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Margaret Murray

For other people named Margaret Murray, see Margaret Murray (disambiguation).

Margaret Alice Murray
File:Margaret Murray.jpg
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)
Parent(s) James Murray; Margaret Murray

Margaret Alice Murray (13 July 1863 – 13 November 1963) was an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, 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, Britain, and Germany, training as both a nurse and a social worker. Moving to London, in 1894 she began studying Egyptology at UCL, developing a friendship with department head Flinders Petrie, who encouraged her early academic publications and 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. Supplementing her UCL wage by giving public classes and lectures at the British Museum and Manchester Museum, it was at the latter in 1908 that she led the unwrapping of Khnum-nakht, one of the mummies recovered from the Tomb of the Two Brothers – the first time that a woman had publicly unwrapped a mummy. Recognising the existence of widespread public interest in Egyptology, Murray authored several books on the subject for a general audience.

Murray also became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement, joining the Women's Social and Political Union and devoting much time to improving women's status at UCL. 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 gained widespread attention and proved 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. Taking on the presidency of the Folklore Society in later life, she continued lecturing and publishing in an independent capacity until her death.

Murray's work in Egyptology and archaeology was widely acclaimed and earned her the moniker of "the Grand Old Woman of Egyptology", although after her death many of her contributions to the field were overshadowed by those of Petrie. Conversely, Murray's work in folkloristics and the history of witchcraft has been academically discredited and her methods in these areas heavily criticised, with the Folklore Society subsequently distancing itself from her.


Youth: 1863–93

Margaret Murray was born on 13 July 1863 in Calcutta, West Bengal, then a major military city in British India.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] Her Indian childhood left an influence over the rest of her life, as with her continued affection for curry as a cuisine, and thus the historian Amara Thornton suggested that Murray could be seen as having a "hybrid identity" that was both British and Indian.[6] During her childhood, Murray never received a formal education, and in later life expressed pride in the fact that she had never had to sit an exam prior to entering university.[7]

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.[8] In 1873, the girls' mother arrived in Europe and took them with her to Germany, where they both became fluent in German.[9] In 1875 they returned to Calcutta, staying there till 1877.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] In 1893 she then traveled to Madras, Tamil Nadu, where her sister had moved to with her new husband.[14]

Early years at University College London: 1894–1905

File:Wilkins Building 1, UCL, London - Diliff.jpg
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.[15] 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.[16] There, she took courses in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic languages which were taught by Francis Llewellyn Griffith and Walter Ewing Crum respectively.[17]

Murray soon got to know Petrie, becoming his copyist and illustrator and producing the drawings for the published report on his excavations at Qift, Koptos.[18] In turn, he aided and encouraged her to write her first research paper, "The Descent of Property in the Early Periods of Egyptian History", which was published in the Proceedings of the Society for Biblical Archaeology in 1895.[19] Becoming Petrie's de facto though unofficial assistant, Murray began to give some of the linguistic lessons in Griffith's absence.[20] In 1898 she was appointed to the position of Junior Lecturer, responsible for teaching the linguistic courses at the Egyptology department; this made her the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom.[21] In this capacity, she spent two days a week at UCL, devoting the other days to caring for her ailing mother.[22] As time went on, she came to teach courses on Ancient Egyptian history, religion, and language.[23] Referring to her students as "the Gang", among some of her early individuals were Reginald Engelbach, Georgina Aitken, 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

File:Manchester Museum.jpg
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, which remained a key publication on Middle Kingdom mummification practices into the 21st century.[41]

File:Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel c1900.jpg
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] It was at Seligman's recommendation that she was invited to become a member of the Institute in 1916.[47]

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.[48]

The outbreak of World War I in 1914, in which the United Kingdom went to war against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, meant that Petrie and other staff members were unable to return to Egypt for excavation.[49] Instead, Petrie and Murray spent much of the time reorganising the artefact collections that they had attained over the past decades.[50] 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 Saint-Malo in France.[51] However, after being taken ill herself, she was sent to recuperate in Glastonbury, Somerset, where she became interested in Glastonbury Abbey and the folklore surrounding it which connected it to the legendary figure of King Arthur and to the idea that the Holy Grail had been brought there by Joseph of Aramathea.[52] Pursuing this interest, she published the paper "Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance" in the journal Ancient Egypt, although few agreed with her conclusions and it was criticised by scholars like Jessie Weston for making unsubstantiated leaps with the evidence.[53]

The witch-cult, Malta, and Minorca: 1921–35

"When I suddenly realised that the so-called Devil was simply a disguised man I was startled, almost alarmed, by the way the recorded facts fell into place, and showed that the witches were members of an old and primitive form of religion, and the records had been made by members of a new and persecuting form."

Margaret Murray, 1963.[54]

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."[55] She followed this up with papers on the subject in the journals Man and the Scottish Historical Review.[56] She articulated these views more fully in her 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, published by Oxford University Press after receiving a positive peer review by Henry Balfour, and which received both criticism and support on publication.[57] Many reviews in academic journals were critical, with historians claiming that she had distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using.[58]

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.[59] It received a particularly enthusiastic reception by occultists such as Dion Fortune, Lewis Spence, Ralph Shirley, and J. W. Brodie Innes,[60] perhaps because its claims regarding an ancient secret society chimed with similar claims common among various occult groups.[47] Murray joined the Folklore Society in February 1927, and was elected to the society's council a month later, although stood down in 1929.[61] 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 began describing the religion in more positive terms as "the Old Religion".[62]

File:Borg in Nadur.jpg
Murray excavated at Borġ in-Nadur in Malta

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.[63] During the excavations, she had taken an interest in the island's folklore, resulting in the 1932 publication of her book Maltese Folktales.[64] 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.[65] 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.[66] 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.[67]

In 1924, UCL promoted Murray to the position of assistant professor,[68] and in 1927 she was awarded an honorary doctorate for her career in Egyptology.[69] That year, Murray was tasked with guiding Mary of Teck, the Queen consort, around the Egyptology department during the latter's visit to UCL.[70] Although having reached legal retirement age in 1927, and thus unable to be offered another five-year contract, Murray was reappointed on an annual basis each year until 1935.[71] At this point, she retired, expressing the opinion that she was glad to leave UCL, for reasons that she did not make clear.[72] 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.[73] Murray then spent some time in Jerusalem, where she aided the Petries in their excavation at Tall al-Ajjul.[74]

Retirement: 1935–63

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.[75] During World War II, Murray escaped the Blitz of London by moving to Cambridge, where she volunteered for a group (probably the Army Bureau of Current Affairs or The British Way and Purpose) who educated military personnel to prepare them for post-war life.[76] 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.[77] 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.[78]

"[I] went to her hundredth birthday party where she sat enthroned - no other word for it - surrounded by family and friends. A distant cousin - what we would have called an elderly lady of eighty - was bringing greetings from even more distant relatives in Australia, and suddenly forgot, as happens to many people half her age and a third of the age of Ma Murray, one name. 'How stupid of me, Cousin Margaret,' she said, 'how stupid the name has quite gone out of my head.' Ma Murray focused her eyes on this old lady twenty years her junior - cold eyes in which feeling seemed extinguished in the neutrality of eternity - and said gently and kindly, 'Not stupidity, my dear. Not stupidity: just mental laziness.'"

In 1953, Murray was appointed to the presidency of the Folklore Society following the resignation of former president Allan Gomme. The Society had initially approached John Mavrogordato for the post, but he had declined, with Murray accepting the nomination several months later. Murray remained President for two terms, until 1955.[80] 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, potentially because no other folklorists were willing to defend her witch-cult theory.[81] 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.[82] In 1960, she donated her collection of papers – including correspondences with a wide range of individuals across the country – to the Folklore Society Archive, where it is now known as "the Murray Collection".[83]

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.[84] 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; it was the last time that she visited the university.[85] In Man, the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, it was noted that Murray was "the only Fellow of the Institute to [reach their centenary] within living memory, if not in its whole history."[86] That year she published her autobiography, My First Hundred Years, which received predominantly positive reviews.[87] She died on 13 November 1963, and her corpse was cremated.[87]

