Margaret Alice Murray was born in Calcutta on July 13, 1863. She had scholarly interests atypical for a Victorian woman, and her willingness to pursue her academic interests against the barriers of the day indicates considerable personal strength. Egyptian archeology intrigued her, but the field was not open to females. Instead, she obtained a degree in linguistics, which allowed her to study Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptology. As a result of her aptitude in these areas, Sir Flinders Petrie invited her to join his Egyptian excavations in the 1890s. This work later led to a position with University College London and a book, The Splendour that was Egypt, published in 1931. From 1953-1955 she was President of the Folklore Society of England, still an unusual office for a woman. Her final book, published before she died in 1963 at 100 years of age, was an autobiography.
Few of these accomplishments garner much attention now. Most people remember Murray for her controversial views of witchcraft. These views did not spring, Athena-like, from her head; they grew in well-fertilized ground.
James Frazier's nineteenth-century tome, The Golden Bough had a significant impact on anthropology, psychology, and literature. This extensive though selective examination of world religions helped reconstruct a hypothetical ancient fertility cult and established the idea that this cult represented the definitive proto-religion of humanity. Others went further. Jules Michelet claimed, in the wildy ahistorical Satanism and Witchcraft, that accused medieval and Renaissance witches were followers of an ancient religious tradition. In 1899, Charles Leland published the Michelet-influenced Arcadia, or the Gospel of the Witches. He claimed it was a collection of actual witch-beliefs, though he never produced its source. It is in this context that Murray's theories emerged.
When World War I interrupted her Egyptian studies, she turned to the witch-hunts, and examined their possible connection to paganism. Of course, the medieval and Renaissance church distrusted and often vilified things of pagan origin. Various pagan gods influenced the popular image of the devil. Murray went further; she wondered if the medieval devil was not, in fact, a bigoted Christian interpretation of a specific fertility cult's horned god. In 1921, she published The Witch-cult in Western Europe, which presented her case that the European witch-hunts had not been the result of superstitious delusion and social pressures, but were an attempt by the Roman Catholic (and later the nascent Protestant) churches to eliminate a rival sect.
The book draws upon numerous original documents from the trials of witches. It seemed convincing, but few were prepared to return to Murray's source material, and therefore did not realize:
that Murray had cooked the books, by committing scholarly crimes of both commission and omission. When she'd happened upon a titbit she liked, she had made the most of it, disguising her lack of evidence with a tone of calm assurance (for example, she made the sweeping assertion that witches met in covens of thirteen on the basis of a single piece of trial testimony). Conversely, details that didn't suit her views were ignored without comment, on the grounds that they had been introduced by hostile witnesses (Savage 98).
That most of the trial testimony was guided by inquisitors who had a priori
notions about what witches did, and elicited under torture, was not adequately addressed. Selective editing and translation further increased the sense that the accused were describing the same, actual events, rather than responding to their interrogators' often porn
The Witch-cult in Western Europe also treats all pagan religions as essentially the same. Many diverse practices from a variety of traditions, sundry notions of magic and sorcery, and popular superstition are all stirred by Murray into one Ur-religion. As one of the few early-twentieth century experts on the witch trials, however, Murray wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica's account of the subject. For nearly four decades, her ideas were repeated there as historical fact, and became widely-known.
Murray's unusual view of the past also led her to conclude that elf and faery existed, in the form of stunted survivors from ancient neolithic cultures. In The Divine King of England, published in 1954, she claimed that many of England's monarchs had been slain as part of pagan ritual sacrifices. These claims met with controversy, and Murray could offer very little in the way of hard evidence.
Along with contemporary scholars, many Wicca and neopagans also dismiss Murray's thesis (and the views of others such as Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, who expounded upon it). They present their religions as attempts to revive and reinterpret a pagan spirituality. Others maintain the hardline view that they practise a religious tradition that reaches back distant ages,1 and which Christians attempted to destroy in the Burning Times. They are, of course, as entitled as Margaret Murray to believe this, just as Christians hold that Jesus returned from death and Mormons claim he toured the Americas. I cannot disprove these claims and would not try, but they are tenets of religious faith, and not historical facts.
1. I am not referring to those pagans who practise the religion of a particular culture (pre-Christian Celtic or Norse, for example), and who therefore can make some claim to be following an ancient belief.
J. B. Hare. "The Works of Margaret Murray." Sacred Texts. http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/murray.htm
Francis X. King. Witchcraft and Demonology. London: Hamlyn Publishing, 1987.
George Knowles. "Margaret Alice Murray." Controversial.com. http://www.controverscial.com/Margaret%20Alice%20Murray.htm
"Margaret Alice Murray." Distinguished Women of Past and Present. http://www.distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/murrayma.html
Margaret Alice Murray. The Witch-cult in Ancient Europe. 1921. http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/wcwe/index.htm
Jeffrey B. Russell. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
Amethyst. "Satan." Amethyst's Wicca. http://www.angelfire.com/realm2/amethystbt/satan.html
Candace Savage. Witch: the Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca. Toronto: Grey Stone Books, Toronto.