Welwyn folklorist believed ‘witches were part of prehistoric fertility cult’

Suspected witches kneeling before King James in Daemonologie. Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Daemonologi

Suspected witches kneeling before King James in Daemonologie. Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Daemonologie - Credit: Archant

A folklorist, Egyptologist and the most famous proponent of the ‘witch-cult hypothesis’ died in Welwyn at the age of 100 in 1963, and during the Halloween period the WHT is shedding a light on her beliefs.

18th century pamphlet on witches in Hertfordshire

18th century pamphlet on witches in Hertfordshire - Credit: Archant

For some Margaret Murray was a believer and practitioner of magic, while others considered the Anglo-Indian lecturer a clear-eyed sceptic and a famous female academic at a time when few women were.

However, she ended up being remembered for the theory that “witches were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult” and as the inspiration behind modern paganism, according to academic Jacqueline Simpson.

And as Ms Simpson, who wrote ‘Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?’ explains, this view had many errors when many “so-called witches” were “totally innocent victims of hysterical Church-led panics”.

Ms Simpson writes: “Witches had indeed been up to something of which society disapproved, but it was in no way supernatural; they were merely members of an underground movement secretly keeping pagan rites alive in Christian Europe.”

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In Hertfordshire, many people were indicted on these charges from 1542 to 1736 with Knebworth, Wheathampstead and Hertford each having cases in surviving records. Jane Wenham of Walkern, the last person in England to be condemned to death for being a witch in 1730, was not the last one killed – as the drowning of Ruth Osborne by a mob in Tring, in 1751 shows.

However Ms Simpson acknowledges that Ms Murray never quite dreamed that she would inspire modern paganism.

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She said: “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.”

Amid failing health, Ms Murray moved to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in Welwyn in 1962 where she lived for the final 18 months of her life.

“She used to have an audience of doctors and nurses listening to her stories,” her friend Dr Violet McDermott said.

There she received 24-hour care and on her 100th birthday, July 13 1963, a group of her friends, former students, and doctors gathered for a party at Ayot St. Lawrence before her death in November that year.

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