Archive for the Witches Category

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.


The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Legend, Oxfordshire, Standing Stones, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by mysearchformagic

My recent trip to the Costwolds turned out to be filled with magic, and what better place to end my visit than the wonderfully atmospheric Rollright Stones. Situated on a pretty hillside near the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, Rollright is home to three distinct elements – a circle known as the King’s Men, a single standing stone called the King Stone, and the Whispering Knights Dolmen, the remains of a five thousand year old burial chamber.

The King’s Men circle is certainly the most striking of the three, with seventy seven weather-beaten stones surviving from the original hundred or so. Visiting in the eighteenth century, antiquarians William Stukeley described them poetically as “corroded like worm eaten wood, by the harsh Jaws of Time”, adding that they made “a very noble, rustic, sight, and strike an odd terror upon the spectators, and admiration at the design of ‘em”

The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

Like many neolithic monuments, the Rollright Stones have inspired many myths and legends over the years. In this case, the circle owes its name to an old tale of a king and his men turned to stone by a rather nasty-sounding local witch who went by the name of Mother Shipton. At midnight the witch’s curse is temporarily broken, and the stones are said to turn back into men, who then dance in a circle. But beware, any human who sees this magical dance will be doomed to madness or death.

The Whispering Knights, Rollright

The Whispering Knighs, Rollright

Of course, tampering with such stones is never a good idea. Many years ago, a local farmer decided to remove the cap-stone from the Whispering Knights in order to use it as a bridge over a stream nearby. Moving the stone proved to be problematic, and it took twenty horses and the death of two men before the stone was moved into its new position. Things didn’t get any easier – every morning the farmer would wake up to find the stone overturned on the bank of the stream. When he eventually gave up and decided to take it back to its original spot, the stone was moved easily by one horse.

The King Stone, Rollright

The King Stone, Rollright

In fact, Rollright has more that its fair share of magical legends. Some say that there are fairy tunnels underneath the King Stone and the King’s Men, and the fairies like to dance at midnight too. Apparently it is also impossible to count the stones three times and come to the same number each time. One cunning baker once tried to cheat by placing a loaf on each stone as he counted it, but when he got back to the beginning he found that some of the loaves had already disappeared, spirited away by those cheeky fairies no doubt.

The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

I didn’t see any fairies, or indeed any dancing, on the day that I visited, but there is certainly something rather magical about this place. You can find out more about the Rollright Stones, including theories on their history and a few more mystical myths here.

The Collection of the Magical Dr. Dee, The British Museum

Posted in History, London, Museum, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve been back to the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum again this week, but not to see the creepy little merman. This time I was more interested in the items from the collection of Elizabethan astrologer and magician Dr John Dee.

The Museum has a number of objects which once belonged to the fascinating Dr. Dee in its collection. There are two wax discs which supported his ‘table of practise’, and another larger disc which held his mystical ‘shew stone’, a highly polished obsidian ‘scrying’ mirror used for divination. A small inscribed gold disc shows images of one of Dee’s magical visions, and the crystal ball was used by his assistant Edwards Kelly to conjure up his own mysterious images.

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee's Collection

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee’s Collection

A close advisor of Elizabeth I, Dee spent much of his later life dabbling in the occult, and travelled around Europe indulging in all sorts of bizarre experiments. However, he fell out of favour after Elizabeth’s death, and ended his days in penniless obscurity in Mortlake, now in the suburbs of London.

A portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A 16th Century portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

It seems that Dr Dee was particularly keen to make contact with angels, which he attempted to do using his crystal ball and obsidian mirror. Was he successful? I guess we can only wonder. But staring into the inky black depths of that scrying mirror, maybe my eyes were playing tricks, but I thought perhaps I saw something…

Halloween Decorations, Atlanta

Posted in Ghosts, Hallowe'en, House, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I’ve often heard how much they love Halloween over in the USA, but it was only on a visit to Atlanta, Georgia last week that I discovered quite how much.


These houses in the suburb of East Point give you an idea of the amount of effort some people go to when it comes to putting up Halloween decorations. Forget about a couple of sorry-looking pumpkin lanterns, these guys really go to town – giant cobwebs, gravestones all over the lawns, hanging corpses and much, much more.


