Courtesy of Lindsay France / University Photography

The witches exhibit will open at 4 p.m. on Halloween in Kroch Library and will remain open until Aug. 31.

October 17, 2017

Rare Witchcraft Collection Brewing for Halloween Opening

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Spooky drawings, photographs and posters will adorn a Cornell library this Halloween as part of a witches exhibit that explores how cultural characterizations of witches throughout history reveal insights about society’s perception of women.

The World Bewitch’d will feature the first-ever book on witchcraft, numerous transcripts from the European witch trials, the first drawing of flying witches and many other manuscripts from Andrew Dickson White’s personal library collection. These manuscripts explore gender, the portrayal of witches in movies and more.

The exhibit will open at 4 p.m. on Halloween in Kroch Library and will remain open until Aug. 31.

Former University of Pennsylvania history professor Edwards Peters, author of “The Magician, the Witch, and the Law”, said the Cornell collection is “first-rate” and a historical treasure that should be visited for its educational and exciting nature.

“Why not piggy-back on the calendar?” Peters told The Sun in an email. “It’s a time of year when people are thinking about the subject … just as they’ve just been thinking a lot about Columbus earlier this month.”

The importance of this collection, Peters said, comes partially from the fact that it is a collaboration between A.D. White and George Lincoln Burr and ties into a debate that was popular at the time — and still is, he said — regarding the role of science and religion.

Former Cornell lecturer Katherine Howe, who has written many books on the Salem witch trials, said that while most people are familiar with fantasy versions of witchcraft, they often do not know about colonial beliefs regarding witchcraft.

“I was really struck with how we have this modern-day picture of what a witch is, which is the Halloween picture — with a pointy hat and a broomstick and everything — and yet here I was living in a part of a world where generation upon generation, people believed witchcraft was actually real,” Howe told the Ithaca Journal in 2015.

Howe said that witchcraft is “fun to think about” because it is “eerie and creepy and a little bit scary”. The modern-day intrigue in witchcraft, she said, is in part due to it being a big example of “where our cultural ideas totally failed.”

“We subscribe to an ideology of tolerance and support for equality, egalitarianism, support for people who are at the fringes of society, the inclusion of people at the fringes of society, these are all really important concepts for the American project,” Howe said.

This year’s exhibit will also feature a gender theme: The way witches are portrayed throughout the multiple photographs and manuscripts provide insights into the views of women in that society at that time. For example, while some women were portrayed as old or dumb, others were portrayed as smart and alluring. Movie posters will also serve to show how witches have been culturally represented and perceived in recent years.

“Because witches are so powerful and threatening, sometimes they are put in the real world to see what the comical outcomes are. They marry men and have to hide their magic, or they wreak havoc that has to be cleaned up,” co-curator of the exhibit Kornelia Tancheva said.