*This is a guest post, written by Ethan Doyle White (see bottom for biographical information and links to his blog and upcoming book). I asked him to write this because of his salient forthcoming review of my book in Aries. Enjoy!
Margaret Murray was many things: acclaimed Egyptologist, prominent folklorist, feminist activist. But for those who know her for her role as an assistant to Flinders Petrie or as the first woman to be appointed as an archaeology lecturer in Britain, it may come as some surprise that she was a practitioner of magic and a woman who has come to be known as the “Godmother of Wicca”.
Murray’s own personal spiritual and religious beliefs are not particularly clear. Like most Britons of her day she was raised into an Anglican family and – although born in the British Raj – she spent time in England with an uncle who was a vicar and who attempted to install strong Christian values in her. In later life, she appears to have renounced her affiliation with the Christian faith, although in both her centenary biography and elsewhere she attested to an ongoing belief in some form of monotheistic divinity. Although it was not something that she appeared to openly discuss in her publications, Murray was also a practitioner of magic (and thus presumably believed in the efficacy of such practices). There are reports of her aiding the British war effort by melting a wax image of the Kaiser in an act of sympathetic magic, while observers recalled her using quotidian kitchen equipment to curse one of her colleagues, Jaroslav Černý, when he was promoted to a Professorship in Egyptology over her friend Walter Bryan Emery. Clearly, this short, mild-mannered woman could be a force to be reckoned with.
Murray’s interest in magic was not solely personal, but rather had a strong professional dimension to it as well. During the First World War she found that she was unable to travel to Egypt in order to continue her excavations, and so began delving into another subject matter that attracted her interest: that of European witchcraft. Murray’s argument – presented over the course of several academic papers and books – revolved around the thesis that the witches persecuted during Christendom’s early modern period were neither members of a devil-worshipping cult nor poor souls caught up in superstitious ignorance and hysteria. Rather, she presented the argument – albeit one that a number of continental European and American scholars had already advanced – that they were members of a non-Christian, and indeed pre-Christian, religious movement which was being actively persecuted by the Christian authorities as a rival to its hegemony. Murray believed that this religion had been devoted to an ancient Horned God, who had come to be diabolised as the Devil in the Christian imagination, although also briefly suggested that at some point prior to the early modern witch trials it had also venerated a Mother Goddess too.
Murray’s use of evidence in presenting her thesis was deeply problematic, and by the 1960s – shortly after her death – it had come to be completely rejected among historians of the early modern. As later critics have demonstrated, Murray was often selective in her use of evidence, picking that which fitted her theory while ignoring the majority of material that did not. Moreover, her examination of the subject had focused on a comparatively slim selection of trials; since her death, historians have examined the majority of witch trial accounts from across Europe and the American colonies, demonstrating that there was no such pagan witch-cult in existence but rather that the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft were innocent of any such crime. Nevertheless, Murray’s ideas had become very influential during her lifetime, being embraced by encyclopaedias, novelists, and even several prominent scholars, albeit none of whom were experts in the witch-trials.
However, perhaps the most significant influence that Murray’s witch-cult theory exerted was on Britain’s occultists, a number of whom openly declared that they were members of several secretive surviving covens of the faith. The religion that they professed, at the time known as “Witchcraft”, came to be termed “Wicca” during the 1960s, the name with which it is now commonly associated. The best known of these individuals was Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), a man now renowned as the “Father of Wicca” and who did more than anyone else to publicise the religion during the 1950s and early 1960s. Gardner always insisted, however, that he had not founded Wicca, but rather that he had been initiated into the witches’ fellowship while living in the New Forest area of southern England in 1939. Scholarly opinion remains divided on whether this New Forest coven of witches ever existed or not, with some suggesting that it was nothing more than a fiction conjured up by Gardner to conceal the fact that he had assembled Wicca in its entirety.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, Wicca soon established itself as the most prominent form of contemporary Paganism in both Britain and the United States. Although branching out into a varied array of denominations, each with their own specific beliefs and practices, Wicca tends to revolve around the veneration of a Horned God and a Goddess, the celebration of seasonal festivals, and the practice of magico-religious rites either solitarily or in groups known as covens. Its basic structure, as well as much of its terminology, clearly derives from Murray’s work, although it has also adopted much from other sources, among them the writings of older ceremonial magicians, romanticist poets, and second-wave feminists.
Murray’s personal relationship with Wicca remains unclear. On the one hand we have no evidence whatsoever that she actually became a practitioner of the faith, despite the magical spells that she reportedly cooked up. On the other we know that she was personally acquainted with Gardner, whom she probably met through the Folklore Society, of which they were both members. In 1954, Gardner published his first non-fiction book, Witchcraft Today, in which he publicly declared that he had been admitted into the witch-cult. Murray agreed to provide an introduction to the work, in which she noted that Gardner had claimed to have discovered a group whose “rites are a true survival and not a mere revival copied out of books”. Given the wording that she chose to use, I’m not convinced that Murray actually believed Gardner’s claim to have discovered a survival of her witches’ religion. Rather, I’m inclined to think that she really did suspect that it was a “revival copied out of books”. Had she bought into his story then I’d have thought that she would have delved far deeper, trying to meet with his witches and observe their rituals. As far as I am aware, we have no evidence that she ever did.
Murray was a somewhat unusual and multifaceted character. As Kathleen Sheppard’s recent biography makes plain, Murray was an important pioneer when it came to involving women in academia, while her work in Egyptology is deservedly well-respected. But these aspects of her personality must be viewed in tandem alongside the other, esoteric aspect of her life, one which seems almost at odds with her status as an acclaimed scholar; to really understand her, both sides of her world must be appreciated. In this way, Murray’s life and legacy perfectly encapsulates the uneasy relationship that exists between the academy and the esoteric. The former may wish to distance itself from the perceived irrationality and disrespectability of the latter, but in reality the two remain deeply intertwined on many levels. Outside of the classroom, many academics engage in occult and other esoteric activities, while the theories produced within academia – from history to physics – often exert a significant influence on the beliefs existing within the esoteric milieu.
**Ethan Doyle White is the author of Wicca: History, Community, and Belief in Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Sussex Academic Press, 2016) as well as a number of academic articles on modern witchcraft and contemporary Paganism. He is currently engaged in an interdisciplinary doctoral study of Early Medieval popular religion at University College London (UCL), the institution at which Murray worked for most of her career.