Murray's witch-cult hypotheses

Further information: Witch-cult hypothesis

The later folklorists Caroline Oates and Juliette Wood suggested that Murray was best known for her witch-cult theory.[88] The faults of her theory were partly because all of her academic training was in Egyptology, with no background knowledge in in European history,[89] but also because she exhibited a "tendency to generalize wildly on the basis of very slender evidence".[47] Oates and Wood however noted that her interpretations of the evidence fitted within wider perspectives on the past that existed at the time, stating that "Murray was far from isolated in her method of reading ancient ritual origins into later myths".[88] In particular her approach was influenced by the work of anthropologist James Frazer, who had aargeud for the existence of a pervasive dying-and-ressurecting god myth,[90] and she was also influenced by the interpretative approaches of E. O. James, Karl Pearson, Herbert Fleure, and Harold Peake.[91]


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.[92] 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".[93] 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".[94] 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, though they appeared in full costume for the witches' Sabbaths.[95]

Members joined the cult either as children or adults through what Murray called "admission ceremonies"; Murray asserted that applicants had to agree to join of their own free will, and agree to devote themselves to the service of their deity. She also claimed that in some cases, these individuals had to sign a covenant or were baptized into the faith.[96] At the same time, she claimed that the religion was largely passed down hereditary lines.[97] Murray described the religion as being divided into covens containing thirteen members,[98] led by a coven officer who was often termed the "Devil" in the trial accounts, but who was accountable to a "Grand Master".[99] According to Murray, the records of the coven were kept in a secret book,[100] with the coven also disciplining its members, to the extent of executing those deemed traitors.[101]

Describing this witch-cult as "a joyous religion",[102] she claimed that the two primary festivals that it celebrated were on May Eve and November Eve, although that other dates of religious observation were 1 February and 1 August, the winter and summer solstices, and Easter.[103] She asserted that the "General Meeting of all members of the religion" were known as Sabbaths, while the more private ritual meetings were known as Esbats.[104] Nocturnal rites that began at midnight,[105] Murray claimed that these Esbats were "primarily for business, whereas the Sabbath was purely religious." At the former, magical rites were performed both for malevolent and benevolent ends.[106] She also asserted that the Sabbath ceremonies involved the witches paying homage to the deity, renewing their "vows of fidelity and obedience" to him, and providing him with accounts of all the magical actions that they have conducted since the previous Sabbath. Once this business had been concluded, admissions to the cult or marriages were conducted, ceremonies and fertility rites took place, and then ended with feasting and dancing.[107]

Deeming Ritual Witchcraft to be "a fertility cult", she asserted that many of its rites were designed to ensure fertility and rain-making.[108] She claimed that there were four types of sacrifice performed by the witches: blood-sacrifice, in which the neophyte writes their name in blood, the sacrifice of animals, the sacrifice of a non-Christian child to procure magical powers, and the sacrifice of the witches' god by fire to ensure fertility.[109] She interpreted accounts of witches' shapeshifting into various animals as being representative of a rite in which the witches dressed as specific animals which they took to be sacred.[110] She asserted that accounts of familiars were based on the witches' use of animals, which she divided into "divining familiars" used in divination and "domestic familiars" used in other magic rites.[111]

Murray asserted that paganism had survived the Christianization process in Britain, although that it came to be "practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community."[112] She believed that folkloric stories of fairies in Britain were based on a surviving race of dwarves, who continued to live in the island up until the Early Modern period. She asserted that this race followed the same pagan religion as the witches, thus explaining the folkloric connection between the two.[113] In the appendices to the book, she also alleged that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were members of the witch-cult and were executed for it,[114] a claim which has been refuted by historians, especially in the case of Joan of Arc.[115]

Later historian Ronald Hutton commented that The Witch-Cult in Western Europe "rested upon a small amount of archival research, with extensive use of printed trial records in 19th century editions, plus early modern pamphlets and works of demonology".[56] He also noted that the book's tone was generally "dry and clinical, and every assertion was meticulously footned to a source, with lavish quotation."[56] It was not a best seller; in its first thirty years, only 2,020 copies were sold.[60] However, it led many people to treat Murray as an authority on the subject; in 1929, she was invited to provide the entry on "Witchcraft" for the Encyclopædia Britannica, and used it to present her interpretation of the subject as if it were universally accepted in scholarship. It remained in the encyclopedia until being replaced in 1968.[116]

Murray followed this book with The God of the Witches in 1931; although similar in content, it was aimed at a mass market audience and published by the popular press Sampson Low.[117] Whereas the tone in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe had been "dry and academic, the second bubbles with enthusiasm", as her language becomes "emotionally inflated and coloured with religious phraseology"; in particular she refers repeatedly to the cult as "the Old Religion".[118] In this work she "cut out or toned down" many of the claims of her previous book which would have painted the cult in a bad light, for instance regarding animal and child sacrifice, and also omitted any mention of sex.[118]

