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Margaret Murray

Margaret Alice Murray
Born 13 July 1863
Calcutta, British India
Died 13 November 1963(1963-11-13) (aged 100)
Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England
Nationality English
Alma mater University College London
Occupation Egyptologist; archaeologist; anthropologist; folklorist
Employer University College London (1898–1935)
Parents James Murray; Margaret Murray

Margaret Alice Murray (13 July 1863 – 13 November 1963)[1] was a prominent English Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, and folklorist. The first female to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom, she worked at University College London (UCL) from 1898 to 1935. She served as President of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955, and published widely over the course of her career.

Born to a wealthy middle-class family in Calcutta, British India, Murray divided her youth between India and Britain, training as both a nurse and a social worker. In 1894 she began studying Egyptology at UCL, developing a friendship with department head Flinders Petrie, who appointed her Junior Professor in 1898. In 1902–03 she took part in Petrie's excavations at Abydos, Egypt, there discovering the Osireion temple, and the following season investigated the Saqqara cemetery, both of which established her reputation in Egyptology. On return to London she became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement and devoted much time to improving women's status at UCL.

Undertaking public lectures at Manchester Museum, where she became the first woman to publicly unwrap a mummy in 1908, she began to author books on Egyptology for a general audience. Unable to return to Egypt due to World War I, she focused her research into the witch-cult hypothesis, the theory that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. Although later academically discredited, the theory provided a significant influence on the religion of Wicca. From 1921 to 1931 she undertook excavations of prehistoric sites on Malta and Minorca, and developed her interest in folkloristics. Appointed assistant professor in 1928, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1927 and retired in 1935. She continued lecturing and publishing in an independent capacity until her death.

Murray has been recognised as one of the earliest women to "make a serious impact upon the world of professional scholarship".[2] Although widely acclaimed for her work in Egyptology, Murray's work in folkloristics and the history of witchcraft has been discredited and her reputation tarnished in those fields.


  • Biography 1
    • Youth: 1863–93 1.1
    • Early years at University College London: 1894–1905 1.2
    • Feminism, the First World War, and Folklore: 1905–20 1.3
    • The Witch-Cult, Malta, and Minorca: 1921–35 1.4
    • Retirement: 1935–63 1.5
  • Murray's Witch-Cult hypotheses 2
    • Thesis 2.1
    • Criticism 2.2
    • Reception 2.3
      • 1920-1962 2.3.1
      • 1963–present 2.3.2
  • Legacy 3
    • In Wicca and Paganism 3.1
    • In academia 3.2
  • Personal life 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • References 6
    • Footnotes 6.1
    • Bibliography 6.2
  • External links 7
    • Books 7.1
    • Criticism 7.2


Youth: 1863–93

Margaret Murray was born on 13 July 1863 in Calcutta, West Bengal, then a major military city in British India.[3] A member of the wealthy British imperial elite, she lived in the city with her family: parents James and Margaret Murray, an older sister named Mary, and her paternal grandmother and great-grandmother.[3] James Murray was an Indian-born English businessman who worked as manager of the Serampore paper mills, and was thrice elected President of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce.[4] His wife, Margaret (née Carr) had been born in Britain but had moved to India in 1857 to work as a missionary preaching Christianity and educating Indian women. She continued with this work after marrying James and giving birth to her two daughters.[5] Although most of their lives were spent in the wealthy European area of Calcutta, walled off from the indigenous sectors of the city, Murray encountered members of indigenous society through her family's employ of 10 Indian servants and through childhood holidays to Mussoorie.[6]

In 1870, Margaret and her sister Mary were sent to Britain, there moving in with their uncle John, a vicar, and his wife Harriet at their home in Lambourn, Berkshire. Although John provided them with a strongly Christian education and a belief in the inferiority of women, John awakened Murray's interest in archaeology through taking her to see local monuments.[7] In 1873, the girls' mother arrived in Europe and took them with her to Germany, where they both became fluent in German.[8] In 1875 they returned to Calcutta, staying there till 1877.[8] They then moved with their parents back to England, where they settled in Sydenham, South London. There, they spent much time visiting The Crystal Palace, while their father worked at his firm's London office.[9] In 1880, they returned to Calcutta, where Margaret remained for the next seven years. She became a nurse at the Calcutta General Hospital, which was run by the Sisters of the Anglican Sisterhood of Clower, where she dealt with a cholera outbreak.[10] In 1887, she returned to England, moving to Rugby, Warwickshire, where her uncle John had moved, now widowed. Here she took up employment as a social worker dealing with local underprivileged people.[11] When her father retired and moved to England, she moved into his house in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, living with him until his death in 1891.[12] In 1893 she then traveled to Madras, Tamil Nadu, where her sister had moved to with her new husband.[13]

