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Enrol for a History of Magic Lesson…

With October well under way, there is only one thing on many Autumn-o-philes minds. Halloween! If you’re too impatient to wait until the 31st to delve into the world of witches, magic and mystery, then why not get started early with a trip to the Ashmolean’s “Spellbound” exhibition for a lesson in the History of Magic!

With around 180 objects in the exhibition, Spellbound is a veritable witches cavern of artefacts that chart magic and ritual through the ages, from the medieval world’s obsession with stars and cosmology to the preoccupation and fear of witches in the 17th Century. Many of the objects are very small and delicate, and are stored in lines of glass cases in the exhibition space, acting like a treasure trove of (sometimes) terrifying trinkets. Voodoo dolls with needles sticking out of them, and hand painted spell books from the Italian Renaissance may seem to have more in common with a Harry Potter novel than our contemporary world (there are even carved mandrake roots which Potterheads will remember from The Chamber of Secrets), but the success of Spellbound is that it facilitates its visitors in viewing these fascinating objects as relevant to their 21st century lives, and revealing how even in our supposed age of enlightenment, we still think magically.

Poppet of stuffed fabric in Edwardian style black dress with stilletto through face. South Devon, England. 1909-13. 38cm. (c) The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Bocastle.
The Ashmolean does this in some very simple but thoughtful ways, a prime example being that as visitors enter, the first thing they are confronted with a ladder stood against a wall, inviting you to decide whether to tempt fate and walk under it, or to play it safe and walk around it, introducing us to the fact that we are still at the mercy of superstitious beliefs. Then, throughout the exhibition, artefacts are accompanied by questions, inviting the viewer to relate their contemporary practices to these historic objects, such as “do you have a lucky object?” and “Could you stab the image of a loved one?” Once you start realising that throwing darts at a photograph and having a lucky pair of socks isn’t so far removed from sticking pins in a wax figure of a Chinese man or a lucky coral brooch of the Archangel Michael, it’s a lot easier to relate to individuals from yesteryear, and understand how magic permeated their lives. There is even a section dedicated to love which offers the most overwhelming evidence that we’re still magically minded, as a moving display of love locks collected from Leeds Centenary Bridge and thought to symbolically bind couples together covers a vast wall of the exhibition space.

Contemporary Love Lock on Leeds Centenary Bridge, 2016. Image Courtesy of Ceri Houlbrook
Whilst magic, with the love locks and charms as a prime example, can be seen as a romantic affair, the Ashmolean does not shy away from displaying the more gruesome side of ritual practices. Some items are particularly stomach churning for animal lovers, who will be confronted with a bull's heart and a toad stuck with thorns for use in witchcraft, narwhal tusks taken from the underwater creatures and sold off as unicorn horns with medicinal and magical properties, and even a mummified cat and rat, which were thought to be placed in walls to ward off witches.

Image Credit: Bull's heart pierced with iron nails and thorns. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, Date Unknown. 13 x 9 cm. (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
But the arguably most stomach churning subject is left to the final room of the exhibition, which explores the perception of and persecution of witches in the famous trials of the 16th Century. This section helps you come to realise that the concept of witchcraft is fundamentally routed in sexism, as many “witches” were in fact intelligent women that would have been the doctors and nurses of today! But, instead, they are portrayed as gaggling, wart infested creatures in etching and paintings, such as the horrific Witches at their Incantations (1646) by Salvator Rosa. To understand the weight of being accused of witchcraft, make sure you take a look at the replica witch scale, which would be used weigh convicts against the bible and determine whether or not they were guilty. The alternative method of determination was certain death either way, as witches would be thrown, tied up and weighed down into a river, to see if they would sink (denoting their innocence) or float (suggesting they were a witch, and would then be killed for their crimes.

Salvator Rosa (1615-73), Witches at their incantations, circa 1646. Oil on canvas, 72 x 132 cm, (c) National Gallery London
Like many of the other artefacts in this exhibition, witch hunting is not as far removed from our society as we’d like to think. The last woman to be imprisoned for witchcraft was Scottish medium Helen Duncan in 1944 – less than 100 years ago! No wonder the wizarding world in Harry Potter are so keen to keep their heads down…
Spellbound runs until 6 January 2019 at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2PH