(Margaret Alice Murray)
English Egyptologist, archaeologist, lecturer, author, feminist, folklorist
My third attempt [to find a career] was Egyptology, and from that I have never wavered.
(My First Hundred Years)
Margaret Alice Murray became an archaeologist almost by chance. In 1893 she was thirty years old, unmarried, and without a clear life path ahead. Then she heard about a series of classes on Egyptology to be given at University College London, and her life changed.
Margaret Murray’s life was marked by several unforeseen turns. Born in Calcutta in 1863 into a wealthy imperial British family, she was imbued with conservative Victorian values and ideals. But she also came in contact with native Indians in the servant class – there were at least ten servants in the Murray household – and grew to sympathize with their life situations, especially those of women. Later, Murray made many invaluable contributions as an archaeologist to the developing field of Egyptology. But her legacy in that field has remained in the shadow of the famous British archaeologist who was her mentor, William Flinders Petrie.
During the first world war, while much archaeological work was in abeyance, Murray began to study folklore and the history of religion in Britain. She published three books putting forth her theories about the history and nature of witchcraft, which were met with increasingly hostile reviews by scholars. But her books greatly influenced the growth of the neo-Pagan Wiccan religion in the early to mid-twentieth century. This negative academic response to – and paradoxically, the popular enthusiasm for – her views on witchcraft, together with Petrie’s greater renown in his field, have tended to eclipse Murray’s reputation as an important archaeologist and Egyptologist.
Historians and biographers have usually focused on either Murray’s work in archaeology or her writings on witchcraft, seldom both. Most agree that it is for her work on witchcraft that she is best known today.
Growing Up in India and England
Margaret’s father, James Murray, was an Englishman born in India. A businessman, he managed paper mills at Serampore near Calcutta and was a member of the Calcutta chamber of commerce. Her mother, also named Margaret (née Carr), came to India as a missionary in 1857. She was a firm believer in being of service to others, and had a strong influence on her two daughters.
During the first three decades of Margaret’s life, her family moved her and her older sister Mary several times between India and England. It was common for members of the British imperial elite in India to relocate their young children back to their home country so they would not become “too” Indian. In 1870, when Margaret was seven, the girls were sent to England to stay with their uncle John, a pastor, and aunt Harriet in Lambourn, Berkshire county. Despite her uncle’s conservative leanings, Margaret later credited him with awakening her interest in archaeology as they visited some of the local antiquities.
In 1873 the girls’ mother took them to Bonn for two years, where they became proficient in German. Later, this ability was helpful to Margaret in her career at University College London (UCL), as she – unlike Petrie – was able to read archaeological books and articles published in German. They then moved again between England and India, living in Calcutta for most of the 1880s. During that time, Margaret, who was interested in nursing, acquired some training and got a job as a nurse in the Calcutta General Hospital. But her father – who believed that women should aspire to the ideal of “the angel in the house” and not work outside the house for pay – did not approve, and insisted that Margaret could do so for only three months. Back in England, she tried to find work there as a nurse, but was considered too short (she was less than five feet tall).
For a while, Margaret found employment as a social worker, helping local poor people. Then in 1893, during a visit to Mary – who had been married two years before and moved with her husband to Madras (today’s Chennai) in India – fate stepped in. Mary noticed an advertisement in the London Timesthat Petrie, already a well-known Egyptologist, would be giving a series of classes on the subject in the new department of Egyptology at UCL. The department, founded in 1892 with help from British writer and traveler Amelia Edwards (who had long been fascinated by Egypt), was to transform a popular hobby among nineteenth-century antiquarians from “Egyptomania” into the serious study of Egyptian history and culture.
News of these classes caught Mary’s interest; she had always been the more academically inclined of the two sisters and seemed destined for a professional career. But, now living in India, married and with a new baby, Mary had to give up the idea. She told Margaret, “Now that I am married I can’t go to those classes myself, but you must.” Margaret took her advice to heart. She returned to England to start taking the classes the following year.
Studying and Teaching at UCL
Margaret Murray was fortunate to attend UCL in 1894, as it was a relatively liberal place – especially for women, who at the time were not admitted to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. UCL was the first British university to grant degrees to women. Murray was admitted despite having previously had no formal education. But she soon distinguished herself as a student, impressing Petrie with her intelligence and enthusiasm. In addition, Petrie’s archaeological works included many illustrations to accompany his writings about the temples and tombs he excavated. Murray’s ability to transcribe relief inscriptions on ancient steles accurately was particularly useful to him. She attributed this skill to a class in wood-carving that she took as a diversion after finally returning from India to England in 1887. (Drower, pp. 111-112) Petrie also valued her facility with languages. She excelled at creating facsimiles of inscriptions in hieroglyphics, Latin, Greek, and Coptic from photographs (which were expensive and used only sparingly) or paper “squeezes” (rough approximations of inscriptions, made by pressing damp filter paper into them, then drying it) that Petrie brought back from the field. Murray’s work was so accurate that she soon became Petrie’s chief illustrator and assistant.