Early years at University College London: 1894–1905

Murray studied Egyptology at the UCL Wilkins Building

Encouraged by her mother and sister, Murray decided to enrol at the newly opened department of Egyptology at University College London (UCL) in Bloomsbury, Central London. Having been founded by an endowment from Amelia Blanford Edwards, one of the co-founders of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), the department was run by the pioneering early archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, and based in the Edwards Library of UCL's South Cloisters.[14] Murray began her studies at UCL aged 30 in January 1894, as part of a class that composed largely of other women and old men.[15] There, she took courses in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic languages which were taught by Francis Llewellyn Griffith and Walter Ewing Crum respectively.[16]

Murray soon got to know Petrie, becoming his copyist and illustrator and producing the drawings for the published report on his excavations at Guy Brunton, and Myrtle Broome, all of whom went on to produce noted contributions to Egyptology.[24] She supplemented her UCL salary by teaching evening classes in Egyptology at the British Museum.[25]

The Osireion, which was first excavated by Murray

At this point, Murray had no experience in field archaeology, and so during the 1902–03 field season, she traveled to Egypt to join Petrie's excavations at Abydos. Petrie and his wife, Hilda Petrie, had been excavating at the site since 1899, having taken over the archaeological investigation from French Coptic scholar Émile Amélineau. Murray at first joined as site nurse, but was subsequently taught how to excavate by Petrie and given a senior position.[26] This led to some issues with a number of male excavators disliking the idea of taking orders from a woman. This experience, coupled with discussions with other female excavators (some of whom were active in the feminist movement) led Murray to adopt openly feminist viewpoints.[27] While excavating at Abydos, Murray uncovered the Osireion, a temple devoted to the god Osiris which had been constructed by order of Pharaoh Seti I during the period of the New Kingdom.[28] She published her site report as The Osireion at Abydos in 1904, in which she examined the inscriptions that she discovered at the site to discern the purpose and use of the building.[29]

During the 1903–04 field season, Murray returned to Egypt, and at Petrie's instruction began her investigations at the Saqqara cemetery near to Cairo, which dated from the period of the Old Kingdom. Murray did not have legal permission to excavate the site, instead spending her time transcribing the inscriptions from ten of the tombs that had been excavated during the 1860s by Auguste Mariette.[30] She published her findings in 1905 as Saqqara Mastabas I, although would not publish translations of the inscriptions until 1937 as Saqqara Mastabas II.[31] Both The Osireion at Abydos and Saqqara Mastabas I proved to be very influential in the Egyptological community,[32] with Petrie recognising Murray's contribution to his own career.[33]

Feminism, the First World War, and Folklore: 1905–20

Murray came to do much lecturing and cataloguing at Manchester Museum

On returning to London, Murray took an active role in the feminist movement, volunteering and financially donating to the cause and taking part in feminist demonstrations, protests, and marches. Joining the Women's Social and Political Union, she was present at large marches like the Mud March of 1907 and the Women's Coronation Procession of June 1911. She would however conceal the militancy of her actions in order to retain the image of respectability within academia.[34] Murray also pushed the professional boundaries for women throughout her own career, and mentored other women in archaeology and throughout academia.[35] As women could not use the men's common room, she successfully campaigned for UCL to open a common room for women, and later successfully ensured that a larger, better equipped room was converted for the purpose; it was later renamed the Margaret Murray Room.[36] At UCL, she became a friend of fellow female lecturer Winifred Smith, and together they campaigned to improve the status and recognition of women in the university, with Murray becoming particularly annoyed at female staff who were afraid of upsetting or offending the male university establishment with their demands.[37]

Petrie had established connections with the Egyptological wing of Manchester Museum in Manchester, and it was there that many of his finds had been housed. Murray thus often travelled to the museum to catalogue these artefacts, and during the 1906–07 school year regularly lectured there.[38] In 1907, Petrie excavated the Tomb of the Two Brothers, a Middle Kingdom burial of two Egyptian priests, Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht, and it was decided that Murray would carry out the public unwrapping of the latter's mummified body. Taking place at the museum in May 1908, it represented the first time that a woman had led a public mummy unwrapping, and was attended by over 500 onlookers, attracting press attention.[39] Murray was particularly keen to emphasise the importance that the unwrapping would have for the scholarly understanding of the Middle Kingdom and its burial practices, and lashed out against members of the public who saw it as immoral; she declared that “every vestige of ancient remains must be carefully studied and recorded without sentimentality and without fear of the outcry of the ignorant.”[40] She subsequently published a book about her analysis of the two bodies, The Tomb of the Two Brothers.[41]

