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A bewitching exhibition of magical thinking

A bewitching exhibition of magical thinking

The Ashmolean traces the history of spells and witchcraft, from ancient times to the present day

The Ashmolean traces the history of spells and witchcraft, from ancient times to the present day

David Bennun | August 31st 2018

I believe in magic. I fancy myself a rationalist, but I have my superstitions, my rituals, my fears of jinxes. If I defy them, it makes me uneasy. If you avoid walking under ladders, salute magpies, touch wood or throw salt over your left shoulder, then you believe in magic too. “Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft”, a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, is constructed on the premise that magical thinking – far from being confined to the past – is part of human nature.

Its exhibits range from ancient times to the present day. There are paintings, illustrated manuscripts, curios and a handful of new works especially commissioned for the exhibition. One of the spookiest is Katharine Dowson’s installation, “Commissioned Shield” (2018), which was inspired by the old British tradition of hiding charms around the house to ward off witches and other evil spirits. The viewer enters a dark space in which red light is projected onto the walls, creating swirling shapes. There are eerie scratching sounds – a reference, explains Dowson, to the cats and rats that were said to be witches’ “familiars”. In the middle of the space is a glass heart – hearts pierced with nails were sometimes placed inside chimney breasts. The haunted-house frisson is tinged with the sad knowledge that “witches” were generally ordinary people denounced for being different from what their societies expected of them.

It reminds us that magic can be both harmless – a way to make us feel we have control over our lives – and malign. The people who believed in witches in the 17th century are the forerunners of today’s anti-vaxxers and conspiracists. The message from “Spellbound” is that we should stop deluding ourselves that we can extinguish magic, but try and recognise it for what it is.

 

“Human heart in a lead box lined with silver” (12th or 13th century)

Preserved body parts, both human and animal, have been used in ritual practices throughout history and around the world. The exhibition features a 16th-century Italian ceremonial sword with the bone of a saint in its hilt, a mummified cat and rat, walled up together, and a sheep’s heart pierced with pins. This is the most macabre: a human heart in a heart-shaped casket, which was discovered in the crypt beneath Christ’s Church, Cork. In medieval times, it was believed that burying someone’s heart separately could hasten the saving of their soul.

“Witches at Their Incantations” by Salvator Rosa (c. 1646)

A man hangs from a tree, and naked women perform spells in this extraordinarily grotesque scene, painted in Florence in the middle of the 17th century, just after the peak of the witchcraft panic that convulsed Europe and North America. Over four centuries, 100,000 people were prosecuted for witchcraft – fourth-fifths of them women. The misogyny that lay behind many of these prosecutions is evident in this picture, with its lascivious representations of older women’s bodies. This combination of prurience and repulsion is typical of representations of witches from this era.

 

“Poppet curse”(1909-1913)/ “Wax figure of a Chinese man stuck with pins, used in sorcery” (collected in 1896)

Human effigies into which pins are inserted in the hope of inflicting real-life damage are popularly known as voodoo dolls. But the link with voodoo – a form of religion drawn from African customs and practised in the Carribean and the southern states of America – is shaky. Such dolls, sometimes known as “poppets”, have roots in European folk magic and have also been found in Malaysia.

We don’t know who this Chinese man is, but the stuffed cloth doll is apparently a “well-to-do lady in Exmouth” who was said to be rather spiteful. It was fashioned from cloth that had been stolen from her wardrobe. How effective was this attempted murder by magic, we don’t know.

 

“Love locks collection” (removed 2016)

For centuries, magic has been associated with matters of the heart, practised in the hope of winning another’s affections, curing lovesickness (once, like nostalgia, seen as a potentially fatal illness) and securing partnerships. We see evidence of this throughout “Spellbound”, from medieval charms, tokens, potions and incantations, to the contemporary rite of attaching padlocks to bridges. These are some 1,500 padlocks that have been removed from Leeds Centenary Bridge. You can’t help wondering how many of the couples they represent are still together.

 

“Witch’s ladder” (collected by 1911)

This object – twine with feathers tied to it – was found in an English roof space in 1911. It looks like the kind of hex-ridden construction that features in the “found footage” genre of horror films pioneered by “The Blair Witch Project”. Even the scientifically minded curators at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford faithfully recorded the rumour that it was a “witch’s ladder”, used to send spells into people’s homes. Modern historians favour a more mundane explanation: it was probably a sewel, a type of scarecrow used for driving deer in a hunt.

Spellbound: magic, ritual and witchcraft Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until January 6th 2019