On Saturday I went to the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The tag line for the exhibition is ‘Magic, ritual and witchcraft’ and it certainly covers all of those areas but it also looks more deeply at what it means to ‘think magically’.
I originally wrote this post as a kind of review of the exhibition but then I remembered that it’s only on until Saturday 6th January 2019 so there didn’t seem much point in raving about how fabulous it was when there were only a few days left to see it. I can, however, definitely recommend the book which accompanies the exhibition, which is also called ‘Spellbound’, as a very worthwhile and illuminating alternative.
Having written one novel which features magic and witchcraft and working hard on getting a second one finished I thought I was reasonably well informed but Spellbound made me question that and look again at some things which I thought I knew. These are the five things which really stood out for me in the exhibition.
I had completely underestimated the importance of magic to the medieval mind and the beautiful manuscripts on display really made me think about this area. I had no idea that angelic magic was practised or that demons were summoned to predict the future or answer questions. One of the books contains detailed descriptions on how to create the Seal of Solomon which could help a magician summon demons and trap them in glass, a stone or a mirror. The tools of the magician on display included a metallic mirror used to trap the demon, Floron. The Wellcome Manuscript was on display which contains magical rituals and recipes on the care of plants, beekeeping, alchemy, divination and medicine. A page has been removed from the book which described the final steps a ritual to incite love but someone, presumably a later owner of the book, inserted another page at the end of the book which completes the ritual. This wasn’t the only manuscript with pages missing and I couldn’t help but think of The Book of Life in ‘A Discovery of Witches’ especially as some of these beautiful old books came from the Bodleian Library. Sadly I could only peer at them in a glass case and not actually touch them but I did feel a little bit like Diana Bishop as I did it.
Not just shoes
I was aware of the practice of concealing shoes in houses to protect the home against bad luck or evil spirits but I’d never seen any items which had been used in this way. Spellbound displays a wide range of objects found in houses which are believed to be placed there as a part of anti-witchcraft rituals. Some of the items are a little disturbing, a mummified cat and rat, a bull’s heart pierced with nails, a roughly carved female poppet. Others are more homily, a corset, a man’s hat, a china doll’s arm and, intriguingly, a selection of railway timetables. It’s fascinating to wonder why so many objects were concealed in some homes and what these objects meant to the family in residence.
Take my heart
One of the most surprising objects in the exhibition is a human heart in a silver heart-shaped case which was found in the pillar of a church in County Cork in Ireland. The label explains that some wealthy men and women had significant organs, such as the heart, removed from their bodies after their death and the organ was then buried in a different place. The believe was that each organ accessed the power of the sacred space in which it was buried and that this would assist in the salvation of the soul. Of course, I couldn’t see this without thinking of horcruxes in Harry Potter but it also got me thinking about ways of using this idea in my writing (although I’m not planning on cutting the heart out of any dead character just yet!)
I’d heard about ‘cunning folk’ and I’d thought they practised a kind of folk magic. I was correct in that party but what I hadn’t realised was that these wise women and wise men were also battling witches and their spells. Through the spells they collected and the knowledge gained from other sources (which possibly involved talking to fairies) these cunning folk conducted rituals and produced charms to protect their clients and their possessions. Witch bottles were invented by cunning folk as a form of protection. They also wrote charms for their customers. There’s a grimoire of a cunning man from Yorkshire called George Lambert on display which dates from 1707. It’s a tiny book, maybe two inches wide and three long and hand written and is open on the page headed ‘Against Witchcraft’. It must have been a brave person who battled witchcraft using charms and rituals at a time when witches were widely persecuted and I have a lot of respect for George Lambert and other cunning folk.
Ritual and magic
One of the things which the exhibition does very well is to draw parallels between the magical thinking of the past and the present. It starts with a series of questions including Do you have a lucky object? (Me: how long a list do you want?) and, beside a strategically placed ladder, Do you worry about tempting fate? (Me as I walk around said ladder, salute a magpie I’ve spotted out of the window and touch wood: all the time). The exhibition includes a display of padlocks taken from a bridge in Leeds. Each of them is inscribed, sometimes engraved in the metal, sometimes scrawled on with a Sharpie, with the names of the lovers who left it on the bridge. This ritual is designed to lock the couples love onto the structure and ensure that their love endures. It’s a form of magical thinking, just as much as our ancestors performing love magic. Although I’d thought about ritual in relation to certain types of folk magic (for example, tying ribbons to the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury) I’d not associated it with other rituals which occur in modern life or even my own fairly extensive list of superstitions. Just because these superstitions largely came from my granny (a woman who would have stoutly denied being magical in any shape or form) doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking magically when I refuse to cross someone on the stairs, give money in a new purse or won’t open my umbrella indoors.
There’s much more to the exhibition than I can fit into this blog post and should you be in or around Oxford (and can get a ticket) it’s definitely worth a visit. Photography is not permitted in the exhibition so the pictures of the witch ladder and the Corajisima are from objects I saw in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which is also very much worth visiting.