Sunday 8 April 2018

Return to Pitt Rivers

My first visit to Pitt Rivers last year left me totally in awe of this incredible collection of weird and wonderful objects from every corner of the globe. The moment I left I wanted to return and spend some more precious moments in the presence of these amazing things steeped in history, culture and meaning. So I made the decision to return to Oxford, this time for a little longer than my previous flying visit and take a little more time to indulge my interests at Pitt Rivers.

My specific purpose of this visit was to focus on the incredible collection of objects related to magic, witchcraft and ritual practices from a range of cultures. The fascinating pieces range from ex voto, wax effigies, mandrake roots, witches ladders and poppets to skulls, masks, charms, talisman and everything in between. Some are familiar even today, such as evil eye talisman, wands and the original ancestor of the ‘voodoo doll’; the poppet.

One famed object from within the collection is the Witch unwittingly captured in a rather beautifully delicate bottle, which is both fascinating and mysterious in equal measure. The witch trapped in the bottle is a fantastic example of how the folklore surrounding the objects at Pitt Rivers is just as exciting and interesting as the physical object itself.

One rather unassuming object ended up being the artifact of the day after the wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable museum worker Mike told me it’s fascinating history. The bone wand of the enigmatically named ‘Devil Doctor’ (in reality a shaman/healer called Kootay) which was said to work magic with the aid of his mouse. He gave the wand to a Christian missionary, a reverend on a mission to convert the indigenous savages (oh what a familiar story!) to see how his wand behaved in the hands of another holy man. Little did he know that the delightful Reverend shipped the wand off to England never to be seen by Kootay again.

It’s truly fascinating to think that stories such as this could surround many, if not all of these objects. They’ve all come from somewhere, been precious to someone. A treasured item, part of a way of life and connected to so many long lost traditions and forgotten cultural heritages. Hearing such a story made me wonder how many similar tales have been lost forever meaning the object is now a mystery, stripped of its context and life.

So many of the objects have clearly been delicately and loving created, showing their importance in the culture from which they emerged. One example is the beautiful Italian silver charms. Their fascinating details and themes clearly had important meaning, with trees growing moons, stars and keys. These symbols recur within many designs and clearly had widely held meaning and importance connected to popular beliefs at this time.

The original ritualistic nature of these items is best reflected in objects such as sheep and bulls hearts repeatedly pierced with nails, tacks and the like. They represent a poorly understood practice of sympathetic magic which has ancient roots in English folklore. What these people hoped to achieve with these practices we can largely only guess at and assume the desired outcome. In reality, magic is such a personal thing with so many unique practices there will so often be an element of doubt and mystery surrounding magic, which is something that I think makes it so appealing and compelling today.

There is so little real magic and mystery left in the world today it’s a wonderful indulgence to just immerse yourself in these objects and wonder what was long, long ago ...

To plan your visit to the ever glorious Pitt Rivers Museum check out their website