Witches and Wicked Bodies at the British Museum

There’s something about witches that makes them really compatible with museums. It’s rather uncanny when you stop and think about it. Quite a few museums have some kind of witchy artefact, like the Pitt Rivers’ infamous witch bottle, but beyond the doors of the hallowed halls the association still remains – museums play key roles in witchy films such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Hocus Pocus.

Like I said, when you stop and think about it, it becomes rather uncanny.

Perhaps that’s why when whoever makes the exhibition decisions at the British Museum, asked “What should we display in the Prints and Drawings room?” the answer was a resounding declarative “It should be witches. Some evil witches.” Which is ridiculous because witches they were persecuted, wicca, good and loved the earth and women power and I’ll be over here…

I like to think that’s how it went. Wicca good or not, the idea of evil witches and the wicked bodies thereof became the subject for the British Museum’s latest Prints and Drawings exhibition: Witches and Wicked Bodies. 

We begin our wander around the witches’ bodies with a look at two of the earliest examples in literature: Medea and the Sirens. Now, to me, Sirens aren’t witches, nor are their bodies wicked. Their power lies in their voices, but I suppose they *might* count if you really argue that songs and spells are connected, at least etymologically speaking.

We’re told that:

“The most powerful class of witches… raise hailstorms and hurtful tempests, cause sterility in men and animals; can transport themselves from place to place through thin air.” – The Witches Hammer, 1486

Hmm, this still doesn’t quite explain the sirens. But ‘siren’ has come to mean ‘seductress’ and you can’t talk about wicked women’s bodies without mentioning the sexy bits.

Medea though: straight up witch. The pieces shown focus on her earlier exploits rather than the whole child-killing thing. One of the scenes is particularly empowering, this slaying of the Dragon. Look at it, who is really doing the work – Jason or Medea?

Jason and Medea slaying the dragon
Jason and Medea slaying the dragon

Lots of the images on show are familiar We see hags, we see Medea and we see the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.

Macbeth and the Weird Sisters
Macbeth and the Weird Sisters

Oddly, the Shakespearean sorceresses appear in the section marked “Erotic Maidens and Seductive Sirens” despite being neither either in the picture or in the text. On the topic of Shakespearean spell-casters, did you know that famed witch-hating monarch James I (or VI depending on which side of the border you live) thought that smoking was a witchy activity?  In his 1604 Counterblaste to Tobacco, he opines that it is “bewitching” and bemoans the ” lust-inducing qualities of the vile and filthie custom.” You can see an image of a smoking witch to illustrate this point.

Although the official blurb says that “Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery” the focus in this exhibition is the women. Depictions of witches and witchcraft really explore the female form, the naked female form. Maidens, Mothers and Crones are displayed in all their glory, and the suggestion seems to be that because these women show no shame in being naked, their bodies are inherently wicked.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Really hoping to get down for this one before it closes. I did my undergraduate dissertation on the Scottish witch trials so it would be interesting to learn more about the more muted response to the issue south of the border.

    1. It’s a rather interesting one and I think it’s a travelling one too – I remember a Scottish museum or gallery showing something with a very similar title last year.

      The exhibition examines depictions of witches in western art rather than trials so it might not be what you’re expecting.

      1. There was one at the Dean Gallery actually and I was disappointed tonhave missed it. Come to think of it now the Witches and Wicked Bodies name is quite familiar so maybe it is the same one. Looking forward to it even more now.

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