Amazing conference weekend
Well, what an amazing (and an exhausting and exhilarating) weekend! Last year, we held a conference in October to coincide with and augment our 2016 exhibition (Glitter and Gravedust: Halloween past and present), this weekend we held two days of talks on the theme of cursing to link in with our 2017 exhibition (Poppets, pins and power: the Craft of Cursing). In May 2018, we will be holding another conference on the theme of next year’s exhibition which is Ritual Magic (more details on this to be announced, probably around October time).
So, here is a run down of our second annual exhibition conference. We hope to turn each of these talks into an essay and to publish a conference book in due course.
First up was the ever wonderful Mogg Morgan, author of “The Ritual Year in Ancient Egypt” and publisher of Mandrake ofOxford. He spoke about cursing in Ancient Egypt: making smaller replicas of things to control them, the mutiliation of hieroglyphs to deny them power, the binding and tying of knots, the Evil Eye and spitting as a method of cursing. His talk particularly focused on Apophis or Apep (the large snake in the photograph behind) and considered whether this entity was seen as an absolute evil in Ancient Egyptian eyes, what its relation to magic and the origin of magic was and when and where the imagery of this great snake first emerges.
Our second talk began with music/magical music making to invoke the protection of the spirits. Demetrius Lacroix talked enthusiastically and knowledgeably about Haitian Vodou Cursing including its origins in slave societies and the practises of Ekspedisyon (to expediate, associated with zombification) and Ak Pelene (to trap). Demetrius also closed his talk with chanting/singing and used instruments that had ritual significance. It was a privilege to listen to him.
Up next was Steve Patterson, folklorist and author (and long-term Friend of the Museum). Not only did he speak about a curse – he brought it with him! This talk focused on an inscribed roof slate which was found on a Cornish farm in 2008. The slate says:
“May he who steals my round stones
Make early dry bones
Repent return and live forever.”
There was much speculation on the meaning of this enigmatic language and Steve provided us with some possible interpretations as well as a look at the history and folklore of similar curses from Ancient Greece to the present day.
After a brief break (and a chance to peruse the stalls!) we reconvened to hear Al Cummins talk on “Curse Craft and Humoural Theory”. His discussion of humours really added another dimension to our understanding of cursing in the past and beliefs about the origins of well being and misfortune being linked to the body, the elements and astrology. For those who missed this talk, Al has published a book called “The Starry Rubric: Seventeenth Century Astrology and Magic” (which is going to be in the Museum library very soon!)
Camilla Schroeder spoke next about Cursing in Grimm’s Fairy tales. She explored three stories in detail: The Frog King, Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty) and the Twelve Brothers noting how in the stories women tend to be cursed with silence and men when cursed are generally turned into creatures. She discussed the significance of this and the moral of “good women are silent women” which arguably emerges.
Next, Judith Noble, Friend of the Museum, spoke about her own experience of a curse (the details of which I won’t divulge here) but which involved the founder of the Museum (Cecil Williamson), a mirror, a candle and a spider’s web. This was a very personal account and we were pleased Judith felt able to share it with us and tell us about her experiences and emotions surrounding this event.
The next talk considered the idea of “cursed races” and the origins of these so-called curses in sacred texts. Yvonne Knopp looked at the “Blood Curse” which has been used to justify the persecution of the Jews, the curse of Ham/the Canaanites which was used historically as a justification for the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Curse of the Lamanites which appears in the Book of Mormon (and which has since been renounced as doctrine).
Mireille Fauchon shared with us her journey into the landscape of Lowestoft to discover more about the Suffolk witch trials. She described her personal journey, her attempt to connect with this traumatic part of our past and her artistic/creative response to it. Her ongoing project can be viewed online: http://www.mireillefauchon.com/
The final talk was by Peter Hewitt, one of the managers of the Museum. His talk focused on one field in Cornwall and what a field it turned out to be. A witch’s curse, black dog sightings, spectral clouds of mist, smugglers, wreckers, ancient burials and priceless Bronze Age antiquities. Peter speculated about the significance of this field to the people of the area: does the curse of Mother Ivey actually protect the field?
