History

Want To See A Witch In A Bottle? Check Out “Spellbound” at the Ashmolean Museum

If you are fascinated by the mysterious and supernatural, the new “Spellbound” exhibit at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is sure to get your spine tingling. While the museum usually shows off fairly-traditional art and archaeology, curators decided to highlight a different side of history – humanity’s obsession with magic and witchcraft.

With 200 exhibits stretching across a millennia of European history, it’s intriguing to see just how ingrained fear and fascination with the supernatural was and, in many ways, still is. Among the artifacts is a crystal that belonged to John Dee, one of the most famous thinkers of the 16th-century and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Like many of his time, he walked a thin line between valuing science and embracing magic. According to Dee, an angel named Uriel gave him the crystal. It eventually found its way to another alchemist who claimed that in 1651, a “demonic ghost” broke free from the object.

Another one of the exhibits, a rather small silver flask, is said to hold a witch prisoner. In the past, bottles were often filled with wine, seawater, pins, needles, and herbs to attract and then imprison the spirit of a witch. This particular bottle contains urine, iron nails, fingernail clippings, brass pins, and clumps of hair. It dates back to 1850 and is on loan from the Pitts Rivers museum.

One of the more recent objects of interest is a length of cheesecloth, which famous medium Helen Duncan used during her fraudulent seances in the 1940’s. At the time, it was believed to be ectoplasm, a supernatural substance that appears when spiritual energy is manifested. Duncan was one of the last people convicted and imprisoned under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which criminalized falsely conjuring spirits. She kept at it, however, and was arrested again in 1956. She died that same year.

You can see these exhibits and more until January 6th, 2019.