Margaret Murray

Margaret Alice Murray (1863 - 1963)

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Margaret Alice Murray
Born in Calcutta, British Indiamap
[sibling(s) unknown]
Died in Victoria Memorial Hospital in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, Englandmap
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Profile last modified | Created 25 Feb 2016
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Categories: University College London | Archaeologists | Calcutta, Bengal | Wicca Project.

Gardnerian Wicca


"The Grandmother of Wicca"

Murray never married, instead devoting her life to her work. Raised a devout Christian by her mother, Murray had initially become a Sunday School teacher to preach the faith, but after entering the academic profession she rejected religion, gaining a reputation among other members of the Folklore Society as a noted skeptic and a rationalist. She was openly critical of organized religion, 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". She was also a believer and a practitioner of magic, performing curses against those who 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. In another instance, she was claimed to have created a wax image of Kaiser Wilhelm II and then melted it during the First World War.

Margaret Alice Murray was born in Calcutta Jul 3 1863. 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.

Margaret Alice Murray (13 July 1863 – 13 November 1963) was an Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She also became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement in the WWI period. Unable to return to Egypt due to the First World War, she focused her research on 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 emerging new religious movement of Wicca. From 1921 to 1931 Murray undertook excavations of prehistoric sites on Malta and Minorca and developed her interest in folkloristics. Awarded an honorary doctorate in 1927, she was appointed assistant professor in 1928 and retired from UCL in 1935. That year she visited Palestine to aid Petrie's excavation of Tall al-Ajjul and in 1937 she led a small excavation at Petra in Jordan. Taking on the presidency of the Folklore Society in later life, she lectured at such institutions as the University of Cambridge and City Literary Institute, and continued to publish in an independent capacity until her death. The outbreak of the First World War 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. 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. 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 for making unsubstantiated leaps with the evidence by the likes of Jessie Weston. 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 Folklore, the journal of the Folklore Society, in 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". She articulated these views more fully in her 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, with historians claiming that she had distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using, but the book was nevertheless influential. Murray reiterated her witch-cult theory in her 1933 book, The God of the Witches, which was aimed at a wider, non-academic audience. In this book, 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". 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 Hills, Cambridgeshire. Privately she expressed concern about the reality of the figures. Lethbridge subsequently authored a book championing her witch-cult theory in which he sought the cult's origins in pre-Christian culture. 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. 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". 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". In her argument, 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.

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 baptised into the faith. At the same time, she claimed that the religion was largely passed down hereditary lines. Murray described the religion as being divided into covens containing thirteen members, led by a coven officer who was often termed the "Devil" in the trial accounts, but who was accountable to a "Grand Master". According to Murray, the records of the coven were kept in a secret book, with the coven also disciplining its members, to the extent of executing those deemed traitors.

Describing this witch-cult as "a joyous religion", 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. 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. The Esbats, Murray claimed, were nocturnal rites that began at midnight, and were "primarily for business, whereas the Sabbath was purely religious". At the former, magical rites were performed both for malevolent and benevolent ends. 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 the Sabbath ended with feasting and dancing. Deeming Ritual Witchcraft to be "a fertility cult", she asserted that many of its rites were designed to ensure fertility and rain-making. 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. 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. 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. Murray asserted that a pre-Christian fertility-based religion 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". She believed that folkloric stories of fairies in Britain were based on a surviving race of dwarfs, who continued to live on 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. 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, a claim which has been refuted by historians, especially in the case of Joan of Arc. Biographer Margaret S. Drower expressing the view that it was her work on this subject which "perhaps more than any other, made her known to the general public". It has been claimed that Murray's was the "first feminist study of the witch trials", as well as being the first to have actually "empowered the witches" by giving the (largely female) accused both free will and a voice distinct from that of their interrogators. Murray's witch-cult theories provided the blueprint for the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, with Murray being referred to as the "Grandmother of Wicca". The Pagan studies scholar Ethan Doyle White stated that it was the theory which "formed the historical narrative around which Wicca built itself", for on its emergence in England during the 1940s and 1950s, Wicca claimed to be the survival of this witch-cult. Wicca's theological structure, revolving around a Horned God and Mother Goddess, was adopted from Murray's ideas about the ancient witch-cult, and Wiccan groups were named covens and their meetings termed esbats, both words that Murray had popularised.As with Murray's witch-cult, Wicca's practitioners entered via an initiation ceremony; Murray's claims that witches wrote down their spells in a book may have been an influence on Wicca's Book of Shadows. Wicca's early system of seasonal festivities were also based on Murray's framework.


  • "India Births and Baptisms, 1786-1947," database, FamilySearch : 8 December 2014), Margaret Alice Murray, 21 Aug 1863; citing Calcutta, Bengal, India, reference v 105 p 11; index based upon data collected by the Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City; FHL microfilm 499,011.

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