The Little Mannie

As the nights are drawing in and the weather is getting colder, this feels like the perfect time for telling stories, so, if you are sitting comfortably, here is the intriguing story of the Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns

This blog post draws extensively from the research and experiences of former Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum, Prof. John Prag, as told in his chapter ‘The Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns’ in the book ‘The Materiality of Magic’. It was also produced in conversation with Pat Ellison-Reed, who brought the stories of the Valley to life for me, and Lisa Graves, Curator of Archaeology and World Cultures at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Many thanks to all three for the generosity of their time and enthusiasm! 

‘Little Mannie’ is currently on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery as part of the exhibition, Do you believe in magic? which is open now and will run until 19th April 2020. 


Do you believe in magic?

This is the question posed by Bristol Museum in their new exhibition.

The premise for their display and discussion is that magic is a fundamental part of the human experience which crosses time and cultures. The focus is on people and the practical, in the present as much as the past. Introducing the visitor to the lives of those who practise it, the objects that embody it and the beings that exist between the natural and the supernatural, the exhibition intends to “uncover new ways of understanding worlds beyond our own.”

Bristol Museum’s visitors are also asked to reflect on the part that magic plays in their own lives, and where they think their own ideas and beliefs fit amid the intersection of science, magic and religion.

IMG_0468Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s new exhibition, ‘Do you believe in magic?‘ is open now and runs until 19th April 2020.

Across the globe, magic has been and continues to be a part of people’s lives, part of the everyday – in fact, to have a choice of whether or not to believe in the extraordinary is by no means universal and is in fact a relatively recent thing…

Whether for healing, hunting, helping or harming (and everything in between), people, beings and objects can all be powerful, and there is not a singular definition that would fit all uses, and in many cases the users of what might be termed as ‘magic’ would not use this word at all.


Magic and Meaning

Words themselves have their own kind of magic – they can conjure ideas and can transform the way we think about people and objects. Words accumulate histories that continuously (often unconsciously) influence their use and impact on their interpretation.

The word “magic” can be traced back to the Old Persian maguš, with modern usage translated and transmitted through both ancient Greek (μάγος and μαγεία) and Latin, taking on new ideas and meanings.

The Greeks were the first to attach negative connotations to the word (not a surprise considering the many military conflicts between Greek city-states and the Persian empire!). The Romans were the first to criminalise magus or magia, and via the Latin, the idea of magic was subsequently incorporated into Christian theology, whereby it became defined by authorities as drawing on demonic powers, standing against the divine power of religious rites.

As Christianity rose to prominence in Western culture from late antiquity onward, so did the demonisation of ‘magic’. The sixteenth century saw Western European societies colonising other continents cross the globe, and in so doing applied their own European concepts of magic to the cultures that they encountered – their social narrative was one of moral and intellectual superiority, and that these ‘diabolical’ beliefs needed to be eradicated and replaced by Christianity.

7838319270_6a40861929_o.jpgThe demonisation of magic: Woodcut of witches flying, from Mathers’ ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’ (1689) and used in an 18th-century pamphlet about the Lancashire witches.

The increasing imperial drive, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century saw an increase in scientific discourse. It is with this background that anthropologists, following James George Frazer, and sociologists such as Marcel Mauss, described non-Western, non-Christian, indigenous and ancient beliefs and practices. The idea of magic as linked with the Other has consequently served to construct self-identity in Western culture; the definition of magic as ‘exotic’, ‘primitive’, ‘evil’ or ‘deviant’ positions Western narratives of religion and then science as being the things that magic is not.

This complex history goes some way to demonstrate how the continually shifting use of language can be unhelpful, and even dangerous. Postcolonial studies are exposing the power imbalances in the use of languages and the impact these constructed differences have made on the rest of the world and importantly, how this dynamism might be used to reassert traditional ideas within a changed world.


The story of the Little Mannie is a curious one; it crosses continents and cultures, it has many layers, and has spawned multiple ideas and interpretations. Each retelling and each new idea become part of Little Mannie’s (hi)story.

Stories have a power to transport and transform; they can challenge the ways that people see the world. The story that follows is just one glimpse into a world that perhaps reveals as much about the worlds of the actors as it does about the figurine itself.


The Story of the Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns

Wednesday 16th October was the day… The day the Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns was transported from his current home at Manchester Museum to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for their new exhibition, ‘Do you believe in Magic?

“Does he still have the hair wrapped around him?” was the first question Pat Ellison-Reed asked, when I spoke to her on the phone to tell her about this next chapter in Little Mannie’s story. Assuring her that the hair was still intact – and having asked this very same question to Lisa Graves, the Curator of Archaeology and World Cultures at Bristol – I could confirm that he does, and this would be retained when he went on display in Bristol too. This news was met with relief from Pat – she reckons that with this connection to ‘the Valley’, he will ‘cause no trouble’.

