Review – Spellbound

5 mins read
Home is where the heart is. This is a bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns that was found in a chimney at a farm in Somerset, where it was likely placed to cause suffering to the witch who cursed the creature. (IMAGE: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Would you walk under a ladder? Could you stab the image of a loved one? A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford brings together artefacts, documents, and artwork to explore the magical thinking behind questions like these over the centuries. Lucia Marchini went along to find out more.

If you are the lucky owner of an older house and about to carry out some renovation work, you may be in for a surprise. Shoes, knives, mummified cats, horse bones, and pierced cow hearts have been recovered from the rafters, chimneys, and wall spaces of homes in many parts of the UK. They were deliberately deposited in previous centuries, in some cases for magical protection.

In the central room of the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Spellbound: magic, ritual, and witchcraft, a dark, domineering structure of nooks and crannies with two chimney shafts showcases intriguing examples of these concealed objects. They highlight – as with much of the material from the exhibition – the emotional aspect to ritual acts like these. The desire to protect a home is a simple one, and one we probably all share. Today this may take the form of burglar alarms and a Neighbourhood Watch sticker in the window, but what if you were worried about witchcraft?

This is a human heart, which was buried in a niche in a pillar in Christ’s Church, Cork, to help the soul on its journey to salvation. (IMAGE: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)

One response to fears of this kind was to push pins, nails, and/or thorns into, then roast, the heart of an animal that has been bewitched. As there is a link between a witch and a creature under their spell, this would cause the witch to suffer, practitioners believed. Historical texts speak of these acts, while hearts treated in this way – mostly dating to the 19th century – have been found in a number of homes, often in chimneys where heat and smoke would continue to torment the suspected wrongdoer.

Not all concealed objects were intended to deter supernatural menaces, though. Some were used to offer protection against threats of a more worldly kind. Mummified cats were carefully placed to see off vermin, while bullet-shaped fossils thought to be thunderbolts and thunderstones (usually actually prehistoric stone axes) were considered to ward off fire and lightning – a particular concern for homes with wooden or thatched roofs.

Clothing and shoes have also been hidden in houses since at least the 16th century, but for motives that remain a mystery. Found in voids under boards, stairs, hearths, chimneys, and attics, their locations suggest that they were placed there deliberately and not just forgotten or used to plug gaps or draughts. All the clothes had been worn and their concealment may have represented the personal bond between the inhabitant who wore the clothes and their home. As for shoes, more than 2,000 have been found from the 18th and 19th centuries. They too are mostly old and worn, with usually only one shoe of a pair hidden, perhaps by builders during renovation and rebuilding work hoping for luck in getting their next job.

A sealed witch bottle, supposedly containing a witch trapped c.1850. (IMAGE: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)

Elsewhere in the exhibition, witch bottles (excavated from thresholds and hearths, and containing the hair, nail clippings, or urine of a bewitched victim or a suspected witch, along with iron nails or pins) and other artefacts show a preoccupation with protection and magic at all levels of society. Coral, which was considered to have apotropaic properties, could be used as a charm, added to a rattle, or carved into a brooch in the shape of St Michael the Archangel, the protector of the soul. Images of St Michael trampling on the devil were popular, appearing in the form of pilgrim badges and in one particular early 15th-century oak statue, which has the rare inclusion of the archangel carrying a soul in peril to salvation.

There were also steps that could be taken after death to aid the soul. Some wealthy individuals had significant internal organs buried separately in sacred places, such as in a niche in a pillar in the crypt beneath Christ Church, Cork. There, the rare discovery was made of a lead and silver heart-shaped box holding the shrivelled heart of a person who died probably in the 12th or 13th century.

St Michael with a trampled devil at his feet was a popular image, offering protection for the soul. This brooch, made in Italy between 1600 and 1800, was crafted out of coral, a material thought to have apotropaic properties, which would increase its potency. (IMAGE: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Religion also played its part in protection, as can be further seen in an apparently everyday object, a 15th-century ear pick and nail parer, inscribed with ‘IHS’ (the name of Jesus) and a star. The belief that the devil could enter the body through orifices makes the inscription a particularly apt one for a tool associated with the vulnerable entry point of the ear. But, as well as protection, heavenly bodies could offer knowledge. Surviving in more than 50 manuscripts, the 12th-century northern Italian text the Ars notoria was popular with monks as a work of angelic magic. By correctly performing the rituals outlined in the text, which involved interacting with God and angels, one could attain spiritual advantages (including the soul’s salvation) and knowledge of all the arts.

Demons too could offer knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, demon-conjuring manuscripts are rare, as they were regularly burnt, and even among those few that survive there are instances of heavy censorship. As described in some texts, you can communicate with the demon (or fallen angel) Floron through magic mirrors, one of which is on show in the exhibition. The user of this device would supposedly summon Floron in the form of an armed knight to divulge all about the past, present, and future. As well as the soul and knowledge, matters of the heart could be aided by magic and ritual. Lovers’ inscriptions, which can be seen on a large number of medieval rings, brooches, and lockets, reflect a desire to bind a partner using words and, at times, by invoking a supernatural power, not unlike a magical ritual. Inscriptions also appear on a more mundane type of object: the humble padlock. In a practice that has gained momentum in the 21st century, lovers write their names on a padlock, fasten it to a bridge, and throw the key in a river. With its symbolism harking back to the binding language of earlier love magic, it is a widespread act that highlights the ways many of us still engage in magical thinking today.

A mid to late 15th-century gold locket in the form of a miniature padlock with the inscription sauns repentir (‘without regret’). The tradition of associating padlocks with love continues with the modern practice of fastening ‘love locks’ to bridges. (IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum)
Further information

Spellbound: magic, ritual, and witchcraft runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 6 January 2019. Tickets are £12.25 (£11.25 for concessions). See the website for more information.

This review appeared in CA 344.

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