So how old is Witchcraft really? The role of Margaret Murray in stirring the muddy waters of Witchcraft history

Dave Evans

This essay, again adapted-edited here from Master's degree studies (hence the writing style) will attempt to outline the debatable place and role of Margaret Murray in our understanding of the continuing history of witchcraft. Briefly, what Murray did was a 'folkloric' approach, using any available evidence from history, anecdote, mythology and folk custom to support her postulate of an unbroken chain of witch-beliefs and practices, based around a pre-Christian fertility cult dedicated to the Goddess Diana, enduring to the present day.

Murray's conclusions have latterly been subject to several severe criticisms, both on factual and methodological grounds and it is argued that these all but remove any academic value from her work. However in the five or six decades between publication and her eventual professional denouement it is ironic that her books were taken as articles of faith by witches, and have unwittingly been instrumental in actually creating what is now modern witchcraft. It is also argued that Murray was not totally original in her overall view, borrowing many of her ideas from pre-existing authors on the subject.

In 1915 Murray was a middle-aged and highly-respected Egyptologist with several important academic publications to her name (which at the time was unusual for a woman in ANY academic field). However with the travel constraints during and after World War I she was only able to publish on Egypt without going there to study- so was eventually forced to look closer to home for new research materials, choosing European mythology and folklore.

During the writing of her first witchcraft book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe there were many background factors tempting learned English society to look in this direction. These included an upsurge of interest in all things occult, with numerous magical lodges, seances, spiritism and Eastern gurus. Aleister Crowley and his adventures/scandals was a regular news item and several decidedly mythic-magical stories were emerging from the war in France, including Machen's (fictional) tale of the mystical Archers of Mons. The emerging Jungian psychology and the notion of a collective consciousness underlying all humanity could also have been a factor in Murray's desire to show a common and ancient thread, and in 1923 the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered; arguably the greatest single piece of historical discovery. This must have been especially galling to the professional Egyptologist Murray, stuck in England while Howard Carter got all the glory; and perhaps a stimulus for her to make her own discoveries wherever she could.

Murray also knew the anthropological works of Sir James Frazer, since they were in personal contact. The very first chapter of Frazer's Golden Bough details the place of Diana in myth and magic. Montague Summers, who has been summarised as a 15th Century fanatic in the body of a 20th Century fundamentalist Catholic, had been encouraging the mediaeval notion that Satanic bands of witches had always existed. Summers criticised Murray not for her cult-survival theory being wrong; but rather for her calling it a joyous religion; when he regarded it as Satanism. Prior to this in the 1860s the French historian Michelet propounded the reality of the Sabbat, but saw it as an instrument of peasant unrest, rather than demonic per se.

Murray's contemporary literary world was filled with writings of ancient civilisations, magic and mystery- such as Bulwer-Lytton and Blavatsky. Yeats' highly mystical verse was itself continuing a long poetical tradition of writing about magic, and the relatively new medium of cinema was trading on stories of magic and horror such as the early vampire films, and Voodoo-Zombie movies about Haiti.

This makes the point that Murray did not write in a vacuum- magic was certainly 'in the air' at the time. Importantly, Leland's Aradia, published in 1899, all but begged for somebody to perform an academic historical study of the subject:

"there has never existed the least interest as regarded the strange lore of the witches, nor any suspicion that it embraced an incredible quantity of old Roman minor myths and legends" (p 1), and (as a direct precursor to Murray) "witch craft is known to its votaries as la vecchia religione, or the old religion, of which Diana is the Goddess" (p 2).

If Murray was aware of Leland's book she failed to mention it in her bibliographies, but it certainly seems to predict her later theories in suspicious detail, while itself not mentioning Frazer.

The idea of ancient occult lineages was therefore not new, but the time was ripe for a scholarly account of the subject. Murray's works were almost encyclopaedic in scope and theorising; forming a universal and eternal model for witchcraft; sadly one which was highly dogmatic. However from the 1920s into the 1950s, Murray was feted as a great academic; with her books eventually becoming best-sellers; again highly unusual for academic texts at the time.

