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Margaret Alice Murray's Biography (Books)

Margaret Alice Murray (July 13, 1863 - November 13, 1963) was a prominent British anthropologist and Egyptologist. She was well known in academic circles for scholarly contributions to Egyptology and the study of folklore which led to the theory of a pan-European, pre-Christian pagan religion that revolved around the Horned God. Her theories are acknowledged to have significantly influenced the emergence of Wicca and reconstructionist neopagan religions. Murray's work is criticized by some contemporary historians (such as Ronald Hutton), who consider her thesis to extrapolate beyond the evidence.

Margaret Alice Murray writings on witchcraft played a prominent part in the modern witchcraft revival. She was born in Calcutta, India, July 13, 1863. She later moved to England and entered University College, London (1894) where she was subsequently a Fellow of University College (D.Lit., F.S.A. (Scot.), F.R.A.I.), and by 1899 became a junior lecturer on Egyptology. She retired in 1935. She participated in excavations in Egypt (1902-4), Malta (1921-24), Hertfordshire, England (1925), Minorca (1930-31), Petra (1937), and Tell Ajjul, South Palestine (1938). During her long career, which included a tenure as president of the Folklore Society, London (1953-55), she published a number of valuable works on archaeology, but is better remembered for her controversial books on witchcraft.

In The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), Murray proposed the idea that witchcraft was a pre-Christian religion in its own right, rather than a heretical deviation from established Christianity. The book had a great influence on Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964), pioneer of the modern witchcraft revival. Murray in turn contributed an introduction to Gardner's book Witchcraft Today (1954). She also wrote two other books on witchcraft: The God of the Witches (1931) and The Divine King in England (1954). She died November 13, 1963, soon after her hundredth birthday.

Murray's Witchcraft theories. Further information: Witch-cult hypothesis

Initial Thesis


Murray's "Witch Cult in Western Europe" 1921, written during a period she was unable to do field work in Egypt, laid out the essential elements of her thesis that a common pattern of underground pagan resistance to the Christian Church existed across Europe. The pagans organized in covens of thirteen worshippers, dedicated to a male god and held ritual sabbaths. Murray maintained that pagan beliefs and religion dating from the neolithic through the medieval period, secretly practised human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt starting c. 1450.

Theoretical development


Murray's later books were written for a more popular audience and in a style that was far more imaginative and entertaining than standard academic works. "The God of the Witches", 1931 expanded on her claims that the witch cult had worshiped a Horned God whose origins went back to prehistory. Murray decided that the witches' admissions in trial that they worshiped Satan proved they actually did worship such a god. Thus, according to Murray, reports of Satan actually represented pagan gatherings with their priest wearing a horned helmet to represent their Horned God. Murray also discussed the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, claiming to show that he too was a pagan by saying that his death "presents many features which are explicable only by the theory that he also was the substitute for a Divine King" (Murray 171).

Murray now became more and more emotional in her defence of her ideas, claiming that anyone who opposed her did so out of religious prejudice. In "The Divine King in England", 1954 she expanded on her earlier claims there was a secret conspiracy of pagans amongst the English nobility, the same English nobility who provided the leading members of the Church. The suspicious death of William Rufus, King of England, was a ritual sacrificial killing of a sacred king carried out by Henry I, a man so pious he later founded one of the biggest Abbeys in England. This secret conspiracy, according to her, had killed many early English sovereigns, through to James I in the early seventeenth century. Saint Joan of Arc - whose Catholic piety and orthodoxy are attested in numerous documents (such as the letter she dictated threatening to lead a crusade against the Hussites), and who was executed by the English for what even the tribunal members later admitted were political reasons - was rewritten as a pagan martyr by Murray. Her portrait of messianic (self-) sacrifices of these figures make for entertaining speculation, but they have not been taken seriously as history even by her staunchest supporters, though they have been used in novels.