Today is the birthday (1863) of Margaret Alice Murray, an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom, working at University College London (UCL) from 1898 to 1935. She served as president of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955, and published widely over the course of her career.
Murray was born to a wealthy middle-class English family in Calcutta, in British India, and divided her youth between India, Britain, and Germany, training as both a nurse and a social worker. She moved to London in 1894 and began studying Egyptology at UCL, developing a friendship with department head Flinders Petrie, who encouraged her early academic publications and appointed her to a lectureship in 1898. In 1902–03 she took part in Petrie’s excavations at Abydos, Egypt, there discovering the Osireion temple and the following season investigated the Saqqara cemetery, both of which established her reputation in Egyptology
Murray also became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and devoting much time to improving women’s status at UCL. Unable to return to Egypt due to the First World War, she focused her research on the witch-cult hypothesis, the theory that the witch trials of early modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. The theory gained widespread attention and proved a significant influence on the emerging new religious movement of Wicca, even though it was thoroughly discredited in academic circles. Let me pause and take a general step back here before I delve the details of Murray and Wicca.
I’ve spoken countless times in these pages about the huge chasm between contemporary popular belief about the survival of a supposed ancient British pagan cult into the modern era via folk customs and actual documentary evidence of such. There is ZERO evidence of such an hypothesis, but it won’t die. If you want to dress up in costumes and dance around Stonehenge on the summer solstice, sing hymns to the sun at dawn on May 1st, or light bonfires on hilltops on Halloween (or whatever) – go right ahead. I’ve done many similar things myself in the past. They can be a lot of fun. As far as I am concerned people can do what they want, but they are not free to assert that what they are doing is a remnant of a pagan past. That assertion lacks any credibility or proof. Of course, they can believe whatever they wish, but in this case their beliefs have no merit.
An analogy might be useful here. Christianity is built on ancient texts written in classical Hebrew and Greek millennia ago. One of those texts is the book of Genesis which recounts at the beginning how God created the universe in 6 days (which by relatively modern calculations is reckoned to have occurred a few thousand years ago). Some Christians accept this account as the literal truth, but many (perhaps most) see the story as a useful device in the pursuit of a certain kind of faith, but not to be taken as genuine history. I see the story of Wicca being the survival of an ancient fertility cult centered on a horned god as being of the same order as the Genesis story of creation. Believe it if you want, but it has no basis in credible history.
The witch-cult hypothesis proposes that the witch trials of the early modern period in the West were an attempt to suppress a pre-Christian, pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. According to its proponents, this witch-cult revolved around the worship of a Horned God of fertility whom the Christian persecutors referred to as the Devil, and whose cult members participated in nocturnal rites at the witches’ Sabbath in which they venerated this deity. The hypothesis was pioneered by German scholars Karl Ernst Jarcke and Franz Josef Mone in the early 19th century, before being adopted by the French historian Jules Michelet, U.S. feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and U.S. folklorist Charles Leland later in that century. The hypothesis received its most prominent exposition when adopted by Margaret Murray, who presented her version of it first in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and later in The God of the Witches (1931) and in her contribution to the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Murray’s witch-cult theories provided the blueprint for the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, with Murray often being referred to as the “Grandmother of Wicca.” Her narrative was the one around which Wicca built itself in England during the 1940s and 1950s with Wicca claiming to be the survival of this witch-cult.
In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) Murray stated that she had restricted her research to Great Britain, although made some recourse to sources from France, Flanders, and New England. She drew a division between what she termed “Operative Witchcraft”, which referred to the performance of charms and spells with any purpose, and “Ritual Witchcraft”, by which she meant “the ancient religion of Western Europe”, a fertility-based faith that she also termed “the Dianic cult.” She claimed that the cult had very probably once been devoted to the worship of both a male deity and a “Mother Goddess” but that “at the time when the cult is recorded the worship of the male deity appears to have superseded that of the female.” In her argument, Murray claimed that the figure referred to as the Devil in the trial accounts was the witches’ god, “manifest and incarnate,” to whom the witches offered their prayers. She claimed that at the witches’ meetings, the god would be personified, usually by a man or at times by a woman or an animal.
According to Murray, members joined the cult either as children or adults through what Murray called “admission ceremonies.” She asserted that applicants had to agree to join of their own free will, and agree to devote themselves to the service of their deity. She also claimed that in some cases, these individuals had to sign a covenant or were baptized into the faith. At the same time, she claimed that the religion was largely passed down hereditary lines. Murray described the religion as being divided into covens containing thirteen members, led by a coven officer who was often termed the “Devil” in the trial accounts, but who was accountable to a “Grand Master.” According to Murray, the records of the coven were kept in a secret book, with the coven also disciplining its members, to the extent of executing those deemed traitors.
