Murray, Margaret (July 13, 1863—1963) - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Murray, Margaret (July 13, 1863—1963)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Margaret Alice Murray, British author, archeologist, anthropologist, and Egyptologist, is perceived by some to be the mother of contemporary witchcraft.

Her work evokes passionate reactions in many; some venerate Murray; others openly despise her. Many who disagree with her theories are quite disrespectful toward her. She is frequently described as a “crackpot.” Many fellow anthropologists and historians are quite dismissive toward her, beyond professional criticism. Whether one agrees with her theories or not, Margaret Murray was an eminently educated woman and was once considered an authority in her field.

Born in Calcutta, she studied archeology at Cambridge University, joining its faculty in 1899 at a time when very few women served in such positions. She studied Egyptian hieroglyphics, holding the position of Assistant Professor of Egyptology until 1935. She went on various archeological digs in the United Kingdom, Middle East, Egypt and the Mediterranean, including Sir Flinders Petrie’s excavations at the Egyptian holy city of Abydos.

Having studied Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Charles Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, Murray developed an interest in witchcraft, theorizing that it was a pre-Christian Pagan religion. She began studying witch-trial records.

In 1921, Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe, which stated that victims of the witch-hunts were practitioners of surviving Pagan religions. The controversial theories described within were embraced by Gerald Gardner but disputed by other scholars. Her theories would be a major influence on Gardnerian Wicca.

Among the issues regarding her work is that she based her theories on witch-trial testimony (particularly from Scotland) obtained under torture. Murray cited the consistency of many concessions. Was this consistency proof of witchcraft, as she surmised, or proof of the witch-hunters’ obsessive need for consistency?

Another argument against her theories is that she virtually ignored trial records from outside Western Europe. Her information derives heavily from the British Isles and France with little emphasis on Germany, which had a massive witch-hunt, or Central and Eastern Europe.

According to her (very hostile) critics, Murray was guilty of selective editing: she was accused of inventing or slanting evidence and lost scholarly credibility. She quoted witch-trial defendants extensively but deleted what she seems to have perceived as “fairy tale” parts such as shape-shifting, riding through the air and other magical elements. Murray was interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of witchcraft, not necessarily any magical or shamanic parts. Thus she emphasized what she perceived as spiritual aspects of Paganism but eliminated the shamanic. Her work is actually quite reflective of the tension between the two camps—magic/shamanic vs spiritual—that still resounds today.

Ironically, Murray has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years by witchcraft historians like Carlo Ginzburg who have explored genuine shamanic elements emerging from witch-trial records, the Benandanti for instance, and who suggest that even if all of Murray’s theories are not correct, she was a pioneer to recognize the existence of European Pagan vestiges.

Murray was not the first to postulate that witches represented pre-Christian traditions, although she was the first to do so in English. In 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti published a book in Italian, Del Congresso Nottorno delle Lammie, stating that witchcraft derives from rites of Diana.

The person frequently credited as the first to put forward the idea that witches represented pre-Christian traditions was Karl-Ernst Jarcke, Professor of Criminal law at the University of Berlin. In 1828, he edited seventeenth-century German witch-trial records for a legal journal, adding his own commentary. He argued that witchcraft was a survival of the nature religion of pre-Christian Germans. According to Jarcke, the Church condemned this surviving nature religion, identifying it with devil worship so intensely that over time even witchcraft’s own devotees subscribed to the Church’s notion.

Jarcke was a devote Roman Catholic and not sympathetic to witches. Margaret Murray’s radicalism may have been in being the first to publicly express empathy and sympathy for witches, and there are those who believe that this is what actually created the controversy that still surrounds her work.

Margaret Murray’s other books include:


Image The God of the Witches (1933), which focused on the horned god and the Paleolithic origins of witchcraft


Image The Divine King in England (1954), which argued that all English kings from the eleventh to the early seventeenth centuries secretly practiced witchcraft and died ritual deaths, similar to those described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The general response to The Divine King was mockery. Branded a crackpot, many simply dismissed all Murray’s work