Glastonbury Abbey inspired Murray's interest in British folklore

Murray was dedicated to public education, hoping to infuse Egyptomania with solid scholarship about Ancient Egypt, and to this end authored a series of books aimed at a general audience.[42] In 1905 she published Elementary Egyptian Grammar which was followed in 1911 by Elementary Coptic (Sahidic) Grammar.[43] In 1913, she published Ancient Egyptian Legends for John Murray's "The Wisdom of the East" series.[44] She was particularly pleased with the increased public interest in Egyptology that followed Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922.[45] From at least 1911 until his death in 1940, Murray was a close friend of the anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligman of the London School of Economics, and together they co-authored a variety of papers on Egyptology that were aimed at an anthropological audience. Many of these dealt with subjects that Egyptological journals would not publish, such as the "Sa" sign for the uterus, and thus were published in Man, the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.[46]

In 1914, Petrie launched the academic journal Ancient Egypt, published through his own British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE), which was based at UCL. Given that he was often away from London excavating in Egypt, Murray was left to operate as de facto editor much of the time. She also published many research articles in the journal and authored many of its book reviews.[47]

The outbreak of

  • Article by historian Jenny Gibbons discussing the mainstream view of Murray's theories
  • Another article by Gibbons, which includes Murray's theories, as well as a general overview of the field
  • "So how old is Witchcraft really? The role of Murray examined" by Dave Evans.


  • The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (text in HTML and plain text format)
  • Ancient Egyptian Legends ebook


External links

Finneran, Niall (2003). "The Legacy of T.C. Lethbridge". Folklore 114 (1): 107–114.  
Gibson, Marion (2013). Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and Goddesses in Literature and History Since the Dark Ages. London and New York: Routledge.  
Murray, Margaret A. (1962) [1921]. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
Sheppard, Kathleen L. (2013). The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman's Work in Archaeology. New York: Lexington Books.  
Welbourn, Terry (2011). T.C. Lethbridge: The Man Who Saw the Future. Winchester and Washington: O-Books.  
Whitehouse, Ruth (2012-13). "Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer". Archaeology International (Ubiquity Press) 16: 120–127.  
Valiente, Doreen (1989). The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale.  
Ewen, C. L'Estrange (1938). Some Witchcraft Criticism. London: self published. 
Gibbons, Jenny (1998). "Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 5. 
Kieckhefer, Richard (2003). "Foreword" to A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in Witchcraft and Diabolism. Toronto: Toronto University Press. 
Merrifield, Ralph (June 1993). "G.B. Gardner and the 20th Century 'Witches'". Folklore Society News 17. 
Murray, Margaret (1921). The Witch Cult of Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
Murray, Margaret (1931). The God of the Witches. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
Murray, Margaret (1963). My First Hundred Years. London: William Kimber. 
Rose, Elliot (1962). A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in Witchcraft and Diabolism. Toronto: Toronto University Press. 


