Spellbound: Magic, Witchcraft & Ritual exhibition – a review
This promising looking exhibition at the ever-delightful Ashmolean in Oxford sought to explore the history of witchcraft over eight centuries through material culture, and examine how magical thinking still permeates life in the twenty first. Certainly it had on display some very impressive artefacts, including Dr Dee’s famous black scrying mirror (and swish purple crystal pendant), a 16th Century ceremonial sword with a protective crystal pommel, a 19th Century ‘witches ladder’ from Somerset made of feathers and twine, a 12/13th Century human heart encased in lead and silver, an early 20th Century poppet impaled by a stiletto, a treatise by the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, a hoard of magical rings, and more. I found the early manuscripts particularly fascinating, and it was a shame there was not more on the magical use of language. Apart from a thrilling invocation to Astaroth, the exhibition did not delve enough into notions of gramarye for my liking, which considering its textual title, was disappointing. Clearly, physical artefacts have more ‘affect’, but (recording of the Astaroth spell, and the Music of the Spheres apart) more could have been done with sound, e.g. audio interviews of modern witches or field recordings of rituals, banishings, and so forth. There was the inevitable account of a witchcraft trail and confession, and these at least were dramatised. And yet most exhibits focused on negative portrayals of witchcraft through the centuries – classic engravings of hags (sorry, ‘post-menopausal women’) riding goats backwards to sabbats, conjuring up foul potions, stealing babies, and other misogynistic stereotypes. These are all extant of course, and are an important part of the socio-historical record, but it would have balanced things redemptively to have had modern witches discuss their beliefs and practices, as a counter-spell to the centuries of fear and loathing. Witchcraft is, after all, a living tradition, with thousands, if not millions, of practitioners around the world, whether Wiccan, traditional, hedgewitch, or otherwise. There was no parsing of magic into ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘green’ and so on. Accounts of how it was used in the Second World War for instance, or in more recent ecological protests, would have been resonant. The exhibition seemed determined to keep witchcraft in the past, as a historical phenomenon to be scrutinised academically. The introduction announced it to be all ‘imaginative fantasy’ even before visitors had a chance to make up their own mind. The efforts to explore magical thinking felt half-hearted – a fascinating aspect reduced to walking under a ladder. The commissioned artistic responses were interesting, and added a frisson of the contemporary, but it seemed all too cursory. What would have situated it more firmly in topical discourse would have been a section of representations of witchcraft in popular culture (TV, film, novels, music, computer games, cosplay, online memes, and so forth). There is no shortage of examples after all (Circe to Harry Potter; Morgana to Sabrina: the teenage witch, et al). This was done in the 2015-16 ‘Celts: art and identity’ exhibition at the British Museum and managed to avoid a sense of populist ‘dumbing down’. Space for such a display could have been made by removing the redundant spiritualist exhibit (which has nothing really to do with witchcraft, and seems to have been placed at the end of the exhibit merely as a form of dispelling or discrediting all domestic ‘sorcery’ – as reified by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951; that may have repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but it did not extirpate magical thinking from modern life: indeed, it made the public practise of witchcraft possible, if not socially acceptable). Ultimately, the curators had to make decisions based upon space, availability, and relevance, and it is far easier to pick holes in something once it has been manifest. The Ashmolean should be applauded for such bold programming. As a spring board for discussion, ‘Spellbound’ offers a stimulating introduction into cultures of enchantment.
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018
Spellbound finishes 6 January 2019. Booking recommended: https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound