Charm-Browsing at the Horniman

Yesterday Owen Davies and I were fortunate enough to have been invited to the Horniman Museum stores, where Tom Crowley, Anthropology Curator, is working on a display of charms. Tom wanted the advice of Owen and a group of other experts in the field on the interpretation and display of some of their artefacts – and so I tagged along, always happy for any excuse to see some of these objects for myself.

In preparation for our visit, the charms had been arrayed across a table in all of their enigmatic glory. A vast variety of objects were represented, all equally weird and wonderful, and our group approached them with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of kids in a sweet shop. Granted, to anyone not interested in historic charms these objects may seem unremarkable. None of them were particularly stunning; they’re not great works of aesthetic achievement. They’re all quite ordinary objects, some natural and others artificial; the kinds of things that you might find in your house or at the side of the road – but that’s what makes them so fascinating. Why were these mundane objects invested with power, with agency? Were they recycled as ritual objects and, if so, why? What is it about them that makes them ‘lucky’ or ‘protective’?

Not all of them were concealed; in fact, most of them were displayed – a horseshoe, for example, which has a long history of apotropaic employment (a subject which deserves its own blog post). I can’t detail all of them, but here are a few of my personal favourites:

The first, which was concealed, is a ‘witch-bottle’; this is a device used for countering a witch’s spell, which usually contained the urine of the victim along with metal pins, nails, and various other objects (see Brian Hoggard’s description of witch-bottles here). This is the Padstow witch-bottle found in the kitchen chimney of a Cornish cottage. It’s a Victorian cod liver oil bottle which contained urine and its cork has been festooned with pins. More details of it can be found in Semmens’ ‘The Usage of Witch-Bottles and Apotropaic Charms in Cornwall’ (2000, Old Cornwall 23 (6), 98-116). The thing I particularly love about this piece is what it shows about domestic magic: that any item can be ritually recycled. The “traditional” witch-bottle was a stoneware jug known as a ‘bellarmine’, but here the maker clearly thought that any bottle would do the trick. Waste not, want not.

Padstow Witch-Bottle

Another device for repelling witchcraft was the ‘hag-stone’. This is a fairly ordinary stone with a hole in it, found in South Devon, and is one of many, many similar holed-stones that appear to have been employed for a variety of purposes; as well as keeping witches away, they were used for curing ailments ranging from toothache and whooping cough to snake bites, and were also meant to prevent nightmares. Why might it have been believed to possess this kind of power? There are theories around the significance of the hole and the idea of magic passing through, a little like the healing custom of passing an ailing limb or a sick child through clefts in trees. Whatever the logic behind it, the hag-stone demonstrates two things. Firstly, that a perfectly ordinary, naturally-occurring item can be imbued with power because of a particular physical attribute – in this case, something as simple as a hole. And secondly, that near-identical items can be given such different meanings – from witch-repellent to whooping-cough cure – depending upon the where, when, and who of use.

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Here’s another example of a holed stone with a completely different use. It’s been attached to a 19th-century dice box and was purportedly used as a charm against high numbers being thrown. Folk customs clearly are very malleable.

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Another favourite object of mine was this nine-of-spades playing card, which was carried for luck in the First World War. What made this a lucky charm? Was it the 9, usually considered a particularly potent number (the significance of 3×3)? Or was it more personal than that? And where’s the bottom part that’s been torn off? Was it given to somebody else or has it simply been lost? The fact that it’s so patinated, with creases, rips, and discoloration, shows how much it was handled, and I’d love to know something about the soldier who carried it. How many battles did they carry it in? And did it prove lucky?

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As I said above, none of these objects are particularly striking: a cod-liver oil bottle, stones, and a playing-card. They’re not unique and, out of context, they’re not particularly interesting. But they’ve each been invested with emotion and significance; they’ve each been imbued with the power to ensure luck or to protect against threats, both natural and supernatural. While the material attributes of these rather mundane objects may go some way in explaining why they were used for such non-mundane purposes, our answers really lie in the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people who used them.

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2 thoughts on “Charm-Browsing at the Horniman

  1. Pingback: The Lucky Playing Card – The Concealed Revealed

  2. Pingback: A playing card found in a wall – Daniela Ávido

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