  1. ^ "Dr. Margaret Murray Is Dead; Egyptologist and Teacher, 100". The New York Times. 15 November 1963. p. 33. 
  2. ^ a b Hutton 1999. p. 194.
  3. ^ a b Sheppard 2013, p. 2.
  4. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 6.
  5. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 8–10.
  6. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 3–4, 13.
  7. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 16–20.
  8. ^ a b Sheppard 2013, p. 21.
  9. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 21–22.
  10. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 22–24.
  11. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 24–25.
  12. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 25.
  13. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 26.
  14. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 26, 37, 41–44.
  15. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 44–45.
  16. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 45.
  17. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 45–46.
  18. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 39, 47.
  19. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 48–49, 52.
  20. ^ Quibell, JE El Kab, Egyptian Research Account 1897, London 1898
  21. ^ Whitehouse 2012-13, p. 120; Sheppard 2013, pp. 52–53.
  22. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 52–53.
  23. ^ Whitehouse 2012-13, p. 121; Sheppard 2013, pp. 87.
  24. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 90–91.
  25. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 84.
  26. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 61–63.
  27. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 64–66.
  28. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 66–67.
  29. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 60, 68.
  30. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 70–76.
  31. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 60, 75.
  32. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 60.
  33. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 86.
  34. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 105–107, 114–115.
  35. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 108–109.
  36. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 110–111.
  37. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 111–112.
  38. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 106–1907.
  39. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 121, 126–127.
  40. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 126–129.
  41. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 130.
  42. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 121.
  43. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 89.
  44. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 140–141.
  45. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 152.
  46. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 197–198, 202–205.
  47. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 199–201.
  48. ^ a b c Sheppard 2013, p. 97.
  49. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 161.
  50. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 98, 162.
  51. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 163.
  52. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 164–165.
  53. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 166–166.
  54. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 168–169.
  55. ^ a b Simpson 1994. p. 90.
  56. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 169.
  57. ^ a b c d e f g Simpson 1994. p. 89.
  58. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 175.
  59. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 207–210.
  60. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 210–211.
  61. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 210.
  62. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 212–215.
  63. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 144–150.
  64. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 99.
  65. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 224.
  66. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 201.
  67. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 224–226.
  68. ^ Simpson 1994. p. 93.
  69. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 169–171.
  70. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 226–227.
  71. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 228.
  72. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 140.
  73. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 178–188.
  74. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 229.
  75. ^ Simpson 1994. p. 94.
  76. ^ Welbourn 2011, pp. 157–159, 164–165; Gibson 2013, p. 94.
  77. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 230.
  78. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 230–231.
  79. ^ a b Sheppard 2013, p. 231.
  80. ^ Murray 1962, p. 6.
  81. ^ Murray 1962, pp. 11–12.
  82. ^ Murray 1962, p. 13.
  83. ^ Murray 1962, p. 15.
  84. ^ Murray 1962, pp. 12–13.
  85. ^ Murray 1962, p. 19.
  86. ^ Murray 1962, pp. 28–31.
  87. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 170.
  88. ^ Hutton 1991. p. 302.
  89. ^ a b Simpson 1994. p. 91.
  90. ^ Simpson 1994. p. 90-91.
  91. ^ Murray 1921. p. 91.
  92. ^ Simpson 1994. p. 91-92.
  93. ^ a b Hutton 1999. p. 198.
  94. ^ Halliday 1922.
  95. ^ Ewen 1938.
  96. ^ Simpson 1994. p. 95.
  97. ^ Murray 1963. p. 104.
  98. ^ Hutton 1999 p. 194.
  99. ^ Hutton 1999. p. 199.
  100. ^ Kieckhefer 2003. p. vii
  101. ^ a b Farrell-Roberts, Jani (2003) "The Great Debate" in The Cauldron, May 2003.
  102. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo (1990) Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. London: Hutchinson Radius. p. 8.
  103. ^ Ginzburg, Ecstasies p. 9.
  104. ^ Merrifield 1993, p. 10.
  105. ^ Whitehouse 2012-13, p. 120.
  106. ^ a b c d e Whitehouse 2012-13, p. 125.
  107. ^ Whitehouse 2012–13, p. 120.
  108. ^ Valiente 1989, p. 24.
  109. ^ Finneran 2003, p. 108.
  110. ^ Davidson, quoted in Simpson 1994. p. 89.
  111. ^ Hutton 1999. p. 200.
  112. ^ Murray 1963. pp. 196–204.
  113. ^ Hutton 1999. pp. 200–201.



Works by or about Margaret Murray in libraries (WorldCat catalog)

Title Year Publisher
Saqqara Mastabas 1904
Elementary Egyptian Grammar 1905
Elementary Coptic Grammar 1911
The Witch-Cult in Western Europe 1921 Oxford University Press
Excavations in Malta: Volumes I to III 1923, 1925, 1929
Egyptian Sculpture 1930
Egyptian Temples 1931
Cambridge Excavations in Minorca: Volumes I to III 1932, 1934, 1938
The 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 of England 1954
The Genesis of Religion 1963
My First Hundred Years 1963


