Margaret Murray: Wikis


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Margaret Alice Murray (July 13, 1863 – November 13, 1963)[1] was a prominent British anthropologist and Egyptologist. She was well known in academic circles for scholarly contributions to Egyptology and the study of folklore which led to the theory of a pan-European, pre-Christian pagan religion that revolved around the Horned God. Her theories are acknowledged to have significantly influenced the emergence of Wicca and reconstructionist neopagan religions. Murray's work is criticized by some contemporary historians (such as Ronald Hutton), who consider her thesis to extrapolate beyond the evidence.



Margaret Murray was born in Calcutta, India on July 13, 1863. She attended the University College of London and was a student of linguistics and anthropology. She was also a pioneer campaigner for women's rights. Margaret Murray accompanied the renowned Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, on several archaeological excavations in Egypt and Palestine during the late 1890s. Murray was the first in a line of female Egyptologists employed at The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester. In 1908, she undertook the unwrapping of "The Two Brothers", a Middle Kingdom non-royal burial excavated by Petrie in Egypt. It is regarded as the first interdisciplinary study of mummies and probably kick-started future scientific unwrappings, such as those of Keeper Professor Rosalie David completed in the 1970s. Her work and association with Petrie helped secure employment at University College as a junior lecturer. Murray's best known and most controversial text, "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe," was published in 1921. She was consequently named Assistant Professor of Egyptology at the University College of London in 1924, a post she held until her retirement in 1935. In 1926, she became a fellow of Britain's Royal Anthropological Institute. Murray became President of the Folklore Society in 1953. Ten years later and having reached 100 years of age, Margaret Murray published her final work, an autobiography entitled "My First Hundred Years" (1963). She died later that same year of natural causes.

Murray's Witchcraft theories

Initial Thesis

Murray's "Witch Cult in Western Europe" 1921, written during a period she was unable to do field work in Egypt, laid out the essential elements of her thesis that a common pattern of underground pagan resistance to the Christian Church existed across Europe. The pagans organized in covens of thirteen worshippers, dedicated to a male god and held ritual sabbaths. Murray maintained that pagan beliefs and religion dating from the neolithic through the medieval period, secretly practised human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt starting c. 1450.

Theoretical development

Murray's later books were written for a more popular audience and in a style that was far more imaginative and entertaining than standard academic works. "The God of the Witches", 1931 expanded on her claims that the witch cult had worshiped a Horned God whose origins went back to prehistory. Murray decided that the witches' admissions in trial that they worshiped Satan proved they actually did worship such a god. Thus, according to Murray, reports of Satan actually represented pagan gatherings with their priest wearing a horned helmet to represent their Horned God. Murray also discussed the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, claiming to show that he too was a pagan by saying that his death "presents many features which are explicable only by the theory that he also was the substitute for a Divine King" (Murray 171).

Murray now became more and more emotional in her defence of her ideas, claiming that anyone who opposed her did so out of religious prejudice. In "The Divine King in England", 1954 she expanded on her earlier claims there was a secret conspiracy of pagans amongst the English nobility, the same English nobility who provided the leading members of the Church. The suspicious death of William Rufus, King of England, was a ritual sacrificial killing of a sacred king carried out by Henry I, a man so pious he later founded one of the biggest Abbeys in England. This secret conspiracy, according to her, had killed many early English sovereigns, through to James I in the early seventeenth century. Saint Joan of Arc - whose Catholic piety and orthodoxy are attested in numerous documents (such as the letter she dictated threatening to lead a crusade against the Hussites), and who was executed by the English for what even the tribunal members later admitted were political reasons - was rewritten as a pagan martyr by Murray. Her portrait of messianic (self-) sacrifices of these figures make for entertaining speculation, but they have not been taken seriously as history even by her staunchest supporters, though they have been used in novels.

Contemporary reception

Murray's theories were quickly criticized by historians of witchcraft like C. L. Ewen, who in 1938 called them "vapid balderdash".[2]. Since academic reviews were published in obscure journals, critical analysis of Murray's work often failed to influence the reception of her books, and she became popularly regarded as a leading expert on witchcraft.

Later reception

It is generally agreed that Murray's ideas extrapolated more than could be supported from her limited sources. Notable historians who have criticized Murray include Norman Cohn, Ronald Hutton, G. L. Kitteredge, Keith Thomas, J. B. Russell and Carlo Ginzburg.

Murray's original ideas were heavily influenced by the ideas of the anthropologist Sir James Frazer, who, in The Golden Bough, detailed his proposal of a worldwide belief of a sacred king who was sacrificed. Frazer's ideas, in this regard, have not stood the test of time, and modern anthropologists generally criticize them as overly reductionist.

