Do you have a lucky object? Does performing rituals stop you feeling anxious? Do you worry about tempting fate?
At the entrance to the exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, these and other similar questions appear alongside some wonderfully bizarre artefacts, such as a coral brooch carved into the shape of Archangel Michael and a decomposed toad stuck with thorns. There is also a ladder leaning against the wall. On the busy Friday afternoon when I visited the museum, I did not see a single person walk under it. For a moment I stopped to think about how people would react if the only way to enter the exhibition would be to walk under the ladder. It is not difficult to imagine that they would be outraged. No matter how sceptical we believe ourselves to be, there is superstition in most of us.
Poppet' of stuffed fabric with stiletto through face, South Devon 1909-13
Once inside the exhibition halls the visitor is faced with an entire wall of padlocks inscribed with names, initials, and messages. The locks have been removed from a bridge where couples had attached them in the hopes that this act would symbolically tie them together forever in their love. If you have not performed this sentimental ritual yourself, you probably know someone who has. It is really nothing more than a light-hearted romantic performance. But in the context of the exhibition, the love locks remind us of the persistence of magical thinking in the modern world. We perform rituals and invest inanimate objects with a symbolic or spiritual power, even though, if we were ever asked to do so, we would probably not be able to explain how exactly this power works and what is its origin. Most of us would not admit to believing in malicious demons or benevolent spirits. Even in our present era with its social media witch-hunts and the overwhelming sense of a global collapse of reason, we have a tendency to associate magic and superstition with ancient, primitive, or distant cultures. Magical beliefs are something that have been abjected from the Western culture; they have been pushed to the margins, transformed or refashioned so that they no longer appear so primitive and irrational.
The exhibition explores the history of magic over eight centuries, demonstrating that the seemingly rational Western culture is in many ways built on magical beliefs, rituals, and traditions. To illuminate the continuation of past in the present, it also shows specifically commissioned contemporary works of art dealing with magical themes. Although visually impressive, many of these artistic responses to the themes of the show seem a little superfluous in comparison to the array of wonderfully fascinating historical objects. The focus is, indeed, exclusively ‘Western’, meaning that the material originates from Western Europe and North America, mostly from museum collections in the UK, and other cultures are left outside the scope. This may seem a somewhat restrictive approach and it certainly would have been possible to expand. Then again, a broader focus might have had the effect of exoticising magical thinking instead of presenting it as a feature of ‘our’ culture. The exhibition is clearly catered mainly for local audiences.
In the section exploring witchcraft it is impossible not to reflect on the complex issues of sexuality, gender, age, and power embedded in this phenomenon. In many ways the aftermath of historical witch-hunts continues to exist hidden underneath the surface, faded out of sight by the veil of our modern belief in rationality and equality. Some witches of course were (and are) men, but most of the witches portrayed in the numerous engravings on display are of the female gender – women of all ages, shapes, and forms, many of them portrayed in the nude. Ugly old hags with crooked noses and hollow cheeks are scheming together with beautifully plump young maidens. The indication seems to be to remind the (male) viewer that women with power are potentially dangerous, whether they are young and desirable or old and repellent (and these pairs of nominators go together by default). Yet, at the same time, looking at the images can be strangely liberating. Who would not rather be one of these strong and witty women than some languid nymph whose sole duty is to attract male desire?
Helen Duncan's 'Ectoplasm', c. 1939
Also included is a display case with material relating to the Scottish medium Helen Duncan, who in 1944 was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. This is a very straight forward example of how the witch-hunts that we associate with the ‘dark ages’ continued on into the modern world, and in itself it is an interesting story. But what stroke me the most as I reached this final part of the exhibition was that there was another narrative that could have been articulated more clearly. That is the story of the development of western science, which on so many levels is entangled with the history of magic. Mediumship was not just a spectacle; it was also the subject of serious scientific research, and this phenomenon taught scientists important things about how the human mind works. In late nineteenth-century, when science was constantly discovering invisible forces like magnetism, electricity, and x-rays, it was not so far off to believe in the existence of immaterial spirits. Somehow these important links between science and magic remain in the margins of the exhibition.
There is however, one particularly captivating object relating to this issue – although it can easily be missed by anyone who is not specifically looking for it. It is a manuscript published in 1583 by German physician Georg Bartisch (1535–1607) with beautifully precise and intensely horrifying woodcuts depicting diseases of the eye – a work of art as much as of science. Bartisch was a respected physician and a skilful surgeon, considered by many to be the ‘father of modern ophthalmology’, but he also believed that astrology, magic, and witchcraft played a significant part in the causes of disease. In the exhibition display, the book is opened to show an illustration of a particularly nasty looking eye disease that the author believed to be caused by witchcraft.
Disease of the eye caused by witchcraft, from Opthalmodouleia, Germany 1583
All in all, I left the exhibition with a feeling that it could have been more pedagogical and also more profound. The objects themselves were interesting, everything was beautifully displayed and carefully explained. But a more fundamental level was missing, so that some of the deeply meaningful artefacts appeared as nothing more than delightfully creepy curiosities.
Yet, even with its shortcomings, Spellbound is a thought-provoking show that has the potential to contribute towards a more open-minded outlook – one that allows us to perceive diversity and discord in historical processes so that we may also be able to accept these in the present. Our insistent belief in the scientific rationality of Western culture creates a restricted and distorted view of both the past and present. This can be dangerous because even if we try hard to ignore the significance of magical beliefs and rituals in the modern world, these modes of thought exist, and they continue to have power over us. The most important aspect of the exhibition is that it encourages us to examine our own beliefs and rituals, but perhaps it could have delivered this message in a more elucidating and intellectual manner.
The exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft is on view at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 6 Jan 2019. https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound