Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963), an Assistant Professor of Egyptology at the University College of London, a fellow of Britain's Royal Anthropological Institute, and a President of the Folklore Society, wrote extensively on a pre-Christian pagan religion that revolved around the Horned God, and her ideas influenced the emergence of Wicca and other pagan traditions.

Murray's Witchcraft theories[]

Murray's "Witch Cult in Western Europe" 1921 laid out the essential elements of her thesis that a standardized underground pagan resistance to the Christian Church existed across Europe. The pagans organized in covens of thirteen worshipers, dedicated to a male god. Murray maintained that pagan beliefs and religion dating from the neolithic through the medieval period, secretly practiced human sacrifice until exposed by the witchhunt craze starting c. 1450. Despite the bloody nature of the cult that Murray described, it was also attractive for its valuation of freedom for women, its open sexuality, and its resistance to Church oppression.

"The God of the Witches", written in 1931, Murray expanded on her claims that the witch cult had worshiped a Horned God whose origins went back to prehistory. Murray decided that the witches' admissions in trial that they worshiped Satan proved they actually did worship such a god. Thus, according to Murray, reports of Satan actually represented pagan gatherings with their priest wearing a horned helmet to represent their Horned God. It is not surprising then that Murray's supposed Witch Cult did not focus on a Goddess, unlike modern Wicca. Murray also discussed the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, claiming to show that he too was a pagan: "The death of Thomas à Becket presents many features which are explicable only by the theory that he also was the substitute for a Divine King" (Murray 171).

In "The Divine King in England", written in 1954, Murray expanded on her earlier claims there was a secret conspiracy of pagans amongst the English nobility, the same English nobility who provided the leading members of the Church. The suspicious death of William Rufus, King of England, was a ritual sacrificial killing of a sacred king carried out by Henry I, a man so pious he later founded one of the biggest Abbeys in England. This secret conspiracy, according to her, had killed many early English sovereigns, through to James I in the early seventeenth century.

Murray also claimed that Joan of Arc, who was executed by the English, was a pagan martyr.

The legacy of her thinking[]

Although academic historians fiercely attacked her theories, Murray's had an enormous influence on modern paganism.

It has been claimed that in the thirties her books led to the founding of Murrayite covens (small circles of witches), one of which probably taught Gerald Gardner in the 1940s. Gardner went on from this introduction to become one of the founders of Wicca, an influential stem for contemporary neopaganism. The affectionate phrase "the Old Religion", used by Pagans to describe an ancestral Pagan religion, derives from Murrayite theory, although many increasingly recognize that "the Old Religions" (plural) would be more accurate. Other Wiccan terms and concepts like coven, esbat, the Wiccan calendar Wheel of the Year, and the Horned God are clearly influenced by or derived directly from Murray's works. Murray's inaccurate ideas are also partially responsible for influencing believers in an ancient European matriarchy and an exaggerated version of the witchhunts which some feminists and neopagans believe in (see also Burning Times). Her ideas also inspired other writers, varying from horror authors like H. P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley to Robert Graves. The character of the obsessed academic Rose Lorimer in Angus Wilson's 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is said to have been inspired in part by Murray and Frances Yates.


  • Saqqara Mastabas (1904)
  • Elementary Egyptian Grammar (1905)
  • Elementary Coptic Grammar (1911)
  • The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921)
  • Excavations in Malta, vol. 1-3 (1923, 1925, 1929)
  • Egyptian Sculpture (1930)
  • Egyptian Temples (1931)
  • Cambridge Excavations in Minorca, vol. 1-3 (1932, 1934, 1938)
  • God of the Witches (1933)
  • Petra, the rock city of Edom (1939)
  • A Street in Petra (1940)
  • The Splendour That Was Egypt (1949)
  • The Divine King in England (1954)
  • The Genesis of Religion (1963)
  • My First Hundred Years (1963)


  • Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Kitteredge, G. L. Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1951. pp. 275, 421, 565,
  • Russell, J. B. A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans, Thames and Hudson, 1995 reprint.
  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971 and 1997, pp. 514–517.

External links[]

Brief Biography of Margaret Murray