A day of talks was held in Boscastle on Saturday May 14th. It was lovely to see everyone there and the day seemed like a great success. If you weren't able to attend, here is a write up of the day by Joyce Froome. Photos courtesy of Kerriann Godwin and Mark Norman.
If you like the sound of this, you might consider attending our Halloween Conference on October 15th:
Geraldine Beskin began the event with a compelling account of the life and character of the Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan, who has become famous as the last person tried for witchcraft in Britain. She is often seen simply as the victim of injustice whose case led to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, but Geraldine revealed a far more complex story, with disquieting echoes of earlier witch hunts.
Helen Duncan came from a part of Scotland where there was a strong belief in second sight. Before she achieved fame as a medium, her life was full of poverty, illness and tragedy, alleviated only by her marriage to a soldier she had communicated with psychically as he lay wounded during the First World War. Her remarkable ability to enter a mediumistic trance thus grew out of personal trauma as well as the traditional beliefs of her Scottish home. She then became embroiled in the conflict between the increasingly popular Spiritualist movement and scientific scepticism, developing an ill-advised association with the self-promoting psychic investigator Harry Price; and the apparent incongruity of the fact that her psychic powers were combined with a tough and sometimes belligerent personality made her an obvious target for those determined to discredit Spiritualism.
Geraldine’s infectious admiration for Helen Duncan held her audience captivated, and brought alive the human story behind Helen Duncan’s historical significance.
Next up was Nick Groom with a lively exploration of British May Day customs. He began (of course!) with the Padstow Obby Oss, before heading off on a fascinating foray into the numerous historical accounts of other May festivities, featuring morris dancers, maypoles, dragons and horses. The evidence suggests a wealth of locally distinctive ceremonies, confirming the social and spiritual importance of May Day. As the character of our countryside is eroded by growing uniformity and commercialisation, Nick encouragingly suggested that May Day celebrations seem to have an ability to resist this in a way that other festivals cannot.
In the afternoon, Zoe Young gave a moving and troubling account of her experiences making a film about the persecution of women accused of witchcraft in Ghana – a disturbing reminder that the fear of malevolent magic is still having terrible consequences today. She went on to suggest a connection between these persecutions and the abuse of children suspected of being possessed by evil spirits in African-origin communities in London. She explored the complicated contributing factors, including the role of the fundamentalist Christian churches that exploit these situations to gain control over their congregations, and the tension between traditional animist spirit beliefs and the growth of a commercialised attitude to the natural world. It is a subject that raises many challenging questions. Does a belief in magic lead to the persecution of women, or does the desire to disempower women lead to the demonization of magic? Zoe made the important and thought-provoking point that those of us who are fighting to rehabilitate the concept of the witch in Europe and America need to be aware of the potential implications and global context of our efforts.
The afternoon was rounded off with a discussion of some of the objects in the Museum’s collection. As so often happens, it was a reminder of how our supporters are one of our best sources of information. Contributions included an account of a wise woman capturing a troublesome spirit in a jam jar, and the important warning that it is extremely difficult to charge a wand made of metal. Thank you all very much – your information will be a valuable addition to our database.