Margaret Murray Reappraised

By Melissa Harrington

Author’s introduction

This was written in 1996 and represents out-takes of my very early background research into the history of Wicca, undertaken for a PhD focusing on ‘conversion’ in Wicca, in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at Kings College, London. It was previously published in Talking Stick Magickal Journal magazine, in 1997 or 1998, in Wiccan Rede 2006, and later in the magazine of the Circulo de Trivia in Italy. It was written in my very early days as a researcher, and has not been updated since, nor had any scholastic analysis or improvement in the light of later scholarship as it was written for a Pagan audience, and throws some light on an enigmatic character in the birth of modern Paganism.

This paper is very much of its time and includes a reference to the song The Burning Times which was very popular then, but has fallen out of fashion due to a growing awareness of the history of modern Wicca. As we are publishing it in its entirety here I am inclined to leave this in to show just how much has changed in all our understanding, and mark the passage and fashions of practice as we develop our knowledge of our religion, looking at how scholarly work feeds into what we do as Witches.

I would like always like to thank Dr Jaqueline Simpson and Dr Juliet Wood of the Folklore Society for their thoughtful correspondence during my research on Margaret Murray. In particularly I would like to thank Dr Simpson for her in time and kind assistance when commenting on the first drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Dr Vivianne Crowley, who was my supervisor at Kings College at the time, and who set me the very enjoyable first task of reading up on all of Murray’s work in the old reading room of the British Museum.

One thing I would ask of readers it to please not argue that Margaret Murray was a good scholar of Witchcraft who has ben maligned. Clearly she was not, if you read criticism of her you can see that she was a renowned scholar of Egyptology, but a determinedly bad scholar of Witchcraft, seemingly with an agenda and connection to practising Witches, and that is the fascinating thing. This is the nub of my thought in this paper, that she may have unconsciously or even consciously been determined to write and promote a case for The Old Religion, based upon her own unique experience of the world, her sympathies for ancient religion, her interest in the esoteric, and her feminist views, and to even sacrifice her reputation to do so. I think the clues are there.

A hundred years after the publication of The Witch Cult in Western Europe, A Study in Anthropology increasing amounts of scholars are taking notice of Murray, and reappraising her. I wrote this nearly quarter of a century ago, so it is remarkable how time flies, but gratifying to see that this tiny little woman with her huge heart still fascinates, and is beginning to receive the attention her contribution really deserves, from a wider lense than when she was ferociously putting forth the basis of The Craft we practice today.

Margaret Murray Reappraised

“In all countries and in all periods old age has been credited with wisdom born of experience, and it has always been acknowledged that to women have been given certain gifts which are denied to men. Therefore on account of both sex and age I claim that my opinions may be worth consideration. I claim that I have no more than that gift which is so identified with women that it is known as “a woman’s intuition” (Murray 1963:201)

Margaret Murray, President of the Folklore Society, and former Assistant Professor at University College, London, wrote the foreword to Gerald Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today in 1954, lending it considerable credence. She is often credited as one of the main influences on Gerald Gardner as he brought the “Old Religion” into the modern world. The dubious validity of Gardner’s claims to the antiquity of his religion, and the inaccuracy of Murray’s own research on Witchcraft, has now ceased to cause much debate. Murray seems to have been dismissed altogether, or only deserving a passing mention, by researchers of Wicca in the burgeoning academic interest area of Pagan spirituality. This paper looks a little closer at Murray; her life, her work, her scholarship when writing on Witchcraft, and the underlying influences in her life that may have led to her developing what became know as “the Murrayite Hypothesis”. It also examines the legacy Margaret Murray left for the Pagans of today.

Murray’s Biography

Margaret Alice Murray was born in Calcutta on 13 July 1863. She had a colonial background and exotic upbringing in common with Gardner, enjoying her early childhood in India. Like Gardner her family were of comfortable middle class stock. They were of English and Irish extraction and most of them were involved in business and the church. Her father was a business man who was the three times President on the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce and her mother was a missionary. Her mother was dedicated to the relief of the poor with education and training. Murray remembered her family church members with fondness and said that she was brought up with a great deal of affection. She had a great admiration for her mother’s work.

She spent her childhood and teenage years between India and England, arriving for the first time in England in 1870 when she was left in Lambourn with relatives at the vicarage of her Uncle John, attended by servants and a governess. Murray and her sister, Mary, were brought up within a strongly Christian environment, but in Lambourn they became fascinated by all the legends about the area and the ancient White Horse that is carved into the chalk hillside there. She described in her autobiography how the young Murray sisters would blow through the hole in the pre-Christian stone at Wayland’s Smithy1 that she thought was used to summon villagers to the White Horse2 for special purposes. Even at this early age she was showing a romantic yearning for mythic associations with ancient Pagan sacred sites she already seemed to have been growing to love. She said “I should like to connect it to the dragon mount and the killing of the dragon with the British Pen-Dragon Kings, but we know so little of those early British Celts that this can only be speculation… to hear that strange note on the open downs which were still wild in my day, was an experience never to be forgotten” (Murray 1964:62-63).