In this book she began to refer to the witches' deity as the Horned God, and asserted that it was an entity who had been worshipped in Europe since the Palaeolithic.[119] She further asserted that in the Bronze Age, the worship of the deity could be found throughout Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, claiming that the depiction of various horned figures from these societies proved that. Among the evidence cited were the horned figures found at Mohenjo-Daro, which are often interpreted as depictions of Pashupati, as well as the deities Osiris and Amon in Egypt and the Minotaur of Minoan Crete.[120] Within continental Europe, she claimed that the Horned God was represented by Pan in Greece, Cernunnos in Gaul, and in various Scandinavian rock carvings.[121] Claiming that this divinity had been declared the Devil by the Christian authorities, she nevertheless asserted that his worship was testified in officially Christian societies right through to the Modern period, citing folkloric practices such as the Dorset Ooser and the Puck Fair as evidence of his veneration.[122]

In 1954, she published The Divine King in England, in which she greatly extended on the theory, taking in an influence from Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, an anthropological book that made the claim that societies all over the world sacrificed their kings to the deities of nature. In her book, she claimed that this practice had continued into medieval England, and that, for instance, the death of William II was really a ritual sacrifice.[123] No academic took the book seriously, and it was ignored by many of her supporters.[89]

Academic reception

Early support

Upon initial publication, Murray's thesis gained a favourable reception from many readers, including a number of significant scholars, albeit none of whom were experts in the witch trials.[60] Historians of Early Modern Britain like George Norman Clark and Christopher Hill incorporated her theories into their work, although the latter subsequently recanted doing so.[124] For the 1961 reprint of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Medieval historian Steven Runciman provided a foreword in which he accepted that some of Murray's "minor details may be open to criticism",[125] but in which he was otherwise supportive of her thesis.[126] Her theories were recapitulated by Arno Runeberg in his 1947 book Witches, Demons and Fertility Magic as well as Pennethorne Hughes in his 1952 book Witches.[127] As a result, a commentator writing in 1962 could claim that the Murrayite interpretations of the witch trials "seem to hold, at the time of writing, an almost undisputed sway at the higher intellectual levels", being widely accepted among "educated people".[128]

Canadian historian Elliot Rose suggested that the reason why Murray's theory gained such support was partly because of her "imposing credentials" as a member of staff at UCL, a position that lent her theory greater legitimacy in the eyes of many readers.[129] He further suggested that the Murrayite view was attractive to many as it confirmed "the general picture of pre-Christian Europe a reader of Frazer of [Robert] Graves would be familiar with".[129] Similarly, Hutton suggested that the cause of the Murrayite theory's popularity was because it "appealed to so many of the emotional impulses of the age", including "the notion of the English countryside as a timeless place full of ancient secrets", the literary popularity of Pan, the widespread belief that the majority of British had remained pagan long after the process of Christianisation, and the idea that folk customs represented pagan survivals.[60] At the same time, Hutton suggested, it seemed more plausible to many than the previously dominant rationalist idea that the witch trials were the result of mass delusion.[60] Related to this, folklorist Jacqueline Simpson suggested that part of the Murrayite theory's appeal was that it appeared to give a "sensible, demystifying, liberating approach to a longstanding but sterile argument" between the rationalists who denied that there had been any witches and those, like Montague Summers, who insisted that there had been a real Satanic conspiracy against Christendom in the Early Modern period replete with witches with supernatural powers.[130] As Hilda Ellis Davidson noted; "how refreshing and exciting her first book was at that period. A new approach, and such a surprising one."[130]

Early criticism

"Surely, discussion of what confessedly is so unripe is premature. When Miss Murray has broadened her study to all the lands where she can find the "cult"; when she has dealt with documents worthier the name of records than the chap-books and the formless reports that have to serve us for the British trials; when she has traced back witch-sabbath and questionary through the centuries of witch and heretic hunting that precede the British; when she has trusted herself to study the work of other students and fairly to weigh their conclusions against her own in the light of the further evidence they may adduce: then perhaps she may have modified her views. Whether she changes or confirms them, she will then have earned the right to a hearing."

George L. Burr, 1922.[131]

Murray's theories never received support from experts in the Early Modern witch trials,[132] and from her early publications onward many of her ideas were challenged by those who highlighted her "factual errors and methodological failings".[133] Indeed, the majority of scholarly reviews of her work produced during the 1920s and 1930s were largely critical.[134] George L. Burr reviewed both of her initial books on the witch-cult for the American Historical Review.[135] He stated that she was not acquainted with the "careful general histories by modern scholars" and criticised her for assuming that the trial accounts accurately reflected the accused witches' genuine experiences of witchcraft, regardless of whether those confessions had been obtained through torture and coercion.[136] He also charged her with selectively using the evidence to serve her interpretation, for instance by omitting any supernatural or miraculous events that appear in the trial accounts.[131] W.R. Halliday was highly critical in his review for the Folklore journal,[137] as was E. M. Loeb in his review for American Anthropologist.[138]

Soon after, one of the foremost specialists of the trial records, L'Estrange Ewen, brought out a series of books which rejected Murray's interpretation.[139] Rose asserted that Murray's books on the witch-cult "contain an incredible number of minor errors of fact or of calculation and several inconsistencies of reasoning."[140] He accepted that her case "could, perhaps, still be proved by somebody else, though I very much doubt it."[140] Highlighting that there is a gap of about a thousand years between the Christianisation of Britain and the start of the witch trials there, he asserts that there is no evidence for the existence of the witch-cult anywhere in the intervening period.[141] He further criticises her for treating pre-Christian Britain as a socially and culturally monolithic entity, whereas in reality it contained a diverse array of societies and religious beliefs. In addition to this, he challenged Murray's claim that the majority of Britons in the Middle Ages remained pagan as "a view grounded on ignorance alone".[142]

Murray did not respond directly to the criticisms of her work, but reacted to her critics in a hostile manner; in later life she asserted that she eventually ceased reading reviews of her work, and believed that her critics were simply acting out of their own Christian prejudices to non-Christian religion.[143] Simpson noted that despite these critical reviews, within the field of British folkloristics Murray's theories were permitted "to pass unapproved but unchallenged, either out of politeness or because nobody was really interested enough to research the topic."[144] As evidence, she noted that no substantial research articles on the subject of witchcraft were published in the journal Folklore between Murray's in 1917 and Rossell Hope Robbins' in 1963.[144] However, she also highlighted that when regional studies of British folklore were published in this period by folklorists like Theo Brown, Ruth Tongue, or Enid Porter, none adopted the Murrayite framework for interpreting witchcraft beliefs, thus evidencing her claim that Murray's theories were widely ignored by scholars of folklore.[144]

Academic rejection

Murray's work was increasingly criticised following her death in 1963, with the definitive academic rejection of the Murrayite witch-cult theory occurring during the 1970s.[145] During these decades, a variety of scholars across Europe and North America – such as Alan Macfarlane, Erik Midelfort, William Monter, Robert Muchembled, Gerhard Schormann, Bente Alver and Bengt Ankarloo – published in-depth studies of the archival records from the witch trials, leaving no doubt that those tried for witchcraft were not practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion.[146] In 1971, English historian Keith Thomas stated that on the basis of this research, there was "very little evidence to suggest that the accused witches were either devil-worshippers or members of a pagan fertility cult".[147] He stated that her conclusions were "almost totally groundless" because she ignored the systematic study of the trial accounts provided by Ewen and instead used sources very selectively to argue her point.[124]

In 1975, the historian Norman Cohn commented that Murray's "knowledge of European history, even of English history, was superficial and her grasp of historical method was non-existent",[148] adding that her ideas were "firmly set in an exaggerated and distorted version of the Frazerian mould."[148] That same year, historian of religion Mircea Eliade described Murray's work as "hopelessly inadequate" and full of "numberless and appalling errors".[149] In 1996, feminist historian Diane Purkiss stated that while Murray's thesis was "intrinsically improbable" and commanded "little or no allegiance within the modern academy",[150] she nevertheless felt that male scholars like Thomas, Cohn, and Macfarlane had unfairly adopted an androcentric approach by which they contrasted their own, male and methodologically sound interpretation against Murray's "feminised belief" about the witch-cult.[151]

"That this 'old religion' persisted secretly, without leaving any evidence, is of course possible, just as it is possible that below the surface of the moon lie extensive deposits of Stilton cheese. Anything is possible. But it is nonsense to assert the existence of something for which no evidence exists. The Murrayites ask us to swallow a most peculiar sandwich: a large piece of the wrong evidence between two thick slices of no evidence at all."

Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander, 2007.[152]

Historian Ronald Hutton stated that Murray had treated her source material with "reckless abandon",[132] in that she had taken "vivid details of alleged witch practices" from "sources scattered across a great extent of space and time" and then declared them to be normative of the cult as a whole.[117] Folklorist Jacqueline Simpson outlined how Murray had selected her use of evidence very specifically, particularly by ignoring and/or rationalising any accounts of supernatural or miraculous events in the trial records, thereby distorting the events that she was describing. Thus, Simpson pointed out, Murray rationalised claims that the cloven-hoofed Devil appeared at the witches' Sabbath by stating that he was a man with a special kind of shoe, and similarly asserted that witches' claims to have flown through the air on broomsticks were actually based on their practice of either hopping along on broomsticks or smearing hallucinogenic salves onto themselves.[153] Concurring with this assessment, historian Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander stated that "Murray's use of sources in general is appalling".[154] They went on to assert that "Today, scholars are agreed that Murray was more than just wrong – she was completely and embarrassingly wrong on nearly all of her basic premises."[154]

The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has however been cited as being willing to give "some slight support" to Murray's theory.[155] Ginzburg stated that while her thesis had been "formulated in a wholly uncritical way" and contained "serious defects", it did contain "a kernel of truth".[156] He stated his opinion that she was right in claiming that European witchcraft had "roots in an ancient fertility cult", something that he argued was vindicated by his work researching the benandanti.[157] Various historians and folklorists have however pointed out that Ginzburg's arguments are very different to Murray's: whereas Murray argued for the existence of a pre-Christian witches cult whose members physically met during sabbats, Ginzburg argued that some of the European visionary traditions that were conflated with witchcraft in the Early Modern period had their origins in pre-Christian fertility religions.[158]

Personal life

File:Bust of Margaret Murray, UCL.jpg
Bust of Murray held in the library of the UCL Institute of Archaeology. The bronze cast was produced by Stephen Rickard after having been commissioned by Murray's student Violet MacDermot.[159]

Alongside teaching them, Murray was known to socialise with her UCL students outside of class hours.[160] On researching the history of UCL's Egyptology department, the historian Rosalin M. Janssen stated that Murray was "remembered with gratitude and immense affection by all her former students. A wise and witty teacher, two generations of Egyptologists have forever been in her debt."[161]

The archaeologist Ralph Merrifield, who knew Murray through the Folklore Society, described her as a "diminutive and kindly scholar, who radiated intelligence and strength of character into extreme old age".[162] The historian Hilda Ellis Davidson, who also knew Murray through the Society, noted that at their meetings "she would sit near the front, a bent and seemingly guileless old lady dozing peacefully, and then in the middle of a discussion would suddenly intervene with a relevant and penetrating comment which showed that she had missed not one word of the argument."[163] Later folklorist Juliette Wood noted that many members of the Folklore Society "remember her fondly", adding that she had been "especially keen to encourage younger researchers, even those who disagreed with her ideas."[164]

One of her friends in the Society, E. O. James, described her as a "mine of information and a perpetual inspiration ever ready to impart her vast and varied stores of specialized knowledge without reserve, or, be it said, much if any regard for the generally accepted opinions and conclusions of the experts!"[165] Davidson described her as being "not at all assertive... [she] 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."[166] The archaeologist Glyn Daniel observed that she remained mentally alert into her old age, commenting that "her vigour and forthrightness and ruthless energy never deserted her."[79]

Murray never married, instead devoting her life to her work, and for this reason the historian Ronald Hutton drew comparisons between her and two other prominent female British scholars of the period, Jane Harrison and Jessie Weston.[167] Murray's biographer Kathleen L. Sheppard stated that she was deeply committed to public outreach, particularly when it came to Egyptology, and that as such she "wanted to change the means by which the public obtained knowledge about Egypt's history: she wished to throw open the doors to the scientific laboratory and invite the public in."[168]