Raised a devout Christian by her mother, Murray had initially become a Sunday School teacher in order to preach the faith. However, after entering the academic profession she rejected religion, gaining a reputation amongst other members of the Folklore Society as a noted sceptic and a rationalist.[57][111] Despite her rejection of religion, she continued to maintain a personal belief in a God of some sort, relating in her autobiography that she believed in "an unseen over-ruling Power," "which science calls Nature and religion calls God."[112] She was also a believer and a practitioner of magic, performing curses against those whom she felt deserved it: as Ronald Hutton noted, "Once she carried out a ritual to blast a fellow academic whose promotion she believed to have been undeserved, by mixing up ingredients in a frying pan in the presence of two colleagues. The victim actually did become ill, and had to change jobs. This was only one among a number of such acts of malevolent magic she perpetrates, and which the friend who recorded them assumed (rather nervously) were pranks, with coincidental effects."[113]

One of her friends, the antiquarian Hilda Davidson, who knew Murray in her old age, described her as being "not at all assertive ... never thrust her ideas on anyone. [In relation to her Witch-Cult theory,] She behaved in fact rather like someone who was a fully convinced member of some unusual religious sect, or perhaps, of the Freemasons, but never on any account got into arguments about it in public."[110]

Bust of Murray held in the library of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Personal life

In a Folklore paper from 2003, Niall Finneran described Murray as "one of the greatest characters of post-war British archaeology".[109]

In a 1994 academic paper, the folklorist Jacqueline Simpson noted that British folklorists remembered Murray with "embarrassment" and a "sense of paradox." Considering Murray's reputation to be "deservedly low" in academia, she argued that Murray's status as President of the Folklore Society had harmed the society's reputation and was a causal factor in the mistrustful attitude that many historians held toward folkloristics as an academic discipline.[57]

In academia

Prominent Wiccan Doreen Valiente described Murray as "a remarkable woman".[108]

Murray's ideas proved highly influential over the ideas of Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), an English Wiccan who founded the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca in the 1950s before authoring the books Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). Gardner was the only member of the Folklore Society to "wholeheartedly" accept Murray's Witch-Cult hypothesis.[57]

Murray's Witch-Cult theories would provide the blueprint for the Contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca.[57]

In Wicca and Paganism

In 1935, UCL introduced the Margaret Murray Prize, awarded to the student who is deemed to have produced the best dissertation in Egyptology; it continued to be presented annually into the 21st century.[106] In 1969, UCL named one of their common rooms in her honour, but it was converted into an office in 1989.[106] UCL also hold two busts of Murray, one kept in the Petrie Museum and the other in the library of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.[106] UCL also possess a watercolour painting of Murray by Winifred Brunton; formerly exhibited in the Petrie Gallery, it was later placed into the Art Collection stores.[106] In 2013, on the 150th anniversary of Murray's birth and the 50th of her death, UCL Institute of Archaeology's Ruth Whitehouse described Murray as "a remarkable woman" whose life was "well worth celebrating, both in the archaeological world at large and especially in UCL".[107]

Murray is primarily known for her work in Egyptology, which represented "the core of her academic career".[2] However, within archaeology, Murray was often thought of primarily as one of Petrie's assistants, with her work being overshadowed by his.[105] By her retirement she had come to be highly regarded within the discipline, although Murray's reputation declined following her death, something that was probably due to the rejection of her witch-cult theory and the general erasure of women archaeologists from the discipline's male-dominated history.[106]

"Murray in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in 1921 and subsequently The God of the Witches had removed the whiff of sulfur from witchcraft and represented it as a respectable pagan religion, driven underground by persecution. Alan Smith has demonstrated that folklorists can be suspected of practising what they study, and this is likely to have been the case with Dr. Murray herself. That diminutive and kindly scholar, who radiated intelligence and strength of character into extreme old age, may well have seemed to some a role-model for the beneficent witch, obliterating the traditional image of the squalid hag, with whom they cannot have wished to identify. For such people Margaret Murray may have seemed the ideal fairy godmother, and her theory became the pumpkin coach that could transport them into the realm of fantasy for which they longed. Were there any 'Sunday newspaper' covens before 1921?"

Ralph Merrifield, archaeologist, on Murray's impact on the early Wiccan movement, 1993.[104]


In 1994, folklorist Jacqueline Simpson published an article in the Folklore journal entitled "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?" in which she took a particularly critical approach to the Murrayite theory, explaining its faults, and looking at the history of the hypotheses' criticism; within it she remarked that "No British folklorist can remember Dr Margaret Murray without embarrassment."[57] Similar criticism of Murray came from the historian Ronald Hutton, in both his 1991 book on ancient paganism, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy and in his 1999 study of Wiccan history, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.