Murray’s early career was as a nurse in Calcutta, which was then considered unsuitable employment for young ladies of a certain class. She also worked for a while in the social services at Rugby. She was drawn to the caring professions several times in her life. It was on visiting Mary in 1893 that her sister recommended she went to the classes given on Egyptology by Flinders Petrie at University College London. In January 1894 she started to study Egyptology at University college and became a staunch admirer of Flinders Petrie (later knighted) who became her mentor.

Murray progressed to become a lecturer at University College and subsequently was appointed Assistant Professor of Egyptology; followed by receiving a Fellowship of the University in 1922. She was the President of the Folklore Society between 1953 and 1955. Although remembered now for her controversial witchcraft scholarship the vast body of Margaret Murray’s work is on Ancient Egypt. She also worked on, and wrote about, excavations in Palestine, Malta and Minorca. She was a prolific author with 44 items mentioned in the catalogue of the British Library and many more listed in a bibliography compiled by the Folklore Society. No finite record of her publications is available. In the British Library catalogue she is listed as the primary author of five archaeological books and the secondary author of six further archaeological works and one of folk tales. She published 20 books of her own with several reprints of works on Egyptian grammar, history, and antiques. Her books on the Witchcult were also reprinted with “The God of the Witches” being first printed in 1933 and reprinted in 1952, 1962 and 1970.

Murray’s own beliefs and interests

Murray the feminist

Murray was, in very real terms, a feminist. Having fought to work as a nurse she also struggled against opposition to her early career as an archaeologist. She was encouraged in her work by Petrie, Seligman and Haddon but found opposition to her even writing articles on subjects that were deemed “unpleasant” although exactly the same material was published by men. She continually combated such prejudice.

In 1903 she got involved in the Suffragette movement via contact with Mrs Sheldon Amos the wife of Judge Sheldon Amos who was codifying Egyptian law in Egypt. In her autobiography she described how she took part in processions, and how the movement itself grew and changed, and the effect it had on public consciousness. In 1913 at an archaeological meeting in Birmingham the only other woman hid her face and didn’t talk to anyone but Murray marched in and started to smoke with the men.

In The Genesis of Religion (1963) she talked of the female’s superior intelligence and their essential part in the human races two most urgent drives – self preservation and race preservation. Her rather sexist arguments are interesting to read and must be taken in context of her personality, life experience and the time she was writing, but are further evidence of her commitment to a feminist philosophy.

On the act of self sacrifice of Emily Davidson throwing herself in front of a horse for the suffragette cause she said:

“Every body said that she was unbalanced in her mind, but that is not necessarily true for there is latent in woman that passion of self sacrifice which will make her give her life for a cause or for a person. When a mother sacrifices her life for her children she is held to be one of the noblest creatures on earth, but when a woman sacrifices her life for a cause that is dearer to her than life itself, then she is regarded as unbalanced. But it is the same passion of self sacrifice, and is there in every normal woman” (Murray 1963:168-169).

In The Genesis of Religion. Murray likened the child to the evolving human being, with coherent speech as the outward manifestation of coherent thought, and postulated that the first stage in which man seeks a concept of God could be after developing the above faculties. She drew on contemporary biological and psychological papers for her arguments, and on archaeological finds for her descriptions. Within this framework she explored the idea of the precession of the male deity with the female, and that a female line of descent might have occurred due to the social conditions of settlement, leading to the sole deity of a Goddess who would later became sidelined as the mother of God.

Murray the Theologian

The Genesis of Religion pondered at which stage of development the human mind became aware of the existence of an unseen overruling Power, belief in which Murray considered to be the hall mark of a religion. She outlined a theory of the development of religion along with evolution, that is mirrored by the evolution of the human being from conception to conscious adult. She perceived fear of the violent forces of Nature as the origin of religion, naming Jehovah as a Thunder God and Elijah’s experience of God as wind, earthquakes and fire before the still voice was heard.

Her religious belief was not rooted in any form but in the force of religion itself, this she wrote about with conviction.

“Religion is one of the most important factors in the evolution of the human being. By religion I mean an awareness of an unseen over-ruling Power; the ideas and beliefs regarding that Power and the means used by the human being to compel and persuade that unknown force to grant the appellant’s request, are merely forms of religion and not religion itself. As a student of ancient religion, it seems to me that the forms are not static, but change as man’s knowledge and mental capacity increase. Explanations accounting for the use of the forms become dogmas of each form of religion …But the basis of religion, the fundamental belief in the unseen over-ruling Power never changes…In every form of religion, primitive or advanced, one can see the attempt of the finite mind to explain and understand the Infinite (Murray 1963:196-197).

