As the Ashmolean Museum prepares to explore the worlds of ritual and witchcraft, Museum Crush talks to curator Sophie Page about angels, demons and magical objects
John Dee, the most famous magician of Elizabethan England, advised Queen Elizabeth I on all magical matters by using a crystal ball he claimed had been given to him by the Angel Uriel in 1582. Dee’s abilities ranged from asking advice from benevolent angels to ensnaring demons, as the two were often found hand-in-hand in the cosmos.
Dee’s crystal ball is one of the items held in Spellbound, Ashmolean Museum’s autumn exhibition, exploring witchcraft and magical items in a display of 180 objects from 12th – 19th century Europe.
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The exhibition reveals the strange and enigmatic methods people employed throughout history to deal with unknown concepts.
Via items such as his crystal ball, Dee often immersed himself in magical theory, combining it with contemporary science in ways unfathomable to us today.
“Dee was trying to understand the cosmos better, he was exploring angels as intermediaries,” says Sophie Page, head curator at the museum.
“He had this position at court that came from his great learning and skill in mathematics and then by the end of his life he died poor. I can just imagine members of the court raising their eyebrows when he tells them about his latest premonition from the Angel Uriel. Speaking to angels was a bit weird.”
Magic is, and always has been, an occult practice and in almost every society it has been found on the fringes.
A lot of Dee’s later work focused around his steganography, part of his attempt to communicate with angels in order to gain spiritual knowledge of the apocalypse predicted in the Old Testament. Examples of these symbols are displayed in several of his books throughout the exhibition.
“In some ways it was quite an egotistical pursuit,” says Page, “a person with whom angels spoke would have to be someone quite special.”
Another object on display is a 16th century magic mirror from mainland Europe. The name of the spirit it had been created to summon, Floron, is engraved on the mirror.
“You make a shiny steel mirror and summon the spirit into it,” Page clarifies, “if the ritual is successful, Floron will take the form of an armed knight on a horse and answer all your questions about the past, present and future.”
Despite the popularity of spirit-summoning rituals, Page is also careful to point out that most magical rituals were used for mundane purposes, such as keeping mice at bay from a house.
“They were used to create a kind of magical fortress,” she says. “It was intended to protect against all intruders, both physical and spiritual.”
Similarly, dead cats were deliberately entombed in wall cavities in acts of ‘sympathetic’ magic to chase away vermin.
Other examples include symbols carved into barn doors to keep intruders from entering, or shrines to particular spirits to guard against ill health. The monotony of these smaller rituals shows how these ideas intertwined with the personal lives of our forbears.
Two ‘unicorn horns’ in the exhibition were said to have held magical properties such as inoculation against poison. These ‘horns’ were actually narwhal tusks taken from Iceland, a country which was in the process of becoming Christian at the time. It’s an example of something Page calls ‘natural magic’, a certain type of magic which is not associated with either angels or demons.
“This magic was particularly appealing to medieval Christians as it could not be seen as forbidden by God or against religious teachings. It didn’t involve encounters with holy deities such as spirits or angels. Magnets were also seen in this way, they were items that couldn’t be explained by ordinary means.”
Objects containing spiritual magic, such as magical rings and bracelets which evoke the power of spirits, are also to be found in the exhibition. Many still have the initials of their owners etched into them. Page compares them to the tradition of carving initials into a locket and then locking it on to a bridge:
“This is ambiguous,” she says, “because if you were a young modern couple – often tourists visiting a city – you ‘lock’ your love. You write your initials on a locket and then you lock it on a bridge.
“When you talk to these people you might get the idea that this is purely symbolic, they are replicating their love on an object, to demonstrate to the world that they love each other. But usually behind that there is some idea that the ritual binds their love together and captures it.”
Page suggests the tradition of tossing a coin into a fountain or running water is another way in which these rituals survive. Another is not in rituals of love, but in rituals of hate and malice.
This idea is captured by a Chinese wax doll, pin-cushioned as a symbol of revenge against another person.
“Wax is synonymous with human skin,” explains Page. “It’s very malleable; it burns and is sensitive to its surroundings.
“Curses could be muttered as a way of extracting revenge against someone of a higher social status, someone out of your reach. That is how magic was often used a lot of the time, people trying to solve problems that cannot be solved by other mainstream means.”
Exhibition visitors are asked if they would be capable of stabbing a photograph of a loved one. The purpose is to send our own magical presuppositions bubbling to the surface.
“One of the things we do in this exhibition is to show that everyone thinks magically,” says Page, whose exhibition really explores how magic evolved throughout the centuries.
And as Page says, between the 15th and 18th centuries, over 100,000 people, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft.
Of that number, half were found innocent.
One particularly sad exhibit explores the confession of Margaret Moor, a woman who admitted to practising witchcraft after making a pact with the devil.
After all but one of her children perished due to sickness, Margaret had a dream in which she was visited by the devil, who offered her a deal allowing her only child to survive, but which would compel her to do the devil’s bidding.
Her child survived, but Margaret began blaming herself for various wrongdoing and misfortunes which befell her community, and eventually confessed to a murder to the notorious seventeenth century witch-finder, Mathew Hopkins.
Margaret was hanged following the confession.
“We don’t know how involved she was, but she truly believed she was responsible for them,” says Page, speaking of the mishaps which convinced Margaret of her guilt.
An often sombre yet always revealing exhibition, these objects explore many aspects of ritual and belief and shed some light on the darkest and most sinister thoughts we share today with our ancestors.
SPELLBOUND: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford from August 31 2018 to January 9 2019. Tickets £6/£11.25/£12.25
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is the country’s oldest public museum and home to one of the most important collections of art and archaeology to be found anywhere. The collections span the civilisations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. Among its…