Magic in the home: Spellbound Exhibition, Ashmolean Museum

When I was young, I read that food or drinks should be stirred clockwise for positive energy. It is something I have done since, usually automatically, and in many ways it was one of my first magical actions. Although innocuous and slight, it works for me; I want the abundance of positive energy this small action has the potential to invoke. A small piece of magical thinking that starts in the home.

We are asked to question our relationship to magic and magical thinking at the Ashmolean Museum’s sumptuous Spellbound exhibition. The largest exhibition of its kind, the event takes us through a cultural history of magic, from medieval times to the present day, via three distinct themes: the medieval universe, the early modern community, and the modern home. Medieval textbooks belonging to Royal courts and John Dee’s crystal ball (a gift to the mathematician and astrologer from the angel Uriel in 1582), demonstrate the great esteem in which magic was held during this era, co-existing alongside science and medicine.

19th ‘Ghirlanda delle streghe’, made from bone, feathers and hair, secreted in a mattress, apparently to cause death.

While the exhibition provides an overwhelming feeling of magic as a form of protection and control in times of crises, we are also reminded of how certain items were intended to wield chaos and harm. A delicate 19th Century Ghirlanda delle streghe (an Italian witch garland) made of feathers, bone and hair, is delicate and fragile, yet intended to cause death to enemies. Other items, including a voodoo doll from Malaysia (1986), created to harm a specific individual, and a toad pierced with thorns (1917), likely used for similar harmful intentions, may also provoke unease. A small vessel, containing a witch, never to be freed, is strikingly understated, while a pill bottle, an objet trouvé washed up on the banks of the Thames, housing human teeth, possibly as an offering, probe our curiosity about the importance of magic to keep us safe and ward off fear.

Glass flask, reputed to contain a witch, of unclear sex, obtained by a woman from Hove, Sussex, 1915. She remarked: ‘They do say there be a witch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.'”

While Medieval society acknowledged women as the followers and practitioners of magic, especially capable in concocting natural remedies, tinctures and aphrodisiacs, this skill could be perceived as inherently negative, especially in matters of the heart. In 1469, Jacquetta, the Duchess of Bedford, was accused by a political foe of influencing the marriage between her daughter Elizabeth Woodville to Edward IV. Despite her acquittal, Edward III’s insistence that Parliament annual the marriage, staking his claim to the throne, fortified rumours of witchcraft and stands as an example of patriarchal privilege being wielded to persecute women. The cultural association between women and love magic is rendered in an anonymous fifteenth century painting depicting a naked young woman gazing at a gold casket containing a red human heart. The heart was believed to be the ‘seat of the soul, the conscience and the passions’, in need of constant protection. A shriveled heart in a heart-shaped lead case (or ‘cist’), found in County Cork and dating to the twelfth or thirteenth Century, reminds us that noble men and women believed that removing their heart from the body on death and burying it separately would keep their soul from eternal harm.

Witches’ ladder, made of cock feathers, Wellington, Somerset, donated in 1911 by Anna Taylor, wife of anthropologist Edward Burnett Taylor. From an old lady’s attic.  Said to be designed to stop neighbours’ cows from producing milk.

Spellbound’s second room, ‘Magic in the Home’, makes it powerfully evident that the home was a metaphor for the heart of a person: to attack a home is to attack a person and precautions must always be taken.

Symbols to ward off village witches were painted on doors, while the home’s weak spots (the orifices of a body in mortar form — chimneys, fireplaces, anyplace with easy entry) were stuffed with various items to prevent access. But the other items on display are not necessarily intended to prevent entry. Instead, they serve as a dialogue between the home and tenants, an unspoken agreement to care for one another, and for families to leave their stamp on their much-loved residence. Shoes dating back to the mid-nineteenth century were unearthed in 1994, in a house in Otley, West Yorkshire, while clothes and other items of domesticity dating back to 1860-80 were found in Northamptonshire. Since the 1950s, over 3,000 shoes, dating back to 1800-1900s, have been reported to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. While builders would likely make offerings during renovations for luck with their next projects, it is curious why the shoes were always odd, never a pair. Perhaps it was a means of eternal connection to a house, like two halves of a lover’s locket.

This is what struck me the most: how magic is rooted in the domestic, and how much the home is a part of magical thinking. We view potential homes searching for that thing, that magic feeling that we will know will be ‘it, the right place for us. We light sage to cleanse negative energy, remove anything that could harm. We dry herbs and hang in windows, doors, and entranceway for similar reasons, to infuse and encourage positive energy. A witch will sweep with a broom for similar reason, leaving negative detritus out of doors. The home is a vessel of magical thinking; it keeps us safe from harm, and we must protect it in turn.

Magic is protection from threat, a tool for love and purpose, for kindness and joy. Used wisely it can change lives, used irresponsibly it can wield immense harm and chaos. In today’s age of continuing patriarchal oppression and female victimisation, magic has become a tool for women seeking strength and refusing to stay silent. The social media hashtag #witchesofinstagram has over one million tags, and #witchesagainstrump and #hexthepatriarchy over three thousand.  The organisation W.I.T.C.H. PDX (Witches’ International Troublemaker Conspiracy from Hell), based on the short-lived 1968 feminist activism project, launched in Portland, in November 2016 ‘in response to oppression and injustice throughout the world and in our own city’. It has inspired numerous sister outlets around the world. Their mission, to dismantle white supremacy, cites the mantra “we will not conform, we will not obey, we will not be silent.”

Magical thinking, whether for activism, personal use or creativity, continues to empower and inspire women all around the world, despite continuing to be abused as an excuse to murder women. To quote Dr Sophie Page, curator of Spellbound: “it [magical thinking] provides hope and a sense of control, but can make us scapegoat others and has led to appalling persecutions. It is an essential part of who we are.”

By Sabina Stent, Twitter @SabinaStent


Photographs courtesy of the ‘Spellbound Exhibition’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK, running till 6th January 2019.

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