Murray called this witch-cult “a joyous religion” claiming that the two primary festivals that it celebrated were on May Eve and November Eve, with other dates of religious observation being 1st February and 1st August, the winter and summer solstices, and Easter. She asserted that the “General Meeting of all members of the religion” were known as Sabbaths, while the more private ritual meetings were known as Esbats. The Esbats, Murray claimed, were nocturnal rites that began at midnight, and were “primarily for business, whereas the Sabbath was purely religious”. At the former, magical rites were performed both for malevolent and benevolent ends. She also asserted that the Sabbath ceremonies involved the witches paying homage to the deity, renewing their “vows of fidelity and obedience” to him, and providing him with accounts of all the magical actions that they have conducted since the previous Sabbath. Once this business had been concluded, admissions to the cult or marriages were conducted, ceremonies and fertility rites took place, and then the Sabbath ended with feasting and dancing.
Murray called Ritual Witchcraft “a fertility cult” and she asserted that many of its rites were designed to ensure fertility and rain-making. She claimed that there were four types of sacrifice performed by the witches: blood-sacrifice, in which the neophyte writes their name in blood, the sacrifice of animals, the sacrifice of a non-Christian child to procure magical powers, and the sacrifice of the witches’ god by fire to ensure fertility. She interpreted accounts of witches’ shapeshifting into various animals as being representative of a rite in which the witches dressed as specific animals which they took to be sacred. She asserted that accounts of familiars were based on the witches’ use of animals, which she divided into “divining familiars” used in divination and “domestic familiars” used in other magic rites.
Murray asserted that a pre-Christian fertility-based religion had survived the Christianization process in Britain, although that it came to be “practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community.” She believed that folk stories of fairies in Britain were based on a surviving race of “dwarfs” who continued to live on the island up until the early modern period. She asserted that this race followed the same pagan religion as the witches, thus explaining the folkloric connection between the two. In the appendices to the book, she also alleged that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were members of the witch-cult and were executed for it.
In The God of the Witches she began to refer to the witches’ deity as the Horned God, and asserted that it was an entity who had been worshipped in Europe since the Paleolithic. She further asserted that in the Bronze Age, the worship of the deity could be found throughout Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, claiming that the depiction of various horned figures from these societies proved that. Among the evidence cited were the horned figures found at Mohenjo-Daro, which are often interpreted as depictions of Pashupati, as well as the deities Osiris and Amon in Egypt and the Minotaur of Minoan Crete. Within continental Europe, she claimed that the Horned God was represented by Pan in Greece, Cernunnos in Gaul, and in various Scandinavian rock carvings. Claiming that this divinity had been declared the Devil by the Christian authorities, she nevertheless asserted that his worship was testified in officially Christian societies right through to the modern period, citing folk practices such as the Dorset Ooser and the Puck Fair as evidence of his veneration.
In 1954, she published The Divine King in England, in which she greatly extended on the theory, taking in influence from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which made the claim that societies all over the world sacrificed their kings to the deities of nature. In her book, she claimed that this practice had continued into medieval England, and that, for instance, the death of William II was really a ritual sacrifice
Contemporary historian Ronald Hutton has suggested that Murray’s theory was popular in some quarters because it “appealed to so many of the emotional impulses of the age,” including “the notion of the English countryside as a timeless place full of ancient secrets,” the literary popularity of Pan, the widespread belief that the majority of British had remained pagan long after the process of Christianization, and the idea that folk customs represented pagan survivals (my own personal crusade to debunk).
Murray’s theories never received support from experts in the early modern witch trials, nor from folklorists and anthropologists. All her publications are littered with factual errors and methodological problems. She drew sweeping conclusions from limited primary evidence which she carefully selected whilst ignoring anything that disagreed with her thesis, she took data out of cultural context, and she made over general assumptions about the nature of pre-Christian Britain. Pre-Christian Britain was hardly a monolithic culture as she claimed it was. The people spoke a number of different languages and came from widely different backgrounds: Celtic, Germanic, Norse etc. Furthermore, she succumbed to what I call the “folk gap” fallacy, that is, somehow “pagan” practices survived in Britain for 1,000 years from ancient times to the Middle Ages with no documentary evidence whatsoever. These practices were supposedly all guardedly secret and buried deep. You can’t rule this assertion out of course, but I (and all serious scholars) find it hard to believe. It is also hard to believe, as Murray claimed, that the majority of Britons in the Middle Ages remained pagan.
Murray’s work was almost entirely ignored by historians and anthropologists as being too faulty to be worthy of comment. Murray for her part did not respond directly to the criticisms of her work, but believed that her critics were simply acting out of their own Christian prejudices to non-Christian religion. Definitive academic rejection of the witch-cult theory occurred during the 1970s. A variety of scholars across Europe and North America – including Alan Macfarlane, Erik Midelfort, William Monter, Robert Muchembled, Gerhard Schormann, Bente Alver and Bengt Ankarloo – published in-depth studies of the archival records from the witch trials, leaving no doubt that those tried for witchcraft were not practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion. Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander in 2007 wrote:
That this ‘old religion’ persisted secretly, without leaving any evidence, is, of course, possible, just as it is possible that below the surface of the moon lie extensive deposits of Stilton cheese. Anything is possible. But it is nonsense to assert the existence of something for which no evidence exists. The Murrayites ask us to swallow a most peculiar sandwich: a large piece of the wrong evidence between two thick slices of no evidence at all.
