Margaret Murray

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Margaret Murray : biography

13 June 1863 – 13 November 1963

In 1953, Murray was appointed to the presidency of the Folklore Society, the first time that she had served on the council, taking over from the former president, Allan Gomme. For the autumn 1961 issue of their Folklore journal, the Folklore Society published a festschrift to Murray to commemorate her 98th birthday. The issue contained contributions from various scholars paying tribute to her, with papers dealing with archaeology, fairies, Near Eastern religious symbols, Greek folksongs, but notably not about witchcraft.Simpson 1994. p. 94.

Ten years later and having reached 100 years of age, Margaret Murray published her final work, an autobiography entitled My First Hundred Years (1963). She died later that same year of natural causes.

Murray’s Witch-Cult hypotheses

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 practiced human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt starting around 1450.

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. Murray claimed the suspicious death of King William II 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 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 (e.g. Katherine Kurtz’s Lammas Night, Philip Lindsay’s The Devil and King John).

Criticism

Ever since its first publication, Murray’s theory has come under criticism for flaws in its use of evidence, with later historian Ronald Hutton remarking that it consisted of "a few well-known works by Continental demonologists, a few tracts printed in England and quite a number of published records of Scottish witch trials. The much greater amount of unpublished evidence was absolutely ignored."Hutton 1991. p. 302. Various critics, including historian Norman Cohn and folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, have highlighted what they see as Murray’s "extreme selectivity" in choosing only sources that backed her argument, and ignoring those that did not.Simpson 1994. p. 91. Regarding this, Jacqueline Simpson comments that: