Forced into the Fringe: Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult Hypothesis

By Kathleen Sheppard

Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist at University College, London from 1894 to 1935. She spent much of her career managing administrative and teaching duties in the department at UCL. Because of this, she rarely went into the field, and, like most women in university science posts in the early 20th century, she had to diversify her work simply to make ends meet. Murray taught up to 30 hours per week, organized and cataloged museum collections all over Britain, wrote for various journals, reviewed dozens of books, and gave public lectures. Being a Jane-of-all-trades, so to speak, meant that Murray and others in her cohort were pushed into the margins of their disciplines. They were not really considered experts in any one field, so their work was not taken as seriously as the expert men they worked with.

During the years of the First World War when Murray found that there was not much work to do in archaeology (universities in England were either closed or operating in limited capacities due to the fact most students were fighting in the war), she decided to branch out into the study of anthropology and folklore. In 1915, she spent some time in Glastonbury, where she became enamored with stories of the Holy Grail. She wrote about Egyptian connections to the Holy Grail, and in so doing, she dove deeper into the study of myths and legends. This work quickly turned her attention to a little-studied subject in Britain at the time: the coming of Christianity and the end of pagan practices, also known as witchcraft.

Murray wrote the earliest anthropological studies on British witchcraft, soon becoming an expert in the subject. Her basic framework was expressed most clearly in a brief paper, “Organisations of Witches in Great Britain,” read before the Folklore Society in April of 1917. She then wrote two books—The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1931)—as well as an article on witchcraft in the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Each of these works builds upon the previous, and together, they present a coherent theory of pre-Christian practices in ancient and early-modern England.

Later, folklorist and self-proclaimed Mason Gerald Gardner put Murray’s ideas into practice by adding some of his own ideas to hers, and using them to start a new neo-Pagan movement called Wicca. It spread widely and quickly, and according to a few different surveys, including the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), there are presently over 500,000 practicing Wiccans, or Pagan Witchcraft practitioners, in the US alone. Murray’s work in folklore is not unlike that of the powerful women healers of the early modern period who were marginalized, discredited, and then outed as witches, all while men used their knowledge of the body to create what we call modern obstetrics. Murray’s discipline-shifting ideas were ridiculed then ignored—only later to be appropriated and codified by a man with less experience.

Murray’s work presented a theory, known as the witch-cult hypothesis: people, especially women, who were persecuted for being witches were, in reality, practicing an ancient, naturalistic religion that was widespread before Christianity came to Europe. The witch-cult was a religion with beliefs, rituals, and organization as highly-developed as that of any other in the world. The Christian European patriarchy demonized the practice, persecuting and executing its practitioners. To justify the punishment, the Christian nobility created a public fear of these seemingly demonic practices, which delegitimized the women involved in the religion. This ultimately resulted in such events as the Inquisition in Europe and the Salem Witch Trials in America. Christian rulers were frightened of the god of these witches, who was known to them as the Devil, Satan, Lucifer, and Beelzebub.

Murray was not focused on Operative Witchcraft, the effects of witch-charms, or the magical powers claimed by witches. She was, however, concerned with proving wrong the theory that personal accounts of witchcraft practices were in fact hallucinations induced by hysteria. .

Murray claimed that groups that met to worship were known as covens. Each coven had no more than thirteen members who joined of their own free will and each witch devoted themselves to the Master. The Master was seen as a god who frequently took the form of a person, usually a man, sometimes disguised with an animal mask or animal skins. Often, the god chose to take the actual form of an animal, such as a bull, goat, or horse. A third form the god could take was as a man with two faces, known as Janus or Dianus. The god of the cult was worshiped by initiates in elaborate ceremonies with rituals, dance, food, and bonfire. In all ceremonies attached to this god, Murray claimed, the main structure was the same everywhere, but the regional aspects could differ. She argued that these pagan groups lasted until the 18th century in some parts of Western Europe.

She maintained that the witches were not in a drug-induced hysteria, but were simply worshipping what they believed was a divine being. Her main goal in these works was to demonstrate that the practice was not fantastical or demonic, but rather constituted an anthropological survival from paganism into Christianity.

Based strictly on the anthropological evidence, much like J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Murray may have been able to make a strong case. Instead, she drew upon primary sources—actual eye-witness accounts of the interrogations and trials of the accused—from the 7th to the 17th centuries. Most folklorists could agree with her, but her critics rejected her contention that accused witches were telling the truth, and not just making up stories to appease their accusers. Among  Murray’s opposition, evidence from trials was usually believed to have been given under duress and even torture. Murray was selective with the use of her sources, sometimes cutting important words from witness accounts without noting she had removed them. Critics argued that she also hid important clues to the true nature of accounts given at witch trials, which were full of important narrative motifs that would help a folklorist trace a story through time. Deemed useless, her work was largely ignored by the folklore community for decades.

To the chagrin of some current folklorists, the omission of Murray’s work from contemporary discussion actually may have allowed her ideas to spread unchecked. Supporters of Murray’s ideas, known as Murrayites, agree with and continued to promote her thesis that witches were practicing a real, organized religion and should be studied as such. Murray gave witchcraft historical validity and, thus, a foundation on which people could build a new system of study. All scholars of witchcraft today must contend with her work because it set the foundation for witchcraft studies.

In 1954, Gerald Gardner, the only member of the Folklore Society to adopt Murray’s theory in full, wrote an extremely influential book, Witchcraft Today. Gardner outlined the history of practical witchcraft using Murray’s ideas of rituals, festivals, and organizations of witches as a sort of blueprint for setting up a new system of magical and religious rituals that became modern Wicca. Importantly, Murray wrote the introduction to this volume in which she supported Gardner’s argument that modern witches simply practiced an expression of feeling towards God—the same that is experienced by modern Christians in church services. These modern Wicca practices are widely-known and widely-practiced, and Gardner is usually given the credit for them (for better or for worse).

Murray was marginalized as a folklorist in part because she was a woman, untrained in the appropriate anthropological methods of study, which meant that her conclusions were questionable. However, It is important to remember that Murray—whose life’s work was Egyptology—was essentially freelancing in this work because it interested her. She tried to make a name for herself in folklore and in the end she was successful. Murray is now coming back into some favor. Folklorists still do not agree with her, but they are at least recognizing her ground-breaking contributions to the field.

Murray died in 1963, at the age of 100, a well-respected Egyptologist but a discredited folklorist. Her Egyptological career had been overshadowed by Great Man Flinders Petrie (even though I and others are working to shed light on her legacy). Further, because of her seemingly fringe ideas, her reputation in folklore was damaged for decades, then usurped by a questionable pagan leader with little to no scholarly experience.

Further Reading:

Ethan Doyle White, Wicca: History, Belief and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Sussex Academic Press, 2016).
Caroline Oates and Juliette Wood, A Coven of Scholars: Margaret Murray and Her Working Methods (London: Folklore Society, 1998).

*Image courtesy of Gabe Moshenska

Kathleen is a historian of science focusing on the history of British archaeology and women in science.  She received a B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology from Truman State University, an M.A. in Egyptian Archeology from University College, London, and an M.A. and PhD in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma.

Contact: [email protected] and @k8shep