A case illustrates the influence of magic in popular culture through objects like Day of the Dead candles and crystals. photo by Stasha Cole

McFarlin exhibits occult and mystical materials

Special Collections hosts books and objects, educating viewers about the history and practices of mysticism.

This semester, McFarlin Library is showcasing an exhibit called “Magic and Mystical: The Occult” in the Special Collections library. The display includes five cases of books and occult objects, both old and new. The collection’s didactic texts explained that “the Latin ‘occultus’ … refers to [what is] secret, hidden and concealed.” It further describes how “many of the materials in Special Collections … have been hidden from the public’s awareness.” “Magic and Mystical: The Occult” exposes the public to both the library itself and to its mystical materials.

The exhibit illustrated the transformation of mystical and occult practices from their origin to today. It was interesting to draw comparisons between alchemy and modern alternative medicine. Similarly, the exhibit drew connections between old occult traditions and modern religions like Wicca, as well as between ritual objects like the sword and modern equivalents like athames.

The materials presented include many texts from prominent mystical authors such as “Malleus Maleficarum” by Heinrich Institoris, two of Aleister Crowley’s works, an essay by William Butler Yeats, “Dæmonology” by King James I and many more. The display also had a compilation of tutorial-style occult texts focusing on anything from talismans to alchemy to black magic and voodoo.
My favorite parts of the exhibit were the items shown alongside the books. The first display case held a full-size ritual sword made of brass and iron. The hilt depicted a mostly nude woman standing on the hilt guard, which showcased an intricate dragon.

In the third display case were four other items typically used in mystical rituals: an athame, a scourge (ceremonial whip), a censer (incense-holder) and a talisman. I learned that an athame is a black-handled knife typically used alongside a boline, which is a white-handled knife. Specifically in the Wiccan tradition, the athame is used to physically cut materials such as herbs while the boline is used to metaphorically sever invisible bonds such as negative thoughts.

The final display case revealed modern mystical practices through another array of objects such as candles, voodoo dolls and crystals. The candles, according to the exhibit plaque, were varied and used for diverse and specific purposes.

The Day of the Dead candles are “often used to remember and honor the spirits of the dead” while Saints’ candles “are used to invoke the influence of the saints depicted.” The display included a miniature statue of St. Anthony of Padua, who is the “patron saint of lost things,” according to the exhibit’s explanatory texts.

The case housed a love candle in the color red shaped into the form of a happy couple that could be used to “reunite parted lovers and mend broken relationships.” Also included were five candles for good luck and good fortune and one rabbit’s foot for the same purpose.

I personally related to the crystal section the most. You can find a crystal in my pocket almost every day of the week to help manifest the mindset I want for the day. My probable placebo-effect love for shiny rocks was shown alongside true mystical religious texts and objects; I loved it.

I appreciated the diversity of thought presented within the exhibit; the unifying theme of the “occult” materials in Special Collections encompasses many different religious and spiritual paths. The exhibit highlighted a wide array of mystical belief systems including neo-paganism, voodoo, Christian-saint worship and objects for the Day of the Dead.

Modern adaptations of these practices are present in many walks of life across many cultures, and the exhibit explores the evolution of mystical rituals and concepts. I am always fascinated by the mystical tradition, but I think people who do not consider themselves as participants in occult practices could be surprised to find themselves or their spiritual practices reflected in portions of the Special Collections exhibit as well.

Post Author: Stasha Cole