Murray in defence of Paganism

Murray felt that archaeology and anthropology had served to cause a great change in the feeling of “pitying contempt” held by scholars prior to the advent of such “science” for their stereotype of primitive unenlightened heathens bowing to idols and indulging in devil-worship. She thought that writers on primitive religion did not realise the importance of chronology in their studies, lacked sympathy of feeling for ancient worshippers, and misrepresented what knowledge was available of ancient religions because of the in-built prejudice of their own, usually Christian, upbringings.

She would constantly defend the heathen or Pagan, and point to missing links between ancient and contemporary religious form, ie that tendency remained to define all ancient ritual as fertility rites whilst forgetting Christianity’s own blessings of fields and boats.

It was a theme she constantly repeated in her autobiography. Of archaeology and religion she said:

“When archaeology was in its infancy many mistakes were made, partly from ignorance but also from the fact that little information was to be had on primitive religion or even on the non-Christian forms, and that little was misrepresented by prejudice. It cannot however be too strongly emphasised that religious beliefs are one of the most important factors in the evolution of the human mind. The early writers on primitive beliefs were still under the influence of the form of religion in which they were brought up, and in Europe that was Christianity (Murray 1963:196).

Murray and the Occult

Despite her unorthodox view on primitive and non-Christian religions Murray was quite scathing about the superstitions surrounding Egyptology. She dismissed supernatural occurrences such as the travellers tale of a mummy that was found with its hand around an archaeologist’s neck with straight archaeological facts about the way bodies react to heat and humidity when unwrapped.

On hearing that a blue glazed amulet from the XXVIth dynasty was supposed to produce heat she demanded it from its somewhat relieved owner. She proceeded to get four friends to wear it for one night each on the neck, then the waist, then the ankle. Two friends said that nothing happened and two said that it became so hot that they could not endure it. Murray sent the amulet to be tested for radioactivity at University College London and on finding nothing dismissed the whole affair.

Despite Murray’s complete dismissal of superstition she attempted to find rational scientific explanations for paranormal occurrences. She suggested that thought transference was a natural ability that is being lost due to communication systems such as the telephone, and that ghosts were a phenomena caused by light rays striking certain conditions in the atmosphere. She pointed out that ghosts were usually seen in damp places with least traffic disturbance and said that this was why we never had ancient ghosts but ones from the previous and same century, that ghosts would dissipate in time with movement of the air. She likened them to photographs and used the descriptions of them in the clothing of a certain time as proof for this. She was fully confident that at some time we would have the technology and understanding of X-rays etc. to be able to explain such “photographs”.

It is interesting to note the number of small papers that she published in her life time were on magic. These include The astrological character of Egyptian Magical wands, Egyptian elements in the Grail romance, The Ink Pool (on divination in Egypt), Rhymes and raincharms, Ritual masking. She also published papers on ancient religion such as Priesthoods of women in Egypt, and numerous books on Egyptian religious poetry and artefacts.

Murray was familiar with the practice of divination. In a footnote from a description of divinatory magic in The Splendour that was Egypt (1964 edition) she says “The witch of Endor seems to have followed this practice, which may have been derived from Egypt, so closely does it follow the pattern. She first saw gods ascending out of the earth, then “an old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle”(1 Sam. xxviii.13, 14)”Saul saw nothing himself, the figures were visible only to the seer. In modern divination by the ink-pool servants appear first, then comes the Sultan to answer the questions; and again these figures are visible only to the seer “(Murray 1949[1964]:114)

Murray’s love of the magic of Egypt

Murray spent most of her considerable life studying ancient Egypt, and teaching about life in the one of the most successful and long lived of Pagan civilisations. She was obviously fascinated by the religion of the Egyptians. She felt close to the divine in the ancient temples, and spoke of them with the same fondness with which she reminisced about the ancient sites that had so entranced her during her childhood. She described the experience of being at the Great Temple at Abu Simbel at Dawn as profound and stirring.

In addition to her work on the Temples of Egypt, Murray also published transcriptions of Egyptian religious poetry. She chose a selection of 24 poems for her 1926 book which has samples of a curse, two spells of protection, and something approximating an invocation of Isis. It finishes with a poem on death as life’s crowning achievement, as the vision of a shore to a man who has long been away from his home. It is as potentially useful a work as Charles Leland’s 3Aradia for the creation of witchcraft material but does not contain the commentaries of witchcraft nor the supposed direct link of the latter. Although Murray may not have deliberately chosen to create a proto book of shadows4 with this selection she seems to have had a leaning towards researches of material that many witches of today would be very happy to have in their collection.

