Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Margaret Murray

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Margaret Murray was a controversial folklorist:

No British folklorist can remember Dr Margaret Murray without embarrassment and a sense of paradox. She is one of the few folklorists whose name became widely known to the public, but among scholars her reputation is deservedly low; her theory that witches were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult through the centuries is now seen to be based on deeply flawed methods and illogical arguments. The fact that, in her old age and after three increasingly eccentric books, she was made President of the Folklore Society, must certainly have harmed the reputation of the Society and possibly the status of folkloristics in this country; it helps to explain the mistrust some historians still feel towards our discipline. [Simpson, 1994: 89]

Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963) was born in India. After a private education (mostly by her mother) she part-trained as a nurse and then worked for a short time as a social worker in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, where her parents then lived. Her sister persuaded her to study at University College, London, under William Flinders Petrie. She joined his department in January 1894 and by 1895 had already published her first paper, 'The descent of property in the early periods of Egyptian history'. In 1898 she took over the teaching of the beginners' language classes in the department and the following year she was appointed a junior college lecturer despite her lack of formal qualifications. She was promoted many more times, 'assistant (1909), lecturer (1921), senior lecturer and fellow (1922), and assistant professor (1924); in 1931 she gained the degree of DLitt.' [DNB] After 1914 she effectively ran the department for much of the year whilst Petrie was in Egypt excavating. Because she did not earn much from University College she had to take on additional teaching in evening classes and extension lectures at Oxford and London. She also catalogued many Egyptian antiquities at the Royal Scottish Museum, Manchester University Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. She also helped Petrie in his Egyptian excavations between 1902 and 1904, and excavated in Malta (1920-3) and Minorca (1930-1). She retired from University College in 1935 when she was seventy-two and worked again with Petrie at Petra (1937) and Gaza (1938).

According to her Dictionary of National Biography [DNB] entry she published over a hundred books and articles. The entry concludes:

In general her scholarship showed breadth of interest rather than profundity; she was not an expert philologist, and was occasionally guilty of making unsubstantiated statements. Perhaps the main criticism that might be levelled is that she tended to take a myopic view of Egyptian civilization ... Nevertheless, her knowledge of the language was of the greatest help to Petrie. At heart she was a true archaeologist who enjoyed concentrating on the material remains. Her main legacy to the study of the ancient world was probably her fieldwork, together with her influence on the large number of Egyptologists who were her pupils.

Murray is probably best known today not for her life-long Egyptology but for her work on the 'witch-cult'. As the DNB remarks,

after, in two ground-breaking books, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933 ...), she explained medieval European witchcraft as a survival of the pre-Christian nature cult of the horned god ... This theory was controversial but proved popular and widely influential. She became a recognized authority on the subject, a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1926 and a member of the Folk-Lore Society from 1927 (its president for 1953–5).

As the same entry goes on to say, her interest was not purely academic:

Another idiosyncrasy was her occasional practice of the arts she studied; more than once she was reported by friends to have cast spells in a saucepan to try to reverse academic appointments of which she disapproved ... Such activities may not have been entirely serious, for she was practical and quite unsuperstitious, and her sense of humour was well developed, as is shown by her remark to Leonard Cottrell in a BBC broadcast she made at the age of ninety-six: ‘I've been an archaeologist most of my life and now I'm a piece of archaeology myself’ (Folklore, 72, 1961, 437).

Murray's controversial views on witchcraft was to prove very influential, 'her views [were] virtually infallible in the eyes of the public, and influencing such well known authors as Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves. They were also accessible to journalists, film-makers, popular novelists and thriller writers, who adopted them enthusiastically; by now they are so entrenched in popular culture that they will probably never be uprooted'. [Simpson, 1994: 89] According to Jacqueline Simpson:

But the greatest paradox of all is that, according to all who have spoken of her to me, she was a whole-hearted sceptic and rationalist, who wanted to strip away every notion of the paranormal or supernatural from the concept of witchcraft - and yet in the 1950s her descriptions of alleged rituals, festivals and organisations of witches were used by Gerald Gardner as a blueprint for setting up a new system of magical and religious rituals, the Wicca movement of Britain and America, now the most widespread and best known branch of neo-paganism. She believed she was rediscovering forgotten facts of history; she never dreamed her work would be used to train new generations in the beliefs and practices of magic. [Simpson, 1994: 89]