The story of the Little Mannie is as entwined and entangled as the lock of hair that is wrapped around it – but more on that later.

28836483684_57a7f929b3_oThe ‘Little Mannie’ (Acc. No.: 1987.68). The strands of Pat Ellison-Reeds hair wrapped around him are just about visible here. (Photo: Michelle Scott)

The curiously named ‘Little Mannie’ is a small figurine, around 7.5 cm tall, made of felsite, which was eventually accessioned to Manchester Museum’s collection in 1987, following a project to research and catalogue ‘Celtic’ stone heads for an exhibition back in the 1970s.

Professor John Prag, former Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum, can bring a story to life better than most, and this one spans the globe, from Glossop to Sierra Leone, via Paris at the time of Cardinal Richelieu. The history of the figurine, at every twist and turn crosses paths with Pat Ellison-Reed, a now retired archaeologist whose family have lived in the Hollingworth area for generations, and at 81 years young, Pat has also got storytelling down to a fine art!

A Story from the Valley

This small figurine’s journey to Manchester was preceded by its story. It was known of locally as ‘the Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns’, and was described by Tony Ward, a local Glossopian schoolmaster and amateur archaeologist, as resembling in size and form the heads that were carved in that area and used atop shepherds’ crooks, and that perhaps it represented the Celtic ‘Lord of the Animals’, Cernunnos. And this identity as a ‘Celtic head’ was to remain with Little Mannie for many years.

800px-Gundestrupkedlen-_00054_(cropped)Cernunnos, the ‘horned god’. Detail from the ‘Gundestrup Cauldron’, on display in the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. (Source)

Tony Ward had told museum curator John Prag of this little figurine that had been recently found under the earth floor of the cellar of the Hollingworth Conservative Club by the cleaner, Mrs Healey. Tony Ward together with friend and fellow archaeologist Pat Ellison had investigated the findspot, where they found traces of activity. John Prag recounts the scene as described by Tony Ward and Pat Ellison as surrounded by “a circle of candleholders […] inside the circle they found the remains of chicken and hare bones, ivory counters used for scoring at billiards, and other offerings including a ‘mother figure’ whose head had been broken off accidentally, which Pat kept safely.”

Perhaps influenced this context, a supernatural identification n had already ascribed to the figure when John Prag was first told of it, there was a recollection that “apparently he had been painted green, the colour of witchcraft – shades of the Green Man” but only traces of this now remain. And agency and power had also been afforded to the object, as John relates that “according to Tony Ward, the last time the figure had been ‘used’ was ‘for the good of our lads at the Front’ in 1916.”


Embodied Objects, Power and People

In a way, all made, owned and used objects contain a trace of the maker, owner, user, and in some cases re-user – they are the indexes of the making, owning and using. Meanings are made at each of these stages. In this way, they embody past people and have a power to transport and transform. Objects then, can be seen as surrogates or proxies for past people, their ideas and beliefs. But then there are objects that have agency beyond memories, which is not explained by socially projected ideas and beliefs.

At this point, the figurine’s history was only as distant as the Cheshire and Derbyshire hills and valleys. And John found that the research and cataloguing project not only brought to light interesting objects and stories, but he was surprised to discover “that some aspects of the pagan religions have survived, not necessarily very far below the surface.” He describes the “still deeply-held beliefs in the ‘Old Ones’” but also that the ‘incomers’ have no inking of this, expect an “inappropriate and misconceived notion of ‘witchcraft’.”

lawedge_02Hauntingly beautiful view across the Longdendale Valley. (Source)

Talking to Pat Ellison-Reed the week before last, demonstrated again the ideas of the power of a place, and the power of the people within a place. She talked about the networks and connections that could be made when “people think at one another.” She described the way that she could “think around the Valley” for something. But that in recent time, how these old ideas had been corrupted by ‘civilised ways’; but just like Victorian table legs being covered by tablecloths – even though they’re hidden, they are still there.


For maybe a decade, little was heard or thought about Little Mannie, but interest in all things Celtic was reignited following the discovery of Lindow Man, and Curator John Prag was given an invitation that Mrs Healey might be willing to part with the grotesque Little Mannie.


