Talisman juif sur parchemin invoquant les anges, Alsace, XVIII—XIXe siècle

Beware of sorcerers!

Magic and sorcery: some of us consider them laughable superstitions, others firmly believe, and many are uncertain. But believing has a bad reputation among freethinkers: beliefs were fine for our ancestors and especially the countryside, where it is still all well and good for developing countries, but not at home, not today, and certainly not in cities. And yet, an observation of our contemporaries’ behaviours shows us that advancements in science did not put an end to mystery and belief, not in post-industrial France or elsewhere. Finding ourselves often powerless in the face of adversity, suffering, and anxiety, Man is not always satisfied with the answers provided by science. This leaves an abiding place for other principles and other systems of world views.

Magical attacks

When someone falls prey to misfortune, sometimes those “twists of fate” are interpreted by that person or their inner circles as the symptoms of a magical attack. A hex then appears to be all the more plausible if the person believes they are the object of jealousy or if they are in a conflict situation in their social, professional or family environment. The person responsible for that supernatural misfortune – the sorcerer accused of casting the spell – must then be found.

Witch hunts

n our imaginations and in traditional folk representations, the figure of the sorcerer often takes on the features of a figure with a troubling appearance, like the fairy tale witch with her warts and hooked nose. Shepherds, who live on their own in the middle of nature, and any other fringe elements that may appear a little eccentric, are often point out to passing ethnologists as the local sorcerer.

In reality, sorcerers and sorceresses do not advertise themselves as such and are more discreet than those of folklore, either in the country or the city, even if their powers are sometimes partially known to the community. Moreover, the powers and status of those men and women are ambiguous, and they are also sought out as seers, magnetic healers, natural healers and spellbreakers. A statue preserved at the Mucem bears witness to this ambiguity. Acquired from a healer in the Nivernais region of France, it depicts a man with goat’s feet, evocative of a wild and evil creature, whose particularly meticulous hands suggest that this is a being endowed with powers. Yet the head of the statue, coiffed with a hat that can be unscrewed, is hollow and contained a packet of resin and a nail: this hidden “charge” is characteristic of the objects used in protection and healing rituals. So, is it a statue of a sorcerer or a spellbreaker? An object of bewitchment or protection? The line between the two is often thin and depends on our own point of view.

Unlucky charms!

Identification of the spell and the witch by a spellbreaker is accompanied by a search for the physical materials meant to have been used for the hex. Once located, those objects are typically destroyed in a ritual to cancel out their effects. The Mucem is lucky to possess some of these spellcasting materials, collected in France throughout the 20th century, many of them from an exorcist priest near Bordeaux.

These charms allow spellcasters to discreetly insinuate themselves into the daily life of the person they are attacking, from a distance. They often contain a physical manifestation of the intended victim (hair, nail clipping, scraps of clothing, etc.) which guarantees effective targeted action. For example, a small heart modelled out of raw clay with horsehair incorporated into it, found at the edge of a prairie in the Vienne region of France, was most likely intended to do harm to the animals at the neighbouring farm. More generally, these objects are often part of a traditional repertory, combining materials, shapes and tools in use since time immemorial.

Poupée d’envoûtement, Paris, 1900, © Mucem
Poupée d’envoûtement, Paris, 1900, © Mucem

Crime through images

Known since Antiquity and in many parts of the planet, spellcasting figurines are very popular in European witchcraft. They can be created specifically for the rite [1999.40.1 & 1999.40.2-Woman & mother, Gironde] or, especially in industrialized society, they can be pre-made or diverted from their primary uses [ME.D1986.1.1-Plastic doll]. They employ the very widespread magical law of similarity between the hex figure and the victim, sharing the same general shape, and sometimes a few distinguishing features. For example, two statuettes found in Talence, in the Gironde region of France, depicting a tall, thin woman with long hair and another, shorter and more corpulent, are believed to have been made by a man to get back at his wife and mother-in-law [1999.40.1 & 1999.40.2]. Through the magic of the similarity between the effigy and the actual person, doing something to the first has a direct effect on the second: piercing the strategic parts of the image (like the heart) with needles or nails [1901.1.202-Paris 1999.40.1 & 1999.40.2], smashing in the face [1978.4.1-Sarthe] or portraying the person with their entrails on the outside [1999.40.1] must necessarily have repercussions on the targeted victim.

