The Museum of Witchcraft (Nathan)

Trip Start Sep 03, 2010
Trip End Oct 27, 2010

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Tintagel Youth Hostel

Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Sunday, September 19, 2010

I really hope the photos turned out large enough that you can read the signs- it's hard to tell what size they end up with this tiny netbook's screen, but I asked and some of you said they looked reasonably-sized, so I tried to include the signs in as many photos as possible to give you some more info about what you're looking at.

I first heard about the Museum of Witchcraft while doing a rather rushed search for interesting museums in Europe, alongside such other candidates as the Sewer Museum in Paris and the Currywurst Museum in Germany. This was one of the first destinations I mentioned to Glennica, and as a result it became a set destination early in our trip. It was a lot more remote than we'd anticipated, but the long bus rides and hike to get there were beautiful, and now that I've seen it, I can see why Boscastle was chosen- it's a beautiful little town, close to nature, and quite appropriate for a museum that's mostly dedicated to nature worship and white magic.

The Museum of Witchcraft wasn't always in Boscastle, though... the first room we walked into had some signs about the history of the museum, which had been chased out of a town or two previously by firebombing Christian zealots. It had moved to Boscastle in (I think) the 1960s and had been there ever since, but still regularly receives hate mail and death threats. When Boscastle was flooded in 2004, the museum was caught in it, and there was a line on the wall showing the flood level- it was about chest height on me. There were also photos of the aftermath, showing the inside of the museum dark and wet, the artifacts covered in mud. Luckily, 90% of the artifacts were saved and the museum made use of the opportunity to redesign and update their exhibits, but every so often we'd see a small sign indicating an item that had been damaged.

Also in this room were a variety of depictions of witches, from ancient carvings to modern Halloween decorations. My favorites were the advertisements featuring witches, which showed them as ugly old crones, elderly but gentle wise women, and sexy women in pointed hats, effectively summing up most of the ways they're been depicted throughout history, as well as showing how attitudes towards them have changed over the centuries- people were once terrified of them, but now even the ugliest, most wicked hags want to use their dark powers to help you whiten your laundry. There was also a small section about Circe and other mythical sorceresses, who, while not witches in the cackling, pointy hat sense, were powerful female figures with mastery over the supernatural.

Next were the tools of the witch hunters; a dunking chair used to administer the drowning test, implements of torture for extracting confessions, nooses for hanging, and the witch pricker, a long needle used to prod the "devil's mark", a spot on witches that was supposedly immune to pain. However, some of these witch prickers had a retractable needle, allowing the tester to cheat! Also in this section were a couple death threats the museum had received from locals. The brutality and ignorance is just astounding... I suppose you could say the witch hunters of the past were merely a product of the superstition and violence of their time (though I don't buy it- a test that kills a suspected witch even if it proves her innocent? There's just no excuse for that level of stupidity), but what excuse do modern Christians have for acting like murdering barbarians?

The section bout witch-hunting was surprisingly short, despite the lasting impact it caused- the museum really was more about witchcraft itself than other peoples' reactions to it. In the next area was a recreation of a circle of stones- actually one fourth of one, with mirrors at the edges to form the illusion of a full circle. Along the walls were a colorfully-painted wheel depicting the eight major festivals of the witch's year and a ceramic Hare Woman statue- a representation of life and fertility, as well as a reference to the fact that witches were believed to be able to take the form of hares, among other animal shapes. Further along was a display of Christian artifacts showing parallels between witchcraft and Christian magic- the use of magical incantations, amulets, relics, spells, etc., as well as Christianity's theft of traditionally pagan symbols- sometimes they would even paint over or erase some features of symbols to disguise their pagan origins.

Immediately to the right were some shelves packed with bottles of herbs and roots, each one labeled with its intended use in witchcraft. Most of them were for healing purposes, but some were a little more exotic, such as a bottle of "flying oil" associated with witches' flight that contained powerful hallucinogens. This, along with a recreation of a wise woman's home, showed the varied role the village wise woman would play- an adviser, fortune teller and healer. Their knowledge was a mix of superstition and real, practical folk medicine.

