Monday 25 March 2024

Charmed Photos: Wellcome Collection's Amulet Day

I took these pictures of the Enchanted Forest display at Charmed - the Wellcome Collection's day of talks, workshops and exhbitions related to amulets and magic. Above, you can see books on herbs, folklore and natural magic. The one to the right shows an engraving of a curious amulet in the shape of a caterpillar, from a 19th century magazine. A letter described silver amulets like this being made by monks and hired out to farmers in Ireland to ward off these little beasts. The Conac or Murrain caterpillar was thought to cause illness in cattle. (You can find more details on Wellcome's website.)

People entering the Enchanted Forest room were invited to pick a quest by randomly taking a slip of paper from a box at the entrance. Mine charged me to find the most suprising thing in the display and explain why it interested me. I picked this, and you can see my quest slip between the description and the engraving in the photo. It suprised me because I hadn't heard of this particular charm before. Silver amulets would have been very expensive for peasant farmers even to hire. I wondered if they felt the expense was really worth it? 

Doing more research, I found an article from 1914 called "The Cattle Disease Called the "Connogh," and Its Traditional Cure by Amulets and Charms" by William F. De Vismes Kane. Apparently it was a widely held belief by Irish farmers that cattle and swine could be poisoned by swallowing caterpillars and that amulets and charms were a good defence. The amulet in the engraving does look rather like a cinnabar moth caterpillar, which feeds on ragwort. Both the plant and the moth are poisonous to livestock (see Sussex Wildlife Trust's website for example). Today farmers will scrupulously remove ragwort from fields where animals graze. 

The picture to the left shows a manuscript containing spells and occult information. It was penned by Antony Lightfoot and others around 1650. The description pointed out that although printing presses existed at the time, many grimoires were handwritten because that was considered more magical. The picture at the bottom shows a painting of flowering plants, also in the Enchanted Forest display.

Charmed - Wellcome Collection's Amulet Takoever Day was on Friday, 22 March. Other activities including talks on plague doctors and mourning jewellery, a chance to handle amulets and charms, lessons on making paper cranes and painting tarot cards, as well as my own crafting workshop to make a Brigid's cross and a corn dolly. 

Although this session of Charmed is over, you can still see the Wellcome Collection's regular display of amulets and other magical objects. The free library and museum is at 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. There are always exhibitions and talks taking place so visit the website to see what's coming up.

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