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Mesmerizing Depictions of Magic and Witchcraft Throughout History

How the occult has been depicted in art, from mandrakes to palmistry.

Plucking mandrake at a distance with the aid of string.
Plucking mandrake at a distance with the aid of string. Wellcome Library, London

In 1870, artist Robert Bateman painted an unusual scene. In it, a mandrake plant is pulled carefully from the earth with lengths of string. The painting depicts just one part of the extensive mythology surrounding the mandrake—its ability to kill with its scream when uprooted. In painting this scene, Bateman also added to the rich history of how the supernatural is portrayed in art.

This is the subject of Christopher Dell’s new book The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History. Full of art, illustrations and photographs, the book brings together a compelling visual history of magic and its uses, from ancient Egyptian magical spells printed on papyrus, to the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

As the book shows, the mandrake is just one of the many objects that humans have imbued with significance. In palmistry, it’s the lines of the hand. In both alchemy and fraternal societies, it’s secret symbols. Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from this fascinating collection. 

A theurgist performs rituals to exercise divine powers on earth, 19th century.
A theurgist performs rituals to exercise divine powers on earth, 19th century. Wellcome Library, London
Divinatory game of palmistry by A. de Para d’Hermes, late 19th century.
Divinatory game of palmistry by A. de Para d’Hermes, late 19th century. Private collection/ Archives Charmet/ Bridgeman Images
John William Waterhouse <em>Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus</em>, 1891. Circe can use her wand to turn Odysseus’ men into animals.
John William Waterhouse Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, 1891. Circe can use her wand to turn Odysseus’ men into animals. Gallery Oldham, Oldham, UK
A 19th-century illustration of the Dendera zodiac, a bas-relief on the ceiling of the Hathor temple at Dendera in Egypt.
A 19th-century illustration of the Dendera zodiac, a bas-relief on the ceiling of the Hathor temple at Dendera in Egypt. Wellcome Library, London; Wellcome Images
A Haitian voodoo altar, bringing together a wide range of symbolic objects and religious imagery.
A Haitian voodoo altar, bringing together a wide range of symbolic objects and religious imagery. Horniman Museum, London/ Photo Heini Schneebeli/ Bridgeman Images
A depiction of necromancy from the Old Testament, where the Witch of Endor conjures Samuel from the dead.
A depiction of necromancy from the Old Testament, where the Witch of Endor conjures Samuel from the dead. Wellcome Library, London
Policeman holding a voodoo cross, New Orleans, Louisiana, 17 June 1949.
Policeman holding a voodoo cross, New Orleans, Louisiana, 17 June 1949. © Bettmann/Corbis
An “initiation well,” used in magical rites, which was excavated at the Quinta da Regaleira estate in Sintra, Portugal.
An “initiation well,” used in magical rites, which was excavated at the Quinta da Regaleira estate in Sintra, Portugal. Photo Stijndon
The cover of <em>The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History</em>.
The cover of The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History. Courtesy Thames & Hudson