Margaret Alice Murray (13 July 1863 - 13 November 1963) was a prominent British Egyptologist and anthropologist. Primarily known for her work in Egyptology, which was "the core of her academic career," she is also known for her propagation of the Witch-cult hypothesis, the theory that the witch trials in the Early Modern period of Christianized Europe and North America were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. Whilst this theory is today widely disputed and discredited by historians like Norman Cohn, Keith Thomas and Ronald Hutton, it has had a significant effect in the origins of Neopagan religions, primarily Wicca, a faith she supported.
Her work in Egyptology took place largely alongside her mentor and friend, the archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, whom she worked alongside at University College London. One of the earliest women to "make a serious impact upon the world of professional scholarship," she was also an ardent feminist, being actively involved in the Suffragette movement. From 1953 through to 1955, she was the president of the Folklore Society, although since her death various members of the society have attempted to disassociate the organisation from her and the Murrayite theory of the Witch-Cult.
Margaret Murray was born in Calcutta, India on July 13, 1863. She attended the University College of London and was a student of linguistics and anthropology. She was also a pioneer campaigner for women's rights. Margaret Murray accompanied the renowned Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, on several archaeological excavations in Egypt and Palestine during the late 1890s. Murray was the first in a line of female Egyptologists employed at The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester. In 1908, she undertook the unwrapping of the Two Brothers, a Middle Kingdom non-royal burial excavated by Petrie in Egypt. It is regarded as the first interdisciplinary study of mummies and probably kick-started future scientific unwrappings, such as those of Keeper Professor Rosalie David completed in the 1970s. Her work and association with Petrie helped secure employment at University College as a junior lecturer. Murray's best known and most controversial text, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, was published in 1921. She was consequently named Assistant Professor of Egyptology at the University College of London in 1924, a post she held until her retirement in 1935. In 1926, she became a fellow of Britain's Royal Anthropological Institute. Murray became President of the Folklore Society in 1953. Ten years later and having reached 100 years of age, Margaret Murray published her final work, an autobiography entitled My First Hundred Years (1963). She died later that same year of natural causes.Thesis
Murray's Witch Cult in Western Europe 1921, written during a period she was unable to do field work in Egypt, laid out the essential elements of her thesis that a common pattern of underground pagan resistance to the Christian Church existed across Europe. The pagans organized in covens of thirteen worshippers, dedicated to a male god and held ritual sabbaths. Murray maintained that pagan beliefs and religion dating from the neolithic through the medieval period, secretly practiced human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt starting around 1450.
The 1952, first American edition of The God of the Witches, first published in 1931.
Murray's later books were written for a more popular audience and in a style that was far more imaginative and entertaining than standard academic works. The God of the Witches, 1931 expanded on her claims that the witch cult had worshiped a Horned God whose origins went back to prehistory. Murray decided that the witches' admissions in trial that they worshiped Satan proved they actually did worship such a god. Thus, according to Murray, reports of Satan actually represented pagan gatherings with their priest wearing a horned helmet to represent their Horned God. Murray also discussed the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, claiming to show that he too was a pagan by saying that his death "presents many features which are explicable only by the theory that he also was the substitute for a Divine King" (Murray 171).
Murray now became more and more emotional in her defence of her ideas, claiming that anyone who opposed her did so out of religious prejudice. In The Divine King in England, 1954 she expanded on her earlier claims there was a secret conspiracy of pagans amongst the English nobility, the same English nobility who provided the leading members of the Church. The suspicious death of William Rufus, King of England, was a ritual sacrificial killing of a sacred king carried out by Henry I, a man so pious he later founded one of the biggest Abbeys in England. This secret conspiracy, according to her, had killed many early English sovereigns, through to James I in the early seventeenth century. Saint Joan of Arc - whose Catholic piety and orthodoxy are attested in numerous documents (such as the letter she dictated threatening to lead a crusade against the Hussites), and who was executed by the English for what even the tribunal members later admitted were political reasons - was rewritten as a pagan martyr by Murray. Her portrait of messianic (self-) sacrifices of these figures make for entertaining speculation, but they have not been taken seriously as history even by her staunchest supporters, though they have been used in novels.
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." 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. ref name="Simpson 1994. p. 91">Simpson 1994. p. 91.</ref> Regarding this, Jacqueline Simpson comments that:
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.
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." 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. 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.
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.Reception
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." 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." 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." However, whilst a few historians chose to challenge her theories, most simply chose to ignore them as irrelevent, 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."
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." As Hutton noted, she had "a tendency to deny any good motives or virtues to those who criticized her theories." 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."
It was likely due to the fact that 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 was the dominant 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).
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."1963-present
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. Ronald Hutton is in agreement with Cohn. Carlo Ginzburg, on the other hand, regards Cohn's views as a polemic 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.
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." 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. However, one practicing Wiccan, the transgender activist Jani Farrell-Roberts subsequently entered into a publicly published debate with Hutton on the issue in a series of articles published in 2003 in the occult-based magazine The Cauldron.Legacy
Murray's works were to become popular bestsellers from the 1940s onwards and were popularly believed to be accurate. Indeed, Murray's influence is still massive in popular thought, though, as noted above, academics have since cited major flaws in Murray's works that call her conclusions into question.
Jacqueline Simpson blames contemporary historians for doing little to refute Murray's ideas at the time they were written. It has been claimed by Norman Cohn that in the thirties her books led to the founding of Murrayite covens (small circles of witches), one of which taught Gerald Gardner in the 1940s. In the 1950s Gardner publicized Wicca, a form of pagan religious witchcraft, which in turn helped to inspire the modern Neopagan movement. The phrase "the Old Religion," used by Wiccans and Neopagans to describe an ancestral pagan religion, derives from Murrayite theory. Other Wiccan terms and concepts like coven, esbat, the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, and the Horned God are, it has been suggested,[who?] influenced by or derived directly from Murray's works. Her ideas also inspired other writers, ranging from horror authors like H. P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley to Robert Graves. The character of the obsessed academic Rose Lorimer in Angus Wilson's 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is said[who?] to have been inspired in part by Murray and Frances Yates.Personal Life
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."
Murray had been raised as a devout Christian by her mother, and had initially become a Sunday School teacher because of this. 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. However, 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." She was also a believer and a practitioner of magic, performing spells such as cursing 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.Bibliography
* Saqqara Mastabas (1904)
* Elementary Egyptian Grammar (1905)
* Elementary Coptic Grammar (1911)
* The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921)
* Excavations in Malta, vol. 1-3 (1923, 1925, 1929)
* Egyptian Sculpture (1930)
* Egyptian Temples (1931)
* Cambridge Excavations in Minorca, vol. 1-3 (1932, 1934, 1938)
* 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 in England (1954)
* The Genesis of Religion (1963)
* My First Hundred Years (1963)