Discover Magic in Museums

Take a closer look at some of the most magical items found in museums around the world

By Google Arts & Culture

Witches' Sabbath (1797-1798) by Francisco de Goya y LucientesMuseo Lázaro Galdiano

Magic and art have a long and closely intertwined history, from the early-human drawings found in caves to medieval folk art to contemporary revival of occult forms and traditions.

Art has been thought to influence events, foretell the future, or cross the divide between the visible and invisible. More overt displays of magic have also been common throughout history, either as genuine ritual or for entertainment.

Join us as we take a closer look at some magical items found in museums around the world, highlighting the importance of magic and myth in almost every culture on the planet. 

Batak book about magic, rituals, prescriptions and divination (1852/1857) by Tumuran Hatta NihajiNationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

'Batak book about magic' Tumuran Hatta Nihaji - 1852/1857

This Batak book dates from the middle of the 19th century and comes from the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The wisdom of nine generations of priests is stored within these pages. It is the only book to be decorated with the Naga Padoha, the mythical snake of the primordial waters that existed before the beginning of the world as we know it.

The book was originally collected by Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk, sent to the Batak regions by the Netherlands Bible Society to translate the bible into Batak. He started collecting objects in an effort to learn the language and discovered a world of magic and myth that still fascinates to this day. It currently resides in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The Oldest Mask in the World (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 9000 years ago) by UnknownThe Israel Museum, Jerusalem

'The Oldest Mask in the World' - 9,000 years BCE

This carved stone mask is though to date back around 9,000 years BCE, making it one of the earliest masks in human history. Found in the Judean Desert, its exact purpose and origins are unknown, but its appearance seems other-worldly. 

It may have been used for decoration or could have been worn as part of as part of a magical ritual for divination or healing. It currently resides in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

Dr Dee's magic (1550/1599)British Museum

'Dr Dee's Magic' - 1550/1599

These objects were created by Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer, and magician, John Dee (1527-1608/9), a court adviser to Elizabeth I. Upon his death Dee's creations were acquired by Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose collection was one of the founding collections that formed the British Museum in 1753.

The larger 'Seal of God' (Sigillum Dei) matches a drawing in Dee's manuscripts. It was used in conjunction with a 'shew-stones', a polished reflective disc for occult research. All three wax discs that Dee used are engraved with magical symbols and signs.  

Translucent mask for phantasmagoria : skull (Beginning of the 19th century) by Étienne Gaspard Robert, known as RobertsonMusée des arts et métiers

'Translucent mask for phantasmagoria' - 19th century

During the French Revolution, Étienne Gaspard Robert, better known as Robertson, created a phantasmagorical show combining the novel and mystifying effects of electricity with more traditional magic lantern theatrics. Robertson's show featured ghosts that appeared to walk and specters that rose out of the grave. Spooky stuff.

The effects Robertson created were so realistic and frightening that many in the audience thought they were real. This translucent skull mask still spooks visitors to the Musée des arts et métiers, France. 

Hans Baldung, called 'Grien', Witches' Sabbath, a woodcut (1510/1510)British Museum

Want to know more about myth, magic and sorcery?

You can discover more about how about how the mystical has influenced art and culture over the millennia here.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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