I know that some people bemoan the commercialisation of Halloween, and I certainly saw plenty of that on my recent trip, including everything from pumpkin flavoured lattes to the constant advertisements for the latest horror blockbuster and supermarket aisles brimming with candy and junky plastic toys. But I loved these decorated houses with all their spooky accoutrements. The work and imagination involved the putting them together is astounding.

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Strolling past these houses as the sun sets and a long dark night begins, well that is definitely a magical experience, even if I didn’t get to experience the crowds which apparently visit them on Halloween night itself.

Happy Halloween y’all!

Enter if you dare!

Enter if you dare!

Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Posted in Art, Edinburgh, Fairy Tales, Legend, Photography, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Modern Witchcraft, ASC Gallery

Posted in Art, London, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2013 by mysearchformagic

This week I discovered a fabulously strange exhibition at the ASC Gallery near London’s Elephant and Castle. Entitled Modern Witchcraft, the show combines historic artefacts and contemporary art in an intriguing, magical way.

Modern Witchcraft, an installation view

Modern Witchcraft, an installation view

Many of the ancient objects are on loan from the nearby Cuming Museum, which was sadly damaged in a recent fire. Items from the Edward Lovett collection of superstition in particular, such as an early 20th Century Witch Ball used for crystal gazing, as well as a 16th Century German Black Mirror perfect for calling up the spirits of the deceased, set the decidedly supernatural tone.

A German 16th Century Magician's Mirror, from the collection of the Cuming Museum

A German 16th Century Magician’s Mirror, from the collection of the Cuming Museum

The contemporary works are just as bizarre and unsettling. Most striking are Riccardo Andujar’s Heads I-IV, these tiny eyeless craniums apparently in the process of shedding their multicoloured rubbery skins. John Stark’s paintings combine Poussin-like classicism with creepy sci-fi surrealism, his world inhabited by faceless hooded figures.

Heads I-IV, RIccardo Andujar

Heads I-IV, RIccardo Andujar

My absolute favourite exhibit was located in a quiet corner of the gallery. At first glance, James Hopkins’ Ghost Bottle appears to be just an oddly shaped white mass sitting on a pedestal next to a bottle of red wine. But stare more closely into the dark depths of the bottle and you will see something amazing – the reflection of the white mass forms the shape of a perfect human skull.

Ghost Bottle, James Hopkins; Conditions, Nick Dawes

Ghost Bottle, James Hopkins; Conditions, Nick Dawes

Modern Magic runs until 18 May 2013 at ASC Gallery

The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson

Posted in Books, History, Jeanette Winterson, Witches with tags , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by mysearchformagic

As all but the most hardy amongst will already have noticed, there’s been a distinct chill in the air for the last week or so, and the nights are drawing in. Autumn is upon us, that most magical of seasons, when dark, chilly evenings are filled with the potential for strange goings-on.

Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate

There’s certainly no better time to enjoy a spooky story, as I recently discovered when I treated myself to a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s latest book, The Daylight Gate. This novella is a collaboration between the writer, well-known for her works including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and recent autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and Hammer Films, who have commissioned a series of horror stories from ‘literary’ writers not usually known for the genre. In the case of The Daylight Gate, the result is certainly creepy, as well as spine-tinglingly magical.

Winterson’s tale is based on the true story of the Pendle Witches, a notorious trial which took place in Lancashire during the reign of James I, a period when the hunting down of so called ‘witches’ was widespread. Today the case is notorious for the cruelty and paranoia which led to the eventual execution of these poor wretches.

Devilish Deeds in Lancashire

The Daylight Gate, however, weaves an powerful, fleshy fiction around the bare bones of the historical case. Typical of Winterson there is magic here, with uncanny apparitions and terrifying premonitions keeping up the pace of the narrative. There’s plenty of erotic encounters too, perhaps appropriate for Hammer, whose 1960s masterpieces tended to include plenty of spicy innuendo or subtle (and not so subtle) sexuality. Most importantly, The Daylight Gate achieves what few novels do in being truly chilling, although the treatment of the ‘witches’ by the authorities is often much more shocking and horrific than any of the story’s  supernatural elements. Winterson effectively recreates the oppressive atmosphere of a time when life was hard and magic was terrifyingly real.

It’s not a long book, but its 193 pages are filled with tension and surprise. I read it in one sitting, by candlelight, alone in the house with just a bottle of red wine for company. As magical experiences go, it’s one that will be hard to beat.