Stories of witchcraft and magic have been a staple on the pages of children’s books and on our television and film screens, from Roald Dahl's witches through to Harry Potter. But far from being pure fiction, paganism has in fact been practiced throughout history. Evidence of pagan worship thousands of years before the birth of Christ has been discovered in the form of makeshift altars and a devotion to anthropomorphic Gods. In the present day, a modern Wiccan religion exists that celebrates compassion, kindness and the forces of human nature. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall charts this history, with mysterious artefacts that tell the story of paganism and the presence of magic in modern society. We take a look around the museum alongside co-manager Judith Hewitt.
Boscastle is a sleepy fishing village that sits alongside the idyllic North Coast of Cornwall, a place so remote and picturesque that it almost feels as if it is on the very edge of the world. Standing alongside a trickling stream in this tranquil setting is the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, the world’s largest collection of objects related to witchcraft, magic and the occult. ‘It gives an insight into an alternative history of the world, exploring the taboo of witchcraft and magic,’ Judith remarks, ‘as well as being a hub for practicing witches today.’
Spread out over two floors and with over 3000 objects on display, the museum is overflowing with weird and wonderful items that tell the story of witchcraft from ancient times to the present day. It was founded by Cecil Williamson, who had a lifelong interest in witchcraft and the occult, in collaboration with the founder of the modern pagan religion Gerald Gardner. Moving from various locations across the country, it took a while for the museum to find a permanent site that suited its topic - but eventually it found it's natural home in Boscastle, Cornwall.
The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Glen Bowman
Cecil himself famously summed up his decision to settle in the North Cornwall village because of its abundance of three things: ‘pigs, witches and boats.’ Indeed, the establishing of the museum in Boscastle almost feels as if it was a spiritual inevitability, as Judith explains: ‘The building itself dates back to the 16th century, and had a reputation locally as the witches’ house. We have the legend of the Cornish witch, who would sell tied knots to the sailors before they went to sea, promising that if they untied them on their journey they would have the weather they required for their voyage.’ It’s clear that Boscastle is still very much in tune with its pagan past. ‘It has an old-world feel here. This is a place where unusual ideas, beliefs, practices and people feel safe and can congregate.’
The museum’s displays are not just a conglomeration of oddities, but a comprehensive history of witchcraft through the ages and the images of witchcraft in popular culture. ‘We explore the stereotypes, the iconography of witches such as the hat and the broom.’ Friendly and familiar images of witchcraft in popular culture such as that of Harry Potter lead into darker territory, namely the widespread persecution of people believed to be practicing witchcraft between 1500 and 1700. The grisly details of the methods used to out witches are explored, as well as some of the texts which detailed the equal parts of intrigue and fear of having witchcraft in a community.
The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle. Mat Gilespie
The rest of the museum leads the visitor through some familiar and not so familiar symbols of witchcraft, the magic of modern day wise women, dolls used as cursing tools, a forest display full of spirits, including a hybrid statue of a woman and a hare, and a horned God. The divination room explores a connection with the unknown, from eerie black mirrors to familiar objects such as Ouija boards and Tarot cards. Judith mentions some of the most striking objects on display – something, she admits, is difficult to pick out. ‘The dark mirror owned by Cecil, the founder, is huge, dark and mysterious, and there’s this idea that you may look in and see another world reflected, like a portal. Many visitors see strange things in it. Personally I love this tiny little set of stones, used by witches in Devon as a portable altar. They’d carry it up to the top of Dartmoor at night and set up a fire in front of it, chanting and dancing around it drinking honeymeade, the fairy liquor.’
The legacy and enduring fascination with magic and witchcraft has seen the museum become one of the most popular museums in Cornwall. It has survived in sometimes adverse circumstances, namely the devastating flooding of 2004 which almost wiped it out forever. But with some help from the local community, it quickly reopened and now attracts more visitors than ever. Judith considers the museum’s appeal: ‘As people grow up, they maybe become more close-minded and shut off their imaginations and become quite riddled in scientific dogma. But witchcraft is empowering for people who feel that they don’t have any power, which is why children like it so much, and why it appeals to a lot of women as well. To have such a deep connection to another deep set of values, it’s having a power that comes from somewhere else.’ She sums up: ‘The religions that our ancestors practiced are more in touch with the natural world, and modern witchcraft is in some ways a reaction against modernity, against patriarchal rule, a different world view that is less about competition and more about compassion.’
Whether you’re a believer or an open-minded skeptic, The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic gives an unrivalled insight into a misunderstood practice and an alternative history of the world -spotlighting the traditions of ancient times that have been passed down through generations and quietly celebrated.
The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is at the Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall, PL35 0HD. Entrance is £5 for adults and £4 for children and concessions. Find out more here.