Margaret Murray, the Mother of Modern Wicca
Margaret Alice Murray was born on this day 1863 in Calcutta, a second generation Anglo Indian. As a child she didn’t receive a formal education but her natural curiosity and love of learning were indulged by her wealthy parents. Following her interests, she qualified both as a nurse and a social worker.
Soon, however, she turned to Egyptology, enrolling at the University College of London. It was the first time she walked into a classroom. And she found her true calling within the academy. Her brilliance was quickly recognized as she dove into research. Murray was soon delivering the lectures. She began to write and her publications became a major entrance for many into the wonders of archeology and specifically of Egyptology. Murray became the first woman in the United Kingdom to be formally appointed a university lecturer in Egyptology.
Professor Murray was also what we now call a first-wave feminist. She worked hard to improve conditions for women. And, perhaps connected, she had an abiding interest in the rise of witchcraft in Europe. When Egypt was closed to her during the first world war Professor Murray focused on the witch-cult hypothesis, the idea that there was a pre-Christian pan-European cult of the mother goddess and her horned consort. Inspired by the work of French and German scholars as well as the brilliant American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and the folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who further developed the idea, believing he had found a continuing pagan community in Tuscany, which he described in his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches.
Professor Murray was the linchpin in moving this work into the public imagination. She began by examining the Arthurian legends, and feeling there was something of great antiquity in them. She published an important paper, “Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance,” which was both seriously criticized and embraced by people who felt an intuitive sense there had to be a pre-Christian survival. Murray provided the superstructure for what this might look like with three books, the Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the God of the Witches, and the Divine King in England.
A number of scholars embraced her ideas, and she was particularly well received by the general public. But the trend of scholarship in fact did not support her thesis. Over the years the weight of the academic consensus was that there was in fact no significant survival of a pre-Christian paganism in Europe. Bits and pieces, here and there. But, nothing coherent. And nothing pan-European. And so the mainstream of the academic community moved on.
One, the intellectual and occultist Gerald Gardner declared publicly that not only was Murray right, but he stood in the tradition and was continuing to teach it. Soon students were flocking to him. And, before long there were a number of people teaching that pan-European faith in a mother goddess and her horned consort. Quickly, so quickly one must assume there was a deep hunger for something like this, a modern Wicca began to take shape.
And, two. The development of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which would reinvent the whole approach to the English encyclopedia. It was so successful it would remain the standard reference of many, many things for many, many years. In compiling it as the editors came to the subject of witchcraft, they considered among themselves who should we ask to write it? Of course the obvious choice, the only choice was Professor Margaret Murray.
Margaret Murray’s thesis was now accessible to pretty much everyone as a stated fact in the go-to reference work. And remained so for a generation. And, there were people, only starting with Mr Gardner, who offered initiation into that very same once and future tradition, what we now call modern Wicca.
Gerald Gardner has been called the father of modern Wicca. There is truth to that. But, I would add, if it is true, then Margaret Murray is the mother of modern Wicca.
Of course Wicca has grown much beyond these humble origins. Like any authentic religious tradition it is messy and complicated. And, while I have no affinities for the magical parts, it is obvious to me how Wicca has become a significant spiritual tradition in our contemporary times. Something that offers a healing message for our planet in ways many people can hear. And, I think, that’s amazingly important.
So, we all owe much to Professor Murray.