Archive for the Superstition Category

The Valley of Saint-Clair, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Church, History, Landscape, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by mysearchformagic

The Chapel of Saint-Clair nestles in a quiet valley just outside the Breton village of Limerzel. This is a tranquil part of the world, one that the rapid developments of the late 20th Century have largely passed by. As a result, a visit to this valley, with its collection of fascinating ancient monuments, is rather like stepping back in time.

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path towards the chapel begins in a stretch of shady trees. There is a picnic table here for any passing tourists, although this is not the kind of place that attracts lots of visitors, just the odd dog walker from the village or maybe a passing farmer on his tractor. Walk a bit further down and you will find the first curiosity on this short journey, namely the Fountain of Saint-Clair.

The fountain of St Clair

The fountain of St Clair

Large scale holy fountains like this were once common in Brittany, and a number of them survive to this day, but few are as decorative as this beautiful example. Saint Clair himself can be seen carved in polychrome relief below the elaborate canopy. The first bishop of nearby Nantes, Saint Clair was responsible for bringing Christianity to the region in the late 3rd Century. In the past, his fountain has been attributed with healing powers, particularly for those suffering from maladies of the eyes, although the mossy, leaf-filled pool which lies at the heart of the fountain doesn’t inspire much hope for modern miracle seekers.

Follow the path a bit further and you will emerge out of the trees; take a sharp right turn and you will discover the next point of interest – the Cross of Saint-Clair. Like many of the crosses which dot the landscape in this area, the carving on this monument is provincial and naive, while centuries of erosion has erased much of the fine detail. The base is dated 1818, although the obvious age of the cross itself suggests that this date relates to a later restoration rather than its original construction.

The cross of Saint Clair

The cross of Saint Clair

By now the chapel itself can be seen nearby. It is just a short walk across a babbling stream to the final destination of this magical pilgramage, a simple building which dates from the 15th/16th Century and was sympathetically restored during the 1800s. Nowadays the chapel is almost always locked, but a small grille in the door allows visitors a view into the sombre interior, its religious statues and austere furniture bathed in the golden light from the small stained glass windows.

The chapel of St Clair

The chapel of St Clair

Every year on the 15th September the locals celebrate the Pardon of Saint Clair, during which a procession makes its way from the fountain, which is temporarily festooned with colourful flowers, to the chapel. After the procession everyone indulges in a communal meal to commemorate the Saint’s day. But for the other 364 days of the year the chapel remains peaceful and largely forgotten in this secluded valley, a place which still remains a magical haven far from the noise and bustle of modern life.

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Posted in Art, Edinburgh, Fairy Tales, Legend, Photography, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Traprain Law, East Lothian

Posted in Edinburgh, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on April 22, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Any regular visitor to East Lothian will know Traprain Law. A huge mound of volcanic rock which sits dramatically amongst the rolling hills around Haddington, it is hard to miss this imposing mass. Few however will be aware of its long history, and the many myths linked with one of South East Scotland’s most fascinating landmarks.

Traprain Law from the south

Traprain Law from the south

Archaeological investigations of Traprain Law during the last hundred years have revealed centuries of habitation, with the first signs of human involvement dating back as far as 1500 BCE. The Law seems to have been the site of a major settlement, and has long been linked with the Votadini tribe who inhabited the region during Roman times. In 1919, a team of historians discovered the famous Traprain Treasure here, an incredible hoard of silver plate dating from this era, thought by modern scholars to have been a bribe paid by the Romans to the local people to buy their cooperation.

Nowadays there are few signs of this extensive history visible to the naked eye. The day that I visited the Law was cold and windy, with dark clouds sweeping in threateningly from the west. The climb up to the summit was steep and soggy, the path often resembling a boggy mountain stream.

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The view from the top made it all worthwhile, extending for miles over the surrounding landscape. No one else was around, just me and the stubby-legged, barrel-chested little horses that now make the Law their home.

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

Traprain Law has been linked in legend with St Mungo. A story is told that his mother, Thenaw, was thrown from its precipitous cliffs by her father King Lot when he discovered that she was pregnant by Owain Mab Urien. She miraculously survived, and following a journey across the Forth to a place near the town of Culross, she gave birth to Mungo, now the patron saint of Glasgow.

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

An even more bizarre story suggests that the huge rocky outcrops known as the Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, which dominate the summit of the Law, have magical properties. Women, and perhaps men too, who want to improve their fertility are encouraged to squeeze their way through the narrow crevice between the two rocks, preferably performing this feat naked, not the most appealing prospect on a cold and drizzly afternoon.

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Lwa

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Law

In recent years the Law has also been linked with UFO sightings, with unusual lights appearing here and at nearby North Berwick Law. I didn’t spot anything untoward on my visit, although the atmosphere at the top of the great mound is certainly rather special. The Loth Stone, a huge monolith said to be the gravestone of mythical King Loth and which sits in a field not far from Traprain Law was also on my agenda, but as I began my slippery descent the heavens opened and I was forced to hot-foot it back to my car. The Loth Stone, it seems, will have to wait for now.

Modern Witchcraft, ASC Gallery

Posted in Art, London, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2013 by mysearchformagic

This week I discovered a fabulously strange exhibition at the ASC Gallery near London’s Elephant and Castle. Entitled Modern Witchcraft, the show combines historic artefacts and contemporary art in an intriguing, magical way.

Modern Witchcraft, an installation view

Modern Witchcraft, an installation view

Many of the ancient objects are on loan from the nearby Cuming Museum, which was sadly damaged in a recent fire. Items from the Edward Lovett collection of superstition in particular, such as an early 20th Century Witch Ball used for crystal gazing, as well as a 16th Century German Black Mirror perfect for calling up the spirits of the deceased, set the decidedly supernatural tone.

A German 16th Century Magician's Mirror, from the collection of the Cuming Museum

A German 16th Century Magician’s Mirror, from the collection of the Cuming Museum

The contemporary works are just as bizarre and unsettling. Most striking are Riccardo Andujar’s Heads I-IV, these tiny eyeless craniums apparently in the process of shedding their multicoloured rubbery skins. John Stark’s paintings combine Poussin-like classicism with creepy sci-fi surrealism, his world inhabited by faceless hooded figures.

Heads I-IV, RIccardo Andujar

Heads I-IV, RIccardo Andujar

My absolute favourite exhibit was located in a quiet corner of the gallery. At first glance, James Hopkins’ Ghost Bottle appears to be just an oddly shaped white mass sitting on a pedestal next to a bottle of red wine. But stare more closely into the dark depths of the bottle and you will see something amazing – the reflection of the white mass forms the shape of a perfect human skull.

Ghost Bottle, James Hopkins; Conditions, Nick Dawes

Ghost Bottle, James Hopkins; Conditions, Nick Dawes

Modern Magic runs until 18 May 2013 at ASC Gallery

Le Jardin aux Moines, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by mysearchformagic

We’re back in the Forest of Broceliande this week, in a spot not far from the Val Sans Retour. In a clearing in the scrubby woodland on the edge of the forest lies the Jardin aux Moines, or Monks’ Garden, an unusual group of low stones with a mysterious history.

The Jardin aux Moins

The Jardin aux Moins

The legend goes that St Méen came to the region and discovered a community of rather debauched monks, who were more intent on having fun than following their holy orders. On one particular day the saint found the monks preparing for an orgy, and when he tried to persuade them to renounce their wicked ways they turned on him with violent intent.

Luckily for St Méen, divine punishment was quickly forthcoming, and the naughty monks were all turned into stones where they stood.

The reality is that the Jardin aux Moins is a neolithic monument, which was later reused during the bronze age, and although its purpose is not exactly clear, it probably had some sort of funerary function. But I much prefer the magical legend, which bears a striking resemblance to the tale of the nearby Demoiselles de Cojoux.

A Tau tau, the Wellcome Collection

Posted in Art, History, Superstition with tags , , , on January 12, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Until last weekend, I had no idea of what a tau-tau was. Now that I have seen one, I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

A tau tauImage courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

A tau tau
Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

I discovered this tau tau in the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is simply and snappily titled Death. The exhibition features the private collection of Richard Harris, which includes a plethora of strange and magical items, all of them relating to that most taboo of subjects. Despite the fact that it is going to happen to all of us one day, death is something most of try to avoid talking or thinking about. The way that it has been viewed over the centuries and throughout the world has varied immensely, hence the array of amazing objects included in Death.

Tau taus are unique to the Toraja people of Indonesia. They were created to sit outside the rock-cut tombs of the wealthier Torajans, guarding their remains and acting as symbols of their wealth and status. The arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 20th Century almost wiped out the practise, and in more recent times the remaining tau taus have been regularly plundered by grave robbers.

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

For any visitor to Death, it’s hard to miss the tau tau. It sits silently in the centre of one of the galleries, spotlit and staring. Its presence is unsettling, and despite its simple carving and rudimentary accessories, it has a real sense of personality. This tau tau looks like it could get up and start shuffling towards you at any second, which is a distinctly unsettling thought.

I’m not sure about the morals of display such items, which have obviously been stolen from their rightful location at some point, but the tau tau is certainly an object of wonder. Standing next to it was a rather sinister experience, one which will I suspect haunt me for a long time to come.

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/Death

A Turnip Lantern

Posted in Hallowe'en, Superstition on October 30, 2012 by mysearchformagic

Back in Scotland when I was young, pumpkins were something we only saw on television or in books, the stuff of Disneyfied fairytales. Instead we carved our Hallowe’en lanterns out of turnips (that’s a swede to all you sassenachs out there).

A Turnip Lantern

Turnips are small and dense, and a nightmare to hollow out, but with their purpley-green complexions and wrinkly, knarled skin, much more chilling than the more modern pumpkin. A little bit of research reveals that turnip lanterns have a long history, probably originating in the Highlands as an attempt to keep malevolent spirits at bay on that eerie night when the flimsy barrier between this world and the next is at its weakest. Thread a string through it to make a handle, and you are all set for a night of guising.

Small, creepy, and most definitely magical!