Spellbound: A Review of the Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


“Explore the history of magic over eight centuries in this immersive and thought-provoking exhibition. The intriguing objects on display show how our ancestors used magical thinking to cope with the unpredictable world around them. They range from the fantastical and macabre (a unicorn’s horn, a human heart encased in lead), the beautiful and mysterious (exquisitely engraved rings to bind a lover and medieval books of ritual magic), to the deeply moving confessions of women accused of witchcraft.
The exhibition asks 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 might need a bit of magic in our lives.
To illuminate the links between past and present, specially commissioned works by contemporary artists provide dramatic responses to the themes of the show, conjuring demons, flames and the scuttling of malignant spirits.”

Spellbound – a link to the Ashmolean website

Spellbound runs from 31st August 2018 until 6th January 2019

Museum exhibition design by: Stanton Williams

The buzz surrounding Spellbound has been quite something. Here is a nationally important museum displaying over 200 exhibits from around Europe representing some 800 years of witchcraft and magic. No less a celebrity than Oxford local Philip Pullman has written about it (Why We Believe in Magic) and even sponsored it. You might expect an exhibition at the newly-refurbished Ashmolean to be well supported in this way but it certainly helps in terms of both presentation and marketing. The advert made for YouTube was particularly exciting:

Watch Spellbound on YouTube

A small coven of friends decided to set a date and travel to Oxford for the day in order to view Spellbound. Though booking is advised, we were unsure of our arrival time and were able to buy tickets when we got to the museum (£13.50 each on the door, £12.25 online and concessions for senior citizens, Oxford University staff, students, the unemployed, kids and Art Fund members).

The atmosphere of the exhibition is evident from the point of entry. The lighting is subdued and the small row of exhibits in front of you is subtly lit, drawing you towards them. Thrillingly, on a podium in the centre of the room is a small silvered glass flask, stoppered with red wax. A tiny hand-written label informs the viewer that this was found in 1850 in Brighton and is said to contain a witch. It was obtained by the Pitt Rivers Museum (well worth a visit itself) from an old lady near Hove in 1915 who said, “They do say there be a witch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.” This might qualify for English understatement of the year, 1915. Still, no one has yet opened it.


A witch trapped in a bottle. England, c. 1850. Glass, silver, cork and wax. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Each item displayed comes with a question: Do you have a lucky object? Do you believe in mysterious forces in the world? Could you stab the image of a loved one? Fundamentally the question that the exhibition organisers are posing is whether magic is still a part of our modern world. Do we still think ‘magically’? A ladder is propped up against the wall for you to walk under to prove your disbelief in superstitions.

Having prepared you for the exhibition, you walk into the first room to see a long row of beautiful objects: amongst them are medieval manuscripts, a protective prayer roll to be wrapped around the body of a woman in labour, an armillary sphere (used by astrologers and/or physicians to predict the future) and a wooden carving of St Michael saving a soul from the devil. If we acknowledge that the medieval world was far fuller of danger than ours, then you can start to see why these items were made and why they were prized. They are an attempt to impose order on an irrational world. You would do all you could to protect yourself and your family whether it was by following rituals, paying astrologists to read the stars or carrying powerful amulets. Certain times of life; childbirth, childhood, marriage; illness and death were all areas fraught with danger as they marked transitions from one stage to another. These stages all had magical customs and items associated with them and many were on display. Not knowing when spiritual or physical peril would strike, all aspects of your person should be protected. Even a 15thC ear pick was inscribed with the name of Jesus to protect that particular orifice from the attentions of Satan.

In amongst the items on display was an obsidian mirror long associated with John Dee, the Elizabethan astrologer, mathematician and magician (they were not subdivided topics back then which may or not be an advancement on the current age) and sometime advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. It was perfectly round and flat and its dull sheen seemed to draw in the light. Used for scrying (magical divination), it was a striking addition to the exhibition and I longed to know more about it.

John Dee’s obsidian mirror, (c) http://www.arthistoryproject.com

Rather jarringly, and this happened elsewhere in the exhibition, an item of Japanese heritage sat near it. Though I would be interested in hearing how magic was practised outside European culture, indeed a whole new exhibition might grow from that premise, there was nothing else to support it and it felt like an odd note to strike.

Passing from that space to the next (walking by two narwhal/unicorn tusks) your entry to the next room is marked by an old barn door covered in apotropaic markings (designs to ward off witches). These are a random series of Vs and Ms, possibly standing for Virgin Mary, and daisy wheels: circular to frustrate demons (who apparently could only travel in straight lines) and with a never-ending loop inside to trap them.

Apotropaic markings on a calf-barn door, Laxfield, Suffolk, 17thC (Private collection)

Doors, windows, chimneys, all of these were places of entry and exit and therefore must also be protected, as with the human body. These liminal spaces are also the most likely places to find things designed to ward off bad spirits or other malefactors. As a hang-over from these beliefs, you can still find horseshoes nailed over doorways around the UK.

Some portentous items have been found buried under floorboards, in walls or in roof spaces. This is where the exhibition took a turn for the grim. A mummified cat and a rat, touchingly laid on a white pillow, mournful looking leather shoes, wooden poppets and animal bones all told of a desire to trap some kind of energy or force inside the house for protection or good luck.

