Margaret Alice Murray, (1863–1963) was a British anthropologist, archaeologist and Egyptologist best known for her controversial theories on the origins and organization of witchcraft as a religion.
Murray was born July 13, 1863, in Calcutta. She distinguished herself in the British academic world, entering University College in London in 1894. She was named a fellow of the college and specialized in Egyptology. She became a junior lecturer in Egyptology in 1899 and was assistant professor of Egyptology until 1935, when she resigned her post to pursue other studies. She also held other lecturer positions.
Murray did archaeological excavations in Egypt, Malta, Hertfordshire (England), Petra, Minorca and Tell Ajjul in south Palestine. Her interest in witchcraft led her to field studies of the subject throughout Europe, which included an examination of written records of witchcraft trials.
Her first book on witchcraft, The Witch-cult in Western Europe, was published in 1921 and caused immediate controversy among her peers. Murray maintained that witchcraft in the middle Ages and renaissance was not a phenomenon of Christian heresy but was the remnants of an organized, pagan fertility religion that dated back to Paleolithic times. She also maintained that witchcraft was far more widespread and organized during those centuries than had been generally believed by most historians and anthropologists.
Murray was not the first to put forth this theory. Sir James Frazer had discussed the prehistoric origins of witchcraft rituals and beliefs in his extensive work, The Golden Bough, published in 1890. Murray elaborated upon Frazer’s work and took her own theories much further.
Murray called witchcraft “the Dianic cult” because of the pagan worship of the goddess Diana. She believed that most witches were organized into Covens that always consisted of 12 members plus a leader, either the Devil or a man impersonating the Devil, despite the lack of evidence to support such a belief. She also believed that practitioners of witchcraft came from “every rank of society, from the highest to the lowest.” Murray remained convinced of the existence of an organized witchcraft religion, despite the lack of evidence to prove it.
In her second book on witchcraft, The God of the Witches, published in 1933, Murray discussed the Horned God, or male pagan deity, tracing its origins back to Paleolithic times as well. She portrayed the Horned God as one of power but not evil. A third book, The Divine King in England, published in 1954, was perhaps the most controversial of all her works. In it, she asserted that every English king, from William the Conqueror in the 11th century to James I in the early 17th century, was a secret witch and that many of the country’s statesmen had been killed in ritual deaths.
For decades, scholars argued over Murray’s theories. Her Dianic cult and other views have been widely rejected, including most of her material in The Divine King in England and her opinion that the term sabbat comes from the French term s’esbettre, which means “to frolic” (see Sabbats). Nevertheless, she is recognized for her pioneering work in the field of witchcraft and for shedding light on the continuity of some ancient pagan practices, not only into the middle Ages but into the 20th century as well.
Murray’s theories gave fuel to a movement in England in the 1950s to rediscover Witchcraft as an organized religion. Gerald B. Gardner expounded upon her theories in his own book, Witchcraft Today (1954), for which Murray wrote the introduction. The Dianic cult was an appealing myth that many newly initiated Witches wanted to believe. But by the 1990s, it was acknowledged in Wicca and Paganism that Murray was wrong.
Murray died in London on November 13, 1963, shortly after her 100th birthday.
- Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. revised ed. New York: Viking, 1986.
- Murray, Margaret A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. London: Oxford University Press, 1921.
———. The God of the Witches. London: Sampson Low, marston and Co., Ltd., 1931.
- Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.