Misfortune in your pillow

Unlike an amulet, whose proximity is beneficial to the wearer, malevolent objects hidden around the victim are supposed to attract bad luck to them. The Mucem has collected a number of spell materials made of feather, discovered in the pillows of people who believed they were the victims of a hex. Some balls of feathers, interpreted as evil objects, like the one found in a hospice in Valence, France [DMH1989.7.1-Ball], can form naturally in down pillows. But others are undeniably man-made, like this cords or a sock stitched with feathers [ME.D1986.1.17-Sock + CORD???]. And so, in many cases, the supposed victim and their inner circle establish a link between the shape of the object and the recent misfortune. For example, a feather glove was found in the pillow of an artisan who, after a long series of setbacks, wound up with his hand cut off [ME.D1986.1.2-Glove]. It was discovered by his wife, who suspected that witchcraft was behind all of his misfortune. Another object made of fabric covered in feathers came from the pillow of a man whose wife no longer wanted to sleep with him [ME.D1986.1.13-Spermatozoon]. Because of this refusal, its shape was interpreted as a spermatozoon, that was accused of causing the situation: a vicious circle of the interpretation of cause and effect...

Witchcraft for dummies

Good hex materials alone are not enough though: spells are usually activated by ritual words and gestures, performed under specific circumstances (significant dates and times of night, optimal position of the stars, etc.). The spellcaster knows these prescripts and magic formulas [1R42-Properties of droppings] through the oral tradition, but also from ill-reputed grimoires (books of magic) that can be procured from peddlers, in the city or, these days, online.

These books are feared for the information they contain, but also as living objects imbued with their own malevolence: their presence alone in a house is considered to be a source of bad luck. Likewise, their mere possession heightens the powers of an ill-intentioned person, whether or not they are able to read the grimoire. Their authorship is often attributed to great scholars of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, whose legendary wisdom is a guarantee of effectiveness: King Solomon, the supposed author of the “Key” and the “Lesser Key” that bear his name [1R219_4-Key], Pope Leo III, and the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus, to whom the “Greater Albert” and the “Lesser Albert” [1R310-Lesser Albert] are attributed, both of them bestsellers of magical literature that are still being printed today. Sometimes the devil himself is suspected of having participated in the writing of certain texts. Given these authors, is there no hope of salvation for the victims?

Un manuel de protection contre les mauvais sorts, 1995
Un manuel de protection contre les mauvais sorts, 1995

Magical protection

To counter a sorcerer’s evil spells, you must be stronger than him: you must have enough strength of character to resist his attacks, turn them back on him, and eventually wear him down. And so a spellbreaker called to the rescue will often make use of the same dubious methods as the original conjurer. He will also recommend that those under his protection should use a whole series of magical paraphernalia, designed first to overcome the sorcerer’s attacks and serve as a shield against his spells and then, more generally, to bring them good fortune and prosperity. Like in any form of witchcraft, the effectiveness of this protection relies on the powers of the materials, the symbolism of the forms, and the authority of God and His helpers. While an attachment to these types of talismans and amulets may appear irrational to a scientific mind, the choice of amulet typically follows an undeniable logic.

Fighting evil with evil

One of the most widespread magical principles is to use an evil object or an image of the harmful thing as protection against it. This practice clearly means recognizing the power of your enemy. But, at the same time, it means turning his own forces against him, so you no longer need to fear him. For example, in the Arab/Muslim world, a blue eye is both an image of the “evil eye” (a reminder of the cold, clear gaze of former Norman and Byzantine enemies) and a popular amulet for warding it off. As a result, the Turkish nazar boncuk can be found hanging over entryways, on the walls of homes, on baby clothes, from vehicles’ rear-view mirrors, on horses and on key chains. Traces also remain on many amulets from the Balkan region, which was long a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Similarly, in the Christian world, particularly in Italy, horns paradoxically ward off sorcerers and the most dangerous of horned beasts, the devil. In popular Christian tradition, the devil is in fact often portrayed with attributes borrowed from a goat. Surrounding yourself with amulets shaped like horns or actually having a real pair of horns at home is meant to protect you from spells and misfortune. Hung on the façade of a house or close to the door, a small, grimacing devil’s mask – like the image of Medusa on the front wall of an ancient temple – is also meant to chase off evil from the home. Lastly, Italians make the sign of the horns (iettatura in Italian) by closing their fist with the exception of their index and little fingers, to cast a curse or to block one and put an end to the misfortune. This sign can be found on all types of amulets, pendants, key chains and ceramic tiles warding people’s homes.

Bracelet de sainte Marguerite pour protéger les enfants, Seine-et-Marne, vers 1865, Mucem
Bracelet de sainte Marguerite pour protéger les enfants, Seine-et-Marne, vers 1865, Mucem
Bague de protection, Kosovo, Mucem
Bague de protection, Kosovo, Mucem

Appropriating the mystery of origins

Many amulets are charged with protective virtues, because their shape and substance are so curious, so remarkable and full of meaning that it is simply impossible to imagine that they could be the chance creations of nature. It Italy, some pendants made of fossils of polyps or sea urchins were believed to protect children from the evildoings of witches.

