Margaret Murray is one of the most mysterious Egyptologists. Although many researchers criticize her research, the story behind her writings scares anyone who is wary of the powers of witchcraft.
This famous Egyptologist was born on July 13, 1863, in Calcutta, India. Her work was dedicated to various countries such as India, Britain, and Germany. Before she became a researcher, she was a social worker and a nurse. She moved to London in 1894, where she started studies in Egyptology. She became a part of a group of passionate people who surrounded one of the most famous Egyptologists in history – William Flinders Petrie.
Margaret Alice Murray, 1928. (Public Domain)
An Explorer of Ancient Civilizations
She soon became a copyist and illustrator, helping in the publication of Petrie’s book ”Koptos”. With time, she reached the position of Petrie’s assistant and started to give linguistic lessons. Many of her students became notable personalities in Egyptology – including Guy Brunton, Myrtle Broome, and Reginald Engelbach. She also taught evening classes at the British Museum.
Her growing fame helped her to join excavations at Abydos. Although she had no experience in working on an excavation site, she was a fast learner. She attended sites in Egypt, but also visited Petra, Malta, and many other places. She uncovered the Osireion, the famous Temple of Osiris in Abydos dated back to the reign of Seti I. She also excavated the Old Kingdom cemetery in Saqqara, near modern-day Cairo. Although sometimes she didn’t have the official permissions to excavate, her work was accepted by the authorities. In 1908, she unwrapped the mummy of Khnum-nakht, one of two male mummies discovered in the famous Tomb of the Two Brothers. Murray was the first woman to unwrap a mummy.
The Osireion, which was first excavated by Murray (CC BY-SA 2.5)
First Wave Feminist
The feminist movement played an important role in the life of Margaret Murray. As someone sensitive to the needs of women, she joined the movement related to advocating women’s rights on many levels and using different tools. The time of Murray’s activity correlated with a period of a world awakening for female intellectual leaders. Women no longer were conceding to the marginalization of their achievements, talents, and ambitions.
A Witch, or Fairy Godmother, Perhaps?
Perhaps due to the unorthodox nature of some of her writing, in time, Murray’s story turned into folklore, with many suggesting that she was a practitioner of witchcraft. Moreover, some suggested that her achievements became fundamental to the religion known as Wicca. She is sometimes referred to as ”the grandmother of Wicca”. In 1921, when she couldn’t find work at excavations in Egypt, she wrote a book ”The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”. This book caused many to question her position as a researcher.
Apart from this book, she wrote an impressive amount of works. There are many interpretations of her writings. Although some stay enthusiastic about her research, others are more skeptical. According to J.B. Hare:
“Murray’s interpretation of history is not provable by the strict standards of the historian. She was highly selective about which historical evidence she utilized, which left her open to criticism by the academic establishment. Murray also proposed that Fairies (and Elves, Dwarves, Brownies, etc.) were an actual subculture of (full-sized, if slightly stunted by their diet) human beings who lived secretively in the British Isles, persecuted along with the witches. She speculated that the Fairies were a survival of a pastoralist Neolithic culture. This culture survived, like the Romany (Gypsy) people, on the periphery, avoiding contact with the dominant culture. The fairy hills of legend were descriptions of their underground residences. They were later converted into the ‘wee folk’ of legend by Shakespeare, and the folklorists. One interesting aspect of her hypothesis about Fairies is that they appeared to have a matriarchal culture. She presents incidental documentary evidence for the existence of a subterranean fairy race, but to my knowledge there is no actual material evidence. I am unaware of any other scholar, either in academia or Wiccan circles, who wholeheartedly endorses this hypothesis about the Fairies. As for levitation, Murray noted that the witches used herbal unguents which contained known hallucinogens before ‘flying’, which would have produced ecstatic effects. In addition, the description of the witches’ ceremonials included prolonged dancing. It is now known that Shamans used similar techniques, resulting in altered mental states including the sensation of flying. This portion of the hypothesis has been corroborated by other scholars.”
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Joseph Noel Paton. Fairies in Shakespeare. (Public Domain)
Murray never married and dedicated her life to her studies and magical practice. It is known that she cursed the famous academic Jaroslav Cerny, who received a promotion to the position of Professor of Egyptology. Murray believed that the one who should have received it was her friend Walter Bryan Emery. She cursed Cerny in the presence of two friends, adding fuel to her reputation for witchcraft.
The criticism of her works relating to folklore is huge and most British academics today still don’t accept her works as a credible source for academic research.
Arthritis stopped her passion for life. These health problems restricted her to her homeland in England, but she tried to stay productive until the end. Margaret Murray died on Number 13, 1963.
A bust of the Anglo-Indian archaeologist, Egyptologist, and folklorist Dr Margaret Murray, located at the UCL Institute of Archaeology library. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Tale of Margaret
A photograph of Margaret Alice Murray next to Egyptian mummies is something that makes the imagination of young Egyptologists soar. During her lifetime, she passed through numerous incredible and meaningful archaeological sites and accomplished many studies related to anthropology, folklore, archaeology, etc. The theories described by Murray became a blueprint for the religion of Wicca, the pagan religion that was formed a few decades ago.
The circles of practitioners of ancient religions, Wicca, and many other belief systems sometimes referred to in general terms of ”paganism” or ”neo-paganism”, often suggest that Margaret Murray was a famous and appreciated witch, a woman who had an insight into the knowledge known only to a select group. However, to those more focused on the classical understanding of science, she was the person who filled the gaps in knowledge with information that is not supported by any evidence.