Boscastle II: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Boscastle is an unusual place. Rather than feeling contained to an area, like your average “settlement”, it sort of trickles down the hill, staggering along the edges of a slipstream to its eventual harbour.

It is as idyll and precarious as it sounds, with the two sensibilities seemingly at war with each other. In 2004, the latter won out when the village was devastated by a flood. The villagers have since rebuilt the place and, bar the occasional doorway flood gate, you wouldn’t know anything so horrific could have happened here.

The God-fearing might assume that Boscastle came in for such bad luck due to its history as a epicentre for the spread of modern witchcraft. That’s what brought me here as well.

Since 1960, Boscastle has been the home of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, founded by local mystic Cecil Williamson. Williamson was interested in Wicca and a practicing witch himself but he also found the distance between the neo-pagan witches of this marginal religion and the folkloric perception of witches in the popular imagination to be a fascinating contrast.

And so he set up the Museum, hoping to present modern witchcraft as something in between, with exhibits occulted and sinister for the morbidly curious but also faithful and in-depth for the modern Wiccan.

Throughout this week, I’ve been looking into contemporary Cornwall’s various occulted corners — with Troy Books being my favourite discovery so far: I picked up Gemma Gary’s The Devil’s Dozen earlier this week in Penzance and have been thoroughly enjoying it — and what I’ve found has continuously evoked that oft-quoted line from Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?:

To think is always to follow the witches’ flight.

The Museum in Boscastle is essentially a cabinet of curiosities exploring various outsider and occulted practices throughout history that walk this strange tightrope of “thought” — from thought as the embodiment of the individual Will to the collective thought of myth-making and superstition. It presents witchcraft, then, as a mode of thinking which plays on and acts through both vectors together — the power of the individual (particularly the outsider) in shaping and disrupting common sense; our “social sense”, as Bergson called it.

Indeed, witchcraft, as present by the Museum, becomes a mode of thought which takes what it can from a very broad arsenal of perceptions about cognition, from religious practice and mysticism to unsanctioned rationalisms and scientific play.

I have lots more to say on this but, having discovered in the gift shop that the Museum has its own research journal, I think I’ll try write something for the Museum itself. So watch this space for that.

For now though, in the spirit of this whole week’s What I Did On My Holidays blog takeover, here are a few of my favourite things found in the museum.

One of the most fascinating (and strangely DeleuzoBataillean) of objects is this taxidermic fox with a woman’s death mask affixed to it, supposedly commissioned by a witch who wanted to become one with her spirit animal — a becoming-animal in death.

Around the corner from this macabre amalgamation is the obligatory witches’ dildo. Whilst there are apparently many documents which speak of orgies with the Devil himself, the museum digs beneath the euphemism:

Several historians have surmised that due to the large amount of coven members often present at Sabbath meetings, it may be that an artificial phallus was used during the rites and this is why the Devil’s member was often described thus, “As cold as ice within me”….

Elsewhere, the Museum explicitly suggests that the orgiastic meetings of your local coven were more likely engaging in a communal exercise of feminine satisfaction, explicitly shunning their husbands for their inadequacies, with one document effectively gloating about how the Devil’s phallus is bigger and more fulfilling than any man’s.

There was a whole cabinet dedicated to Mother Shipton — shout out Yorkshire’s premier witchin’ cave-dweller — and also a load of texts straight out of English folk horror. So many daemonologies!

There are also voodoo dolls — from the commercially available (Hitler and Stalin pin cushions) to the home-made — as well as a cabinet full of mummified cats. Each one was excavated from within the walls or under the entrances to houses in the UK, said to be a superstition or charm that if you bury your dead cat in your house you’ll ward off all mice and rats.

There was also a collection of scrying mirrors (better known as “black mirrors”) and various other home-made objects that I’m tempted to try and make myself.

If I’m not careful, this blog might birth another side-series where I have a go at making magical artefacts and goth-looking ornaments.

Maybe not.

A final museum feature worth noting is a lovely memorial wall at the end of your route, to your right just as you exit through the gift shop. It was home to various portraits, messages and obituaries for various patrons and donators to the Museum but one in particular caught my eye.

Jhonn [Balance] was a founder member of the magical rock band COIL, and was a magician, shaman and collector of all things magical, especially anything related to Austin Osman Spare, who’s art and philosophy he had championed for almost 2 decades. […] Jhonn was talking about lending or copying items from his immense collection of occult art for display at Boscastle in 2005 — when he heard about the flood he was distraught — but tragically that never happened; in November 2004 he fell from a balcony at his home, sustaining severe head injuring from which he did not regain consciousness. […] Much missed.

That night, I ended up drifting off to COIL’s Time Machines album after dipping back into England’s Hidden Reverse.

If I wasn’t already engrossed in the weird subcultural entanglements of this country’s modern occultist traditions, that has only be redoubled now.

Go to Boscastle.


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