This post was written by Anna Buck and Annika Gialdini, Library Graduate Trainees at the Warburg Library. It is one of a series of blog posts on the theme of Magic and the Supernatural, as part of History Day 2017.
Looking for the supernatural, monsters, myths or magic? You’ll find them lurking in the print and pages of the Warburg Library’s collections.
Aby Warburg (1866–1929), whose book collection forms the core of the current library, had a keen interest in magic, especially its relation with science and pagan antiquity. The unique classification system used to organise the Warburg collections means you can often find these, or other seemingly disparate subjects, closely intertwined
Over the years, this and the other sections of the collection have grown enormously, in large part in keeping with the same interests that Aby Warburg had. This makes the Warburg Institute Library a top repository for historians, art historians, anthropologists and any other scholars interested in the history of the supernatural. It also means that the resources we have on the field of inquiry are wide and varied.
Take any topic, such as nightmares and ghastly visions.
In the library, the subject is interpreted in multiple forms. We have works by Scottish psychologist and anthropologist Andrew Lang, who explored ‘hallucinations’ as a manifestation of mental conditions in traditional tales from across the globe, while other books, such as I sogni by Italian psychiatrist Sante De Sanctis, take a more scientific approach, looking at them as manifestation of medical conditions and charting his findings on graphs.
The unique classification system of the Warburg Institute also means that sixteenth-century books sit on the shelves side by side with recent publications. Spanish Jesuit Benedict Pereira’s De Magia (FMH 200) considers, among other things, whether dreams should be taken as a divine message or interpreted as a sign of GI distress.
Some of the library collections approach the subject from a more humorous angle. In her article titled ‘Cheese Gives you Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn,’ Caroline Oates explores the relation between cheese, indigestion and bad dreams within stories. (The article appears in the journal Folklore, which you can find under Classmark NEF 80 at the Warburg. Did you know that the Folklore Society itself can also be found c/o the Warburg?)
Indeed the relationship between nightmares and gastrointestinal conditions was well established in early modern and modern thought, up until the development of Freudian theories. But that does not mean that nightmares and physical ailments alike could not converge and take “devilish” contours. Aby Warburg himself was often plagued by his own psychological monsters; when suffering from paranoid psychosis in 1921, he asked his therapist Ludwig Binswanger (a lifelong friend of Freud) whether he was “a demon”.
These personal troubles were reflected in his work; for him, the stories of classical mythology were metaphors of human psychology. One of the most intriguing figures in this respect was the mythical hero Perseus. Warburg interpreted Perseus’s battles against the evil, namely saving Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus, as metaphors. For him they were images of any human being’s battle, either internal or external, against irrational forces. A sequence of such images of Perseus’s battles from various periods of the history of culture should have constituted a chapter of Warburg’s famous Bilderatlas (atlas of images) Mnemosyne, but the draft plates remained unfinished. The workings of Warburg’s mind can be found amongst the items in the Warburg Archives.
The items in the Warburg Photographic Collection also testify to the association: one such image is that of Apollo, dressed as a physician whilst summoning demons to help him cure a patient. This image is taken from a Florentine Picture Chronicle, which consists of a series of depictions of historical subjects. Many of the images from the physical collection can also be accessed online via the Iconographic Database. However, if you would rather view them in person, the Warburg Institute’s Library, Photographic Collection and Archive opening hours can be found on our website. Admission guidelines can also be found online.