The last house, on the last road, in the last village…

At the remote end of the remote village of Tintwistle, John describes the light snowfall and the Baskervillean baying of an unseen hound in such a way that transports you to an eerie landscape of anticipation…

Now, John certainly knows how to tell a story, but the sense of relief that he describes at arriving safely back at the museum with the precious little cargo was very real – and certainly foreshadowed some of the strange happenings that were to follow…

The Keeper of Display at Manchester Museum was the first to feel the effects of what has sometimes been referred to as the ‘curse’ of the Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns; having prepared the figurine for display in the Lindow Man exhibition, after 18 years of accident-free driving, was unfortunate enough to scrape the side of his car not once, but twice on the evening after working with the Little Mannie.

And this misfortune was to continue to be inflicted (in pairs) to those who came into contact with this little figurine…

Little Mannie_Devine_2‘The Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns’. (Photo: Steve Devine)

John himself succumbed to his own two mischievous ‘incidents’. When the Keeper of Geology had refused to examine the figurine to determine what stone it might be made from (and likewise the then-director), with its waxy exterior, John had arranged to take the little figurine down to London to have it looked at by John Mills, the then chief conservator at the National Gallery, who specialised in waxes and resins.

John’s woes began the night he took the figure home the night before his London trip, when his car was broken into, and things got embarrassingly worse when John’s trouser zipper disintegrated on the train down to London the following day – meaning he was reliant on safety pins for the remainder of his day of meetings in the capital!

The incidents were always a little mischievous, and always in pairs… a collapsed pushchair and a rogue bus journey; a split head and car keys locked in the car, as well as several others.

When Pat Ellison came to the museum to see the Little Mannie, she was not surprised that none of the staff really liked him. John describes how she “held him in a fold of her pullover and gently stroked him.” She reckoned that Little Mannie would not settle for John and his colleagues because they “did not treat him right” and that she would “settle him.” On leaving, Pat said that the Little Mannie should be “warmer and friendlier now,” and laying him back in his box, she pulled a few hairs from her head and wrapped them around him, in this way, he would always have something from ‘the Valley’ with him.

Now that could have been the end of the story, but there is yet more…


A journey across continents

It was not until the second Lindow Man exhibition at Manchester Museum in 1991 that Little Mannie made his public debut.

lindow-man-exhbn006Celtic heads on display in the Lindow Man exhibition at Manchester Museum. (Source)

The two Johns, Prag and Mills, with no exact parallels in European prehistoric art, had tentatively left Little Mannie’s identification with the ‘Celtic’, but once on display, it was recognised by a visitor as a nomoli figure from Sierra Leone in West Africa, dating back at least as far as the 16th century. Parallels in other museum collections categorically confirm this identification, including the one on display in the same case as Little Mannie in Bristol’s Magic exhibition.

Nomoli figurine (73.1963.0.71), on display at the Musée du quai Branly. (Source)

All the features that had not married with a Celtic origin, were easily reconciled with the sculpting tradition of the pre-Mende people of Sierra Leone.

It was again Tony Ward Pat Ellison-Reed who brought the possibilities of how this little figurine had found its way to the Longdendale Valley.

There is an entangled story which includes seventeenth century hysteria in an Ursuline convent in Loudun, France, at the time when Cardinal Richelieu led the investigation, trial, torture and execution at the stake of the young priest Urbain Grandier (a story explored by Aldous Huxley in his 1952 ‘The Devils of Loudun’). According to Pat, one of the Jesuits commissioned to exorcise the devils in Loudun was a Gerard, who perhaps brought it back to England, because in Lancashire and Derbyshire “the people there would know how to deal with it.” And Pat’s own family had links with the Gerards…

Urbain Grandier and the Loudun Possessions. Clockwise: Urbain Granier, the alleged diabolic pact, his burning at the stake following his trial and the Aldous Huxley’s retelling of the story.

And if this story is was too circumstantial or far-fetched, Pat had more explanations…

Pat’s great great grandfather was a merchant adventurer who used to trade all over the world, and perhaps bought interesting objects home with him. He was the one who owned the land that the Conservative Club would eventually be built on. The story also goes that when Pat’s grandfather died at Christmastime in 1910, the ground was frozen too solid to bury him, so her grandmother had buried something (as proxy or substitute) in the cottages at Hollingworth – the very site where the Little Mannie had been found all those years later…

Failing that explanation, there was the African doctor, Dr Ogone. He treated Pat when at 9 years old she had gotten a needle stuck through her finger. He described her as “brave as an African girl” and would give her oranges which she would share with her school friends. She conjectures that maybe he had brought the figurine when he moved to England. She talks with fond memories of Dr Ogone, and she describes that he left as suddenly as he arrived.

There is a fierce determination that with every twist and turn of the story there would (and perhaps should) be a connection with Pat, her family, the place and the people.


