Murray, Margaret Alice

Murray, Margaret Alice (1863-1963)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

As Michael Jordan states, Margaret Murray was "a pioneer in the study of a subject which had, hitherto, been virtually devoid of academic research." That subject was Witchcraft.

Margaret Alice Murray was born in Calcutta, India, on July 13, 1863. At 31, she entered University College, London. At that time is was difficult for a woman to receive an advanced degree in archaeology, her main interest, so she obtained a degree in linguistics. This led to her study of Egyptian hieroglyphics and her specialization in Egyptology. She joined Sir Flinders Petrie in his excavations at Abydos, in Egypt, then returned to University College and became a Fellow and, in 1899, a junior lecturer in Egyptology. She remained at the college as an assistant professor until her retirement in 1935.

The works of Sir James Frazer led Murray to take an interest in witchcraft and view it as possibly being a pre-Christian pagan religion. She studied the records of the witch trials during the persecutions and published her findings in 1921 in The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Here she proposed that witchcraft was not merely a product of the Christian Church of the Middle Ages but had, in fact, been a religion in its own right. Its adherents, she said, formed groups known as "covens."

Although Sir James Frazer had discussed the possible prehistoric origins of witchcraft rituals in The Golden Bough (1890) and Charles Godfrey Leland had examined the workings of Italian witches in Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches (1899), no one had previously done the detailed examination that Murray did, nor drawn quite the same conclusions. She referred to the cult as a "Dianic" one (as did Leland), centering on the worship of the goddess Diana. According to Murray, evidence from the trials showed an organization of groups led by a male leader regarded, at least by the Christian chroniclers, as the Devil. She saw connections to witchcraft in all strata of society.

Her conclusions caused a minor sensation. Many were quick to dismiss her findings out of hand, while others were just as quick to join forces with her. In 1931 she published a complementary volume, The God of the Witches, that looked more closely at the male deity, a horned god, and traced the origins of the pagan cult back to Paleolithic times.

In 1954 Murray published another book, The Divine King in England, and this too proved to be extremely controversial. In it, she proposed that the majority of English kings, from William the Conqueror to James I, were secret witches and that most died a ritual death as a Sacred King, as found in many primitive religions. This was too much for many of her contemporaries, who then dismissed all of her works. She remains a controversial figure, yet much of what she uncovered from the early witchcraft trials was valid. It is impossible to read her first two books on the subject without acknowledging that there is a core of truth to her theory that witchcraft was an organized, pre-Christian, pagan religion. Her arguments for covens were weak, but the evidence from the trials was genuine. Many of her detractors are not nearly as qualified as she was. She received a number of academic honors and, in the mid-1950s was the president of the Folk-Lore Society.