Mother of The Witches? The Influence, Legacy and Lies of Margaret Murray.
Imagine. It’s 1929, you are representing the Encyclopaedia Brtiannica and are looking around for someone to write the entry on witchcraft. Who do you ask? A historian with expertise in the witch trials that tormented Europe for centuries? Perhaps a folklorist with a noted background in the academic study of the occult? Or maybe, an Egyptologist.
The last of these suggestions might seem a bit frivolous, but in 1929 that is exactly what everyone’s favourite pre-internet source of information did (proving in the process that even pre wikipedia encyclopaedia’s could be a hotbed of spurious information). The Egyptologist in question was Margret Murray. Operating well outside of her usual field, Ms. Murray enthusiastically took up the invitation and her entry on witchcraft remained in the encyclopaedia for the next forty years. As such, it had a massive influence upon the mainstream understanding of European witchcraft and its origins.
The entry, which echoed much of what Murray had put forward in her 1921 book ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ explained how witchcraft had been a surviving pagan cult. This cult, which which had resisted the oppressive imposed orthodoxy of christianity and survived through whispered practices and clandestine meetings, was centred around the worship of a horned God. It had a codified system of rituals, hierarchy and festivals just like an established religion and was essentially a misunderstood fertility cult that foregrounded a love of nature. Except, it wasn’t.
Unfortunately, there were two major problems with this entry, The first was that it was nonsense.
Despite being written with authority and presented as established historical fact. The vision of witchcraft and its history contained within Murray’s contribution was not, in reality, agreed upon or indeed factual at all. Instead, it was simply the opinion and theory of a certain Ms Murray presented as fact. Dismissed by historians as being “amateurish, absurd” “bereft of scientific merit,” and as “vapid balderdash” Murray’s theories are now seen as poorly researched and based upon huge, unsubstantiated intellectual leaps of faith. The source material upon which she based her theories has been labelled as either massively disparate and unconnected, or cynically and myopically manipulated and edited by Ms Murray to fit with her arguments and agenda.
Not that any of this mattered. After all, it was in the Encyclopaedia, it must be true. Which brings us to the second problem with this entry – the fact that people believed it.
Ask most people with an interest in the occult, or even the average joe on the street who has seen a horror movie or two, ‘how many people make up a witches coven?’ and most will happily give you Thirteen as the required number. What most will not be able to give you however, is the origin of the idea that thirteen is the magic number. Few will even imagine that the requirement for a coven to have this number was an invention by one Margret Murray, based upon a single source or that the word ‘coven’ itself was pretty much introduced into English usage by Murray.
Whilst this in itself may not be a big deal, it illustrates just how influential Murray’s flawed ideas were on popular notions of the figure of the witch and the history of witchcraft in general. Arguably, Murray’s most influential contribution to sculpting the mainstream vision of witches however, is how appealing she made that vision sound. In an astonishing feat of logical gymnastics, Murray decided that the accusations against witches were clearly designed to discredit them and so their actual practices must have been the exact opposite. She therefore proposed a vision of the witch which was exactly inverted from the vision that haunted the nightmares of their accusers.
Rather than blighting crops and killing livestock the inverted vision of the witches paints them as a fertility cult. This notion of witchcraft as a surviving ‘fertility cult’ that worshiped and glorified nature and natural processes gained even greater prominence when it was adopted and codified by Gerald Gardner as the foundation for what was to become the religion of Wicca.
Gardner, who would have been a personal acquaintance of Murray, (they both having been members of The Folklore Society and she, aged 93, having written the introduction to his book Witchcraft Today) lent great confirmative authority to Murray’s ideas by claiming to have experienced first hand the kind of witch cult Murray spoke of. According to his account he was initiated into a coven strikingly similar to those described by Murray during a ceremony in The New Forest and it was the practices of that group, to which he then became privy, that later formed the basis of ‘Wicca’.
Interestingly, many modern biographers of Murray point out that unlike Gardner, she gave no credence to the supernatural elements associated with witches and instead regarded them simply as a subject of (albeit rather lax) academic study. There are of course many differences between Gardner’s Wicca and the theories put forward by Murray in her books. Not least of which is the primacy that Gardner affords to the female deity by contrast to the male ‘horned god’ that was central to Murray’s thesis (Gardener initial had the male at the centre but later revised this in favour of a more feminine oriented model).
What is clear, is that whilst the scholarly study of the history and traditions of witchcraft left Murray behind long ago, the influence that her ideas and misconceptions had upon the modern mainstream perception of witchcraft and witches has been hard to shake off. It is a strange paradox that Murray wrote about a witch cult from the past that existed only in her imagination and in the process, gave birth to a witch religion that would exist in reality, long after her death.
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