Once upon a time…

The beginning of Little Mannie’s story remains a mystery. Nomoli is a Mende word, and the figurines have been unearthed on Mende land, however these figurines predate the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Nevertheless, although the Mende make no claim to have made them (rather speaking of them as naturally formed things which are found), they use them as ‘rice gods’ to encourage the growth of their crops. Very little is known about the makers, although it has been suggested that they were possibly the people known as Sapi by the early Portuguese traders of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, although there is no mention of an active stone carving tradition at this time, suggesting a production date as prior to 1463 and the arrival of Europeans on the coast.

Just like Pat Ellison-Reed’s sense of connection with the place and people of Hollingworth and the Longdendale Valley, for the Mende, nomoli are ancestors, they connect people with place and have the power to impact on their own lives.


A story of coincidence?

Little Mannie has been unearthed from the land twice, by people with no knowledge of his previous life and use, yet in both cases the object was recognised as having power beyond the physical, seen world. Is this just a coincidence?

Has this all just been a simply a collection of stories, ideas and coincidences that have been told, retold, connected and shaped to fit with an intriguing object? Are the tellers the main actors in the story, bringing an object to life for the listener? Or is it the Little Mannie who has played the leading role?


The end of the story?

The latest chapter in Little Mannie’s story sees him exhibited within the ‘Power and Plenty’ display in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’. This section focuses on Magical Things (one of the exhibitions three themes alongside Magical Beings and Magical People). He sits alongside objects from the Solomon Islands, Nigeria and Egypt, as well as another Nomoli figure from Sierra Leone. These are all three-dimensional sculptures with power potent energies that protect or cause harm.

Little Mannie, social media star: Pictures of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s new exhibition, ‘Do you believe in magic?’ from Instagram and Twitter. (Left: @igersbristol, right: @DorisSkull)

So, Little Mannie is currently sitting safely in his case in Bristol – and do visit him in the exhibition if you get a chance! However, rumours are already afoot that he is already up to mischief once again…

“You get whispers as a child in the Valley – put there by someone else.”
– Pat Ellison-Reed


Michelle Scott

Do you believe in magic? is open now and runs until 19th April 2020. For more information and opening times, have a look at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s website.


With many thanks to John Prag, Hon. Professor and former Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum and Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Manchester, for introducing me to the Little Mannie and bringing his story to life.

Thanks also to Lisa Graves, Curator of Archaeology and World Cultures at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, for the generosity with her time, and the care that she has afforded in telling the stories of people and objects as Curator of the exhibition “Do you believe in magic?”

And a very special thanks to Pat Ellison-Reed, for her time, knowledge and boundless enthusiasm for telling the stories of the archaeology, objects and people of the Valley.

Find out more:

Atherton, J.H. and Kalous, M. (1970) ‘Nomoli’, in Journal of African History 11(3), pp. 303-317. DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700010161

Bailey, M.D. (2006) ‘The Meanings of Magic’, in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1(1), pp. 1-23. DOI: 10.1353/mrw.0.0052.

Bogdan, H. (2012) ‘Introduction: Modern Western Magic’, in Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 12(1), pp. 1-16. DOI: 10.1163/147783512X614812.

Flint, V. (1999) ‘The Demonisation of Magic and Sorcery in Late Antiquity: Christian Redefinitions of Pagan Religions’, in Flint, V., Gordon, R., Luck, G. and Ogden, D. (eds.) Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. London: The Athlone Press. pp. 277-348

Graham, E. (2018) ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’, in Material Religion 14(2), pp. 255-257. DOI: 10.1080/17432200.2018.1443843.

Hodder, I. (2003) ‘The “social” in Archaeological Theory: An Historical and Contemporary Perspective’, in Meskell, L. and Preucel, R. (eds) A Companion to Social Archaeology. Lynn Meskell and Robert Pruecel. Malden, MA: Blackwell. pp. 23-42.

Hoskins, J. (2006) ‘Agency, biography and objects’, in Tiller, C. et al. (eds) Handbook of Material Culture. London: Sage Publications. pp. 74-84.

Huxley, A. (1952) The Devils of Loudun. London: Chatto and Windus

Knappett, C. (2005) ‘Animacy, Agency, and Personhood’, in Thinking through material culture: an interdisciplinary perspective. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 11-34.

Lamp, F.J. (1983) ‘House of Stones: Memorial Art of Fifteenth-Century Sierra Leone’, in The Art Bulletin 65(2), pp. 219-237. DOI: 10.1080/00043079.1983.10788068

Prag, A.J.N.W. (2015) ‘The Little Mannie with his daddy’s horns’, in Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (eds) The Materiality of Magic: An artifactual investigation into ritual practices and popular beliefs. Oxford: Oxbow Books. pp. 171-181.


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