Following Murray's death, critics began to attack her theory more openly and voraciously. 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.[101] Ronald Hutton is in agreement with Cohn.[101] Carlo Ginzburg, on the other hand, regards Cohn's views as a polemic[102] 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.[103]


In 1962, Canadian historian Elliot Rose published A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in Witchcraft and Diabolism, in which he provided one of the first popular history books to openly criticise Murray's interpretation. Later commenting on A Razor for a Goat, Richard Kieckhefer noted that when the book was first published "it was recognised as a biting critique of the views of Margaret Murray... Now, forty years later, Rose's book may perhaps seem more of a revisionist work within Murray's school of interpretation. So much has happened in the historiography of witchcraft that what seemed at first a wide gulf between Rose and Murray now seems narrower, and factors shared by the two have become clearer."[100]

It was likely because few experts in the witch trials actually bothered to counter her arguments that many Britons, including several historians not familiar with the witch trials, simply assumed that Murray's view was the consensus as to the nature of European witchcraft, and included her ideas in their own works. For instance, the historian G.C. Coulton, an expert on Mediaeval monasteries, included her theories in his work, Five Centuries of Religion, Volume One (1923), as did the novelist John Buchan, who included it into his Witch Wood (1927).[99]

Murray responded to much criticism by claiming that it was religiously motivated, coming from Christians who did not want her theories to be true: in one case she stated that her theory had received "a hostile reception from many strictly Christian sects and reviewers, but it made its way in spite of opposition."[97] As Hutton noted, she had "a tendency to deny any good motives or virtues to those who criticized her theories."[98] and "Her own reviews of [L'Estrange Ewen]'s work in the Folk-Lore Society's periodical were amazingly ungracious, avoiding any engagement with his actual arguments or evidence and dismissing him completely in general terms as 'unscientific', 'uncritical', 'dull', and so valueless and worthy only to be ignored."[93]

As soon as Murray published her theory she received criticism from other historians who had studied the Early Modern witch trials. As later historian Ronald Hutton noted, "Among that small number of scholars who were familiar with the trial records, [Murray's theories] never had a chance. The use of source material which underpinned them was too blatantly flawed."[93] In a 1922 review of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in the Folklore journal for instance, W.B. Halliday, an expert on ancient religion, dismissed her theory, and noted that her hypothesis relied upon "documents torn from the background of their own age and divorced from the serious study of their historical antecedents."[94] In a similar vein, C. L'Estrange Ewen, a specialist in the witch trials, referred to them in 1938 as simple "fancies" that were nothing but "vapid balderdash."[95] However, whilst a few historians chose to challenge her theories, most simply chose to ignore them as irrelevant, and as later folklorist and vocal critic of the theory Jacqueline Simpson noted, "Normally this is an effective technique for ensuring the oblivion of bad books, but in this case it backfired, since it left her theory free to spread, seemingly unchallenged, among an eager public."[96]

"So what was the appeal of her work? Part of the answer lies in what was at the time perceived as her sensible, demystifying, liberating approach to a longstanding but sterile argument between the religious minded and the secularists as to what witches had been. At one extreme stood the eccentric and bigoted Catholic writer Montague Summers, maintaining that they really had worshipped Satan, and that by his help they really had been able to fly, change shape, do magic and so forth... In the other camp, and far more numerous at least among academics, were sceptics who said that all so-called witches were totally innocent victims of hysterical panics whipped up by the Churches for devious political or financial reasons; their confessions must be disregarded because they were made under threat of torture. When The Witch-Cult in Western Europe appeared in 1921, it broke this deadlock."

Jacqueline Simpson (1994)[55]



Murray was also criticised by Simpson for her "passionate system building," developing her own image of a "rigidly codified and uniform [religious] system throughout Britain and Europe" that had its own set "Rites of initiation, dates for festivals, sabbath rituals, discipline and hierarchy within covens."[92]

Murray's work involved her rationalizing many elements of the witch trials, particularly those she deemed impossible, such as the accounts of witches flying through the air or the Devil existing as a supernatural entity. However, Simpson criticised her for taking this rationalization too far in claiming that some of them are so ridiculous that they are "unintentionally funny."[90] As evidence for this, Simpson highlights Murray's claim that trial accounts of Satan's cloven hoof were instead referring to "perhaps a specially formed boot or shoe" that the coven-leader wore so that he could be recognized.[91] Subsequent historians examining the Early Modern witch trials, particularly Carlo Ginzburg, Eva Pocs and Emma Wilby have also emphasised that the accounts in many of the witch trials represent visionary experiences, containing within them imaginary and surreal elements, which goes against Murray's rationalization of the trial accounts.

