If you start thinking about autumn and Halloween as soon as the weather gets cooler, you should consider planning a trip to see “Spellbound” at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. “Spellbound” highlights humanity’s obsession with the supernatural, magic, and witchcraft. The objects’ histories range from the Middle Ages to the modern era and showcase how superstition gave people a feeling of control over their lives. Even today, many of us have seemingly-odd beliefs about our routines or possessions that science would not support. In a lot of ways, we are just as spellbound by magic as people hundreds of years ago.
A crystal, a witch bottle, and cheesecloth
Life during the Middle Ages was especially unpredictable and everyday people looked to magic just as often as religion or science for answers. This blend of the supernatural and natural studies continued for hundreds of years. One of best-known magicians/thinkers of the 16th century, John Dee, advised Queen Elizabeth I and was greatly respected. At the museum, you can see a crystal he claimed was given to him by an angel named “Uriel.” Dee supposedly used the crystal to conjure good spirits or keep bad ones prisoner. In 1651, an alchemist who had inherited the object refused to use it, saying an evil spirit had broken out of it.
Seemingly-random and often gruesome objects make up the heart of the collection. In the past, people lived in constant fear of witches and would collect items they believed could protect them. Horseshoes and pieces of iron would rebel a witch, while small bottles filled with wine, seawater, needles, herbs, and other ingredients could trap a witch’s spirit should she try to enter a house. The bottle in the exhibit contains urine, fingernail clippings, clumps of hair, brass pins, and iron nails.
One of the more modern objects of note is a piece of cheesecloth that once belonged to Helen Duncan. Born in 1897, Duncan lived and worked in Scotland as a medium and spiritualist. She conducted fraudulent seances where she would swallow and then regurgitate the cheesecloth, claiming it was ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is a supernatural substance that appears when spirits are manifested. In addition to cheesecloth, mediums often used gauze, egg white, and other materials. In the 1930’s, Duncan was exposed and prosecuted in 1944 under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She was the last person imprisoned under this law and was released after six months. The case drew attention to the absurdity of the law and it was repealed in 1951.
Modern reflections on magic
In addition to objects from the past, three modern artists created art pieces. One by Ackroyd & Harvey features a man’s body formed by aluminium sulphate crystals that the artists grew themselves, while Katharine Dowson’s “Concealed Shield, 2018” displays a glass heart pierced with red beams of light. It is mounted high on a wall where a chimney would be built, because people once put animal hearts in their chimneys to ward off witches. Annie Cattrell’s “Verocity, 2018” presents everyday objects like clocks carved with magic symbols and words alongside a video of a woman’s confession of witchcraft and a gradually-growing flame.
Annie Cattrell’s piece in particular highlights how important is to remember that the fear of witchcraft primarily targeted women and cost many their lives. “Spellbound” has a section on the Salem Witch Trials, reminding us with written accounts of the cruel punishments. We may gawk at mummified cats and “unicorn” horns, but these objects represent real beliefs that impacted real people.
You can see the Spellbound exhibition until January 6, 2019 at the John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries. A ticket costs around 12 euros.