Feminine power: the divine to the demonic

British Museum Exhibition

19 May – 25 September 2022


“The first exhibition of its kind, Feminine power takes a cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith.

Explore the significant role that goddesses, demons, witches, spirits and saints have played – and continue to play – in shaping our understanding of the world.

How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? For insights, the exhibition looks to divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years. From wisdom, passion and desire, to war, justice and mercy, the diverse expression of female spiritual powers around the world prompts us to reflect on how we perceive femininity and gender identity today.

Worship of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, reveals how her destructive capacity is venerated alongside her ability to create. The Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, who transcends gender and is visualised in male form in Tibet and female in China and Japan, uncovers the importance of gender fluidity in some spiritual traditions. And the terrifying Hindu goddess Kali, depicted in art carrying a severed head and bloodied sword, is honoured as the Great Mother and liberator from fear and ignorance.

Enhanced by engagement with contemporary worshippers, faith communities and insights from high-profile collaborators Leyla Hussein, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White, the exhibition considers the influence of female spiritual power and what femininity means today.

Bringing together sculptures, sacred objects and artworks from the ancient world to today, and from six continents, the exhibition highlights the many faces of feminine power – ferocious, beautiful, creative or hell-bent – and its seismic influence throughout time.”

Law, Politics, and Magic in Islam: The Strange Case of Mirza Muhammad Nishaburi

University of Exeter’s Professor Rob Gleaves in a presentation to the Department of Classics & Religion UCalgary


“Magic (and occult practice more widely) has held a debated position in Islamic law and theology. For some Muslim thinkers, the practice of magic is unequivocally condemned as unislamic, or heretical, or a sign of the magician’s unbelief. For others, there is a recognition of “good” and “bad” magic: the former becomes part of the accepted operations of community life, and the latter is to be controlled and ultimately punished. Aside from this ethico-legal evaluation, there is a more practical discussion – does magic actually work, or is it simply fakery? The two principal discussions – the ethico-legal and the practical – do not easily map onto one another. There were, for instance, those who considered magic bad but dangerous (because it is actually works), and those who considered magic bad because it is ultimately a charade aimed at deceiving the people. The discussion around magic intersected with politics since Muslim rulers (from the medieval period to the present day) have often enthusiastically employed occult practitioners (astrologers, soothsayers and others) in their court circles. In this paper, I introduce the general contours of the debate within Islamic legal thought around magical practice, and explore their implications through a case study of controversial scholar magician – Mirza Muhammad Nisaburi (d.1818). Mirza Muhammad came from India to study in the Shiite seminaries of Iraq and Iran, made many enemies amongst the scholars (ulama) by insulting nearly everybody, and tried to ingratiate himself with the authorities by performing magic in exchange for political influence. His colourful life exemplifies how law, politics and magic are intertwined in the Islamic intellectual tradition.

Rob Gleave is Professor of Arabic Studies and director of two research centres at the University of Exeter, UK: the Centre for the Study of Islam (CSI), and the International Institute for Cultural Enquiry (IICE). He is Principal Investigator on the Law, Authority and Learning in Imami Shi’ite Islam, a 5-year Advanced Award from the European Research Council. His research interests include Islamic legal theory, particularly legal hermeneutics, and the history of Shi’ite legal thought and institutions. Click here to see his principal publications. Amongst his most recent publications are the three-volume series on Violence in Islamic Thought published by Edinburgh University Press.”

The Witch of Edmonton: A Known True Story

LIVE online | 5 -20 March 2022


“If every poor old Woman be trod on thus, reviled, kicked, beaten, as I am daily, she to be revenged had need turn Witch.”

In Edmonton, the cattle are dying. The corn will not grow. A local man stabs his wife. A local woman runs mad. A black dog is heard to speak with the voice of the devil. Is the village cursed? And could a strange old woman who lives alone be to blame?

400 years ago, Elizabeth Sawyer was tried and hanged for witchcraft. Now, Creation Theatre invites you to be her judge. Was Elizabeth Sawyer a witch who sold her soul to the devil or simply a lonely, mistreated woman? Was Satan himself at work in Edmonton or were its villagers responsible for their own cruelties and corruption?

Performing live online, digital theatre specialists Creation will stage the ‘crimes’ and punishment of Edmonton’s witch based on a play written in 1621 by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. Newly interwoven with records of other historical witch trials, The Witch of Edmonton reveals the dangers of being an outsider in a place where to be different is to be condemned.

Book your ticket now to watch this striking early modern drama LIVE online.