Murray and reincarnation

Murray believed in reincarnation, and eventual evolution of the soul, a belief very compatible with those who practice Western Mystery traditions5 today.

“This is the faith in which I face the coming of that passing into the unknown which we call Death. It is that to each human soul there is given a piece of work to do with the choice to accept or refuse. If accepted and carried out to the best of one’s ability the reward will be a removal to some higher sphere of activity and responsibility. If refused, and the soul chooses to go on its own wilful way, it returns again and again until the lesson’s learned. It is my firm belief that, though the physical body may change and decay, and fear that disunion which we call Death, yet the mind and soul of each individual passes on to some higher knowledge, some closer approach to that almighty Power, in which we live and move and have our being” (Murray 1963:205).

Margaret Murray and Witchcraft

By the time the first World War broke Murray was too old join in the war effort, and numbers in her college had substantially dropped. She felt thwarted that the authorities viewed her as too old to help with the war effort but was glad to have been able to work in a French hospital in charge of the linen for while. By 1915 her health was suffering and she was told to go somewhere to rest that was away from anyone she knew. She chose Glastonbury and while there developed an interest in Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail Legend to such an extant that she wrote a paper on the Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance.

She gave the following explanation as to why she started her studies on Witchcraft, and how she began to form her ideas of a Witchcult in Western Europe:

“Someone, I forget who, had once told me that the witches obviously had a special form of religion, for they danced round a black goat. As ancient religion is my pet subject this seemed to be in my line, and during the rest of the war I worked on witches… I started with the usual idea that the witches were all old women, suffering from illusions about the devil and that their persecutors were wickedly prejudiced and perjured… I worked only from contemporary records, and when I realised that the so-called Devil was simply a disguised man I was startled, almost alarmed, by the way the recorded facts fell into place, and showed that witches were members of an old and primitive form of religion. And the records had been made by a new and persecuting form (Murray1963:104)

Murray then researched The Witchcult in Western Europe during what was left of the First World War and published it in 1921. It is interesting to note what she felt about Christian opposition to her work. “The book received a hostile reception from many strictly Christian sects and reviewers, but it made its way in spite of opposition.” (Murray1963:104)

The God of the Witches was published in 1933 and remaindered after two years. She said that this therefore cheapened its price when it was once more available during the second World War, and modestly attributed this, and the fact it made a change from the monotony of other available work at the time, to its later success.

In The Witch Cult in Western Europe, The God of the Witches and The Divine King Murray proposed that a primitive Pagan religion had survived in Western Europe despite Christianity, she called it The Old Religion and proposed a model of a male dominated Witchcraft. Covens were characterised by having a master who was the “Man in black”, often called the Devil, with an initiation that included a renunciation of Christianity, a covenant, a new baptism and the receipt of the Devil’s mark. She depicted the frolics of the Esbat and Sabbat with homage, dancing, music and feasting. Magic practises included rain making, fertility magic and divination. Animal familiars existed and there was a close link between the fairies and the witches. Each book by Murray on Witchcraft became rosier and more Frazerian in outlook, with the witches seeming like bucolic peasants who did no harm, but enjoyed each other’s company in ancient rites (including Regicide) that descended though a lineage that reached back to ancient mystery religions.

Murray seemed as convinced of the existence of this Old Religion as Gardner was when writing his “anthropological” books on Witchcraft. certain excerpts of Gardner’s, regarding witches and fairies for example are almost identical to Margaret Murray’s writings on the same topic. Many of the practises they write about are the same, however there are various crucial differences in the witchcraft they described. Murray’s male oriented, “Devil” lead underground cult is very different from the witchcraft/Goddess spirituality described by Gardner. Both love the idea of the practice of the grand Sabbat and the witch’s initiation but the core practices and theologies described by Gardner and Murray ultimately have very little in common.

Criticism of the Murrayite Hypothesis

Criticism of Murray had been strong even when she first wrote. In the conclusion to the foreword of The God of the Witches (1933) Murray says “I have received many letters containing criticisms, some condemnatory of that book. If other correspondents honour me with similar private criticisms of the present volume, I ask them that they will sign their communication, even when the opinions they express are adverse.” This foreword is not repeated in all the reprints but in her autobiography she sees fit to defend her theory on Joan of Arc as a witch and sacrificial victim with having read the contemporary documents.

