What are we talking about when we talk about witchcraft?
Like an cobalt-black magic mirror that shows you your heart’s desire, the very idea of magic and witchcraft shows you whatever you want to see. The religious might see blasphemy, and the secular might see superstition, the feminist might see female power and its cruel oppression, the sociologist might see memes, and the pagan might see a phantom conjuration of some unbroken tradition.
Appropriately, the word “witch” has power.
It is an accusation, a badge of pride or identity, an existential threat, or a fairy tale.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft accepts this miasma of subjectivity and leans into it, not in a rush to take on the visitor’s own baggage or hold their hands through the exhibition, but to give them the space to discover what they’re looking for themselves.
A phrase that’s quietly sealed in wax into the heart of the exhibition is “magical thinking.” It’s a clever device that allows you to pull back from the definitions and semantics, and instead shift the focus to the worldview. This is rooted in Spellbound’s origins with the research project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900, a collaboration between historians from the University of East Anglia, University College London, and the University of Hertfordshire.
Like the Crystal Maze, the exhibition is divided into three themed areas that pull you round corners and into crevices, offering up puzzles that linger long after you’ve left.
It begins in the soft monastic lighting of high magic – the learned clerical sorcery of the Medieval period, drawing from angels, demons and celestial bodies, and concerned with affairs of health and the heart – and then plunges you into the shuttered darkness of low magic – the charms, inscriptions and relics of the home under siege, folk rituals designed to keep evil at bay and witches from the hearth.
Then finally you emerge into the forensic glare of the witch trials, how society viewed witches (badly) and how it responded to those who faced the mud-slinging mob (just as badly).
High stakes wait unassumingly behind the glass – an iron mirror that summoned the demon Floron in the form of a mighty, armoured knight and bound him to reveal the secrets of the past, present and future, and a ritual to invoke the demon Astaroth that spooked a later owner so much he blacked out the name out and tore out a page from the 15th century grimoire – with as much drama as the low – a gruesome mummified cat and mouse, perhaps sympathetic magic keep the home free of vermin.
It’s vaguely chronological, but not really – the first room ends with contemporary ‘love locks’ cut from a Leeds bridge facing a display of 15th century golden rings and brooches, each bearing pledges of devotion – and there’s a vague sense of narrative between the three zones that seems almost accidental, but couldn’t possibly be.
The co-curators retain powerful, authorial voices, and the three themed pamphlets, each in a different pastiche from illuminated manuscript to Early Modern woodcut, and the three specially commissioned art installations that accompany each area serve to reinforce that, a reminder that the name of the game is “interpretation.”
So what are we talking about when we talk about witchcraft?
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft smiles by way of an answer, as if to say “Yes, you’re right to ask.”
You can see Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft at the Ashmolean, Oxford from 31 August 2018 to 6 January 2019. Tickets are £12.25 (£11.25 concessions) and can be purchased at the museum or booked online.