Sympathetic magic meant that two things that had been in contact, such as the witch and her victim, shared an invisible bond which could be used: the witch might use it to cast powerful spells, the victim might use it to ward off the evil. If an animal had died of suspected witchcraft then a well-known ritual appears to have been to remove its heart, pierce it with iron nails and needles or thorns and place it in the chimney to cause similar pain to the witch. Some of these hearts, darkly shrivelled and full of menace, were on display.

Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, date unknown. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Bellarmine bottles were filled with urine and a human victim’s nail clippings and hair, with pins and needles, sealed and buried somewhere in or near the victim’s house, with the same aim as the pierced heart.

Here I have to give credit to the designers, Stanton Williams. They created a tall set, the background stands to the displays shrouded in black gauze and stretching up into the darker reaches of the ceiling. Items like the apotropaic firebacks were set into the stands and, upon stepping closer, you realised that other items were displayed higher than your head inside a replica chimney, giving you an instant appreciation of their original resting places. Modern art reactions to the exhibition contents are also on display. Some of the more successful are the Ackroyd & Harvey From Aether to Air, which carefully positioned the crystalline human body between heaven and hell and always in transition, and Katherine Dowson’s magnificently creepy Concealed Shield. This re-creates a chimney space filled with strange scurrying sounds and travelling red lights that are shone through a glass heart and which appear and disappear on the walls; sympathetic magic, eat your heart out.

See a short video about the artist creating the work

The third and final room concentrates on witches themselves, their persecution and how they have been perceived throughout the centuries. That is a lot to fit into one space and has perhaps been better attempted elsewhere though it was fascinating to see the European fine art juxtaposed with the actual items used to indict witches, such as the (replica) witch scale that weighed witches against copies of the Bible. There were audio re-enactments of two witch trials for you to hear, one of which was most affecting. Margaret Moor actually gave herself up to the 17thC Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, for she had convinced herself that she had performed magic and caused suffering on behalf of the devil. Margaret had already lost three of her four children to early deaths and when the devil appeared in a dream to offer her his protection of the fourth in return for her soul, she had little choice other than to accept. Who could do any less for their one surviving child?

The exhibition ended with the exploration of Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan who was imprisoned in 1944 under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. She was said to have materialised ectoplasm (probably white imitation silk) that formed into ghosts who talked and even sang. Her believers were genuinely convinced that she had contact with the spirit world – and here the exhibition ended as it began, with belief. If you believed that you can be affected by other-worldly forces, and how else might you explain sudden illness or changes of fortune, that very belief might bring about a difference in your circumstances. It might be through wearing a charm, carving a mark on your house or employing someone to perform a ritual on your behalf but if you believe in the effects of magic then you can also use magic to protect yourself: a kind of mystical quid pro quo. No one, even today is immune from magical thinking. As I sat writing this review, I  heard a chattering magpie on the fence outside my front door and I had to go outside to count just how many there were. One, for those interested (sad face!).

Witchcraft, its trials and its executions are relatively well-trodden subject and my own enduring fascination for the weird and uncanny meant that I went to Spellbound armed with a certain amount of knowledge about the exhibits. The keenest thrill for me was actually seeing some of the items that I had only read about before. Nevertheless, I went to learn more about them and came away slightly dissatisfied on that point. It was a disappointment felt by all our group because the information on the exhibition labels was largely descriptive rather than explanatory and seemed to sacrifice concentration on a few interesting topics for the excitement of simply having all of these items together in one place. That is not to say that we did not enjoy the exhibition, we did. But we came away with far more questions than were answered by the exhibition.

Perhaps the problem is that some of these things simply do not have an explanation. We do not know what rituals accompanied the piercing of the sheep and bulls’ hearts because they have left no archaeological trace and the folk memory is lost. Some things defy description. Take the witch post for example. It is a deeply carved wooden post the label for which said it was a witch post from Yorkshire with a suggested date. What is a witch post? Were they tied to it? Were they beaten away with it? It appears to have been a clog almanac, the origins and uses of which are unknown though possibly Viking. Their attribution to witches is just a symptom of their weirdness and maybe that was the point that the exhibition was trying to make: that odd or unusual things can be misunderstood as ‘witchy’. The exhibition catalogue helped but a touch more exploration on site would have been useful.

There is a great selection of further reading which is useful and the exhibition itself came from a funded research project, “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300 -1900“. Surrounding the exhibition is a series of lectures, events and art work which would be fascinating to attend. I wish I lived nearer so that I could take advantage of these events. Events Listings

The proportion of women to men at Spellbound was marked, although there were plenty of couples there. Also, the general age was probably 30-40 upwards which might be reflective of a general museum-visiting audience but I suspect that an exhibition like this might also collect a younger audience especially at weekends. Certainly there were a lot of interested folks and it would be good to see how the visitor figures play out for the Ashmolean. I would hope that they, and other national museums, have the daring and the drive to search deeper into the stories of female and ‘other’ peoples at the fringes of history, their beliefs, their fears and their magic.