Last week I looked at the new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft. It’s such a compelling collection of folk magic through the ages that I wanted to look a bit more in detail at a few of the magic books that were included in the exhibition, along with some of the art that belief in witchcraft inspired in pre-modern times.
Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns as a protection against witches. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, date unknown (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum showcases 180 real-life magical items.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft explores the history of magic from the early modern era to the present day through objects ranging from Renaissance crystal balls to folk charms against witchcraft. It looks at basic human needs such as fear of death and desire for love, and how people have used magic to try to get what they need.
The exhibition also turns the question of magic and superstition back on the viewer. In the entrance hallway, you are invited to step under a ladder or go around it. The museum is counting how many people dare to tempt fate. I did, and I hope they post the statistics when the exhibition is over!
Are your cows dying? Do your chickens no longer lay eggs? Are you suffering from gout, shingles, or a really bad case of the clap? Do you suspect a witch might have it in for you?
Never fear, for now you can piss your troubles away with the witch bottle! Put your urine and a few other knick knacks into a jug, and that troublesome witch will go curse someone else’s farm. Or better yet, die.
Witch bottles were one of the many articles of folk magic used in England in the early modern period. Like with all folk practices, the details varied widely while retaining some basic similarities. A victim of the witch, or a special witch hunter, would fill a bottle with the victim’s urine. Other articles might be added such as bent nails or pins, thorns, hair, fingernail clippings, and bits of naval fluff. The bottle was then carefully stoppered.