In 1896 she began teaching – something she enjoyed all her life – as well, starting with first level Egyptian language and gradually taking on more courses, including history, culture, and religion. In 1898 she was officially made a junior lecturer, becoming the first female lecturer in archaeology in the UK. During this time she was also caring for her ailing mother.
Excavating in Egypt
Besides these tasks, Margaret Murray spent much of her time running the Egyptology department at UCL while Petrie was in Egypt during the winter, as summers there were too hot for excavating. She also designed a curriculum for students to complete before they went out into the field to excavate, including “anthropology, anatomy, geology, mineralogy, languages, and pottery.” (Sheppard, p. 86) But she was able to go to Egypt for two winters for archaeological work, during the years 1902-1903 and 1903-1904. In 1902 she joined Petrie and his wife Hilda, also an archaeologist, at Abydos, an ancient city and the site of many royal tombs and temples, about 300 miles south of modern-day Cairo. Because of her background in nursing, Murray initially filled the role of site nurse, helping care for workers with minor injuries and illnesses. But she soon learned how to excavate, holding her own as a small woman in charge of male excavators – and developing feminist sensibilities in the process.
While excavating at Abydos, Margaret Murray uncovered the Osireion, a temple to the god Osiris. Her site report, The Osireion at Abydos, was published in 1904. The report was considered ground-breaking. In addition to detailed descriptions of the site and many transcriptions of writing and copies of ornamentation, she – always interested in the cultural side of archaeology – included her study of the god Osiris and associated legends, beliefs, and ceremonies.
Murray returned to Egypt in the 1903-1904 winter season, to Saqqara, also an ancient burial ground, near Cairo. She did not have legal permission to actually excavate there, so instead she worked on tombs that had been excavated previously, transcribing inscriptions on ten of them. Her report, Saqqara Mastabas, published in two parts in 1905 and 1937 – together with her Osireion at Abydos– was very influential among Egyptologists.
Margaret Murray’s reputation in the field was growing; she was consulted by several museums for advice on cataloging their Egyptological artifacts. In particular, Petrie had a close connection with the museum at Manchester, and Murray often lectured there. In 1908, while at Manchester, she supervised the public unwrapping of a mummy, from a burial that Petrie had excavated of two Egyptian priests called the Tomb of the Two Brothers. This was the first time a woman had carried out such a procedure in public, and the event attracted a large audience. Although some expressed dismay, viewing the procedure as insensitive, even immoral, Murray – a strong believer in the importance of public education – stressed the need to be as thorough as possible in examining such remains.
Exploring Folklore and Witchcraft
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put a stop to overseas work by British archaeologists. Murray, who wanted to do something useful, volunteered as a nurse in St. Malo in Brittany, France. However, after a while she began to feel the strain of overwork, so she went to Glastonbury in southwestern England for a rest. While there she became interested in local folklore, in particular the Holy Grail (which some sources alleged had been taken there by the Christian disciple Joseph of Arimathea) and the idea that the story contained some Egyptian elements.
In pursuing this research, Margaret Murray also became interested in, and began writing about, the history of European witchcraft. Some scholars have speculated that, however much she admired – even idolized – Petrie, she decided to branch out from archaeology into a different field in which she could work independently of him. Another factor may have been an “evident progression from her Egyptology studies prior to 1915 and the formation of her ideas about European witchcraft.” (Oates and Wood, p. 19) She herself recalled in her autobiography, “as ancient religion is my pet subject, this seemed to be in my line.” (p. 104) In 1917 she published an article on witchcraft in the journal Folk-Lore, followed eventually by three books – The Witch Cult in Western Europe(1921), The God of the Witches(1931), and The Divine King in England(1954). She also wrote the article “Witchcraft” for the 14thedition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was published in 1929 and remained unchanged in subsequent editions until 1969.
On the basis of trial records from the late medieval and early modern periods, Murray’s main premise was that witchcraft was an ancient pre-Christian religion dating from the Paleolithic period, with participants attending regular gatherings called sabbaths and performing fertility rites and other rituals. She believed that in its original form, followers of this religion revered a female deity, and that it was dominated by women; but that in later periods, men took over, with participants worshipping a male, horned god, which Christians eventually represented as the Devil. She was also influenced by the eminent Scottish folklorist James Frazer, whose theory of survivals of ancient customs and beliefs in modern periods held sway at the time. Frazer also emphasized the ritual killing of the king in some groups for the sake of renewal and the assurance of fertility – leading Murray to suspect that such a purpose underlay events that had occurred in recent centuries in British history, such as the execution of several monarchs and leaders, including Joan of Arc.
