Last night, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology hosted an event titled “Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the ‘Lunatic’ Fringe”, which – as its name suggests – was devoted to the famous Egyptologist and folklorist who was herself well connected to the Petrie Museum and the man after whom it was named, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie. Although well-respected among scholars of Ancient Egypt, today Murray is perhaps better known as the foremost proponent of the discredited witch-cult theory which proved to be such a significant influence on the burgeoning Pagan religion of Wicca, and it was to this aspect of her life that this event was devoted. Scheduled to take place two weeks after Halloween – and thus within the season of all things witchy – it also fell upon 13th November, thereby marking the 52nd anniversary of Murray’s death.
Accompanied by a specially selected playlist and a palm reader operating amid the cases of Egyptological artefacts, the event was structured around two talks by established London academics. The first talk was provided by Titus Hjelm, a sociologist who teaches at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Having a particular interest in the sociology of religion, he has previously published both a Finnish-language book on Wicca and an English-language paper on Paganism in Finland within the pages of the Journal of Contemporary Religion (I cite the latter in my new book, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, now available for purchase in Europe). Hjelm provided the audience with a basic outline of Murray’s witch-cult theory and the impact that it had on the burgeoning Wiccan faith; it was the basic stuff for those of us who are already involved in the study of early Wicca, but enlightening for others nonetheless.
Hjelm was followed by Roger Luckhurst, a scholar of English literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Rather than talk about Murray per se, Luckhurst delved into the work of William Seabrook, an American surrealist and author whose prime claim to fame was through introducing the word “zombie” into the English language. Luckhurst dealt in particular with Seabrook’s 1942 book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, and while it wasn’t made completely clear that Murray exerted a strong influence over Seabrook’s understanding of witchcraft – which was more diabolist than pre-Christian – it nevertheless helped to set Murray’s ideas within their wider cultural setting.
The event was incredibly busy – many of us had to sit on the floor in order to hear the speakers – and I overheard a number of Petrie regulars commenting on how they had never seen the museum so crowded. Surely, this stands as a testament to how Murray continues to fascinate people and how she has continuing relevance for many of us today. Not a huge number of her contemporaries could say the same.