Ghostly tales and creepy objects from our collections
Share in the stories of witches, evil spirits, scary creatures and all things frightful as we head into the season of Halloween and Bonfire Night.
Death from disease, famine or war was an ever-present reality in the 16th and 17th centuries. Memento mori rings (from the Latin ‘remember that you must die’) reminded the wearer of the brevity of life, and the need to prepare for death and the afterlife. The prospect of death served to emphasise the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries and achievements.
This is the finest memento mori ring in the Ashmolean’s collection. Diamonds are set in the skull’s eye sockets and nose, and in the crossbones. These would have sparkled and flashed in the light, drawing attention to the ring’s macabre message.
The ring was presented to the Museum by C.D.E. Fortnum in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It's one of the remarkable collection of over 800 rings, also by C.D.E. Fortnum. The collection was given to the Museum with the aim to help us become ‘an institution of the first importance for teaching and illustrating the development of art applied to both small and larger objects’.
On display in the Arts of the Renaissance, Rings Gallery, 56, 2nd floor.
Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this iron lantern when he was arrested in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4–5 November 1605.
Fawkes and his conspirators planned to ignite barrels of gunpowder concealed under firewood in the cellar during the state opening of Parliament when the King, Commons and Lords would all have been present in the Lords’ Chamber – the aim of the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ being to blow up the chamber and kill the Protestant King James I. Thanks to an anonymous warning, the cellars were searched, Fawkes was discovered and the plot failed.
The lantern measures 36.5cm tall and is on display in the Ashmolean Story Gallery 2, lower ground floor.
In this lively woodcut illustration, English witches are making merry, the male dancers replaced by devils. Depictions of witchcraft confessions often included scenes of subverted domestic life and pastimes, such as dancing and drinking, as well as ideas from elite demonology.
The woodcut is from T.S. Norris's The History of Witches and Wizards, published in London in 1720. The illustrator is not known. By that time, there had been no executions in England for 40 years, and witch trials were already curiosities passing into folk memory.
The Ashmolean has a significant collection of witch and witchcraft Douce prints, of which this is one.
You can see this print and others by appointment in the Print Room.
This expressive 80cm-high bronze figure by Feuchère, deep in brooding melancholy, epitomises the interests of the Romantic sculptors. When first exhibited at the Paris salon in 1834, it was described as 'a personification, with plenty of verve and ardour, of the evil genius at odds with being powerless'.
The bronze inspired numerous other sculptures throughout the 19th century, culminating with Rodin's 'Thinker' in 1902.
On display in the Pre-Raphaelites gallery 66, 3rd floor.
Prince Kuromo and the Earth Spider, Japanese woodblock print, 1867
There are several Japanese legends surrounding the evil 'earth spider' or 'tsuchigumo'. Here, the earth spider transfers magical powers to Prince Kurokumo to help him plot revenge on his enemy, the 10th-century warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (also known as Raikō). The tsuchigumo creature is basically a giant spider, though it is sometimes described as having the face of a demon and the body of a tiger.
'Tsuchigumo' has also referred to certain groups of people in ancient Japan, such as bandits and resistant leaders, who used guerrilla tactics. Many of these groups lived in hollow earthen mounds and may have used caves as hideouts. There is, however, ambiguity in the sources and it’s unclear if tsuchigumo was first used to refer to people or the monster.
This woodblock colour print is from a ghost series, Beauty and Valour in the Novel Suikoden' by the designer Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, dating to the Edo Period. The evil earth spider also features in another triptych in our Japanese print collection.
You can view this print and others by appointment.
Measuring about 6cm square, the top of this official ivory seal for Peking university is carved with two bats. The seal reads: Guoli Beijing daxue yanjiusuo guoxuemen, 'Research institute for the study of the cultural heritage of the Guoli University of Beijing'.
Contrary to their spooky associations in the West, in China, bats are symbols of good luck and happiness. The Chinese admiration for bats goes back to ancient times and the Chinese word for bat is ‘fu,’ pronounced the same as the word for good fortune.
This object is not on display.
Eric North Bequest
This 20-cm high sculpture was made by ceramic artist Kate Malone, fashioned in stoneware and moulded as a pumpkin with a twisted stem. The underside has two air holes, is fired unglazed in a salt kiln and has caught salt vapours on its surface.
Describing her love of pumpkins, Kate says, 'it has a beautiful shape and it looks corporal like a bosom, a belly or something plump and juicy.' She has made many ceramic pumpkins, large and small, mostly glazed, making this a unique example.
Pumpkins are seen as good omens to ward off the evil spirits of Halloween, because they symbolise abundance at harvest time. The history of pumpkin carving, associated with a ghoulish figure called 'Jack O Lantern' - although popularised in America - goes back to the Celtic tradition. People used to place root vegetables, decorated with scary faces, on their doorsteps to frighten the devilish Jack away.
On display in the Sickert and his Contemporaries Gallery 63, third floor.