The curators of the Ashmolean Museum’s endlessly fascinating new exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft have supplied lighting suitably sombre for the material on view, much of it macabre.

Such is the Stygian gloom in the galleries that the director Xa Sturgis was hard put to read his notes at the press launch last Thursday.

“And you can’t see what you’re writing,” he told the attendant scribes, adding with characteristic wit, “which is possibly helpful.”

Owing to his own involvement in the field of magic – as the conjurer The Great Xa, performing in London clubs in the 1980s – he said the subject had long fascinated him.

“An exhibition on the subject of magic has always been bubbling away in the back of my mind.”

How fortunate we are that the bubble has now burst into life in such a magnificent show.

Xa’s article last week in The Oxford Times gave an excellent impression of what is on view.

From the exquisite and beautiful – pictures, medieval manuscripts, coral charms – we venture off into darker, more distressing areas.

In the second of the three galleries, for instance, we encounter some of the objects – a mummified cat and rat, a bull’s heart pierced with pins – used to guard houses from malevolent forces and discovered during renovations.

These and other items are lodged in dark, chimney-like shafts, up which we are invited to gaze.

We see – indeed hear – stories of real-life witches, the prosecution of whom continued – astonishingly – until as recently as 1944.

The saddest story emerges from the mouth of Margaret Moore – voiced by an actor – in the Isle of Ely in 1647. This is her confession to witchcraft, signed with a cross because she was illiterate. Having lost three of her four children, she entered into a pact with Satan to protect the survivor. Her words sent her to the gallows.

All about this and so much more is dealt with in the superb exhibition catalogue. Priced at £20, it features articles by the show’s curators, Dr Sophie Page and Prof Marina Wallace and others involved.

What we see was put into perspective by the novelist Philip Pullman, in an affecting speech at the private view.

Philip, whose own work is touched by more than a measure of magic, told me afterwards that this would be his last public ‘gig’ for some time.

Ill-health forced him to pull out of an appearance last month at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, and he has still not fully recovered.

There were no signs of problems, however, in his performance at the podium which began with a quotation from a famous piece of creepy literature which captures a feeling known to most of us.

This is the haunting stanza from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one who on a lonesome road/Doth walk in fear and Dread/And having once turned round walks on/And no more turns his head/Because he knows a frightful fiend/Doth close behind him tread.”

Philip told us: “We don’t have to believe in ghosts to experience the feeling described.”

He went on: “The world in which the objects and pictures seen here were produced was a world in which everything was connected to everything else by invisible threads of meaning.

“What was above was mirrored in what was below. Angelic and diabolic influences spread through the whole universe.”

He continued: “We can afford to be half-jokey about a thing like magic but there are plenty of exhibits that testify to the desperate seriousness of magic only a few centuries ago in most of Europe and in other parts of the world today.

“If you were accused of practising witchcraft you could end at the gallows or at the stake.

“The number of prosecutions for witchcraft and the hideous cruelty of witchfinding demonstrate the sort of community psychosis which is by no means wholly cured.

“The hostility being directed towards immigrants feels to me like a shadow, a pale, attenuated shadow, but a real shadow, of the sort of persecution that got completely out of hand in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“So there are warnings in this exhibition as well as things to wonder at.”

ASHMOLEAN director Xa Sturgis’s manifestation as The Great Xa emerged last Thursday during an entertaining lunch in the museum’s top floor restaurant following the press launch.

His conjuring was not without a hiccough, however, indicating that his skills hay have become a little rusty.

His trick was to invite and audience member to pick a certain playing card – by naming it rather than by physical selection – an example of which he would then magically transfer into an envelope.

Alas, the first card chosen was clearly ‘the wrong one’, and a second had to be identified midway through the performance.

All went smoothly for The Great Xa at the Thursday night private view of Spellbound when he shredded a copy of the Sun newspaper – a fitting fate many will think – before magically reassembling it.

The press lunch was preceded by the serving of special cocktails on the museum’s rooftop terrace. This is one of the most magical places in Oxford – see how that word gets used.

Love Potion was based on Sambucco, and Elixir of Life on the Ashmolean’s own gin, which is produced at the Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) in Headington.

Our delicious lunch (beetroot pickled salmon, rump of beef and cheeses) was a credit to catering company Benugo, who have the contract to run the restaurant.

My enjoyment was significantly increased by being seated opposite Annie Cattrell, one four artists commissioned to supply works reflecting themes of the show.

The eddies of smoke in her film are said to reflect the rhythm and pattern of witchcraft accusations as they rippled and swirled.

THE Spellbound exhibition proved a corrective to me over one small matter about which I have long been misinformed.

Acting as a schoolboy 50 years ago in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and seeing the play many times since as a critic, I had thought the word ‘poppet’ – much spoken during the Salem witch trials – to have been the US word for doll.

Evidently it was used on this side of the Atlantic too, for included in the exhibition is the figure so named that can be seen below.

Belonging to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, in Boscastle, and dating from the early years of the 20th century, this ‘poppet’ has its face pierced by a stiletto dagger.

Can it be that a ‘poppet’ is so called if used in this way?

Prof Malcolm Gaskell, of the University of East Anglia, writes in the exhibition catalogue that “the idea of sticking pins in images looms large in the folklore of witchcraft”, the practice designed to cause injury or death.

“There may be something about ‘sympathetic magic’ – the correspondence of cause and effect between subject and object that humans instinctively grasp, regardless of whether they believe it to be a real power or not.”

Something of the same feeling perhaps actuates those involved in a curious manifestation of modern magic, also in Spellbound.

This is the practice of ‘love locking’, where padlocks inscribed with names, initials and messages are secured to a public structure, usually a bridge, and the key thrown away.

I came across one such display a couple of months ago on a bridge crossing the River Wye in Bakewell. I thought it looked hideous.

Some bridges elsewhere have been damaged, or threatened with damage, by the sheer weight of hundreds of locks.

The origins of the practice are unclear, but residents of the Serbian spa town of Vrnjacka Banja claim that the collection of padlocks on its Bridge of Love date back to 1914.