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!
The name John Dee conjures up images of a Tudor-era mage plumbing the mysteries of the occult and speaking with angels through his system of Enochian magic. This is how most people know Dr. Dee, and it is all I knew about him until I visited an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee sets the record straight on a misunderstood and often maligned Renaissance man. Far more than a mere occultist, Dee was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer, world traveler, and cryptographer. He was influential in two royal courts and was an early advocate for the colonization of the Americas.
When Arthur Henry Ward adopted the nom de plume of Sax Rohmer, he found a match for the bohemian occultist persona he was working to cultivate. The very name sounded exotic and foreign. It was less of a name than it was a statement of intent. As part of his new identity, Rohmer claimed to be a Rosicrucian as well as a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It appears that both claims were false, although the Ward family doctor, R. Watson Councell was active in occult circles.
It was Dr. Councell who provided much of the information for Rohmer’s 1914 study of the occult, The Romance of Sorcery. It is possible Dr. Councell actually wrote sections of the work considering his own later publication, Apologia Alchymiae (1923) which featured a preface by Rohmer. In the 1970s, Rohmer scholar Dr. Robert E. Briney came across four privately printed titles published by The Theosophical Publishing Society of London credited to one Arthur H. Ward: The Song of the Flaming Heart (1908), The Seven Rays of Development (1910), The Threefold Way (1912), and Masonic Symbolism and the Mystic Way (1913).
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.
What if there were no life hack to divert the apocalypse?
What if the Inquisition were right?!!?
Obviously he’s onto something. It is all pretty horrifying and creates a wonderful double bind; we readers simultaneously want the protagonist to satisfy our curiosity, and at the same time want them to flee the horrid fate that will result.
However, I think there’s more than Horror at work.
Before I go on to explain why, go and watch his short Lovecraftian film HOWTO Demon Summoning so we have a common reference point (and because it’s funny and horrific, and makes surprising use of CGI given Hugh is an indy filmmaker).
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.