Crying at the witchcraft museum: reflections on words, power, and unexpected magic

I didn’t expect to cry so much at the witchcraft museum.

i. Ashmolean exhibition, ‘Spellbound’, examining “spellbinding stories, fascinating objects…from crystal balls and magic mirrors to witch bottles and curse poppets”.

Turning a corner into a new room of the collection, a friend spotted a mummified cat, found concealed in the wall of a house. She said “you might want to skip this section”, semi-aware of my past losses, and how much I missed my kitten at home.

She was right.

I had no interest in seeing it, in recognising that the animal had once been alive, that they once swatted at mice and presumably curled up in the sunshine. I had no interest in being reminded of trauma that still lingered – compartmentalisation, in this instance, was a comfort.

I went to the next display, and the crisis was avoided.

ii. Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall: a collection held in a building with infinite twists and turns, packed to the ceilings with items of questionable authenticity, but filled with power all the same.

Towards the end of my visit, I went into a new room, and glimpsed a mummified cat in my peripheral vision.

‘Great, another one’, I thought.

I read the label aloud without looking at the cabinet contents: “… intended to keep the cats’ spirits within the house, to protect it from rats and mice, and perhaps from evil spirits. An unsettling tribute to the magical power cats were thought to embody.”

I turned to my partner, my fellow temporary Cornish explorer: “…well, let’s skip the Victorian-era dead cat in the room”, I said, both as a warning of avoidance to them, and to externalise my attempt at bravery, as if speaking the words aloud would disguise and conceal the growing hole in my chest, whirring and beating with each new piece of Felis catus paraphernalia I saw.

We were uncomfortable now, three-quarters into our journey of this maze of rooms.

We exited the main collection, finding ourselves near the gift shop and myself, at least, faced with more things I would have preferred to avoid.

A wall of acknowledgements, dedications, and magical, druidic, pagan in memoriams. A dedication to a long since passed cat owned by the curators. First I saw the wall filled with frames, then the photo, then the words: “my friend and familiar, sadly missed”.

There is an element of spellcraft in language, I have read. Words are powerful affirmations and incantations.

I stood there for what felt like an age, with other visitors swirling around me while I was locked in painful slow-motion, my sense of time heavy and congealed, theirs comparatively frenetic and full of energy.

I read the words again, and again, as if transfixed.

My partner, affected by all the bodies jostling in a small space, said “I’ll meet you outside”. I was locked in place. My emotions began to manifest physically, slowly, from my toes to my head with each nerve ending systematically reaching. My toes couldn’t move, my stomach felt like it was flipping (an unpleasant sensation), my heart beating, my throat expanding, my face on fire with pins-and-needles, my eyes were glazed over, tears welled up.

In short, my personal symptoms of impending panic and a need to flee…but this felt different; powerful, filled with understanding, a transference of truths into newfound acceptance.

In visiting these spaces, I had unexpectedly revived past personal horrors, incidents that had always lingered, shadowy, concealed in my everyday movements, waiting to pounce into being and reveal themselves when I preferred to forget.

Now, these memories had shifted in an instant. Whatever it was, whatever had happened, it felt as if my repeated reading of these words had enveloped me into feelings of comfort, and safety. Perhaps it was a type of magic, as I am not sure how else to describe this moment.

Someone bumped into me, I think, and I remembered that my partner was waiting outside. As I left the museum (still in somewhat of a daze), the biting wind of the Cornish coast immediately took me out of this temporary stupor.

Now, back at home, I know I will be able to remember my past losses with a smile, recalling my friend and familiar.

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