Her manipulation of sources is sometimes so blatant as to be naive, for even a cursory reader can spot what is going on. At one point she is arguing that witches went to their meetings on foot or on horseback in a quite non-magical way, and quotes from the well-known confession of Isobel Gowdie: "I had a little horse, and would say 'Horse and Hattock, in the Devil's name!'" - but without mentioning that the "horse" Isobel was talking about was a magic wisp of straw (Murray 1921, 99-100). Then, five pages later, she quotes the same passage again, but this time in full, straw and all, to show how witches had hallucinations of flight (Murray 1921, 105-6); she does not realise that she has thereby wrecked her previous rationalistic interpretation of the passage.[89]

Ever since its first publication, Murray's theory has come under criticism for flaws in its use of evidence, with later historian Ronald Hutton remarking that it consisted of "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."[88] Various critics, including historian Norman Cohn and folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, have highlighted what they see as Murray's "extreme selectivity" in choosing only sources that backed her argument, and ignoring those that did not.[89] Regarding this, Jacqueline Simpson comments that:


Murray 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. Murray claimed the suspicious death of King William II 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 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.[87]

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 asserted that paganism had survived the Christianisation process in Britain, although that it came to be "practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community."[85] In her thesis, Murray claimed that the figure referred to as the Devil in the trial accounts was the witches' god, "manifest and incarnate", to whom the witches offered their prayers. She claimed that at the witches' meetings, the god would be personified, usually by a man or at times by a woman or an animal; when a human personified this entity, Murray claimed that they were usually dressed plainly, although appeared in full costume for the witches' Sabbaths.[86]

In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Murray stated that she had restricted her research to Great Britain, although made some recourse to sources from France, Flanders, and New England.[80] She drew a division between what she termed "Operative Witchcraft", which referred to the performance of charms and spells with any purpose, and "Ritual Witchcraft", by which she meant "the ancient religion of Western Europe", a fertility-based faith that she also termed "the Dianic cult".[81] She claimed that the cult had "very probably" once been devoted to the worship of both a male deity and a "Mother Goddess" but that "at the time when the cult is recorded the worship of the male deity appears to have superseded that of the female".[82] Describing this witch-cult as "a joyous religion",[83] she claimed that the two primary festivals that it celebrated were on May Eve and November Eve, although that 1 February and 1 August were also observed.[84]

The 1952, first American edition of The God of the Witches, first published in 1931.

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 practiced human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt starting around 1450.


Murray's Witch-Cult hypotheses

Amid failing health, in 1962 Murray moved in to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, where she could receive 24-hour care; she lived here for the final 18 months of her life.[77] Her doctor drove her to UCL to celebrate her 100th birthday, where a party was held in her honour attended by many of her friends, colleagues, and former students.[78] That year she published her autobiography, My First Hundred Years, which received predominantly positive reviews.[79] She died on 13 November 1963, and her corpse was cremated.[79]

In 1953, Murray was appointed to the presidency of the Folklore Society, the first time that she had served on the council, taking over from the former president, Allan Gomme. She remained President for two terms, until 1955.[74][57] For the autumn 1961 issue of their Folklore journal, the Folklore Society published a festschrift to Murray to commemorate her 98th birthday. The issue contained contributions from various scholars paying tribute to her, with papers dealing with archaeology, fairies, Near Eastern religious symbols, Greek folksongs, but notably not about witchcraft.[75] In May 1957, Murray had championed the archaeologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge's controversial claims that he had discovered three pre-Christian chalk hill figures on Wandlebury Hill in the Gog Magog Downs, Cambridgeshire. Privately however she expressed concern about the reality of the figures.[76]

From 1934 to 1940, Murray aided the cataloguing of Egyptian antiquities at Girton College, Cambridge, and also gave lectures in Egyptology at the university until 1942.[70] During World War II, Murray escaped the Blitz of London by moving to Cambridge, where she volunteered for a group (probably either the Army Bureau of Current Affairs or The British Way and Purpose who educated military personnel to prepare them for post-war life.[71] Murray's interest in popularising Egyptology among the wider public continued; in 1949 she published Ancient Egyptian Religious Poetry, her second work for John Murray's "The Wisdom of the East" series.[72] That same year she also published The Splendour That Was Egypt, in which she collated many of her UCL lectures. The book adopted a diffusionist perspective that argued that Egypt influenced Greco-Roman society and thus modern Western society. This was seen as a compromise between Petrie's belief that other societies influenced the emergence of Egyptian civilisation and Grafton Elliot Smith's highly unorthodox and heavily criticised hyperdiffustionist view that Egypt was the source of all global civilisation. The book received a mixed reception from the archaeological community.[73]