In 1936 Gerald Gardner entered the scene. Formerly working in the Far East, he returned to England with experience of Freemasonry, Buddhism and tribal shamanism. He was soon initiated, allegedly by a hereditary witch, and became heavily involved in the Folklore Society, working directly with Murray as a co-writer of journal papers. Murray wrote the foreword to his 1954 practical witchcraft book, although she was then very old and may not have even read, let alone agreed with, his views on modern witches. Colleagues viewed her as a Christian sceptic, but she was not above casting her own spells, including a malign one against an unpleasant colleague. Her definitive entry for witchcraft in Encyclopaedia Britannica remained as a source of reference from 1929 until 1969.

Crowley's perspective seems ambivalent (as in much of his writings about anything). He saw witchcraft as "illusory" yet apparently wrote poetic rituals for Gardner, who was in Crowley's magickal group the OTO, as a minor initiate. Murray mistakenly regarded Crowley only as a demonologist; in the same mould as Summers, but from Crowley's meticulous diaries it seems unlikely he and Murray ever met, and I have been unable to find any comment by him about her.

Various contemporary and later historians re-examined Murray's research and found it more than wanting. Several of her sources had been abstracted in a highly selective manner, so much so as to drastically alter the meaning to suit her own ends. For example by omitting a few vital words in a quote she changed a charming folk story about fairies to fit her theory about the witches sabbat, and the widespread notion of witches working in covens of thirteen seemingly comes entirely from her very debatable interpretation of just one mention in a trial record for Scotland.

Later she went looking for any reference to 'thirteens' in order to bolster this notion; often manipulating any mentions of the number to suit. The American academic Kittredge was also scathing; demolishing her notion of the universality of the sabbat by, among other things, illustrating the complete lack of such references in English cases.

Murray cited the consistency of witch accounts in trial records as evidence of a coherent and lasting belief system among witches; while today this is seen more as evidence of the coherence of the system of leading and blatantly presumptive questions employed by inquisitors; along the lines of the modern closed question: 'do you think murderers should be hung or shot?'… which assumes much and removes any option to debate capital punishment or the definition of murderers. Similarly in the witch interrogations they were often repeatedly asked, apropos of nothing, when they LAST had sexual congress with demons, without first being asked if they had ever had it, thus removing any chance for denials...

Rose's work especially served to largely dismantle Murray's place as an authority on any subject, as it exposed a number of elementary historical errors used to support the Dianic theory. Later, Cohn all but destroyed her place in academia with both his detailed exposure of her selective and distorted reporting, and by proffering an alternative and more objective, credible view of the witch-figure as just another target for societal scapegoating and execution.

After Murray's academic reputation had been seemingly discredited and buried, some new twists to the story emerged. The first, and most academic of them was when Ginzburg discovered records of a tradition of hereditary groups of occultists, called benandanti in early modern Italy, but having apparent corollaries of a shamanic-witch nature all over the Eurasian world. This postulated Eurasian source might have been coloured by Ginzburg's expatriate Jewish background much as Murray desired to see a European, and more specifically British source.

The benandanti apparently saw themselves as the magical enemies of a band of evil witches; but were eventually tried and executed for witchcraft anyway. Ginzburg seems equivocal as to whether his findings offer a very little or slightly more than a very little support to Murray's general thesis, but that some form of familial or hereditary cult structure and practice was present in early modern Italy, and which claimed descent from a much older occult group gives credence to there being a grain of truth in Murray's accounts, if not her conclusions.

This seemed only a grain or two though; to Ginzburg, Murray's systematic 'spinning' of data remains a fatal flaw, and it is only this group element of pagan myths from Murray that Ginzburg seems to endorse. He also highlights a gap of many centuries where there was no historical expression of the witch stereotype; which would have been unusual were there really a continuous 'Murrayite' witch cult of any kind. This is added to by Hole, who doubts how a cult with no known resources or structure could have survived in the face of almost two thousand years of mobilised, powerful and resourceful Christian-state opposition.

A second twist to the plot came from the Sufi author Idries Shah. Sufism is believed to be an antecedent of many religious and occult strands of Eurasia. Shah maintains that witchcraft derives from practices which developed in the areas that are now Afghanistan and Iran, over 1200 years ago, and that many of the modern practices (which themselves come from, or at least via, Gardner, Leland and Murray) are very similar to Sufi ancient ritual workings. There is now some doubt as to whether Shah himself is a legitimate source, and he seems to have ghost-written for several occult authors.

What is undoubted is that much of our modern sciences derive from a notional 'Arabia', some of which were imported as early as the Tenth Century, and were later used by scientific pioneers such as Roger Bacon; so it may not be too far-fetched to see a simultaneous route (if not the same level of uptake) for magic to enter European consciousness in tandem with this scientific knowledge. Indeed at the time there may have been less distinction between high mathematics and high magic; both of which would have seemed miraculous to pre-renaissance European eyes. It is also argued by EO Wilson that forms of shamanism must survive from prehistory as an evolutionary artefact; but not necessarily the same coherent and traceable system.

One example of some smaller supporting evidence for Murray is the hereditary group in Anjou, France. In 1615 a number of families were found to be involved in magical healing; with a familial record of this healing extending beyond living memory. In studies of the same area in 1960 over a hundred healers were found, many with the same familial names as in the 1615 documents, and often using very old inherited magical books as sources. It may be stretching credulity too far to imply a direct lineage, but as Robin Briggs remarks, "in many areas these practices have proved MORE durable than Christianity". Another Briggs; Katherine this time, reports similar hereditary witch stories from Madagascar. The existence of this kind of material at least supports Ginzburg's notion of a widespread system of similar witchcraft-like practices.

Gardner and Sanders, among many 20th Century practitioners, claim ancient hereditary witchcraft links. Refreshingly, the 1980s witch Starhawk acknowledges the central role of imagination in 'reconstructing' the history of witchcraft'. Others are more insistent on an unbroken proven lineage of continuity of technique and faith over time, usually citing Murray as academic provenance for this (rather a tautological argument), and despite the shared name this is probably very different from any beliefs and practices which may have been common in early modern Europe. As Wilson and Hill report, with the mushrooming interest (and thus money to be made in books and ephemera) there is now regular litigation in the USA over who holds the 'true' hereditary version.

Murray's folkloric approach highlighted the breadth of material available for academics; however her conclusions also showed the danger of having a theory first and then trying to justify it by manipulating the available data, often using highly selective reporting. If there ever was a pre-Christian 'witch-cult', which lasted through until modern times (of which there are some small but equivocal signs) then it was probably nothing like Murray's model.

Her eventual academic dismantling from all sides by numerous valid criticisms is immaterial to her inspiration and virtual creation of modern witchcraft; and her work has been useful, if only that by setting a largely bad example it has inspired other researchers, Ginzburg among them, to improve on the process and look more closely at the witch phenomena by performing tight, well-argued and less dogmatic research. This is hopefully an ongoing and progressive procedure.


Again, as with similar stuff presented on Occult e-books from my academic writings, this has been severely edited and the extensive and often yawn-inducingly meticulous academic referencing and digression has been removed to make it easier to read- if anyone wants the full citation details please drop me an email and you can have the original Word file.

The following are a few of the more crucial texts for those interested, with Ronald Hutton's stellar effort being far and away the best- researched, most comprehensive, recent and most interesting over the whole area of modern occult history; hence this is the only one with a 'buy me at Amazon' link… But it should be in the History or "Mind Body Spirit" section of any large bookshop; try there first.

The Murray texts can also be found for free online, as someone in the USA has found a copyright loophole, it seems.

Selected References

Hutton, R. The triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Buy me here: UK link ; USA link

Leland, C.G. Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches. (On-line) Originally published 1899.
Murray, M. A. The God of the witches. London: Faber. 1934, and The witch cult in Western Europe. London: Oxford University Press. 1921.
Cohn, N. Europe's inner demons. London: Penguin. 1975.
Gardner, G.B. Witchcraft today. London: Rider. 1954.
Ginzburg, C. The night battles: witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983.
Sharpe, J. Instruments of darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750. London: Hamish Hamilton. 1996.
Starhawk (Samos, M). The spiral dance: a rebirth of the ancient religion of the great
goddess. San Francisco: HarperCollins. 1999.