Shark’s tooth. A charm against accident or poison.
Superstition has a long memory. When I was a little girl in the nineteen sixties you could still buy lucky rabbits feet on Scarborough sea front and last year (2011) when fishing families were interviewed they confirmed that within their lifetime pigs (grunters) rabbits (bobtails) rats (longtails) and the colour green were all still considered unlucky. The exhibition Fears, Foes and Faeries at Scarborough Art Gallery looks at the history behind superstition, from the time in the 16th and 17th centuries when a belief in the power of witches and faeries was pretty much universal to the early decades of the twentieth century when these beliefs had come to be regarded as quaint country superstitions. Even now, if you scratch the surface, the old ways of thinking are still there. In what is an age of science, knowledge and reason, people may well still tell you apologetically of things that they believe or protective actions that they carry out if you bring up the subject and allow them to talk. The folk memories are still there.
Life has always been uncertain and fragile and when people were faced with random tragedy they didn’t have the medical and scientific knowledge to explain this. In the absence of knowledge the ever active, curious and fearful human brain tried to find reasons for itself and protect itself. They would arm themselves against potential tragedy or danger by attempting to take power for themselves. This was done by the use of specific charm objects which would be carried or placed protectively about the home. The list of these things which were pocketed or sometimes kept in a special bag round the neck is exhaustive and surprising. Here are just a few examples, all of which can be seen and marvelled at in the exhibition.
A preserved fox’s tongue to protect against witchcraft. (16th century)
The inner ear of a codfish to prevent conception. (London 1919)
Acorns to relieve gout (or in a necklace as a cure for diarrhoea).
Seaweed stems for rheumatism
Corks for cramp.
A toads skull for any kind of chest complaint.
A veined or water worn stone, or the forefoot of a mole, to prevent toothache,
A dead man’s tooth to prevent convulsions in babies while teething.
A faery loaf. (Fossil Echinoderm)
Some of these objects are very moving. The moles forefeet are tiny, delicate and almost human and knowing that people have carried and believed in all the objects that you are looking at gives them a quaint potency.
Sometimes people wanted to be more active about protecting themselves and their animals. Just carrying something was not enough. They wanted to influence events. The scapula of a rabbit would be pierced with pins, for example, to foretell the future. Witches were believed in implicitly and feared, as they were “known” to be able to do this. A woman believed to be a witch called Peg Humphrey was chased through Bilsdale by the local hunt when she transformed herself into a hare. When she was bitten by a hound she cursed the dog and its owner who fell off his horse and died soon afterwards. Proof was in the eye of the beholder. A preserved seagulls heart pierced with pins might be used against you and be enough to reveal your supernatural powers.
Sometimes it would be the faeries who got the blame. They were believed to abduct children and substitute them for logs of wood or a changeling child. To protect the new born the quite terrifying habit developed of suspending a knife, point downwards , over the baby’s face while they were in the cot. Faeries also stole milk from cows in the field and rode horses to exhaustion in the middle of the night, providing a perfect excuse for an overworked horse who was unable to carry on or a cow who had gone dry. Prehistoric arrow heads were thought to be elf arrows and fossil echinoderms were their tiny loaves.
Ammonite. Carried for good luck.
The most potent thing of all in the exhibition, for me, was a curse doll, found hidden in a crevice in the basement brickwork of a house in Hereford in 1960. She has a spotted dress and a crude face and in her skirts was this message, handwritten on a faded brown piece of paper..
“Mary Ann Ward, I act this spell on you from my holl heart wishing you never rest not eat nor sleep the rester part of your life. I hope your flesh will waste away and I hope you will never spend another penny I ought to have. Wishing this from my whole heart.”
The care which has been taken to damn the entirety of Mary’s future is chilling, you can feel the hate streaking towards you through the years, and of course like many such pieces of spite it is unsigned.
There is a wealth of interesting material in this exhibition to look at and it is well worth a visit. I would have liked to see more visual art, there are some wonderful faery paintings by people like Atkinson Grimshaw for instance, and the overwhelming and rather obtrusive design irritated me somewhat. There is a beautiful delicate painting of forge valley by Richard E Clarke painted in 1920 which already has an elaborate frame and it is completely overwhelmed by a second heavy black frame printed around it. I heard several comments that the small real objects hung among the large printed wall panels had gone unnoticed to start with and sometimes I also felt that I did have to work a bit to see the wood for the trees. Even so I enjoyed myself very much and I shall be going back.