Murray's sources in general were limited: "a few well-known works by Continental demonologists, a few tracts printed in England and quite a number of published records of Scottish witch trials. The much greater amount of unpublished evidence was absolutely ignored." (Hutton 1991)

Another example of Murray's questionable methodology, alongside her poor sourcing, is in her concept of covens with thirteen members: She cited one Scottish reference out of thousands of witch trials, and in searching for other thirteen-member covens, she excluded, discounted or added individuals until a total of thirteen was reached for any given group. For example, of those indicted at the Aberdeen witch trials in 1597, twenty-four were burnt as witches and another seven banished. Murray listed only twenty-six of the accused to make two of her covens. Of the fourteen people accused at St Osyth of witchcraft (Robbins 425), two were hanged. Murray, however, lists only thirteen individuals to make a coven. (Witchcult Appendix III)

Norman Cohn, in his book Europe's Inner Demons, also accused Murray of falsifying her evidence by selectively quoting from the testimony of accused witches, deliberately leaving out fantastical elements to support her claim that real events were being described rather than fantasies; such elements include testimonies of flying to meetings, transforming into animals, or seeing the devil disappear and reappear suddenly. Jani Farrell-Roberts has argued that Cohn is misrepresenting Murray, for she did indeed discuss such fantastical elements at length, and many of the supposedly omitted passages can be found in her books.[3] Ronald Hutton is in agreement with Cohn.[3] Carlo Ginzburg, on the other hand, regards Cohn's views as a polemic[4] and believes that although Murray was too eager to accept all testimonies as accurate, and failed to critically differentiate those elements introduced by the interventions of judges, inquisitors and demonologists, she still had a "correct intuition" in identifying the remnants of a pre-Christian 'religion of Diana', and in believing that witch-trial testimonies did at times represent actual or perceived experiences.[5]

According to Kitteredge and other historians, the European obsession that witches gathered for large meetings, or 'sabbats', hardly featured in witchcraft trials in England, yet Murray claimed these sabbats were universal.

Murray has been accused, by Montague Summers, in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, of deciding that all evidence given in witchhunt trials, even that given under torture or threat of torture, was accurate, because its consistency seemed to her to be evidence of the coherent belief system she proposed. However Murray addresses this point, stating that the widespread uniformity of witch trial accounts, even in points of detail, would have required an unlikely degree of collaboration between interrogators across Europe and Britain, and she observes that in most of the English and Scottish trials torture was not applied, pricking, starvation and prevention of sleep only being used in the seventeenth century. She also notes that many confessions were given voluntarily and unbidden.[6] Even if some evidence was the result of torture, she says, there are many elements that cannot be explained away, such as the recurrent theme of connections between witches and fairies, the number thirteen in covens, and the narrow geographical range of the domestic familiar.[7]

Murray's ideas may be attributed to the popularity of the conservative concept of a romanticized rural Deep England in reaction to modernism and the horrors of the First World War.

The legacy of her thinking

Murray's works were to become popular bestsellers from the 1940s onwards and were popularly believed to be accurate. Indeed, Murray's influence is still massive in popular thought, though, as noted above, academics have since cited major flaws in Murray's works which call her conclusions into question.

Jacqueline Simpson blames contemporary historians for doing little to refute Murray's ideas at the time they were written. It has been claimed by Norman Cohn that in the thirties her books led to the founding of Murrayite covens (small circles of witches), one of which taught Gerald Gardner in the 1940s. In the 1950s Gardner publicized Wicca, a form of pagan religious witchcraft, which in turn helped to inspire the modern Neopagan movement.[8] The phrase "the Old Religion", used by Wiccans and Neopagans to describe an ancestral pagan religion, derives from Murrayite theory.[9] Other Wiccan terms and concepts like coven, esbat, the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, and the Horned God are, it has been suggested, influenced by or derived directly from Murray's works. Her ideas also inspired other writers, ranging from horror authors like H. P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley to Robert Graves. The character of the obsessed academic Rose Lorimer in Angus Wilson's 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is said to have been inspired in part by Murray and Frances Yates.


  • Saqqara Mastabas (1904)
  • Elementary Egyptian Grammar (1905)
  • Elementary Coptic Grammar (1911)
  • The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921)
  • Excavations in Malta, vol. 1-3 (1923, 1925, 1929)
  • Egyptian Sculpture (1930)
  • Egyptian Temples (1931)
  • Cambridge Excavations in Minorca, vol. 1-3 (1932, 1934, 1938)
  • God of the Witches (1933)
  • Petra, the rock city of Edom (1939)
  • A Street in Petra (1940)
  • The Splendour That Was Egypt (1949)
  • The Divine King in England (1954)
  • The Genesis of Religion (1963)
  • My First Hundred Years (1963)


  1. ^ "Dr. Margaret Murray Is Dead; Egyptologist and Teacher, 100". New York Times. November 15, 1963. pp. 33.  
  2. ^ Some Witchcraft Criticism, 1938
  3. ^ a b Farrell-Roberts, Jani (2003) "The Great Debate" in The Cauldron, May 2003.
  4. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo (1990) Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. London: Hutchinson Radius. p. 8.
  5. ^ Ginzburg, Ecstasies p. 9.
  6. ^ Murray, Witch Cult, p. 16.
  7. ^ Murray, Witch Cult, pp. 16-17.
  8. ^ Lamond, Frederick. Fifty Years of Wicca.
  9. ^ Jacqueline Simpson. "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?" (Folklore 1999, 105, pages 89, 92, 93, 95
  • Cohn, Norman, Europe's Inner Demons, London: Pimlico, 1973.
  • Ewen, Cecil L'Estrange Ewen. Some Witchcraft Criticism, 1938.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Kitteredge, G. L. Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1951. pp. 275, 421, 565,
  • Russell, J. B. A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans, Thames and Hudson, 1995 reprint.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline. "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?", Folklore 105, 1994, pp. 89–96.
  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971 and 1997, pp. 514–517.

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