Medicine, Magic, and Healing

Monday, November 29
Hotel Du Vin Exeter

1:30–3 p.m.  Panel 1:
Emily Selove, “Sleep in the Shāmil of Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī (d. 1229)”
Bink Hallum, “From Invincibility to Immunity: The Centesimal Magic Square in Legend, Theory and Practice”

3:30–5 p.m.   Panel 2:
Earl Fontainelle, “The Theory of the Pneumatic Vehicle in Late-Antique Platonism and the Islamicate Medical Sciences”
Nahyan Fancy, “Commentaries and the Emergence of non-Galenic, non-Avicennan Medical Theories”

Tuesday, November 30

10 a.m.–12.15 p.m. Panel 3:
Petra Schmidl, “Magic and Medicine in 13th Century Yemen”
Dionisius Agius, “Sellem maurum servum sacre religionis: Magic and the Inquisition in Malta 1605
Catherine Rider, “Christians, Muslims and Magical Healing in front of the Inquisition in Malta, 1600–1605”



Exeter Cygnet Theatre

October 9, 7:30 pm

Artemis Storytelling presents Jo Blake and Dr Martin Shaw.

Unearth the unwritten Blodeuwedd, the Frankenstein of flowers. Captured in the pages of a medieval book, the ancient myth of Blodeuwedd describes a woman made out of flowers who was turned into an owl as punishment for adultery. But who was this woman before being confined to the page?

Jo Blake, international contemporary storyteller, irradiates this figure of Welsh myth through word, movement and ritual. The myth is unravelled in this radical reclamation of the untold; intertwined with personal experience and striking observations of the role of myth in our unmythic modern lives. (Blodeuwedd: blod-ae-wuth).

The 1 hour performance will be followed by a chance to hear Jo Blake in conversation with mythologist Dr Martin Shaw exploring trickster, myth and the feminine, and an opportunity for audience Q&A.

Call for papers – project fringe at IMC 2022

Fringe Expertise? Cross-Cultural Readings of Occult Practices in Premodern Eurasia

International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 4-7 July 2022

Sponsored by The Sorcerer’s Handbook: Medieval Arabic Magic in Context Project

Organisers: Dr Sarah Ortega, Dr Geoff Humble (University of Leeds)

This session seeks to bring together a cross-cultural comparative reading of occult practices and practitioners. The term ‘Occult’ encompasses a wide range of intellectual, religious, and scientific practices. In addition to the manuals that explain how to undertake these, their purpose and status are navigated through a diverse array of perspectives that includes narrative historiographies, folk tales, miracle stories, and artworks. Such sources may extol the benefits of useful technologies and syncretic or folk wisdom, or they may formulate allegations of deceitful charlatanry and dangerous meddling. Likewise, practitioners were subject to an extremely wide range of patronage, control, and proscription. By tracing the shifting borders of orthodoxy and acceptability across medieval Eurasia and beyond, it is possible to investigate a broad spectrum of experiences running from the quotidian to the extraordinary across diverse social strata. We would like to invite papers that explore how legacies of occult practices were shaped by such influences as gendered ideas, political conflict, social upheaval, and debates in philosophy and religion.

Occult practices most broadly defined, including (but not limited to):

·       Divination

·       Exorcism

·       Astrology

·       Production of talismans

·       Magic

·       Miracle cures and medical magic

·       Shamanic activity

·       Dowsing

·       Alchemy

·       Charlatans

If you are interested, please email Geoff Humble  or Sarah Ortega  with an abstract of no more than 100 words by Monday 23rd August 2021.

The IMC call for sessions and papers can be found at https://www.imc.leeds.ac.uk/imc-2022/

For the IMC’s Proposal Guidelines see: https://www.imc.leeds.ac.uk/proposals/criteria/

Exclamation! Dreams, Visions and Mindscapes

A free digital conference with presentations by Magic and Esotericism research group members Sarah Scaife and Dorka Tamas:

In Panel 2: Fantasy & Imagination, introduced here:


Dorka Támas – Supernatural Vision in Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems


Sarah Scaife – Dream as vision, dream as well


The whole conference is posted here:



Sylvia Plath’s reimagination of the Grimms’ fairy tales in postwar American culture

A new publication by Magic and Esotericism Research Group member Dorka Tamás


This article discusses Sylvia Plath’s overlooked juvenilia poems and contextualizes them in postwar American culture. The fairy tales were significant cultural products during the 1950s, that also continue to define the culture today through Disney’s adaptations. Plath loved Grimms’ tales; several of her poems show direct engagement with tales. The first half of my article looks at Plath’s juvenilia poems and their reimagination of fairy-tale narratives. For Plath, the fairy tales functioned as a way to retell her life events. Whilst, the second part of my research uses a psychoanalytical approach to link “momism” in postwar America with the evil witch figure. By close-reading “The Disquieting Muses” poem, I demonstrate Plath’s engagement with the ambiguous mother whose food, similar to the witch in “Hansel and Gretel”, function to deceive the children.

Songdreaming for Albion (Songlines) 2021

July 13th-17th

About this event

As long as there have been people on this land there has been song, and as long as we dwell upon this land a timeless, uniquely human melody will sound from the confluence of culture and contour. But what is that sound? From where did those lines of song and story emerge? In what language, to what tune, under what belief and through what gesture? What if there was an ancient indigenous Albion ‘dreamtime’ and what hope have we now in reclaiming any fragments of those tune-trails? Why should we even bother?…