Spellbound at The Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean | Friends of Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
It was my great pleasure to receive an invite to the opening night of the new exhibition, entitled – Spellbound –  Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft – at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The back story to this invitation is a little long winded and convoluted, but basically, some years ago, I found an unusual ‘hidden’ object in the wall of my Tudor property in Lancashire.

I was interviewed by Dr Ceri Houlbrook from Hereford University as part of the  Inner Lives Project – and as well as a written report – here – she videoed my chat with her, which can also be found here on YouTube.

I was therefore delighted to hear that my ‘stick’ held sufficient interest to be included in this exciting exhibition. To date, the markings on it have not been totally confirmed as to what they are, or what the stick might have been used for.

Spellbound Ashmolean Museum | Frineds of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
As Friends, you’ll perhaps be aware that there are also certain objects on loan from The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic  which, for me, made this exhibition a ‘must see’ event.

The exhibition is described as …’the history of magic over eight centuries….filled with intriguing objects that show how our ancestors used ‘Magical Thinking’ to cope with the unpredictable world around them..’

They … ‘ask us to examine our own beliefs and rituals and aims to show how, even in this sceptical age, we still use ‘Magical Thinking’ and why we all might need a bit of magic in our lives.’

It is this expression – ‘Magical Thinking’ that has caught my imagination, as in a world of super technology, level headed Science and rational thinking, many of us are still drawn to the mysterious, undefinable and esoteric world that is Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, particularly.

So, on to the exhibition itself.

Sadly, as you’d expect, no photographs were allowed in the exhibition, which is completely understandable given that on view are priceless, exquisitely coloured Medieval manuscripts and books, on loan from several renowned museums and libraries.

Sophie Page, one of the curators of the exhibition, remarks in the book that accompanies the exhibition, that :
‘…the medieval conception of the universe was based on a pagan cosmological model…’

And it is there that your journey begins, with how the elements of magic became so ensconced in the medieval world, incorporated through astrology, angels and demons – and the magicians  use of such in order to procure love potions and spells, or to simply …’keep mice out of your house.’

Moving in to the next chamber, dimly light and yes, atmospheric, The Concealed Revealed section dealt with  our ancestors  necessity to secure and protect their homes, in particular, from exterior malevolent forces, such as demons and witches, and not just mice.

Spellbound Ashmolean | Frineds of The Museum of Witchcraft and MagicThis section brought me face to face with my own find, now,  displayed alongside a quite famous Witch post found in North Yorkshire which is normally held in the Pitt Rivers Museum close by. ( Note – photo is of description and not the objects). Here you will find mummified cats, old shoes, witch bottles, poppets, pierced hearts and various other objects of intrigue and mystery.

In terms of Magical Thinking today, this section, to me, seemed the most fascinating.  In the catalogue  (a beautifully orchestrated book featuring every object in the exhibition which can be purchase from the Ashmolean museum or website), comes  much greater details on where these were found, and how some , like mine, had not found their way into a museum, but were lovingly ( or with Magical Thinking ?) held on to, with the belief that the objects ‘needed’ to be kept close or even put back, in the place  they were originally hidden.

It is this aspect of the exhibition which puts Spellbound in another league from the usual exhibition type, as it encourages dialogue and, in my opinion, challenges those who view these objects to think about why, in this day and age, this seems somehow still important, relevant and ‘magical’.

As I passed by objects displayed in various installations, I heard people talking amongst themselves about the objects, what they thought of them, how they felt about them and why they found it all so fascinating.

Why should we care what was once hidden in a wall, or up a chimney, or beneath floorboards? Why are we so fascinated with Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft – whether we are Witches or not?

Remember, not many ( if any) of the guests at the open night have ever been to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, let alone seen any such objects before, quite possibly. It is that element too that also made me realise how vitally important it is to preserve and advance our beloved Museum in Boscastle, as it is truly ‘one of a kind’.

Spellbound Ashmolean Museum | Frineds of The Museum of Witchcraft and MagicOther aspects of the exhibition explore The Fear and Loathing of Witches and remind us of the so called ‘Witch Trails’ of the early 15th century, which continued on into the late eighteenth century in some places.

This section, dark and brooding, contained many old and historic and – yes, stereotypical depictions of how a witch was viewed at the time.  It was here we found the Witch Scale – a replica  chair and Bible used in the weighing of witches, which is on loan from The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

Spellbound Ashmolean Museum | Frineds of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
Photo Copyright of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

Also on display, another object that regulars to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic may recognise – The Curse Poppet ( circa 1909 -1913), reminding us that not all Witchcraft of the time was used for positive intent, in comparison to some of the protection objects found in houses.

Other sections incorporated into the exhibition include specially commissioned works by contemporary artists. The Ashmolean informs us that these:
‘… illuminate the links between past and present …… [and] provide dramatic responses to the themes of the show, conjuring demons, flames and the scuttling of malignant spirits.’Spellbound Ashmolean Museum | Friends of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
The final part of the exhibition entitled ‘Modern Ritual and Magical Thinking’ deals with ritual today and there were objects and ‘rituals’ which you would not necessarily associate with Witchcraft. The Love Locks of Leeds City ( up to 1,000 of them) were removed from The Millennium Bridge by the city council after concerns that they were adding to the process of rust on the bridge. Those who had left locks here were invited to collect them, rather than them simply being thrown away.

Other places worldwide had similar concerns and these too were not destroyed, but saved. Melbourne’s Southbank Bridge removed 20,000 such love locks and recycled them into objects of art, highlighting the ritualistic significance perhaps, of not destroying them?

Do you have a ‘ritual’ or superstitious belief of your own? Welcome to the club!

Phillip Pullman, fantasy novelist of the trilogy – His Dark Materials – owned up at the event during the opening evening speeches, to using some special worry beads which he keeps with him and uses especially before starting to write – believing them to hold some magical properties which allow his creative juices to flow.

As Ceri Houlbrook states in the book Spellbound:

‘ Clearly Magical Thinking is not just a feature of the past….
Just like our ancestors, we enact rituals and give agency to objects in order to comprehend and control our fears, hopes and loves.

Go see it, its truly Magical!

Adele Yeomans

Spellbound Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft is on now until the 6th of January 2019

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall is open until October 31st 2018

To Join Friends of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic – CLICK HERE

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Exton says:

    Yes we also saw it on the opening day. Must say that I kept thinking of Boscastle and comparing the contents of both venues. Purchased the catalogue which is a great publication. Boscastle however, to my mind , is beyond superb.. a place of pilgrimage for many. We will be there for the Dark Gathering in October, with our two Mari Lwyds. Great to read your article on Spellbound.

    1. Friends of The Museum of Witchraft and Magic says:

      Thank you – I agree about our Museum – it’s a treasure!

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