British Museum blog

Witches and wicked bodies

Giulia Bartrum, curator, British Museum

The major Prints and Drawings exhibition at the Museum this autumn, aptly timed to coincide with Halloween, will provide a rich and compelling survey of the history of witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It has been co-curated by artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge, who has made a lengthy study of the subject in the visual arts. It is a version of the exhibition Witches and wicked bodies at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, last year, with a focus on prints and drawings from the British Museum and a few loans from the V&A, the Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500. 1868,0822.188 (Cat. no 17). Dürer’s famous image of a shrieking hag clutching her broom and spindle influenced centuries of witch art. The goat, a symbol of lust, was thought to embody the devil, and the rain and hailstones seen above are a reminder that witches raise storms and destruction. The natural order of things is reversed throughout the print: the witch’s hair trails in the opposite direction to her drapery; a putto stands on his head, and even Dürer’s monogram is reversed.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath,  1510.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath, 1510. Colour woodcut from two blocks, the tone block in orange-brown. 1834,0712.73 (Cat. no 19). The artist and printmaker Hans Baldung was Dürer’s most successful pupil. This print is one of the most dramatic witch images ever produced. It shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality, a subject in which Baldung specialised. It is likely that he found a ready market for such subjects in the affluent city of Strasbourg where he lived and worked. The violent Witches’ Hammer, written by Dominican inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been re-printed fourteen times.

Efforts to understand, interpret, apportion blame and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture for seemingly malevolent deeds have had a place in society since the world of classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They were thought to represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world. Witches fly on broomsticks or backwards on dragons or beasts, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat of 1501 or Hans Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1510.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11)

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11). The two hooded crones gleefully sucking finger-bones are joined by a nude bat lady who flies in with her familiars. Splashes of highlight brilliantly left untouched on the plate illuminate the greedy pleasure of their faces and the infant parts packed into a lunch basket. The title depends on wordplay, as in other prints from Goya’s Los Caprichos series. Chupar, to suck is still used colloquially in Spanish to indicate exploitation, as in bleeding someone dry or sucking out their marrow.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14)

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14). This print shares many elements of the large-scale oil study by a member of the Genoese artist’s studio exhibited nearby in representing the classical witch whose magical powers were detailed in Homer’s Odyssey, and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The etching is notable for the brilliant use of the untouched white paper, isolating the wand-wielding Circe against the niche as she contemplates the men she has transformed into beasts. As in the drawing, the discarded armour in the centre reveals that her beauty and magical powers have vanquished mighty warriors although she will eventually meet her match in the wily Odysseus.

They are often depicted within cave-like kitchens surrounded by demons, performing evil spells, or raising the dead within magic circles, as in the powerful work of Salvator Rosa, Jacques de Gheyn and Jan van der Velde. Francisco de Goya turned witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day. Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts.

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica)  bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89  (not in catalogue)

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89 (not in catalogue). Circe fell for the handsome Picus, the first king of Latium (a central region of Italy where Rome was founded) while he was out hunting. She created a phantom boar which he followed into the forest. Having fallen into her trap, Circe tried to seduce Picus but was rejected so she turned him into a woodpecker. When his companions complained, she transformed them into animals too. This highly pictorial scene is based on a woodcut in Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first printed in Venice in 1497.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue). This curiously dislocated witch figure, encircled by a huge snake, has her hands on her belly as she balances on a platform of a tall pedestal that suggests a crucifixion. Smoke billows out of a suspended cauldron on the right. Based on an enigmatic charcoal drawing (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) this work illustrates Redon’s investment in ‘everything that is receptive to symbol…the unexpected, the imprecise…the undefinable.’ It has also been interpreted as relating to Redon’s anxiety about his wife’s pregnancy at the time.

The exhibition also includes several classical Greek vessels and examples of Renaissance maiolica to emphasise the importance of the subject in the decorative arts. During the Romantic period, Henry Fuseli’s Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix. The rise of children’s literature and folklore studies meant that the image of the old hag with a broomstick was appropriated for children’s stories. Witch subjects appealed to the artists and writers involved with Romanticism, from the wild inventions of Delacroix and von Holst, to the mock classicism of late Burne-Jones or Waterhouse. The interest in emotion, poetic sources and a preoccupation with sexuality led the Pre-Raphaelites to the construction of the image of the femme-fatale. These alluring and predatory women range from Lilith and Circe to the Nordic Valkyries. Their danger to men is an expression of the fear of women’s increasing political and social power, but the images concur with the long misogynist tradition of representations of female witches. The international Symbolist movement including Redon, Franz von Stuck and Otto Greiner was profoundly inflected by the interest in the occult and Satanism at the end of the century. The key work was Joris-Carl Huysman’s banned novel Là-Bas (The Damned) 1891. Witchcraft was no longer feared in the same way in Europe, but the danger to society of the mysterious ‘other’ was an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers.

Witches and wicked bodies is in Room 90 from 25 September 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

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Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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Viking women, warriors, and valkyries


Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!

Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend promises to reveal ‘a world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors’ and its iconic image is a sword. As that suggests, much of this world is a male world, and this chimes with popular perceptions of the Vikings as large, aggressive and bearded men. A more nuanced view of the Viking Age would recognise that even large, aggressive and bearded men had mothers, and very likely sisters, wives and daughters, and if you look closely at the exhibition you will find some personal items associated with such women. Nor did these women all stay at home while their menfolk went out into the wide world of raiding and trading. There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a valkyrie.

Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.


Professor Judith Jesch is the author of Viking Poetry of Love and War and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
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