The first part of the day ended with questions for the speakers and then we went our separate ways for a few hours (many people headed to the Museum) and reconvened at 8pm for the evening event which started with a talk by Simon Costin, the Director of the Museum on poppets in films. Clips from films such as “White Zombie” and “Burn Witch Burn” were shown and interspersed with an analysis of their representation of poppets and their cultural influence.
The day ended with a truly unforgettable experience – a performance by Folklore Tapes. This is really impossible to describe so I won’t try! All I will say is that you ever get chance to see them you should go! http://www.folkloretapes.co.uk/ Here are some photos to give you a flavour of it.
After a few drinks in the bar and lots of interesting conversations, day one of the conference ended. At 10am on Sunday, we met again to hear the remaining talks. Paula McBride talked us through cursing in the early modern Midlands by examining several cases in detail: the case of Thomas Darling from Staffordshire in 1596, the Belvoir Witch trial in 1618-1619, the case of Cherrie of Thrapston, Northamptonshire (1647) and finally the mercer’s wife Katherine Atkins of Warwick who in 1652 was said to have disappeared after an argument about alms giving/food which led to “mumbling” which was interpreted as cursed words.
After this, our theme of cursing remained the same but we changed continents. Jesse Hathaway Diaz took us on a whistlestop tour of Cursing in Colonial Mexico. He explained the folk magic practices of Mexico with too many amazing examples to even attempt to recount. The audience were particularly intrigued by his exploration of “left handed Saints” and their role in cursing and also his explanation of how love spells are viewed as cursing in Mexican culture.
After this, James Riley presented a talk about one curse in detail. The curse was performed against the Moka Bar in London in 1972. William Burroughs used tape recordings to curse this espresso bar which had terrible service and “poisonous cheesecake”! James considered Burroughs the author and Burroughs the magical practitioner and made a compelling case for continuity in his ideas (using different mediums). His discussion of the importance of words and meaning to Burroughs gave a modern example to an ancient practice.
After a quick break, we met again to hear Jon Kaneko-James discuss cursing in Medieval and early modern England. His particular focus was on cursing in churches and how people may have “learned” the style and language of cursing from Biblical and liturgical examples (such as a Bill of Excommunication). He broke down cursing in this period into three categories and considered the connections between each: curses, oaths and spells.
Our penultimate talk was by Jonathan Hughes (Boscastle resident and author of several books on the Middle Ages and alchemy in particular). He presented us with the case of Eleanor Cobham and Margery Jourdemayne, a case which involved the alleged use of poppets and a case of treason against the King – Henry VI. Jonathan’s talk focused in particular on Eleanor’s husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his interest in Renaissance ideas and alchemy.
The final speaker was the curator of our exhibition this year – Louise Fenton – who explored the confusion between witchcraft and voodoo. She explored the history of images used for magic making from the time of Ancient Egypt to the modern day and considered the role of books and films in creating confusion between practices of witchcraft, voodoo and voodou.
The conference came to a close with more stimulating debate during the final question and answer session for each of the speakers. After that, people enjoyed another chance to visit the Museum and its current exhibition (as well as some well deserved ice creams in the sun!)
We have had some great emails giving us positive feedback, here are a few:
“Just a few word to say thanks for putting on such a fab weekend what a cracking conference! Great curation and presentation. A good range of talks and some great conversations were had.by one and all …you even managed to arrange some good weather.”
“Thanks and congratulations on a wonderful, mind expanding conference this weekend. Great speakers and beautifully facilitated!”
“It was a great weekend and it went incredibly smoothly, thanks to you. You did an amazing job!”
“I have to say that I thought the speakers were all superb, so very well done…for the excellent selections you made. They all complemented each other exceptionally well, too, which gave a cohesion to the event that you don’t often see, even in themed events.”
“I really enjoyed myself; all the speakers were great, and a number absolutely outstanding. Very fascinating; I learnt a lot as well as having a great time.”
“Loved the conference, & thank you all at the Museum for all the hard work you put in to arranging the weekend.”
We are so pleased people enjoyed their weekend and we owe a big thank-you to all our speakers and also to the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle for making this event possible.
A reminder that next year’s conference will be on Ritual Magic (as will next year’s exhibition). It will be held in early May. Speakers TBA. Tickets should go on sale around October..