Upstairs things got a little more sinister- there was a case full of poppets (aka voodoo dolls, though I don't think any on display were technically associated with actual voodooism), all except one of which were used to curse. Some were crude, some surprisingly detailed (one made of yarn even had an accurate-looking military uniform), and often they contained scraps of clothing (or in one case, pubic hair) from the person they were supposed to represent. There was a preserved dog heart stuck with pins which the museum's owner had apparently received, an attempted curse from a witch who didn't like newcomers, and wax dolls enclosed in coffin-like boxes. Across from all these cursing components was the section dedicated to protective magic (the placement was no coincidence, according to the signs), which contained a variety of amulets and charms designed to protect against black magic or illness, and, more gruesomely, a pair of dead, dessicated cats that had been interred in a building to protect it against rodents. A case in the middle of the room contained a collection of mandrake roots, most of which had been carved with faces to emphasize the roots' natural human-like shape.

Nearby was a section on ritual magic with items from orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Freemasons and the Argentinium Astrum. The differences between ritual magic and witchcraft were a little vaguely explained, but as far as I can tell, the things they have in common are mostly a belief in similar supernatural abilities and the use of similar magical artifacts and rituals- though, in my opinion, the ritual magic pieces were a lot more gaudy and goofy-looking, as though they were intended for use in a magician's show instead of a ceremony.

Across from this were several examples of the Green Man and Sheela na Gig, pagan deities who make regular appearances on early Christian buildings, either because they were converted from earlier pagan structures or because they were used as pure decoration or a negative depiction of lust, respectively. Nearby was a series of images of Baphomet, a goat-headed deity supposedly worshiped by the Knights Templar and later associated with Satanism. Unfortunately, the museum didn't have much to say about Baphomet (that I can recall, anyway), but they did have an awesome Baphomet figure seated in a chair, and compared it to pagan nature deities.

A small case contained items associated with actual Satanism, mostly just upside-down crosses and pentagrams, with a few statues of Old Nick and Pan, horned nature gods that the church has, like Baphomet, associated with Satan despite there being no solid link beyond a similar appearance. Probably most interesting was the card with the nine Satanic statements, written by Anton Szandor, founder of the Church of Satan. Also on this floor were collections of phallic and vaginal amulets, some subtle enough that you could wear them in public without anyone noticing, some joyfully and unabashedly obvious in what they were depicting.

Back down on the first floor, there was a very large section devoted to scrying- apparently predicting the future is so easy that you can use virtually anything to do it. My favorites by far were the dark mirrors, though. They were slightly reflective, so you could vaguely see yourself in them, but they had the appearance of a still, bottomless pool of water, easy to gaze into and lose yourself in contemplation. The last few rooms were a collection of all sorts of items, with an emphasis on the main, essential tools of witchcraft such as the athame, Book of Shadows, wand, mortar and pestle, etc. There was a collection of ceremonial swords belonging to a Wiccan who forged them himself, a fox mask, a Book of Shadows that had been donated and was open for visitors to read a few pages (normally they are kept private, and destroyed if their owner dies), a colorful and intricate leather belt worn by a coven's High Priest, and a collection of scourges, leather flails used as symbols of purification and dominance. The card for this last asked, "Art thou willing to suffer to learn?", making me wonder how much crossover there is between witches and the BDSM set...

The final sight at the museum was a beautiful shrine with a single lit candle and a collection of ceremonial objects, apparently built into a natural hollow in the hill the museum building was built against- standing next to it, I could feel the cold and damp of the earth flowing forth. It was beautiful, and despite being located right next to a rather loud sliding door, it exuded a feeling of sacred calm and quiet. I used to be a Christian when I was very young, but by the time I reached my teens I'd realized that Christianity didn't make any sense, and became a Wiccan instead- living in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, I really connected with the idea of respecting nature and doing no harm to others. I wasn't really a proper Wiccan, since I wasn't part of a coven, but I did what I could, until eventually I realized that spells don't work and I didn't feel the presence of any god or goddess, Christian, Wiccan or otherwise, and I couldn't delude myself into thinking I did. I've been an atheist ever since, but I still have kind of a soft spot in my heart for Wicca. While its followers have an unfortunate tendency to believe in anything under the sun (dowsing, crystal healing, sympathetic magic, etc.) and are especially vulnerable to being scammed by new age gurus, I respect and agree with some of their core beliefs: that nature is beautiful and awe-inspiring, that it should be respected and protected, and that humans should be gentle and loving, doing no harm to others. Looking at that shrine illuminated by gently-flickering candlelight, I felt comforted.
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women_n_seamen on

Anton La Vey, you mean.

prateevha on

is there any pi of a fox having a horn?

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