Magic, folklore, and occult readings in the Kislak Center
Curated by Lynda Brody, an exhibit assistant at Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, her hope is that the show inspires viewers to recognize the “magic and wonder” that has existed through time—and still exists today—in all of our busy lives.
“Even if we think a lot about facts and figures and rational reasoning, there still is something to be said for imagination,” she says, “and how that can help us to further our rational thought patterns by sort of adding an element of creativity into our lives.”
The exhibit, on view through Dec. 15 in the Snyder-Granader Alcove, showcases more than two dozen Kislak objects, including records from the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism and the recently acquired Charles Rainsford Collection of Alchemical and Occult Manuscripts, among others. Featured items span the 15th through 20th centuries.
Included is the first edition of Israel Regardie’s “Golden Dawn,” which is considered by many to be the book that started the modern occult movement.
“Regardie was part of an order called the Stella Matutina,” explains Brody. “It was highly controversial when he came out with this information; people were upset he was revealing these occult secrets. He let the cat out of the bag because his order was dissolving, and he didn’t want the teachings to die with the order.”
Another interesting item—one of the first to catch Brody’s eye while she was collecting works for the exhibit—was part of Charles Fyffe’s collection of holiday cards. Among ordinary “Happy Thanksgiving,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy Easter” cards, Brody found a Halloween card that read: “May this be your luck on Halloween.” It depicted a woman taking a slice of cake with an engagement ring inside it. An Irish tradition, Brody later found out, the cake has various objects baked into it, such as a piece of cloth, a small coin, and a pea. The slice a person chooses predicts his or her future.
“It’s fascinating to see how, over centuries and throughout cultures, people have turned to supernatural or unseen means to help them solve their problems,” says Brody. “And it’s pervasive and it’s intriguing to see examples of this throughout our collections.”
She adds that although the exhibit might be most interesting to religious studies, classics, or history buffs, she thinks the mere beauty of the objects would be appealing to anyone.
“I don’t think you need to have some deep, esoteric understanding to appreciate them,” Brody says.
The exhibit’s opening reception will take place Friday, Oct. 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion. Scholar and folklorist Cory Thomas Hutcheson will give a special lecture.
“He’s very knowledgeable, and also lighthearted and fun,” Brody says. It will be a great learning experience, she adds, explaining how Hutcheson plans to draw connections to how these particular exhibited collections are relevant today.
“People are fascinated by magic and the occult, even if they don’t believe in it,” Brody says. “But there’s something about it that will always be interesting to us.”