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.[169] She was openly critical of organised religion,[170] although 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."[171] She was also a believer and a practitioner of magic, performing curses against those whom she felt deserved it: in one case she cursed a fellow academic, Jaroslav Černý, when she felt that his promotion to the position of Professor of Egyptology over her friend Walter Bryan Emery was unworthy. Her curse entailed mixing up ingredients in a frying pan, and was undertaken in the presence of two colleagues.[172]


In academia

Hutton noted that Murray was one of the earliest women to "make a serious impact upon the world of professional scholarship",[167] and archaeologist Niall Finneran described her as "one of the greatest characters of post-war British archaeology".[173] Upon her death, the archaeologist Glyn Daniel referred to her as "the Grand Old Woman of Egyptology",[79] with Hutton noting that Egyptology represented "the core of her academic career".[167] In 2014, the historian of archaeology Amara Thornoton referred to her as "one of Britain's most famous Egyptologists."[174] However, according to the archaeologist Ruth Whitehouse, Murray's contributions within archaeology and Egyptology were often overlooked as her work was overshadowed by that of Petrie, to the extent that she was often thought of primarily as one of Petrie's assistants rather than as a scholar in her own right.[175] By her retirement she had come to be highly regarded within the discipline, although according to Whitehouse, Murray's reputation declined following her death, something that she attributed to the rejection of her witch-cult theory and the general erasure of women archaeologists from the discipline's male-dominated history.[176]

"No British folklorist can remember Dr Margaret Murray without embarrassment and a sense of paradox. She is one of the few folklorists whose name became widely known to the public, but among scholars her reputation is deservedly low; her theory that witches were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult through the centuries is now seen to be based on deeply flawed methods and illogical arguments. The fact that, in her old age and after three increasingly eccentric books, she was made President of the Folklore Society, must certainly have harmed the reputation of the Society and possibly the status of folkloristics in this country; it helps to explain the mistrust some historians still feel towards our discipline."

Jacqueline Simpson, 1994.[166]

In his obituary for Murray in the Folklore journal, E. O. James noted that her death was "an event of unusual interest and importance in the annals of the Folk-Lore Society in particular as well as in the wider sphere in which her influence was felt in so many directions and disciplines."[165] However, later academic folklorists such as Jacqueline Simpson and Juliette Wood have cited Murray and her witch-cult theory as an embarassment to their field,[177] and to the Folklore Society specifically.[178] Simpson suggested that Murray's position as President of the Society was a causal factor in the mistrustful attitude that many historians held toward folkloristics as an academic discipline, as they erroneously came to believe that all folklorists endorsed Murray's ideas.[166] Similarly, Catherine Noble stated that "Murray caused considerable damage to the study of witchcraft".[179]

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.[176] In 1969, UCL named one of their common rooms in her honour, but it was converted into an office in 1989.[176] In June 1983, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother visited the room and there was gifted a copy of Murray's My First Hundred Years.[180] 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.[176] This sculpture was commissioned by one of her students, Violet MacDermot, and produced by the artist Stephen Rickard.[159] 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.[176] 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".[175]

Historian of archaeology Rosalind M. Janssen titled her study of Egyptology at UCL The First Hundred Years "as a tribute" to Murray.[181] In 2013, Lexington Books published The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman's Work in Archaeology, a biography of Murray authored by Kathleen L. Sheppard, then an assistant professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology; the book had been based upon Sheppard's doctoral dissertation produced at the University of Oklahoma.[182]

In Wicca and Paganism

Murray's Witch-Cult theories would provide the blueprint for the Contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca.[166] Merrifield noted that for those in 20th century Britain who wished to form their own witches' covens, "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?"[162]

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). According to Simpson, Gardner was the only member of the Folklore Society to "wholeheartedly" accept Murray's Witch-Cult hypothesis,[166] with Murray writing the foreword to Gardner's Witchcraft Today.[183] In 2005, Noble suggested that "Murray's name might be all but forgotten today if it were not for Gerald Gardner".[184] Prominent Wiccan Doreen Valiente described Murray as "a remarkable woman".[185] Simpson noted that by the 1990s, many Wiccans had come to reject Murray's witch-cult theory, recognising its pseudo-historical nature.[155]


