Child-Sacrifice among European Witches

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Child-Sacrifice among European Witches
by Margaret Alice Murray
From Man, Vol. 18, (April 1918), pp. 60-62.
Child-Sacrifice among European Witches.


By M. A. Murray.


In studying the cult of the witches, plain and irrefragable proof is found that the personage called by Christian writers “the Devil,” was considered by the witches themselves to be God incarnate as a man. To this deity they made sacrifices of various kinds, the most important of such sacrifices being that of a child. The child was either a witch’s child, or was unbaptised; in other words, it did not belong to the Christian Church. This was an important point, and was the reason why unbaptised children were thought to be in more danger from witches than the baptised. “If there be anie children unbaptised, or not garded with the signe of the crosse, or orizons; then the witches may or doo catch them from their mothers sides in the night, or out of their cradles, or otherwise kill them with their ceremonies.”[1] The same author quotes the following as among the crimes laid to the charge of witches: “They sacrifice their own children to the devil before baptism, holding them up in the air to him, and thrust a needle into their brains”; and “they burn their children when they have sacrified them.”[2] Boguet says: “Les Matrones & sage femmes ont accoustomé d’offrir à Satan les petits enfans qu’elles reçoiuent, & puis les faire mourir auant qu’ils soient baptisez, par le moye d’vne grosse espingle qu’elles leur enfoncent dans le cerueau.”[3] Boguet’s words imply that this was done at every birth at which a witch officiated; but it is very certain that this could not have been the case. The sacrifice was probably made for some special purpose, for which a new-born child was the appropriate victim.

The most detailed account of these sacrifices is given in the trial of the Paris witches (1679-81), whom Madame de Montespan consulted. The whole ceremony was performed to the end that the love of Louis XIV should return to Madame de Montespan, at that time his discarded mistress; it seems to be a more or less distorted fertility rite, hence its use on this occasion. The Abbé Guibourg was the sacrificing priest, and from other indications he appears to have been the Chief or Master of the witches, who, before a less educated tribunal, would have been called the Devil. Both he and the girl Montvoisin were practically agreed as to the rite; though, from the girl’s words, it would appear that the child was already dead, while Guibourg’s evidence implies that it was alive. The evidence of both witnesses was given gravely and soberly, and without torture. The Montvoisin girl, who was 18 years old, stated that she had presented “à la messe de Madame de Montespan, par l’ordre de sa mère, un enfant paraissant né avant terme, le mit dans un bassin, Guibourg l’égorgea, versa dans le calice, et consacra le sang avec hostie.”[4] Guibourg’s evidence shows that the sacrifice was so far from being uncommon that the assistants were well used to the work, and did all that was required with the utmost celerity: “Il avait acheté un écu l’enfant qui fut sacrifié à cette messe qui lui fut presenté par une grande fille et ayant tiré du sang de l’enfant qu’il piqua à la gorge avec un canif, il en versa dans le calice, après quoi l’enfant fut retiré et emporté dans un autre lieu dont ensuite on lui rapporta le coeur et les entrailles pour en faire une deuxième [oblation].”[5]

The whole of this ceremony seems to be traditional. Such a custom would account for the continued belief, in early times, of the blood or flesh of a sacrificed child in the most holy of religious rites. The belief is preserved in the accusations || brought constantly against the Jews, and it occurs also in Christian legend, notably the Holy Grail: “The bishop took a wafer which was made in the likeness of bread, and at the lifting up there came a figure in the likeness of a child, and the visage was as red and as bright as any fire, and smote himself into that bread, so that they all saw that the bread was formed of a fleshly man. And then he put it into the holy vessel again.”[6] The same idea is expressed with, even more precise and ghastly detail in a legend of Christian Egypt: “When the time of the Mysteries arrived, there appeared to the three of them as it were a child on the table. And when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, behold the angel of the Lord came down from heaven with a knife in his hand, and he slew the child and pressed out his blood into the cup; and when the priest broke off from the bread small members, the old man drew nigh that he might partake of the Holy Offering, and a piece of living flesh smeared and dripping with blood was given to him.”[7]