Likewise, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, coral had a reputation as a ward against evil. This credit was the result of the fascinating material’s in-between status as a mix of animal, vegetable and mineral, coupled with its marine – and often exotic – origins and, above all, its red colouring, evocative of blood and fire. But like with other materials attributed with protective powers, such as amber and ivory, in some cases the appearance and colour of coral are enough to transform a plastic object into a genuine good luck charm.

Stones in strange shapes that could only be explained by literally extraterrestrial origins and that were believed to have fallen from the firmament, were often credited with the power to ward of lightning, the most dreadful threat from the sky. For example, this is the case of the fossils of pentacrinites (an animal from the same family as sea urchins and sea stars) which are shaped like five-pointed stars and can be found in large quantities in the region around Digne-les-Bains, France. Blades of prehistoric stone that farmers found popping out of the soil they were working also intrigued their discoverers before advances were made in history and archaeology. In Italy, Corsica and Brittany for example, they were placed in the foundations, walls and roofs of houses as protection from lightning.

Cleansing rituals

To repair the damage caused by a sorcerer or to erect magical defences against his attacks, certain materials with absorbent, drying or cleansing properties are recommended by spellbreakers. The purifying qualities of salt have been well-known since Antiquity. It is recommended to always carry a few grains of coarse salt with you, within reach of your fingers, in case of an encounter with a person you suspect to be capable of putting a curse on you. Likewise, you can sprinkle a few pinches on your doorstep to prevent them from entering your house, and anywhere you have found objects believed to be evil. As a precaution, newborns in Brittany wear a bag containing an uneven number of grains of sea salt – even before baptism – to ensure their happiness and prosperity for the rest of their days.

Coal is also a good means of protection: its porousness can absorb and imprison any evil intentions, whilst its colour of night is indicated for fighting evil with evil. This is why a mirror, sent to the museum as an object of bewitchment, was long stored away in a box full of charcoal, to reassure certain members of staff who were afraid of its evil powers.

Similarly, in the world of Catholicism, holy water is used as a preventative to drive away evil and even to guarantee the prosperity of anything it touches: houses, gardens, ploughs, harvests, and so on. But it is also employed to purify anything that has been defiled by an evil spell, and spellbreakers use it in large quantities to fight witchcraft. Water is in fact an almost universal symbol of purity, particularly when imbued with a bit of divine power.

Scapulaire du Sacré-Cœur associé à une médaille de saint Benoît, France, XXe siècle
Scapulaire du Sacré-Cœur associé à une médaille de saint Benoît, France, XXe siècle

Putting the saints on your side

Many protective objects are reinterpretations of religious signs and practices that were originally intended for spiritual effect, but that are, in practice, used for very concrete purposes. In the Catholic world, these objects are primarily saint medals and holy images that should always be worn on you, on the off-chance you might encounter a sorcerer, or hidden in a building or field that you want to protect. In particular, St. Benedict medals have a reputation for counteracting witchcraft, particularly when they bear inscriptions like “Begone, Satan, do not suggest to me thy vanities. Evil are the things thou profferest, drink thou thy own poison”. And they become even more effective when combined with other objects believed to counter evil spells, like cloth scapulars dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that can easily be sewn onto the lapels of a coat or inside a hat.

But regardless of the religion in Europe and the Mediterranean, the most common protection, deemed the most reliable, is prayer or written invocations, sometimes combined with a holy image. In addition to calls for protection sent out orally or mentally to a deity or saint, wearing the permanent, written text on your person is recommended, for example on jewellery or on a piece of folded or rolled paper or vellum. These talismans, sometimes called “phylacteries” (from the Greek for “leaf”), are typically kept, protected and hidden inside a fabric pouch worn on your person or in a small metal box incorporated into your jewellery.

In terms of protective magic, this type of pouch or other wrappings are often used. The fact that these receptacles remain closed, the very image of protection but also a source of mystery, can be as important as their contents. Care is taken not to open them, out of fear of cancelling out their power, like these “new mothers’ pouches” containing holy images and protective prayers, worn during birth after birth by women in labour, dirtied and worn down to the mesh, but recovered again and again rather than opening them up.

As we can see, the means of defence against attacks of sorcery are plentiful, and the Mucem’s collections are equally rich in offensive and defensive magical weapons. But if you are still worried, you can always use this formula to ward off witches, recorded in the Ariège region of France in 1972.