In my novel, Sherlock Holmes sets out to investigate an apparent case of witchcraft in the year 1899, and naturally seeks to discover what scholarship can tell him about what is, to him, a rather obscure subject. What exactly would he have found in the writings of the period?
The Victorian age had seen a re-evaluation of witchcraft. Charles McKay’s famous book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, followed the standard Enlightenment line that the whole thing had been nothing but “a cruel and absurd delusion”; but, as early as 1866, the great antiquarian Thomas Wright was arguing that there had been a real witch-cult among the mediæval peasantry, and that its origins could be traced far back into pagan times, in what the title of his book described as “The Worship of the Generative Powers.”
“It seems” (he wrote) “that Priapic orgies and the other periodical assemblies for Priapic worship were continued long after the fall of the Roman power and the introduction of the Christian religion. The rustic population, mostly servile, whose morals or private practices were little heeded by the other classes of society, might, in a country so thinly peopled, assemble by night in retired places without any fear of observation. There they perhaps indulged in Priapic rites, followed by the old Priapic orgies, which would become more and more debased in form, but through the effects of exciting potions… would have become wilder than ever.”
In 1891, Professor Karl Pearson gave a remarkable lecture, “Woman as Witch“, putting forward the argument that mediæval witches had worshipped, not a male Devil, but a female Goddess; and that this and other features of their worship suggested that it had originated in Neolithic times, before the rise of Patriarchy. In the following year, the President of the Folklore Society, George Laurence Gomme, published his “Ethnology in Folklore“, in which he suggested that, just as in India, it was possible in Britain to discern two main strata of popular antiquities: one derived from the Aryans, a relatively advanced conquering race; and the other tracing its origins to the more primitive pre-Aryan population whom these conquerors had subjugated. Witchcraft, he maintained, was essentially the old religion of the pre-Aryan people, surviving into historic times as a secret cult.
In 1893, the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her “Woman, Church and State”, took a line still popular with feminists, that witches had been wise women and healers, persecuted by a misogynist Church jealous of female power.
Most remarkably of all, the eminent folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland published, in 1899, a book called “Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches“, in which he claimed to have found the witch-cult still flourishing in northern Italy, and to have obtained first-hand accounts of its beliefs and practices. His witches were poor peasants, criminals and prostitutes; they worshipped the Goddess Diana and her daughter Aradia with feasts and orgies at the time of the full moon. Exactly how much of Leland’s work is true, and how much is fantasy, is still the subject of scholarly debate.
Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, was also at this time inclined to believe in the reality of witchcraft. In January of 1897 he wrote to his friend Fliess, saying that he was “toying with the idea that in the perversions… we may have the remains of a primitive sexual cult, which in the Semitic East may once have been a religion (Moloch, Astarte). I am beginning to dream of an extremely primitive devil-religion, the rites of which continue to be performed secretly; and I now understand the stern therapy of the witches’ judges.”
Based on the scholarship of his time, Holmes would have formed the impression that witchcraft was a real and very ancient religion, which had involved the worship of a pagan Goddess with orgiastic rites; and which might (as both Freud and Leland suggested) have survived into his own day, among the lower orders of society. In my novel we see him going in search of such a cult. If you want to know whether or not he finds it, you will have to read the book!