a Pagan god.

In reality, there’s no evidence of a Horned God of the Witches. The deities associated with Witchcraft in Pagan times were all goddesses: Hecate, Diana, Freya, etc. Some Pagans did worship some horned gods, but none of them are considered patrons of Witches. Medieval literature agrees with the Pagan evidence. Medieval penitentials rail against Witch goddesses, not gods: Diana again, Frau Holde, Dame Abundia, etc. No medieval manuscript mentions a Horned God of the Witches.

3) Witches met in groups of thirteen.

This is unique to Murray. No Witch hunter ever believed this, and only one Witch — Isobel Gowdie — said that Witches always met in groups of thirteen. Murray’s evidence in support of this is exceptionally weak.

Modern research suggests that most Witches were solitaries, or worked with one or two other people. In addition there were some Witch families, which worked in small groups. Witches who said they did meet in groups (like the Benandanti) usually said they did so “in spirit”, or astrally. There’s also evidence that in urban areas, Witches got together socially to trade spells and experiences. The Venetian Inquisition, for instance, tried a group of women who’d been having the early modern equivalent of Witches’ coffee houses!

4) Witches gathered six times a year, at Samhain, Beltane, Candlemas, Lammas, Midsummer, and Yule.

One of Murray’s classic mistakes was to assume that all Witches, everywhere, were exactly alike. So if British Witches met on the solstices and the Celtic quarter days, so did German Witches, and Italian Witches, and Basque Witches, and… Modern research suggests that each different area had its own holidays. For instance the Benandanti fought in spirit on the Ember Days, quarterly periods of fasting in the Catholic Church.

5) The major holidays were called sabbats; working meetings were called esbats.

Witch hunters said Witches called their meetings “sabbats.” Murray assumed that Witch hunters were basically right, so she assumed that this was the Witches’ own word. Again, she never stopped to ask herself why an Italian Strega, a German Hexe, an English Wicce, and a Spanish Brujah would all use the same word to describe their rites. The answer is, they didn’t. Each different ethnic version of Witchcraft had its own vocabulary, a vocabulary that the Witch hunters (and Murray) chose to ignore. “Sabbat” was a Witch hunter’s word. Only they shared one common language (Latin). And whenever they encountered a native term (like the Basque “akelarre”) they substituted their own.

Linguists agree that sabbat originally had nothing to do with Witchcraft. Sabbat comes from the Latin “sabbatum”, which in turn comes from the Hebrew “shabbath”, meaning the holy day of the Jews.

In fact, if you read Murray’s own evidence, you’ll see that sabbat clearly is connected to the “Jewish ceremonial.” As Murray’s own quotes show, Witch hunters described Witches in Jewish terms. The most common word for a group of Witches was a “synagogue” (coven came much later and was only popular in England). Synagogues of Witches met to celebrate sabbats, just like the Jews did. During the Burning Times, sabbatum referred to either a group of Jews or a group of Witches.

Esbat is clearly not a Witch word either. This word only appears once before the 20th century, in the writings of Pierre de Lancre. De Lancre says that one French Witch called a gathering of Witches an “esbat.” No other Witch or Witch hunter ever uses this word. In all of the historical record, it only appears once. It seems likely that this Witch either  was trying to say “s’esbattre” (french), “to frolic.”

Interestingly, Murray uses the word in ways de Lancre never dreamed of. To de Lancre, esbat was simply another word for the sabbat. Murray however claimed that sabbats and esbats were two different things. A sabbat was a holiday, an esbat was a working meeting where spell work was done. Esbats could be held as often as necessary, up to several times per week. And, she said, all Witches throughout Europe called their working meetings esbats (despite the fact that this word only appears once!).

Gerald Gardner was one of Murray’s biggest fans. He either invented a religion based on her theories, or he substantially re-worked his tradition’s lore to make it fit her “current scholarly research.” Because of this, most modern Witches have inherited a bit of irony and use the words of Witch hunters, not Witches, to describe our rites!

Quoted from Jenny, a Wiccan Witch