In Scotland it was firmly believed that sacrifices of children took place in all classes of society: “The justices of the peace were seen familiarly conversing with the foul fiend, to whom one in Dumfriesshire actually offered up his firstborn child immediately after birth, stepping out with it in his arms to the staircase, where the devil stood ready, as it was suspected, to receive the innocent victim.”[8] In the later witch trials the sacrifice of the child seems to have been made after its death, as in the case of the old Witch of Calder, who was accused of casting a spell on Lord Torphichen’s son. She gave her evidence readily, without any suggestion of torture, and acknowledged that she had given her dead child, as Sinclair puts it, “to the devil, not only the soul, but the corpse, without a burying.”[9]

It is possible that the killing of children by poison was one method of sacrifice when the cult was decadent and victims difficult to obtain. Both Reginald Scot, writing in 1584, and Sinistrari d’Ameno in the following century, state that “this must be an infallible rule that everie fortnight, or at the least everie month, each witch must kill one child at the least for hir part.”[10] It is impossible to believe in any great frequency of this sacrifice, but there is considerable foundation in fact for the statement that children were killed, and it accounts as nothing else can for the cold-blooded murders of children of which the witches were sometimes accused. The accusations seem to have been substantiated on several occasions, the method of sacrifice being by poison.[11]

The sacrifice of a child was usually performed as a means of procuring certain magical materials or powers, which were obtained by preparing the sacrificed bodies in several ways. Scot says that the flesh of the child was boiled and consumed by the witches, for two purposes. Of the thicker part of the concoction “they make ointments, whereby they ride in the aire; but the thinner portion they put into flaggons, whereof whosoever drinketh, observing certeine ceremonies, immediatelie becometh a maister or rather a mistresse in that practise and facultie.”[12] The gang of Paris witches confessed that they “distilled” the entrails of the sacrificed || child after Guibourg had celebrated the mass for Madame de Montespan, the method being probably that described by Scot. A variant occurs in both France and Scotland, and is interesting as throwing light on the reasons for some of the savage rites of the witches: “Pour ne confesser iamais le secret de l’escole, on faict an sabbat vne paste de millet noir, avec de la pondre du foye de quelque enfant non baptisé qu’on faict secher, puis meslant cette poudre avec ladicte paste, elle a cette vertu de taciturnité: si bien que qui en mange ne confesse iamais.”[13] At Forfar, in 1661, Helen Guthrie and four others exhumed the body of an unbaptised infant, which was buried in the churchyard near the south-east door of the church, “and took several pieces thereof, as the feet, hands, a part of the head, and a part of the buttock, and they made a pie thereof that they might eat of it, that by this means they might never make a confession (as they thought) of their witchcrafts.”[14] Here the idea of sympathetic magic is very clear; by eating the flesh of a child who had never spoken articulate words, the witches’ own tongues would be unable to articulate.


M. A. MURRAY.


Notes[edit]

  1. Reg. Scot: Discoverie of Witchcraft. Book III, ch. 1, Ed. 1584.
  2. Id. ib.
  3. Boguet: Discours des Sorciers, p. 205, Ed. 1608.
  4. Ravaisson: Archives de la Bastille. 1679-81, p. 334.
  5. Id. ib., p. 355.
  6. Malory: Morte d’Arthur, Bk. III, ch. 101. See also Evans: High History of the Holy Grail. Branch I, Title 6.
  7. Budge: Paradise of the Fathers, II, pp. 159-60.
  8. Sharpe: Historical Account of Witchcraft in Scotland, p. 147.
  9. Sinclair: Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, p. 262.
  10. Reg. Scot.: Discoverie of Witchcraft, Bk. III, ch. 2. Sinistrari d’Ameno: Demonialty, p. 27.
  11. See, amongst others, the account of Mary Johnson (Essex, 1645), who was accused of poisoning two children. The symptoms suggest strychnine. Howell: State Trials, IV, 844, 846.
  12. Reg. Scot., op. cit., Bk. iii, ch 1.
  13. De Lancre: Tableau, p. 128.
  14. Kinloch and Baxter: Reliquiae Antiquae Scotieae, p. 121.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1963, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.