In the academic world the reputable C L’Estrange Ewen published a booklet in 1938 called Some Witchcraft Criticisms, A plea for the blue pencil. He said that Murray’s review of his own work on Witchcraft was “consistently capricious and so unreasonable that one cannot but suspect bias. This censorious writer is herself accountable for two essays purporting to relate to witchcraft, and examination reveals them as based on preconceived notions in the explanation of which, fact or fiction is unhesitatingly drawn upon to prop up the vain imaginings.”(L’Estrange 1938:10)

He accused Murray of limiting her research to libraries and points out that other researchers had found her work to be unfounded. He accused her of unwarranted omissions and additions, then said “To be as lenient as possible let us suppose that these miscounts did not arise intentionally but through a lack of the capacity to put two and two together in the method taught at school.” He said that she called for facts when he had proved his but she had not, and wished that her “complacent” reviewers would but “glance at her sources”.(L’Estrange 1938:11). He also warned that reviews such as Murray’s could have a boomerang effect on her own work.

Parrinder (1958), Thomas (1971) and Cohn (1975) all chipped away at the Murrayite othodoxy, and by 1976 Kieckhefer had demonstrated the blatant inaccuracies and deductive leaps in Murray’s reasoning, Monter (1983), Klaits (1985), Levack (1987), Quaife (1987), and Hutton (1991) have all shown how Margaret Murray’s work on Witchcraft cannot be used to authenticate anything, let alone an Old Religion, hidden for centuries which finally surfaced as the Gardnerian Wicca of today.

Whilst in 1922 Halliday criticised Murray in Folklore, a continuing association of Murray’s Witchcraft myth with the Folklore Society via Gardner has lead to Murray’s work has become known as “the Folklorist hypothesis” This irritates professional folklorists. In a 1994 research article on Margaret Murray for Folklore, the Journal of the Folklore society, the then President of the Society Dr Jaqueline Simpson said:

“No folklorist can remember Dr Margaret Murray without embarrassment and a sense of paradox. She is one of the few folklorists whose name became widely known to the public, but among scholars her reputation is deservedly low; her theory that witches were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult through the centuries is now seen to be based on deeply flawed methods and illogical arguments. The fact that, in her old age and after three increasingly eccentric books she was made President of the Folklore Society, must certainly have harmed the reputation of the Society and possibly the status of folklorists in this country; it helps to explain the mistrust some historians still feel towards our discipline. It is disturbing to see one speaking of “the folklorist or Murrayite” interpretation of witchcraft as if the two words were synonymous, and all folklorists espoused her views (Russell 1980, 41)…she wrote only one substantial article on witches for Folklore (in 1917), the reviews of her books that appeared were far from enthusiastic, and as far as can now be seen the only member of the Folklore Society to adopt her theory wholeheartedly was the very untypical Gerald Gardner, founder of the Wicca movement.” Simpson (1994:89)

Simpson points out the review of Murray’s work in Folklore in 1922 by W B Halliday and concludes “her characteristic faults were obvious from the start even without the detailed knowledge which modern scholars have added to this field.”…” Murray wilfully ignored the clear evidence of her own sources” and that her manipulations “were sometimes so blatant as to be naive”. Simpson points out Murray’s “passionate system building (of) Rites of initiation, dates for festivals, rituals, discipline and hierarchy within covens” (Simpson 1994:92).

She says “Cohn is rightly scathing about the dishonesty, but a folklorist has further reason to be angry, for the phrase she suppressed is a vital clue to the true nature of the story offered in evidence at the trial.” (Simpson 1994:91). She points out the damage Murray did to the credibility of Folklore by having been President of the Society; leaving outsiders to see all folklorists as Murrayites. It seems from Dr Simpson’s article that Murray, quite the opposite from representing folklorists was actually committing errors within the discipline, which demands extremely careful examination of old documents for themes and motifs and cross references in a way that is almost diametrically opposite to what Murray did with her witchcraft sources.

“It looks as if British Folklorists allowed Murray’s views to pass unproved but unchallenged, either out of politeness or because nobody was really interested in the topic” and “The impression of politely muted reservations is reinforced by the autumn issue of folklore 1961, a Festschrift for Murray’s 98th Birthday, which is significant for what it does not contain….. There are papers on archaeology, on fairies, on Near Eastern religious symbols, on Greek folksongs – but nothing on Witchcraft itself.” (Simpson 1994:94)

Reframing Margaret Murray

The “Murrayite hypothesis” is definitely not a “Folklorist hypothesis”. It is abhorrent to most historians, folklorists, anthropologists and scholars of comparative religions. Wiccan scholars, and those studying Nature Religions today must be careful with their terminology. Folklore is an art and a science of its own, and Murray has long been a discredit to them. But is that then the end of Margaret Murray, or is it perhaps a new beginning?

Simpson writes:

“One further feature of Murray’s writings which exasperated the academic mind may, perversely, add to their impact on uncritical readers. I refer to the inclusion of many chunks of miscellaneous material from a huge hotch potch where a Palaeolithic cave painting, an Egyptian mask and the Dorset Ooser all are said to represent the same Horned God, and where Robin Hood, Fairies, scrying, Merlin, Norse seers and Celtic Saints are all swept up into the discussion”. (Simpson 1994:94).