Scholars’ reaction to these works was mixed at first, becoming increasingly negative with each book as some considered her use of sources to be careless and criticized her tendency to generalize broadly from little evidence. But on a popular level, her books and articles had great appeal. An important aspect of such differences was the understanding of the nature of the experiences that those accused of witchcraft described. For instance, did accounts of such apparently supernatural occurrences as flying through the air to attend sabbaths, have any basis in reality, or were they imaginary or fabricated? Murray, often described as a “rationalist,” downplayed or omitted such references. On the other hand, one of her strongest critics, Norman Cohn, writing in 1975, claimed that these references proved that witchcraft was an “elite fiction” imposed by persecuting authorities, and that a religion of witchcraft never existed.
Then in 1983, twenty years after Murray’s death, the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg, in his book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, advanced an alternate interpretation: that these supernatural elements were survivals of shamanism, a pre-Christian trance practice dating from ancient times in Eurasia and Europe, a means of contacting the spirit world. Thus he saw a “kernel of truth” in Murray’s views. He based this idea on his discovery that in the 16thcentury in Friuli in northern Italy, a group called the Benandanti (“good walkers”) testified that in order to ensure the fertility of the fields, they traveled out in spirit at night to do battle with other, hostile spirit groups that threatened the crops. According to contemporary British scholar of witchcraft Emma Wilby, in recent decades “Ginzburg’s theory has since been backed up by other scholars,” many of whom “now accept that there was likely to have been an experiential component” to such elements in witches’ testimony – offering some support to Murray’s view of witchcraft’s antiquity. (Wilby, 2005, pp. 168-169)
Gerald Gardner, a British Wiccan, was an ardent supporter of Margaret’s writings on witchcraft. When he published his book Witchcraft Today– a founding text for the neo-Pagan Wiccan religion – in 1954, Murray wrote a sympathetic introduction. There is some irony in the fact that, in writing about the history and practices of witchcraft, Gardner – who has been called “the Grandfather of Wicca” – emphasized the supernatural or mystical elements in the religion, the very ones that Murray had downplayed. Some scholars, such as Jacqueline Simpson, feel that Murray’s witchcraft studies continue to be an “embarrassment” to the discipline of folklore. Yet, as archaeologist Ruth Whitehouse has pointed out in her defense, Flinders Petrie has not been similarly castigated for his now discredited views in support of eugenics. (Whitehouse, p. 7)
Supporting the Feminist Movement
Murray was a firm believer in women’s rights, deeply involved in the movement to improve the status of women. A member of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), she donated money to the cause and took part in protest demonstrations and marches, including the 1907 muddy but peaceful “Mud March” for women’s suffrage. One biographer writes, “Though a passionate feminist, [she] was not a militant suffragist,” adding that to some extent she kept quiet about her feminist actions in order to maintain an aura of respectability. (Drower, p. 137) She also believed that wives of prospective administrators who were about to go out to colonial territories should first receive training in anthropology, just as their husbands did, so that both would have an understanding of the culture where they would be living; she shunned the opposing view that some aspects of anthropology were “not suitable subjects for women.”
At UCL, Murray encouraged and mentored women students in archaeology and other fields. She helped improve conditions for women at the college, campaigning for upgrades to the women’s common room – which was eventually (though not permanently) named the Margaret Murray Room. She was also concerned with providing adequate and affordable nutrition for students and staff, and served on the Refectory Committee. But she was not above slipping a bit of sweetness into her lectures; she recounts in her autobiography that, on at least one occasion, she brought a three-pound box of chocolates to a lecture and invited the students to pass them around. Much later, when some of her former students recalled how fondly they remembered that incident, Murray was impressed, noting with characteristic wit, “How true is the old saying, ‘Cast thy chocolates upon the waters and thou shalt find that they keep on turning up in unexpected places.’” (p. 166)
Excavating in the Mediterranean
After the first world war ended, Margaret Murray returned to London. During the next decade she carried out two independent archaeological studies, one on the island of Malta and the other on the smaller island of Menorca. Having more time for travel, she visited several foreign countries – among them Egypt, which she visited once more in 1920. At UCL she was made assistant professor in 1924, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1927 for her work in Egyptology. Also in 1927, she had reached the legal age of retirement, but – because she was such a popular lecturer – she was reappointed each year until 1935, when her retirement became official. During the 1930s she carried out additional excavations in Palestine and Jordan.
With the onset of the second world war, Murray moved to Cambridge to be safe from the Blitz, then returned once again to London. She took lodgings near UCL and continued to study and write, and to borrow books from the British Library. Always passionate about public education, she taught adult education classes on ancient Egyptian history and religion in the City Library Institute. In 1949 she published The Splendour that was Egypt, a book written for the general reader that included many of her lectures at UCL. She had been active in the Folklore Society since 1927; in 1953 she became its president – at ninety years of age! She stepped down after two years, but continued to attend meetings. The folklorist Hilda Ellis Davidson offers a glimpse of Margaret Murray at one such meeting of the Society during the 1950s:
“On such occasions I remember with particular enjoyment the aged Margaret Murray, then in her late eighties and regarded with some trepidation and awe for her daring and revolutionary ideas on witchcraft. Not that she appeared at all revolutionary; she would sit near the front, a bent and seemingly guileless old lady dozing peacefully, and then in the middle of a discussion would suddenly intervene with a relevant and penetrating comment which showed that she had missed not one word of the argument.” Hilda Ellis Davidson, “Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0015587X.1987.9716407
In an interview when she was 96, Murray mused, “I’ve been an archaeologist most of my life and now I’m a piece of archaeology myself.” (quoted in The New Scientist, November 1961) She remainedenergetic and productive, but gradually her health began to fail. In May, 1962 she moved into Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital for the last eighteen months of her life. In her final year, Murray published two more books. In The Genesis of Religion, she argued – as she had decades earlier – that the first gods were goddesses, asserting that there is “strong evidence that the worship of the goddess preceded the worship of the god in many ancient religions.” (p. 61)
Murray's final book, archly titled My First Hundred Years, is her autobiography. In it she wrote candidly about her youth in India and England, her path into Egyptology, her work in archaeology, her feminism, her mentor Flinders Petrie, and her years at UCL. She wrote very little in this book about her witchcraft studies, although she maintained her belief in the connection between ancient and modern fertility rites, as she expressed in this passage:
“There is still a tendency to call all the ritual of an ancient form of religion fertility rites, generally with a slight feeling of superiority over those primitive worshippers, forgetting that in many Christian countries, fertility rites are still practised with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, only now they are called The Blessing of the Boats or The Blessing of the Fields. The same feeling inspires the present-day worshippers that inspired the ancient Egyptians when the figure of the god Amon was carried round the fields of Thebes to bless them and make them productive by his almighty power.” (p. 196)
In the summer of 1963, a birthday party for Murray's centenary celebration was held at UCL, featuring a specially designed cake decorated in hieroglyphs that represented the number 100. Her doctor drove her from the hospital to the event, then back again. Four months later on November 13, still planning future research projects, Margaret Murray died.
Author: Dorian Brooks
Literature & Sources
Works by Margaret Murray:
Murray, Margaret Alice. (1904): The Osireion at Abydos.
Available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=ssDkAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
______________ (1905 and 1937): Saqqara Mastabas.
Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Saqqara_Mastabas.html?id=EZnDpKqCBN0C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false
______________ (1917): “Organisations of Witches in Great Britain.” London: Folk-Lore, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 228-258.
Available online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/1255565?seq=1/subjects#page_scan_tab_contents
______________ (1921): The Witch Cult in Western Europe: a Study in Anthropology. Oxford: the Clarendon Press.
______________ (1931, reissued 1952): The God of the Witches.London, Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1931; reissued by Oxford University Press, New York, and Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1952.
______________ (1954). The Divine King in England: a Study in Anthropology. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd.
______________ (1949): The Splendour That Was Egypt: a General Survey of Egyptian Culture and Civilisation. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Limited.
______________(1963): The Genesis of Religion. London, Fakenham and Reading: Cox and Wyman, Ltd.
______________ (1963): My First Hundred Years. London: William Kimber.
Works about Margaret Murray:
Drower, Margaret. (2004): “Margaret Alice Murray,” In Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 109–141.
Oates,Caroline and Juliette Wood. (1998). A Coven of Scholars: Margaret Murray and Her Working Methods, London: The Folklore Society, 1998.
Sheppard, Kathleen. (2013): The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman's Work in Archaeology. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Simpson, Jacqueline. (1994): “Margaret Murray – Who Believed Her, and Why,”
Available online at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0015587X.1994.9715877
________________ (2000): “Margaret Murray,” in Carmen Blacker and Hilda Ellis Davidson, eds., Women and Tradition: A Neglected Group of Folklorists. Carolina Academic Press: Durham, NC.
Whitehouse, Ruth. (2013): “Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer.”
Available online at www.ai-journal.com/articles/10.5334/ai.1608/
Wikipedia article, “Margaret Murray”
Wilby, Emma. (2005): Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press.
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