Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Tylor's Onion: a curious case of bewitched onions from Somerset


1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic
1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic
Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried
Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried
Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green
Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green
An onion is preserved in the Pitt Rivers Museum, where it has been since it was donated in 1917. [Pitt Rivers Museum number:1917.53.776] It is no ordinary onion though - attached to a label with a name on it, pricked with pins and secured on an iron wire for hanging, it is exhibited as an example of sympathetic magic - doing harm to someone by harming something that is like them. This long period of exhibition only accounts for two-thirds of the time since the onion was discovered in 1872. In the forty five years before the onion came to the museum, it had a colourful history in which the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor features strongly. In a strange twist of fate, though the onion has been in Oxford since Tylor's death, Tylor himself was buried in Rockwell Green where the onion was discovered, in a grave that overlooks the pub where the onion was found.

Discovery

At the international Folk-lore Congress at London in 1891 (footnote 1) , Tylor exhibited a number of "Charms and Amulets" including an "Onion stuck with pins, bearing on a label the name of John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green." The story of the onion's discovery in Rockwell Green as given by Tylor in 1891 is as follows:
"In a low cottage ale-house there, certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth, during the open hours of a Sunday afternoon, drinking, when there was a gust of wind; something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly what they were, caught them up, and carried them off. I became possessed of four of them, but three have disappeared mysteriously. One which has gone had on it the name of a brother magistrate of mine, whom the wizard, who was the alehouse-keeper, held in particular hatred as being a strong advocate of temperance, and therefore likely to interfere with his malpractices, and whom apparently he designed to get rid of by stabbing and roasting an onion representing him. My friend, apparently, was never the worse, but when next year his wife had an attack of the fever, there was shaking of heads among the wise." 
From a letter written by Tylor at the time (footnote 2) of the discovery to his uncle we can fill out a few more of the details. The discovery seems to have taken place on 14 April 1872, and the pub in question was the Barley Mow in Rockwell Green, just outside Wellington in Somerset [image of pub and pub sign] . Tylor also mentions the bits of iron wire that were pushed through the onions to hang them up in the smoke, and these can still be seen in the surviving example.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.
Chris Wingfield - Researcher

No comments:

Post a Comment