Margaret Murray discovered the existence of covens and witches' sabbaths in 1921. There was one problem: She was wrong.
Margaret Murray unwrapping a mummy. Photo courtesy of the Manchester Museum
Margaret Murray is the mother of witches that never was. A noted Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, folklorist, and first wave feminist, she is now best-known for a series of books on witchcraft that profoundly shaped the modern Wicca faith. Today, her work has been thoroughly debunked and disproved. So how did Margaret Murray go from being the world's foremost authority on witchcraft to a footnote in its history, and why doesn't anyone talk about her work anymore?
Murray believed that witchcraft did exist, and that it was an organized religion—a fertility cult that worshipped a horned god. In 1921, she expanded on the witch-cult theory in her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (which can be read for free at Project Gutenberg). Based almost entirely on witch trial documents from the 16th and 17th century, Murray's hypothesis was that witchcraft pre-dated Christianity and was eventually absorbed into it, the horned god becoming an avatar for Satan. Murray was the first to use the word 'coven' to mean a gathering of witches; she insisted that covens met in groups of 13, writing in detail about 'sabbaths,' specific witches' meetings that involved elaborate rituals (including group sex and the occasional blood sacrifice). This was, at the time, revolutionary information.
The book was met with widespread acclaim and some incredulity. In 1929, she wrote the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for 'witchcraft', which stayed in print in one version or another for 40 years. For years, she was considered the only authoritative voice on the subject. Aldous Huxley was a fan. Despite being a non-believer who only wanted to write about witchcraft to strip away its supernatural reputation, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe would become a cornerstone of a newly-emergent religion when it was picked in up by founding father Gerald Gardner and built on in his 1954 book, Witchcraft Today. Gardner took Murray's witch-cult theory and used it as a framework on which to hang his other influences— Aleister Crowley's writings, his own personal occult experiences, Freemasonry—to formulate a contemporary pagan religion. We now know it as Wicca.
There was just one problem. Margaret Murray was wrong.
Today, Wiccans still debate over the importance of her work. A director of the Centre for Pagan Studies, Ashley Mortimer is also a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation (Valiente was Gardner's initiate, and a powerful figure in her own right). He is also a media spokesman and representative for a number of other pagan organizations. "I think we have to accept the position as it stands: we simply cannot accept, in the face of the evidence, that the witch-cult survived intact through the centuries and was passed on to Gerald Gardner, who merely breathed new life into it during the 20th century," he says. "Neither, however, can we accept that it never existed in the first place, or that some threads [...] of it have not survived."
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Murray's own history has been extensively documented by Dr Kathleen L. Sheppard in the definitive 2013 biography, The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman's Work in Archaeology. Murray was born in 1863 in Calcutta, India, into a middle class family of British heritage. India was then a British colony, and career prospects for women like her were few: Volunteer, charity or mission work. Her mother, also named Margaret, had served as a missionary before she was married, traveling the country by herself in a period when it was unusual to do so. This would be a formative influence on Murray.
Murray was unconcerned by the idea that the confessions and trial documents that formed the basis of her theory could have been made under threat of torture.
When she was seven, she and her sister were sent to England to stay with her uncle John, who was a vicar. He believed that women were naturally inferior and should be morally and physically spotless. John Murray's views were pretty normal for Victorian England, and he thought it was a good idea to quote Bible verse supporting that at his prepubescent niece. In her memoirs, Murray called her uncle a 'Dominant Male,' which was probably her own polite shorthand for 'Rampaging Sexist'. Her uncle did influence her profoundly in one aspect, though. He introduced her to archaeology.
Despite no formal education, and after returning to Calcutta and working as a nurse for several years, Murray decided, in her 30s, to pursue her childhood passion. With her mother's encouragement, she moved to London and started studying egyptology under pioneering archaeologist Flinders Petrie. Her ascent was steep—in 1898 she became the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. She took part in several archaeological digs in Egypt and published multiple papers and books on the subject. Sheppard notes that Murray unwrapped a mummy in front of an audience of over 500 people in 1908—again, the first women to do so. Murray was successful and well-respected by her peers. She was a member of Emmeline Pankhurst's WSPU, and marched to secure women's right to vote. And then World War I happened.
In 1914, Murray and her colleagues were unable to return to Egypt to continue their archaeological digs. Murray volunteered as a nurse for the war effort, but became sick and was sent to recuperate in a small town in Somerset—Glastonbury—to recuperate. Glastonbury was the legendary home of King Arthur's Holy Grail, and a nexus point for folk tales of the occult. Murray, seeing parallels with her Egyptology work, started digging through documents, and in 1917 she published "Organizations of Witches in Great Britain" in the Folklore Journal. That dry-sounding paper became her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and kickstarted a vein of research that would fundamentally change the face of witchcraft as we know it.
At that time, scholarly writing on witches in Western Europe was close to zero, and two schools of thought existed. Either witches did exist, regardless of whether they could cast spells or not, and they were Satan-worshipping, baby-eating, broom-riding villains, or the women convicted of witchcraft were all innocent victims of public hysteria who made confessions under threat of torture. Murray, seeing room for a middle ground, proposed a witch-cult theory that occupied the wide schism between those polar opposite perceptions.
When her work fell from favor, however, it was not gently phased out as obsolete but ridiculed and denounced as a travesty of the study of history.
But her methodologies were faulty. "Many people are ready to criticise Margaret Murray's work, perhaps in some respects with justification," says Mortimer, "and they also criticise Gerald's credulity in being taken in by her, citing his desire for her findings to be true as his blind spot." Mortimer is being generous. There was no written evidence to suggest that witchcraft was an organized religious movement, and no writings that tie witchcraft to the idea of a sabbath meeting. Even the origins of the word 'coven' was suspect (Murray thought it specifically referred to a witch—it probably came from the word 'covent' and referred to any kind of meeting, not just a supernatural one). She could only find one testimony that stated covens should be made up of 13 members, from a Scottish witch-trial testimony.
Murray was unconcerned by the idea that the confessions and trial documents that formed the basis of her theory could have been made under threat of torture. She posited that torture was illegal at that time, so it obviously never happened—a stance that is hopelessly naive by contemporary standards. However, no research existed to contradict her. She was an expert by default.
By the 1990s, new historical evidence and diverse scholarship in pagan studies meant that her work was almost entirely discredited. Writing in 2004 for The Pomegranate, an academic journal of pagan studies, Catherine Noble notes, "When her work fell from favor, however, it was not gently phased out as obsolete but ridiculed and denounced as a travesty of the study of history, an abuse of evidence coupled with academic ignorance of her subject." Though she lived to be 100, Margaret Murray faded into obscurity soon after her death in 1963. All that remains of her legacy are two busts in University College London.
Regardless of their opinions on Murray, most Wiccans would concede that her work may not have been accurate, but it did facilitate the popularity and legitimacy of their belief system. The Witch-Cult of Western Europe had a catalyzing effect. It brought witches—real witches, not devil-worshippers or victims of circumstance—into the public realm. Like some Christians, who read the Bible as a creation myth and not as historical fact, many Wiccans now embrace the spirit of Murray's findings, not the fallacy.
"It actually does not matter whether, or to what extent, Murray was right or wrong or that Gerald Gardner made it up or not," says Mortimer. "The system that was developed works for its purpose, which is religious and spiritual development. And that, in itself, is enough."