A bibliography of Murray's published work was published in the Folklore journal by Wilfrid Bonser in 1961,[186] while a more limited bibliography, albeit covering up to Murray's death in 1963, appeared in Kathleen L. Sheppard's 2013 biography of her.[187]

Year of publication Title Co-authors Publisher
1903 Guide to the Collection of Egyptian Antiquities - Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (Edinburgh)
1904 The Osireion at Abydos - Egyptian Research Account (London)
1905 Saqqara Mastabas Part I and Gurob - Egyptian Research Account (London)
1905 Elementary Egyptian Grammar - University College Press (London)
1908 Index of Names and Titles of the Old Kingdom - British School of Archaeology in Egypt (London)
1910 The Tomb of the Two Brothers - Sheratt & Hughes (Manchester)
1911 Elementary Coptic (Sahidic) Grammar - University College Press (London)
1913 Ancient Egyptian Legends - John Murray (London); The Wisdom of the East Series
1921 The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology - Oxford University Press (Oxford)
1923 Excavations in Malta, Part I - Bernard Quaritch (London)
1925 Excavations in Malta, Part II - Bernard Quaritch (London)
1929 Excavations in Malta, Part III - Bernard Quaritch (London)
1930 Egyptian Sculpture - Duckworth (London)
1931 Egyptian Temples - Sampson Low, Marston & Co. (London)
1931 The God of the Witches - Faber & Faber (London)
1932 Maltese Folk-Tales L. Galea Empire Press (Malta)
1933 A Coptic Reading Book, with Glossary, for the Use of Beginners Dorothy Pilcher Bernard Quaritch (London)
1934 Cambridge Excavations in Minorca, Sa Torreta - Bernard Quaritch (London)
1934 Corpus of the Bronze-Age Pottery of Malta Horace Beck and Themosticles Zammit Bernard Quaritch (London)
1937 Saqqara Mastabas Part II - Egyptian Research Account (London)
1938 Cambridge Excavations in Minorca, Trapucó - Bernard Quaritch (London)
1939 Petra, the Rock City of Edom - Blackie
1940 A Street in Petra J. C. Ellis British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Bernard Quaritch
1949 Ancient Egyptian Religious Poetry - John Murray (London)
1949 The Splendour that was Egypt: A General Survey of Egyptian Culture and Civilisation - Philosophical Library (London)
1954 The Divine King of England: A Study in Anthropology - Faber & Faber (London)
1963 My First Hundred Years - William Kimber & Co. (London)
1963 The Genesis of Religion - Kegan Paul (London)



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  125. ^ Runciman 1962, p. 5.
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  131. ^ a b Burr 1922, p. 782.
  132. ^ a b Hutton 1999, p. 198.
  133. ^ Eliade 1975, p. 152.
  134. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. 169.
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  162. ^ a b Merrifield 1993, p. 10.
  163. ^ Davidson 1987, p. 123.
  164. ^ Wood 2001, p. 45.
  165. ^ a b James 1963, p. 568.
  166. ^ a b c d e Simpson 1994, p. 89.
  167. ^ a b c Hutton 1999, p. 194.
  168. ^ Sheppard 2012, p. 532.
  169. ^ Simpson 1994, p. 89; Hutton 1999, p. 200.
  170. ^ Oates & Wood 1998, p. 12; Wood 2001, p. 46.
  171. ^ Murray 1963, pp. 196–204; Hutton 1999, p. 200.
  172. ^ Janssen 1992, p. 31; Hutton 1999, pp. 200–201.
  173. ^ Finneran 2003, p. 108.
  174. ^ Thornton 2014, p. 1.
  175. ^ a b Whitehouse 2013, p. 120.
  176. ^ a b c d e Whitehouse 2013, p. 125.
  177. ^ Simpson 1994, p. 89; Wood 2001, p. 45.
  178. ^ Simpson 1994, p. 89; Oates & Wood 1998, p. 8.
  179. ^ Noble 2005, p. 24.
  180. ^ Janssen 1992, p. 88.
  181. ^ Janssen 1992, p. xiii.
  182. ^ Sheppard 2013, p. vii.
  183. ^ Oates & Wood 1998, p. 14.
  184. ^ Noble 2005, p. 17.
  185. ^ Valiente 1989, p. 24.
  186. ^ Bonser 1961, pp. 560–566.
  187. ^ Sheppard 2013, pp. 253–254.


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External links



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