Retirement: 1935–63

Murray reiterated her Witch-Cult theory in her 1933 book, The God of the Witches. From this publication, she cut out or toned down what she saw as the more unpleasant aspects of the Witch-Cult, such as animal and child sacrifice, and her use of language became "emotionally inflated and coloured with religious phraseology."[68][69]

In 1924, UCL promoted Murray to the position of assistant professor,[48] and in 1927 she was awarded an honorary doctorate for her career in Egyptology.[48] Although having reached legal retirement age in 1927, the rules were waived for Murray, and she was reappointed on an annual basis each year until 1935.[64] At this point, she expressed the opinion that she was glad to leave UCL, for reasons that she did not make clear.[65] In 1933, Petrie had retired from UCL and moved to Jerusalem in Mandatory Palestine with his wife; Murray therefore took over as editor of the Ancient Egypt journal, renaming it Ancient Egypt and the East to reflect its increasing research interest in the ancient societies that surrounded and interacted with Egypt. However, in 1935 the journal ceased, perhaps due to Murray's retirement.[66] Murray then spent some time in Jerusalem, where she aided the Petries in their excavation at Tall al-Ajjul.[67]

From 1921 to 1927, Murray led archaeological excavations on Malta, assisted by Guest and Caton-Thompson. She excavated the Bronze Age megalithic monuments of Santa Sfia, Santa Maria tal Bakkari, Għar Dalam, and Borġ in-Nadur, all of which were threatened by the construction of a new aerodrome. In this she was funded by the Percy Sladen Memorial Fund. Her resulting three volume excavation report came to be seen as an important publication within the field of Maltese archaeology.[59] During the excavations, she had taken an interest in the island's folklore, resulting in the 1932 publication of her book Maltese Folktales.[60] In 1932 Murray returned to Malta to aid in the cataloguing of the Bronze Age pottery collection held in Malta Museum, resulting in her publication, Corpus of the Bronze Age Pottery of Malta.[61] On the basis of her work in Malta, Louis C.G. Clarke, the curator of the Cambridge Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, invited her to lead excavations on the island of Minorca from 1930 to 1931. With the aid of Guest, she excavated the megalithic sites of Trapucó and Sa Torrera, resulting in the publication of Cambridge Excavations in Minorca.[62] Murray also continued to publish works on Egyptology for a general audience, such as Egyptian Sculpture (1930) and Egyptian Temples (1931), which received largely positive reviews.[63]

Murray's interest in folklore led her to develop an interest in the witch trials of Early Modern Europe. In 1917, she published a paper in the Folklore journal which she first articulated her version of the witch-cult theory, arguing that the witches persecuted in European history were actually followers of "a definite religion with beliefs, ritual, and organization as highly developed as that of any cult in the end."[53] She articulated these views more fully in her 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which received both criticism and support on publication.[54] Many reviews in academic journals were critical, with historians claiming that she had distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using.[55] As a result of her work in this area, she was invited to provide the entry on "witchcraft" for the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1929. She used the opportunity to propagate her own Witch-Cult theory, failing to mention the alternate theories proposed by other academics. Her entry would be included in the encyclopedia until 1969, becoming readily accessible to the public, and it was for this reason that her ideas on the subject had such a significant impact.[56][57] Murray became active in the Folklore Society from 1927.[58]

The Witch-Cult, Malta, and Minorca: 1921–35

[52] for making unsubstantiated leaps with the evidence.Jessie Weston, although few agreed with her conclusions and it was criticised by scholars like Ancient Egypt Pursuing this interest, she published the paper "Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance" in the journal [51].Joseph of Aramathea had been brought there by Holy Grail and to the idea that the King Arthur and the folklore surrounding it which connected it to the legendary figure of Glastonbury Abbey, where she became interested in Somerset, Glastonbury However, after being taken ill herself, she was sent to recuperate in [50] in France.Saint-Malo To aid Britain's war effort, Murray enrolled as a volunteer nurse in the Volunteer Air Detachment of the College Women's Union Society, and for several weeks was posted to [49]

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