Just under a century ago, in 1921, one of the strangest books ever to be published by Oxford University Press appeared in print: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Alice Murray. By today’s academic standards—in fact, even by the standards of the 1920s—Murray’s book was filled with transparent flaws in methodology and research. Furthermore, the book’s author (a leading Egyptologist) was not qualified to write it. The few scholars then working on the history of European witchcraft dismissed Murray’s contribution. Yet in spite of this, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe became an instant hit and captured the imaginations of readers. Within three decades, the book had not only profoundly influenced cultural understandings of witchcraft, but also directly led to the rise of neopaganism and the foundation of a new religion, Wicca, that today has millions of adherents throughout the world.
Margaret Alice Murray (1863–1963) was born and brought up in British India—an upbringing that, as with so many Anglo-Indians of the nineteenth century, may have opened her mind to interests beyond Victorian culture. Determined to pursue a career of her own at a time when opportunities for women were limited, Murray tried out both nursing and social work before entering the progressive University College London in 1894, where she studied Egyptology under W. Flinders Petrie. Murray rapidly rose through the academic ranks, and by 1914, she was effectively running the Egyptology department. Her impressive achievements in advancing knowledge of ancient Egypt and higher education for women have, however, been largely overshadowed by her decision to take a detour into writing about European witchcraft.
In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Murray seized on some unusual testimonies in 16th-century Scottish witch trials to elaborate a radical theory: She claimed that what medieval and early modern people called witchcraft was, in fact, the last traces of a pagan fertility cult that originated in the Neolithic period. The witch trials of the 15th–17th centuries represented Christianity’s last attempt to stamp out this cult, which was practiced in secret covens (groups of thirteen people) who worshipped a horned god (who was mistaken for the devil). Knowledge of this cult was passed through families or, occasionally, to new initiates, but kept secret from the outside world.
Murray’s use of a single set of problematic sources from one country (Scotland) to argue that a previously unnoticed religion had existed since prehistory failed to meet basic historiographical and anthropological standards of research. She was given to making huge conceptual leaps on the basis of contentious interpretations of meager evidence. Using a small range of hostile trial records designed to discredit women accused of witchcraft (along with testimonies extracted under torture), Murray reconstructed what she believed were real religious practices lurking behind the demonological construct of the Witches’ Sabbath. In so doing, she brought together traditions of interpretation honed by the anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854–1941), the author of The Golden Bough, and the French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874). Murray followed Michelet in arguing that those accused of witchcraft were not the innocent victims of trumped-up charges, but were in fact adherents of a subversive cult; and she followed Frazer in her belief that prehistoric religious beliefs, associated with fertility, had survived into recent times.
Murray’s engaging prose style, her marshalling of apparent evidence, and her impressive academic credentials overawed her non-specialist readers and drowned out the skeptical voices of scholars far better versed in the history of witchcraft than she. Murray was lauded by the Folklore Society (she became its president in the 1950s) and, crucially, authored the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Witchcraft.” In an age when the Encyclopedia Britannica was considered a definitive reference work, Murray managed to imprint her highly eccentric view of witchcraft as a secret fertility religion on the popular imagination.
Although Murray herself never asserted that the witch-cult still existed, she never set a clear limit to its survival, either—and it was a small leap for someone to assert that the witch-cult still existed in 20th-century England. That someone was Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964), a retired tea plantation manager who, in 1951, announced to the British press that the witch-cult described by Murray still existed, and that he had been initiated into it. The religion of Wicca, whose adherents join covens and worship a goddess and a horned god, was born. Murray herself—by then a veteran scholar in her nineties—did not take issue with Gardner’s claims; her own publications had become progressively more eccentric, culminating with The Divine King in England (1954), in which she argued that every major political assassination in English history had been a ritual sacrifice orchestrated by covens of witches. In her correspondence Murray even mentioned practicing witchcraft herself, although it is unclear how seriously she took such experiments.
While Margaret Murray was by no means a founder or adherent of Wicca, the religion to which her writings gave birth, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe inspired the now global phenomenon of neopaganism. There can be no doubt that Murray had a brilliant scholarly imagination—too brilliant, perhaps, for the serious flaws in her reasoning to be seen by many. While few Wiccans and neopagans now believe literally that their religion has existed since prehistory, Murray’s legacy persists in the strange idea that witchcraft was a religion, an idea long since debunked by historians of witchcraft. It is ironic that this idea, devised by a feminist historian, often eclipses the reality that the accusation of witchcraft was a misogynistic construct weaponized against innocent women. Murray’s unsubstantiated claim that these women practiced a secret pagan religion was, ultimately, a calumny against the victims of a dark era of misogynistic violence.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.
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