Spellbound – Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Many thanks to John Umney for creating a reason to visit Oxford to return books that he’d kindly lent me, and to Holly Woodward for coming with me. There is always so much to be gained from an exhibition by seeing it and discussing it with other students and I am very grateful.

There is no significant photographic component to this exhibition except for the final exhibit documenting Helen Duncan’s trial under the Witchcraft Act in 1944. The exhibition shows artifacts, objects and artworks both historic and contemporary. I thought it looked interesting in terms of contextualising women over the time period covered.

We learned early on that 4 out of every 5 people accused of witchcraft were female, leading to the interesting deduction that 20% weren’t female. This proportion was much higher in Scandinavian countries where many men were accused because of possessing shaman drums or artefacts. Perhaps outside of Scandinavia the men were regarded as sorcerers or warlocks rather than witches. It was interesting to read that one witch, Anne Bodenham had learned her skills from Dr Lambe, the alleged personal wizard to the Duke of Buckingham. This suggests something of a double standard between male and female practitioners/accused in the UK at least.

Many households protected themselves against magic and witches by concealing objects such as worn shoes and clothing within the walls, chimney and roofs of their homes. But interestingly, witches were also accused of using talismans to make their spells. It was challenging sometimes to look at a displayed “horde” and try to imagine if it was sourced from a home or an accused witch. Clearly everyday objects secured a different supernatural significance depending on how they were used and who was using them.

There was no photography permitted in the exhibition, and sadly the catalogue does not show one of the highlights for me – the small artefact labels handwritten in tiny writing. There was something about those labels that made the silvered sealed bottle (purported to contain a witch) and the feather ghirlanda (that would have been placed inside a mattress to cause death) seem even more convincing – clearly the labels weren’t needed as the objects were genuine in their background without them – but the text added another layer of credibility. This is something that I need to continue to think about, how text can reinforce our perceptions/understanding of an image or an object, and how that might change depending on whether the text is handwritten or typed or computer generated. Does a smaller handwritten label suggest more authenticity when associated with an older object? The exhibition as a whole really made me think about narrative – the way that we attribute meaning and myth to objects. Is something a device to scare birds from crops, or is it a witch’s ladder?

Of the women accused of witchcraft or depicted engaging in witchcraft, the majority were older, post-menopause women often dependent on younger family. I found it hard sometimes to separate the depicted fear of witchcraft from an implied fear of women. Indeed sometimes it was interesting to substitute the word “women” for the word “witches”.

“..witches haunt our imagination as creatures of the night, rebels against God, a secret enemy within…” (quote from caption)

Women who were skilled in healing were suspect, as were women who were perceived to have a grievance against others who subsequently suffered personal or business loss. Benadetto Montagno depicted women as objects of fear who only cared about satisfying their own desires and hence provoked impotence. “The idea of witchcraft conveyed the threat posted by rebel women to orderly households and communities. ” (quote from caption). Evidence was circumstantial at best and could be as loose as an insect seen running fast around the same room as the accused woman, or the woman weighing less than her parish scriptures. The Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1951 (some 33 years after women started to get the vote). It was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

It would be nice to think that accusations of malevolent witchcraft are well behind us. However the current President of the US has tweeted numerous times about being the victim of a “witch hunt”. It’s hard to imagine the parallels between persecuted older women in the 16th and 17th centuries and this affluent and powerful white contemporary man. This is the same President who has mocked women for bleeding… I’m inclined to think that if witch-hunts were still a thing then perhaps he would be more likely to be on the opposing side.

I found this exhibition thought-provoking for a number of reasons, including its strong focus on every day objects, the way it showed how witches were depicted (as someone part-way through a particularly vibrant test menopause I found this especially fascinating) and the strong narratives and myths that are woven through our lives and continue to do so. It has placed more blocks in my contextual knowledge and there is plenty to think about here.






2 thoughts on “Spellbound – Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

  1. Catherine October 5, 2018 / 2:06 pm

    It looks to be fascinating, so I must make the effort to visit. the age aspect hadn’t occurred to me and just made me wonder (given that being ‘old’ then was at a much younger age than now) how much it might have been connected with wanting to get rid of women who were seen as a burden on the family. There’s something else around what’s forbidden to women, and men for that matter, and how much we might have hidden other aspects of being more connected with the spiritual or transpersonal – myth, legend and other states of being.

  2. Kate October 5, 2018 / 5:13 pm

    I’d definitely recommend it Catherine, it certainly made me think, and not just on the witchcraft side but on the whole lexicon of ritual and superstition – charm bracelets, household rituals… It’s beautifully put together and there’s some very interesting contemporary work too.

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