Denounced in 1938 by the witch hunting and trials expert, C. L’Estrange Ewen, as nothing more than ‘vapid balderdash,’ the work of the Egyptologist and anthropologist, Professor Margaret Murray, has been subjected to even fiercer criticism since her death in 1963. Propagating the theory that in early Christian Europe until the Renaissance, there existed an organised and widespread Pagan cult, which grew around the worship of what she termed ‘The Horned God,’ Murray became known as a leading authority on the subject of European witchcraft, with her controversial books earning her a substantial readership and many of her ideas capturing the public’s imagination. There were even ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that Murray herself practised the dark arts about which she wrote, and would cast spells to sabotage academic appointments she disapproved. In reality, she was by all accounts a pragmatic and rational thinker, who had little time for superstition in her own life.
Born in Calcutta in 1863, Murray studied linguistics and anthropology at University College London, where her interest in Egyptology brought her to the attention of the renowned Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, whom she accompanied on several excavations and who appointed her as a Junior Lecturer in 1898. As a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Murray fought to improve the status of women and for greater recognition of their academic achievements, and in 1908, made history by becoming the first woman to unwrap a mummy in public during a series of lectures she gave at the Manchester Museum.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Murray enrolled herself as a nurse with the Volunteer Air Detachment of the College Women’s Union Society and spent several weeks in Saint-Malo, caring for injured soldiers, before being struck down by a mystery illness which necessitated her return home. With her research in Egypt stalled by the War, Murray instead turned her attention to the study of witchcraft, and in 1921, published her first and most well-known book on the subject, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Upon its publication, the book was roundly criticised by other academics, who complained that Murray had manipulated records and distorted evidence to fit her own thesis; an accusation she felt was sorely unjustified.
Appointed Assistant Professor of Egyptology at University College London in 1924, a position she retained until she retired in 1935, Murray became a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1926 and was awarded an honorary doctorate the following year. Between 1921 and 1927, Murray spent a great deal of time in Malta, where she led excavations of several Bronze Age and prehistoric sites, including Għar Dalam and Borġ in-Nadur. In 1933, she expanded upon her earlier work with her book, The God of the Witches, giving contemporary accounts of witches on trial during the mid-fifteenth century, and descriptions of pagan priests who had allegedly worn horned headgear to represent their deity. Additionally, she made the more outlandish suggestion that pagans had commonly practised human sacrifice until it was exposed by the witch trials, and that many of these trials were themselves pagan gatherings.
From 1934 to 1940, Murray assisted archivists at Girton College, Cambridge with the cataloguing of Egyptian artifacts, drawing upon her previous work with antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Royal Scottish Museum, and Manchester University Museum. During the Second World War, she volunteered once again, working with an official body that prepared servicemen for their rehabilitation back into civilian life after the War. In 1953, she was elected president of the Folklore Society, having been a member since 1927. Her 1954 book, The Divine King in England proved to be her most fanciful, arguing that amongst the English nobility, there existed a secret conspiracy of Paganism and even going so far as to assert that the assassination of Thomas Becket and the execution by burning of Joan of Arc, were Pagan sacrifices.
By 1962, Murray’s health was deteriorating, and she was forced to move into a care home in Hertfordshire. However, she managed to return to University College London to celebrate her 100th birthday in July 1963, and also publish her autobiography, My First Hundred Years soon afterwards. Murray died in November that year, and is best remembered for her often derided books on witchcraft, to the detriment of her pioneering anthropological studies. In spite of the disparaging comments and accusations levelled against her, Murray’s convictions never wavered, nor did her keen sense of humour, as she remarked in a BBC interview only four years before her death, ‘I’ve been an archaeologist most of my life and now I’m a piece of archaeology myself.’