Varied career of expert in 'witch-cult' folklore
She would go on to become a successful academic, but during her childhood she did not receive a formal education. In fact, she never had to sit an exam before entering university.
Murray moved back and forth between England and Calcutta. She became a nurse at the Calcutta General Hospital, where she was involved with attempts to deal with a cholera outbreak.
When her father retired, Murray moved into his house in Bushey Heath and lived with him until his death in 1891.Encouraged by her family and driven by an interest in archaeology, Murray decided to enrol at the newly opened department of Egyptology at University College London (UCL) in Bloomsbury. She began her studies in 1894, aged 30.
The department was run by the pioneering archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie. Murray soon became Petrie's unofficial assistant. In turn, he encouraged her to write her first research paper, which was published in 1895.
In 1898, Murray was appointed to the position of Junior Lecturer. She became responsible for teaching the linguistic courses at the Egyptology department, making her the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom.
At this point, Murray had no experience in field archaeology, so during 1902 she travelled to Egypt to join Petrie's excavations at Abydos.
She joined as a site nurse, but Petrie subsequently taught her how to excavate, leading to her being elected to a senior position. While excavating at Abydos, Murray uncovered the Osireion, a temple devoted to the god Osiris.
Some of the male excavators disliked the idea of taking orders from a woman. This experience, coupled with discussions with other female excavators (some of whom were active in the feminist movement), led Murray to adopt openly feminist viewpoints.
On returning to London, Murray took an active role in the feminist movement. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union and took part in demonstrations, protests and marches. However, she was forced to conceal the militancy of her actions in order to retain her image of respectability within academia.Various museums around the United Kingdom invited Murray to advise them on their Egyptological collections, including the Dublin National Museum and the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.
She also published several books on Egyptology aimed at the general public.
In 1907, Petrie excavated the Tomb of the Two Brothers, a burial of two Egyptian priests, and it was decided that Murray would carry out the public unwrapping of one of the mummified bodies. The event took place in May, 1908, and represented the first time a woman had led a public mummy unwrapping. It was attended by over 500 onlookers.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 meant that Petrie and Murray were unable to return to Egypt for excavation. Instead, they spent much of their time reorganising the artefacts they had collected over the past decades. Murray also enrolled as a nurse in the Volunteer Air Detachment.
After being taken ill, Murray was sent to recuperate in Glastonbury, Somerset. It was here that she first became interested in folklore, particularly in the stories of Glastonbury Abbey's connection to the legend of King Arthur.
Murray's interest in folklore led her to research the witch trials of Early Modern Europe. In 1917, she published a paper in the Folklore Society's journal in which she first put forward her version of the witch-cult theory, building on a hypothesis posed by two German scholars. She argued that the witch trials of the Early Modern Period were an attempt to suppress a pagan fertility cult that had survived the Christianisation of Europe.She articulated these views more fully in her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she claimed that the cult was dedicated to the worship of a Horned God and a Mother Goddess. The book received both criticism and support on publication. Many historians claimed that she had misinterpreted contemporary records, but the book was nevertheless the most influential text she would write.
As a result of her work in this area, she was invited to provide the entry on 'witchcraft' for the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1929. She used the opportunity to publicise her own witch-cult theory, failing to mention theories proposed by other academics. Her entry would be included in the Encyclopaedia until 1969, and it was for this reason that her ideas on the subject had such a significant impact.However, the witch-cult hypothesis has since been discredited.
From 1921 to 1927, Murray returned to archaeology and led several excavations on Malta.
Although having reached legal retirement age in 1927, she was reappointed on an annual basis each year until 1935, when she retired.
During World War II, Murray evaded the Blitz of London by moving to Cambridge, where she volunteered for a group who educated military personnel to prepare them for post-war life.After the war ended, she returned to London. On most days she visited the British Museum and twice a week taught adult education classes on Ancient Egyptian history and religion at the City Literary Institute.
In 1953, she was appointed to the presidency of the Folklore Society, a post she would retain for the next two years.
Suffering from crippling arthritis, in 1962 Murray moved into the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in Welwyn, Hertfordshire.
To mark her hundredth birthday, she was driven to UCL for a birthday party attended by many of her friends, colleagues and former students. It was the last time she visited the university.
Murray died on November 13, 1963.
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