The fog rolled in along the North Cornish coast blanketing the hills. Coming in fast behind it was a weather front of rain and blustering wind. What was I doing out in this weather? Why would anyone venture forth in such conditions, most sensible people were safe inside. But today I was a tourist and nothing was going to stand between myself and the place I wished to visit.
Tomorrow it would close for the winter and my chances of visiting again would be blown (it’s a long to come from NZ). My destination? The Museum of Witchcraft in the wee coastal village of Boscastle on the North Cornish coast. I had also dragged the husband and kids along (I needed a driver and there’s this funny law which says you can’t leave the kids at home alone…)
The museum is the home to the worlds’ largest collection of “witchcraft-related objects dating from the time of the witch-hunts to the present day.” A friend recently asked why I would want to visit the museum. Well, in short it is a fascinating subject because it tells a story of how people have viewed not only themselves but also the world around them on a very deep and personal level. So my question to her was – why wouldn’t you?
The museum was not always in Boscastle, originally it was based on the Isle of Man in Castleton. It was first opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 (the same year the Witchcraft Act was repealed successfully). He employed Gerald Gardner – the father of modern witchcraft – as “Resident Witch” and the museum was very successful. But eventually as things go, the two men felt the museum should go in different directions and Williamson sold the building to Gardner and moved his collection to Windsor and then onto the Cotswolds. Unfortunately a lack of tolerance in the local area resulted in the museum being firebombed several times. Once more Williamson moved his collection but this time to Boscastle, where it has been ever since. The current owner is Graham King, who bought it from Williamson in 1996.
In 2004 the whole of Boscastle was brought to its knees when a flash flood filled the valley – the town was swamped by over three metres of flood waters. The museum was severely damaged however this did not deter King – clean up of the museum began as soon as possible with every inch of mud being sifted and every item found meticulously cleaned and disinfected. During this time the museum layout was redesigned and gradually the museum rose from mud and sewage all brand new. I recently read on Facebook, that once more the museum is having a bit of face lift for no other reason than “change is good”.
The museum itself is divided into sections, each section dealing with one particular aspect of the craft. The descriptions below are from a pamphlet bought at the museum during my visit.
- Images of Witchcraft – “Although many people today are sceptical about the power of magic, there can be no doubt about the enduring power of the image of the witch.
- Persecution – “Our display about the witch-hunts begins with a 17th Century copy of Daemonologie – a book condemning magic written by King James I. King James wrote it after personally interrogating the suspects in the North Berwick witchcraft case, who were accused of raising a storm to sink his ship”.
- The Wheel of the Year – “Modern witches meet on, and celebrate, ancient seasonal festivals and call them Sabbats”.
- Stangs – “Modern witches refer to forked or skull-topped staffs as stangs”.
- Sacred Sites – “Ancient sacred sites are very important to many people who practise Modern Pagan Witchcraft today…however, the witches of the past centuries also valued sacred sites as places to practise magic.”
- The Hare and Shape-Shifting – “Many legends and folktales tell of witches turning into animals – particularly hares, cats and owls. A traditional Cornish term for “cursed” is “owl-blasted”.
- The Magic of Christianity – “Trial records show that most people who practised magic during the witch-hunts were Christians, and often used the sacred object of Christianity in their spells.
- Herbs and Healing – “Healing has always been an important part of magic. Many people arrested for witchcraft were respected healers using charms and herbal remedies.
- The Wise Woman – “Our wise woman in her cottage shows just how different real life witches were from the stereotype of the ugly hag muttering curses.”
- Protection Magic – “The use of objects as protection charms (also known as amulets) is one of the most ancient types of magic – and also one still widely used thoughout the world today.”
- Magic in Wartime – “This display shows some of the ways people have used magic to help them cope with the stress and danger of war.”
- Mandrakes – “According to William Shakespeare, human shaped mandrakes roots were worn as good luck charms.”
- Curses – “Did people really use magic to put curses on their enemies? Of course they did!…Cursing was an instrument of natural justice, and a form of anger management.”
- Ritual Magic and The Golden Dawn – “At the heart of the display are the colourful and dramatic tools developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”
- The Richel Collection – “This collection of magical objects from the Netherlands bequeathed to the museum in 2000, is complex, challenging and sometimes downright mystifying – though sexual symbolism is a recurring theme.”
- The Devil and the Horned God – “There can be little doubt that the horned Devil of medieval art had its origins in earlier horned deities of nature and fertility, such as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Celtic god Cerunnos and the Roman god Pan.”
- Baphomet and the Green Man
- Fortune Telling and Divination – “Of all the objects in the museum, the one that most intrigues and fascinates visitors is the dark mirror used by the museums founder Cecil Williamson.”
- Spells and Charms – “Many of the exhibits in this museum illustrate a central principle of folk magic, that there is magic all around us in the natural objects of everyday life”.
- Sea Witchcraft – “There are many accounts of witches selling the wind to sailors, by magically knotting it into a length of rope on a windy day.”
- Tools of the Witch – “Knitting needles might not seem an obvious magical tool – but stitches are really knots, and knot magic is ancient and widespread.”
- Modern Witchcraft – “Many of the objects in this section are personal and unusual, such as the Peruvian magic dolls used by Brownie Pate, or the painted altar stone made by Iain Steele, with its dragon like symbol in the centre.”
This may not be a museum for everyone, some might even find the occasional display uncomfortable (the sideways looks I kept getting from the hubby was proof of that). Even so, the effort to visit should be made. To learn about and educate ourselves in the ways of the craft and its history means that the past won’t be repeated. When it comes down to it, today witchcraft/paganism is just another form of spirituality which provides harmony and solace in the lives who follow that path.
It was a fascinating museum and well worth the trip, the dreary weather adding to the atmosphere. To visit on a bright sunny day when Boscastle is thronging with tourists…
Contact details: The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD.
Tel: 01840 250111