This flaw has in fact entranced generations of readers. The Godof the Witches was first printed in 1933 and reprinted in 1952, 1962 and 1970, and the Witch Cult in Western Europe was reprinted in 1962. Second hand impressions of Murray’s books are still sought after and sell well in second hand shops and occult bookstores still get requests for the work of Margaret Murray.

She managed to capture the imaginations of the common reader who loves the connections between Robin Hood, fairies, magic, witches and all the Old Gods of their childhood bedtime reading. She brought alive a world of make believe, where folklore and myth mingle with history in a readable, pseudo history that has enough real history in it to anchor it in times and dates and snippets of reality; in Le Roy Ladurie’s words “sound inspiration and near nonsense are mingled.” (Ladurie 1987:7) And in the mingling Murray wove an enduring magic.

The Legacy of Margaret Murray

No Wiccans today believe the Murray Myth, or that Wicca is a direct descendant of an ancient Pagan Religion, but most believe Wicca is able to provide its adherents with genuine mystical experience via ritual that bases itself on ancient Pagan religion and collected witchy folklore. Most see it as either a revived religion or a way for the future rather than a part of the past.

Margaret Murray has been criticised for emotionalism but that emotionalism can fan the flame of inspiration. She has been accused of turning information upside down and creating the benevolent witch bestowing fertility a la Frazer ( Simpson 1994:92) which she does, but in doing so rehabilitates the crone of the fairy tales and gives the reader a living fairy godmother planted somewhere in real history. She gives the reader the possibility of people who performed magic for good reasons, a possibility of people who despite oppression remained honourable, powerful and even in dying under torture went for their Gods and for their people with noblesse, and in amongst that she even gave us real fairies. It is a potent mixture that captures the hearts and imaginations of many people, especially those who would not be disappointed if it was true.

Arguments about the history of witch hunters, witch beliefs and witch history have abounded within the Pagan world, but in the space between the worlds that is a magic circle, in a time between time when myth becomes a reality and the real world has long faded, people who have never read Murray’s work sit by those who have, and those who feel that Gardner probably made it all up, and sing songs such as “the Burning Times”. This was written in 1970 by Charlie Murphy, long after the works of an impressive list of experts had exposed Murray’s myth forever, and even longer after the first wave of criticism of Murray’s work by the historians and folklorists of her time. The lack of historical veracity in the Murphy song is possibly worse than Murray’s, but no-one singing it seems to give a damn.

The Burning Times

In the cool of the evening they used to gather
Neath the stars in the meadow circled
near an old oak tree
At the time appointed by the seasons of
the earth and the phases of the moon
In the centre often stood a woman, equal with
the others and respected for her worth
One of the many we call the witches, the
healers and the teachers of the wisdom of the earth
The people grew in the knowledge
she gave them
Herbs to heal their bodies
spells to make their spirits whole
Hear them chanting healing incantations,
Calling on the wise ones
Celebrating in dance and song…

Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana

There were those who came to power through domination
They were bonded to their worship to a dead man on a cross
They sought control of the common people
By demanding allegiance to the church of Rome
The Pope declared the inquisition
It was a war against the women
whose powers they feared
In this holocaust against the Nature People
nine million European women died.

And the tale is told
Of those, who by the hundreds
holding hands together
chose their deaths in the sea,
while chanting the praises of the mother Goddess,
it was a refusal of betrayal
women where dying to be free.

Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana

Now the earth is a Witch
and the men still burn her
stripping her down with mining and the poison of their wars
still to us, the earth is a healer, a teacher, a mother
A weaver of the web of life that keeps us all alive.
She gives us the vision to see through the chaos
She gives us the courage
It is our Will to survive.

Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana
Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana
Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana

The selective and subjective “truth” of this song shows a different sort of history. The prevalent themes in this song, and others of its ilk, show how the history of the Witch cult of Western Europe has changed with the times, has evolved with the consciousness of its practitioners and is a mirror of dreams and struggles for our advancement into the Aquarian age.

The final verse is rather indicative of the ecological, holistic approach that typifies Pagan religion and is anthemic in the same way as “Jerusalem” by Blake is anthemic. It is a bonding song for singing around the campfire leaving the worries of modern living behind and meeting in an equal, caring environment where one can assume a witch-name, an alter ego in the dark of the night under a full moon. The anti Christian element is anti religion and oppression, and pro individual worship and personal freedom rather than a theological assault on another religious path.