During the 1940s and 1950s in Britain, Wicca emerged claiming to be a survival of Murray’s witch-cult (with some other influences as well). Wicca’s theological structure, revolving around a Horned God and Mother Goddess, was adopted from Murray’s ideas about the ancient witch-cult, and Wiccan groups were named covens and their meetings termed esbats, both words that Murray had popularized. As with Murray’s witch-cult, Wicca’s practitioners entered via an initiation ceremony. Murray’s claims that witches wrote down their spells in a book may have been an influence on Wicca’s Book of Shadows. Wicca’s early system of seasonal festivities was also based on Murray’s framework.
The historian Philip Heselton suggested that the New Forest coven – the oldest alleged Wiccan group – was founded circa 1935 by esotericists aware of Murray’s theory and who may have believed themselves to be reincarnated witch-cult members. It was Gerald Gardner, who claimed to be an initiate of the New Forest coven, who established the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca and popularized the religion. Gardner and Murray knew each other, with Murray writing the foreword to Gardner’s 1954 book Witchcraft Today. Murray’s witch-cult theories were likely also a core influence on the non-Gardnerian Wiccan traditions that were established in Britain and Australia between 1930 and 1970. In San Francisco during the late 1960s, Murray’s writings were among the sources used by Aidan A. Kelly in the creation of his Wiccan tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. In Los Angeles during the early 1970s, they were used by Zsuzsanna Budapest when she was establishing her feminist-oriented tradition of Dianic Wicca.
Members of the Wiccan community gradually became aware of academia’s rejection of the witch-cult theory. Accordingly, belief in its literal truth declined during the 1980s and 1990s, with many Wiccans instead coming to view it as a legend that conveyed metaphorical or symbolic truths. Others insisted that the historical origins of the religion did not matter and that instead Wicca was legitimated by the spiritual experiences it gave to its participants. In 1999 Ronald Hutton wrote The Triumph of the Moon, a historical study exploring Wicca’s early development, and which exerted a strong impact on the British Pagan community, further eroding belief in the Murrayite theory among Wiccans. Conversely, other practitioners clung on to the theory, treating it as an important article of faith and rejecting post-Murrayite scholarship on European witchcraft. Several prominent practitioners continued to insist that Wicca was a religion with origins stretching back to the Paleolithic, while others rejected the validity of historical scholarship and emphasized intuition and emotion as the arbiter of truth.
Contemporary Wiccans are pretty eclectic in their recipe suggestions for special occasions, so I’d be hard put to find anything approaching a signature recipe. If you search online, for example, you’ll find a lot of confusion about what’s Celtic versus what’s Germanic or Norse, and also about the ways in which these cultures historically were both distinct and syncretic. “Celtic” tends to be used as a synonym for “really traditional” or “really old” whereas Celtic cultures have evolved, in the same way that others have (with influences from all over the place), and, furthermore, Irish Celts were Christianized long before the Anglo-Saxons.
For me the genuinely positive aspect of Wicca is its reverence for the earth. This reverence not only means avoiding foods laden with chemicals and pesticides, but also eating seasonally using local products. I’ve been following this pattern my whole life. I don’t eat strawberries in December (in the northern hemisphere) for example. They are for May and June. One of the positive values in Mrs Beeton is her insistence on the seasonality of every dish: eat foods when they are fresh and plentiful LOCALLY. Currently I eat a lot of rice, noodles, and greens with ginger and mushrooms because I live in Mandalay. I’m not going to insist on steak and kidney puddings or fish and chips.
Here’s Mrs Beeton’s suggestions for dinners for July. Take your pick (if you live in England !!!):
PLAIN FAMILY DINNERS FOR JULY.
- Sunday.—1. Salmon trout and parsley-and-butter. 2. Roast fillet of real, boiled bacon-cheek, peas, potatoes. 3. Raspberry-and-currant tart, baked custard pudding.
- Monday.—1. Green-pea soup. 2. Roast fowls garnished with water-cresses; gravy, bread sauce; cold veal and salad. 3. Cherry tart.
- Tuesday.—1. John dory and lobster sauce. 2. Curried fowl with remains of cold fowls, dish of rice, veal rolls with remains of cold fillet. 3. Strawberry cream.
- Wednesday.—1. Roast leg of mutton, vegetable marrow, and potatoes, melted butter. 2. Black-currant pudding.
- Thursday.—1. Fried soles, anchovy sauce. 2. Mutton cutlets and tomato sauce, bashed mutton, peas, potatoes. 3. Lemon dumplings.
- Friday.—1. Boiled brisket of beef, carrots, turnips, suet dumplings, peas, potatoes. 2. Baked semolina pudding.
- Saturday.—1. Cold beef and salad, lamb cutlets and peas. 2. Rolled jam pudding.