In Murray's 1955 Presidential Address to the Folklore Society she stresses the importance of folklore:

we are too near to events which will become history to realise what folklore underlies them. But folklore is a living thing, it is always with us, and therefore may have effect on even the greatest events of history. [Murray, 1955: 266]

Murray lived long, she published her autobiography in 1963 entitled My first hundred years. She died on 13 November 1963. Dorson, the great recorder of British folklorists does not mention her.

Folklore in England

On 10 March 1954, Murray gave her Presidential Address to the Folk-Lore Society about 'England as a field for folklore research'. This opens with an arresting statement:

It is surprising how few people are interested in England, that extraordinary country which lies south of the Tweed. Many men and women, trained at great expense, go abroad to look for folklore, and when they come back they write large volumes of peculiar rituals, of marriage customs, of curious beliefs, of folk tales and folk medicine, with tabulated lists of kinship systems, of agricultural systems, of trade systems, and so on. Yet here, under our very noses, is a country as full of strange unrecorded facts, beliefs and customs as any land overseas. England is in many ways the great Undiscovered Country. [Murray, 1954: 1]

She pointed out that most members of the Folklore Society were uniquely qualified to do local work:

We speak the language so fluently that the natives understand what we say, and we understand what they say, therefore there is no need for an interpreter ... we know the marriage laws ... we have considerable knowledge of the housewifery and house-keeping of the inhabitants, the currency presents no difficulty to us, and we are familiar with certain methods of education and trade and so on. In short, we already have the basic knowledge necessary for beginning the work. [Murray, 1954: 1]

She contended that the English did not know England, 'a scientific study of the Folklore of England would give us the solution of many problems which confront ourselves and our continental neighbours'. [Murray, 1954: 2] She defined folklore as

the intimate life of the Folk of every class, that background of our dear daily life which we miss so much when we are cut off from it ... that background is made up not only of concrete and tangible objects but of the sights and sounds of daily life, of things so small that they are not recorded in history, poetry, biography or other serious literature. The background is continually changing , sometimes so imperceptibly that the change is hardly noticed, sometimes so rapidly that one's breath is almost taken away.
Folklore is not merely the collection of quaint customs and odd superstitions, it is often the record of a complete change in daily life and on the outlook on life'. [Murray, 1954: 2]

She concluded:

Folklore, when scientifically studied, is found to be closely connected with all forms of human endeavour, and especially with the development of the mind of Man in its religious and spiritual aspect, and the changes which occur as the background of life changes. Those changes in the background of daily life are preserved in Folklore. If we are to "look to the rock whence we are hewn and the hole of the pit whence we are digged", the importance of the study of Folklore is at once manifest. Folklore has hitherto been the Cinderella of all research subject, but with the accurate methods of recording and the scientific use of the records, Folklore is no longer a dilettanti [sic] subject but is recognised as an important method of understanding the human mind and its variations. For, as we all know, "the proper study of mankind is Man". [Murray, 1954: 9]

Murray's donations to the Pitt Rivers Museum

1926.6.1 Glass flask, said to contain a witch. Donated by Margaret Murray in 1915.

1926.6.1 Glass flask, said to contain a witch. Donated by Margaret Murray in 1915.

One of the most famous artefacts in the English collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum was given by Margaret Murray in 1926, it is a 'witch in a bottle'. [1926.6.1] Here are the accession book entry (written when the artefact first came into the Museum, and a more detailed account written on a card from a index card catalogue for amulets in the Museum.

Accession book entry MISS M. A. MURRAY. - Small glass flask of bilobed shape, silvered over the inside and stoppered. This is reputed to contain a witch, and the late owner, an old lady living in a village near HOVE, SUSSEX, remarked, "they do say there be a witch in it, and if you let un out there'll be a peck o'trouble." It was obtained from her in 1915.' It is on display in the Court (Ground Floor) in Case 31.A - Magic, Witchcraft and Trial by Ordeal.

Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets ) O. Inscribed P. Talismans in cases Q Uninscribed single R Collars, necklets, armlets, rings S-T Juju [sic] U-W Stone X. Dance Y. Unclassed. - Y Unclassified Description: A [insert] fluted [end insert] bottle of thick glass, double bellied: the lower part spherical the upper ovoid. The bottle is silvered inside: the short neck has a fractured mouth. It is corked up and sealed with brown wax. It is said to contain a witch. Obtained about 1915 from an old lady in a village near Hove Sussex who stated "they do say there is a witch in it and if you let 'un out there'll be a peck o' trouble." Dimensions height 10.5 cm diam at A 3.9 cm diam at B [points shown on drawing] 5.7 cm Locality: Hove, Sussex How Acquired: dd Miss M.A. Murray 1926 References: Spirits confined in bottles v Shropshire Folklore (Jackson and Burne)

The witch in the bottle dates from the period when Murray first started publishing about witchcraft. It is not recorded how she obtained the artefact or why the old lady from near Hove was so willing to get rid of such a dangerous artefact. It is implied (but not confirmed) that Murray obtained the bottle at first hand.

Murray gave 10 other artefacts to the Museum between 1909 and 1912. Some enamelled toe-rings from Sind in India and some white metal toe rings from the 'United Provinces' (Uttar Pradesh), 3 'modern' Egyptian charm cases collected by Murray herself, she wrote a letter to Henry Balfour (the curator of the Museum) to tell him more about them:

'...The little coloured cases are from Egypt & contain verses from the Koran to be worn as charms on the person. The black and yellow are used only by women & children. Of the two red cases, the smaller (with tooled lines) is for men & for animals which require the same kind of protection, such as donkeys. I do not remember having ever having seen a camel wearing a "Koran". ...'

She also donated a leather purse from Egypt about which she commented: 'The larger case really went to you by accident. It is an ordinary Egyptian purse, such as is commonly used now by the natives there. I don't think it is of any anthropological interest, though I shall be delighted for you to have it'. Obviously Balfour did consider it interesting because the Museum kept, and accessioned it. Also from Egypt she gave a 'perforated & polished pebble worn as a charm to cure pains in the neck, modern Egyptian' and finally a 'pebble of hard stone perforated for wearing as a charm to ensure having children, Bedawin [presumably Bedouin], Egypt'.

She commented about amulets from Egypt:

In an Egyptian market one can always buy written amulets; these consist of a verse from the Koran written on paper and sewn up in a scrap of coloured American cloth or leather. The human female can have any colour she likes, except red, whih is reserved for the superior animals the men and the donkeys. These amulets are not worn as luck-bringers, but as protectors from evil spirits. [Murray, 1954: 7]

She also gave a charm in the 'form of miniature pair of closed scissors worn by women in the hair to prevent the hair splitting at the ends', from Crete. Presumably the rings might date from her childhood in India, the Egyptian charms etc were probably collected during her excavations. She may have stopped in Crete on the way to Egypt.

Further Reading



James, E.O. 1963. 'Dr Margaret Murray' Folklore Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 568-569

Oates, Caroline and Juliette Wood 1998 A coven of scholars: Margaret Murray and her working methods. London Folklore Society

Murray, M.A. 'The descent of property in the early periods of Egyptian history' Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (17 (1895), 240–45)

Murray, Margaret A. 1921 The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A study in anthropology Oxford: Oxford University Press

Murray, Margaret A. 1955 'Presidential Address: England as a field for folklore research' Folklore Vol. 65, No. 1 (April 1954), pp. 1-9

Murray, Margaret A. 1955 'Presidential Address: Folklore in History' Folklore Vol. 66, No. 2 (Jun., 1955), pp. 257-266

Murray, Margaret A. 1963 My First Hundred Years London: William Kimber

Simpson, Jacqueline 1994 'Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?' Folklore Vol. 105, (1994), pp. 89-96