In the years between Murray and Murphy the spoken and written mythos of Witchcraft has changed from a folkloric description of a male dominated Devil’s Sabbat to an empowering feminist mythos describing the glamour of a matriarchal Golden Age; this in turn has been absorbed and more recently replaced by the Gaea hypothesis, in which the witches perceive themselves as being both the weavers of the web of life and the web itself. This paradigm nestles comfortably with the internet and the connective superstring of the quantum scientist. The need for validation of historical descent from witch covens of yore has been superseded by the satisfaction of its practitioners that Wicca is a very fulfilling religious path in the eco-conscious and egalitarian end of the twentieth century.

Despite the obvious conspiracy theories there is no evidence yet that Gardner or Murray knew each other well. They were indeed both in the Folklore Society, but Murray was very old and not very involved at the time she wrote the foreword to Witchcraft Today. Nor if they met, is the Folklore society necessarily the best place to look for the links between Murray and Gardner. Gardner was on one of Petrie’s digs in 1932. He was given a letter of introduction to Sir Flinders from McAlpine Woods having established the “foundation of an archaeological reputation” with his own work in Malaysia. He was encouraged in his work by Petrie and “learned from the master a great deal about the latest techniques” (Bracelin 1960:137 – 138). It is entirely possible that Petrie, Murray’s friend and mentor, introduced Gardner or spoke of him to Murray, a long time before Gardner’s first book was published. But Gardner is not the only link; the Daily Mail of November 15 1963 noted her death and that she died four months after her autobiography was published. It quoted her as saying “some of my best friends aren’t witches, but on the other hand some of my casual acquaintances are.”

Murray’s avowed disbelief in the “occult” must preclude us from imagining that she was ever involved in magickal orders or occult lodges. However this blanket dismissal of the occult sits uneasily with her interests and her vast knowledge of things that are often termed “occult”. Not only was she a firm believer in parapsychology she showed deep astrological knowledge. In The Astrological Character of the Egyptian Magical Wands she linked the number of images to do with birth and the astrological nature of Egyptian wands in a deductive leap; but the argument she made was a fascinating play of correspondences more usually associated with a magician’s musings than a paper on archaeology.

Simpson’s article on Murray has quotes from Hilda Davidson who knew Murray in her old age and said “She behaved in fact rather like someone who was a fully convinced member of some unusual religious sect, or perhaps, of the Freemasons, but never on any account got into arguments about it in public.”(Simpson 1994:89)

Other avenues of exploration tantalise the researcher: Could the rumour she was a traditional witch, which sometimes circulates around the occult world, be true6? Why did Margaret Murray choose to stay at Glastonbury when she had to recover during the first world war? She gave no explanation of this choice of a place considered by many to be the spiritual centre of Britain, the seat of Avalon, linked to the Arthurian myths, loved and immortalised by such seminal occultists as Dion Fortune, and latter-day site of new age pilgrimage? She was obviously aware of the legends surrounding the place, and fascinated enough to research the story of Joseph of Arimathea who legend tells brought the holy thorn and holy grail to Britain after the death of Christ. Her autobiography does not deal with this, nor why she chose to study what for many has become the founding legends of Celtic Christianity, but it was here that Murray also began to research Witchcraft.

All these are fascinating questions to ask in continuing search for the roots of modern Wicca.

If the same vision or “intuition” guided both Gardner and Murray we do not have to necessarily contemplate a deliberate conspiracy, but can almost certainly conclude that Gardner and Murray were both key players in the zeitgeist that spawned the modern Pagan revival. Whether in Murray’s case this was unconsciously or consciously motivated leaves a final compelling question which as yet remains unanswered.

The last words of Margaret Murray’s autobiography, are remarkably Pagan, and perhaps the final justification, conscious, or unconscious, of her part in the creation of Wicca.

“And I have seen the beginnings of the change in all the chief religions of the world, a change which was noticed, though not emphasised by many writers at the end of the last century, but is now visible throughout the world… Our view of that Almighty Power which rules the universe must necessarily alter as our conception of the universe is altering. Each step in advance which increases our knowledge of the material world must bring us a little nearer to that great Power, which science calls Nature and religion calls God…But the most important role that I have played in this great advance, though I cannot claim that it has been more than a minor one, is shown in my interpretation of the beliefs and ceremonies of certain ancient forms of religion” (Murray 1963:204).

As Simpson says, Murray’s work on Witchcraft consisted of “passionate system building (of) Rites of initiation, dates for festivals, rituals, discipline and hierarchy within covens” (Simpson 1994:92). In doing so she wove of one of the greatest folk stories of all time. The myth she wove at the expense of her reputation allowed Wicca to grow secure in its cocoon of mysterious antiquity. It gave Gardner vital support as he introduced Wicca to the world. The myth they both wove endured until the historical glamour was shed and Wiccans began to no longer claim themselves initiates of a tradition that is a remnant of a past; but to proclaim themselves as initiates of a religion of the future which answers spiritual needs of the new Millennium.


Cohn N (1976) Europe’s inner demons: An enquiry inspired by the great Witch-Hunt. Paladin Press St Albans.

Ewen C L’Estrange (1938) Some Witchcraft Criticisms, a plea for the blue pencil. Self published.

Hutton R (1991) the Pagan religions of the ancient British Isles. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Kieckhefer R European (1976) Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Learned and Popular Culture 1300 -1500.Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

Klaits J (1985) Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch-hunts. Indiana University Press

Ladurie E Le Roy (1966) Les Paysans du Languedoc. Guallimard, Paris

Leland C G (1899) Aradia or The gospel of the Witches. Private reprint, publisher unknown.

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Meaden G T (1991) The Goddess of the Stones. The Language of the Megaliths. Souvenir Press. London>

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Murray M A (1910) National Museum of Science and Art, Dublin. General Guide to the Art Collections Part III – Egyptian Antiquities. > Cahill and Co, Dublin

Murray M A (1926) Egyptian Poems (rendered into English verse from the originals) Arthur H Stockwell Ltd, London

Murray M A (1931) Egyptian Temples. Parnell and Sons, London.

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1 Wayland’s Smithy is a neolithic chambered tomb, probably dating from the earlier half of the Sub-Boreal period. It consists of an earthen mound containing a passage with the entrance guarded by large stones and is on the Ridgeway track east of Swindon. This ancient track passes between the Iron Age Uffington Hill fort and the White Horse.

2The White Horse of Uffington is situated on the North side of the Berkshire Downs, in Oxfordshire. It has been given various dates but at the time of writing Swindon tourist board were suggesting that it was cut into the chalk sometime before 871 AD.

3Aradia The Gospel of the Witches was recorded by Leland from an informant who claimed it was the witch lore of the Tuscan practitioners of “The Old Religion”. It contains material which is similar to a small proportion of the ritual texts of modern day Wicca.

4The Book of Shadows is the “recipe” book a witch copies by hand from his or her initator. It consists of poetry, invocations, texts on magick, and formulae for spells.

5“The Western Mystery Tradition” is a term which has quite wide meaning. Specifically it can refer to occult groups who practice a philosophy and magick based on the mystical Hebrew Kabala, generally it can refer to any Westerner who follows an esoteric philosophy which is not based on any of the more usual eastern sources of enlightenment. The Order of the Golden Dawn, is one example of an Order which based its teaching on the Western Mysteries.

6This rumour has been given credence by a few people who claim to be traditional witches. However it is yet to be substantiated, nor has ever been discussed in any detail.

Bio: Melissa Harrington has a lifelong interest in consciousness, myth and magic, which led her to Wiccan initiation in 1989. Originally initiated into Alexandrian and Gardnerian lineage she enjoyed the rich London occult scene and  worked with traditional and shamanic practitioners, as well as receiving initiation into The Rainbow Bridge, a magical group run by the High Priest and High Priestess of the Bricket Wood coven, and into the OTO. Melissa became the secretary of Shemesh Lodge, the Mistress of the London OTO body, a Priestess of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, and regular invited speaker at the Thelemic Symposium, as well as being a popular speaker/workshop leader at many Pagan and Magical events and conferences.

One of Melissa’s key interests is the performance of ritual, from personal devotions to experimentally transcending the boundaries between outer forms to facilitate common communion with the divine. She is a sought-after ritual leader in Europe and Scandinavia where she has led firewalks for over 200 people, melded different traditions into coherent group rituals, and explored adapting the work of magical forebears. She is delighted to have crafted Thelemic rituals usually operated by one person into successful open Pagan rituals, and to have achieved dramatic metaphysical phenomena within some public circles.

Melissa has been a supporter of Pagan advocacy since initiation and has held many leadership roles within the Pagan Federation, of which she remains a conference organiser and council member. She is  also a Trustee of PFI/ Pagan Federation International Foundation, and The Pagan Seminary which launched in 2019.

Melissa’s interests led her to do a degree in psychology, and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, in which she studied Wicca from the perspective of New Religious Movements. She has been invited to publish in both Pagan and academic press, including autobiographical chapters in both publishing milieux.

Silver Circle Autumn online gathering, September 5, 2021

The following speakers joined us for the Silver Circle Autumn Online Gathering Rhys Chisnall, Melissa Harrington and Thorn Nightwind. .. Melissa talked about Margaret Murray, who she described as being ‘an important influence in the foundation myth of Wicca, and in supporting Gerald Gardner’s claims of having found The Old Religion’. She spoke of Margaret’s ‘fascinating life, her childhood in India and her love of Britain’s ancient monuments and Pagan past, her career as an Egyptologist and her support of women’s’ suffrage’. She then described ‘how these influences coalesced in her famous writings on Witches, which became the early bedrock of the Wiccan religion, then were wholly discredited and much maligned’.

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