Protective Devices, Apotropaic Symbols and Witch Marks
Protective Devices, Apotropaic Symbols and Witch Marks;
on Historic Buildings; with examples
from Cheshire, Shropshire and
Charles E. S. Fairey
In recent decades, especially in the last twenty years, protective devices and marks against forces of evil are being recorded and investigated across the country. These devices, objects, symbols, graffiti or marks were thought to protect buildings and their occupants from evil entities, such as the Devil, demons, witches, fairies, etc. They are known under the term of ‘apotropaic’ which means something which has the power ‘to turn away’ evil.
They are also known as ‘ritual protection marks’ or ‘witch marks’ as they warded off evil from magic or curses wrought by witches, from witches themselves, or from any form of demonic attack, and often were created via some form of ritual, whether as a process, an offering in the form of a spiritual midden, or burial, or part of a physical act accompanied by prayer, a spell, hex or curse.
There are a whole host of forms these protection devices take, from carvings in stone and wood, to magical symbols carved or scratched onto stone and timber, as well on other building materials, to objects left within the fabric of buildings, and even burn marks made by candles upon timber-framed buildings. They have been created by craftsman, such as stonemasons and carpenters, or cunning men or women, as well as the householders themselves.
The practice of protecting a home is ancient, and many examples of apotropaic devices may be found throughout history, and across the world, and its many cultures.
Their practice, use and meaning, in our less superstitious times has waned, so like the Green Man, their interpretation and meanings, are fraught with difficulty and much debate. A lot of study has taken place in recent decades, recording and researching these interesting protective devices.
They often appear on or in medieval and later churches, and medieval and later stone and timber-framed halls, manor houses, farmhouses and cottages, as well as public houses, shops, and agricultural buildings, but are much rarer on later and other types of buildings, although there are instances of similar devices being re-created on later buildings, in a copy cat fashion.
Gargoyles, Grotesques, Sheela Na Gigs and Green Men
Most of us who have walked by or visited old churches, will have spotted menacing figures carved in stone and wood, adorning our ancient and historic churches, as if they are demonic guardians of the holy and spiritual rituals which take place within these sacred buildings, which does often seem odd, fighting evil influences with demonic forms, and in some cases rude exhibitionism.
As I said in my article: ‘Grotesques, Gargoyles, Divine Architecture and Sacred Geometry: A Spiritual Mechanism, Charles E S Fairey, 2014’ (see link @ https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/grotesques-gargoyles-divine-architecture-and-sacred-geometry-a-spiritual-mechanism); and related articles: ‘The Green Man: An Extract from ‘The Ancient Trees of Crewe & Nantwich’, Charles E S Fairey, 2018’ (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-green-man); and
‘The Sheela Na Gig, Charles E S Fairey, 2014’ (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-sheela-na-gig); that these guardians of sacred buildings, represent the warding off, scaring away, and spewing out of evil influences and unclean thoughts, whilst especially in the case of gargoyles, the further aspect of sanctifying the consecrated buildings and grounds, by the use of water, that:-
“If we now look at some of that detail I wrote about the possible true meaning of the ‘Green Man’, and remembering that these carvings appear inside Christian buildings and must have formed part of that religion and part of the Christian teaching of the Medieval Christian Faith, and those very few exceptions that predate its introduction to this and other countries, are ignored. We find a shared theme between the ‘Green Man’, the ‘Sheela na gig’, and other ‘Grotesques’ and ‘Gargoyles’.
That shared theme is, that these devices of Christian Church Architecture must represent the spewing out of something, as all share a common theme, either things spewing from mouths, nostrils, ears, eyes, and the sexual organs, or to scare away evil spirits!
I said above that ‘Green Men’ are often found on boundaries, often between the holiest places, or at entranceways into the building and that ‘Green Men’ are often spewing leaves and foliage near to entranceways. Therefore ‘Green Men’ and their apertures may represent the Divine words of God, emanating from the scripture, as well as spewing out the sinful and unclean thoughts of those entering and inside. The other ‘Grotesques’ which are also found on the external structure, as well as ‘Sheela na gigs’, who often appear near openings or entranceways, then these too, must exist to spiritually cleanse the person entering and those inside.
So thus, if the ‘Sheela na gig’ represents the same thing, a cleansing device, i.e. the spewing out of unclean thoughts from that which is most holy, the House of God, and the Christian view of the sinful lust of women, then so too must ‘Grotesques’ and ‘Gargoyles’. These too, are mainly found on the external structure of the building, and must represent the spewing out of unclean and sinful thoughts, and exist to spiritually cleanse the person entering and those inside.
‘Grotesques’ are carved monster like beings, often eerie and otherworldly, and are often made up of body parts of different animals, whether earthly or imaginary.
‘Gargoyles’ are carved figures in stone, metal or timber which serve as water spouts, to direct water from the roofs of mainly religious buildings down to the ground, whilst protecting the side of the building.
A ‘Green Man’ at Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire; a ‘Grotesque’ at
Swynnerton Church, Staffordshire; and a ‘Gargoyle’ at Astbury Church, Cheshire
Now these ‘Gargoyles’ usually transmit the water through their mouths, however there are examples of other apertures of the body being used, and most often than not these ‘Gargoyles’ are in a terrifying monstrous guise, or sometimes comedic, and thus represent not just the protection of the Church from evil spirits, as commonly believed, but maybe also the spewing out of something.
What better way to spew out the evil or sin of those within than with a demon itself, or spew out of the sacred space those demons being carried by humans, as was the common medieval thought of affliction if someone suffered from a disease or ailment, whether mental or physical.
These ‘Gargoyles’ albeit in stone form, present a perfect way of cleansing and purifying the church and the people inside and hence the consecrated ground all the way around the church with the cleansing substance used for baptism, which is that life giving liquid, water.
This outpouring of cleansing water would then help to continuously baptise the sacred space around the church and hence develop over time, a stronger and stronger spiritual boundary, created by stone demons against true earthly dwelling demons.
If we then link this with the preference of the religious establishments to build churches towards the heavens and thus construct towers and spires, could the intervention of that great and terrifying force of energy, the lightning bolt, often viewed as a link between God and man, the Heavens and the Earth, give all that water which has cleansed those inside and consecrated the surrounding earth, the seal of God’s mighty power, a rod of lightning, further sanctifying, protecting and saving those inside, and those resting inside and out.”
Sheela na gigs and other rude grotesques, often display genitalia as an apotropaic representation of fending off evil, this is especially true of the female genitals, where Sheela na gigs depict the pulling open of the vulva, because according to world folklore, the Devil, evil entities and dangerous deities, would shy away, and flee, from a woman who bared her genitals toward them. Why this act was thought to fend off the advances of the Devil and other malevolent forces, is thought to be due to them representing the act of childbirth and creation.
In Cheshire, Sheela na gigs exist at St Edith’s Church in Shocklach, St Oswald’s Church in Malpas, and St Margaret’s Church in Wrenbury.
‘Sheela na gigs’ at St Edith’s, Shocklach; St Oswald’s, Malpas;
and St Margaret’s, Wrenbury; Cheshire
In the case of phallic exhibiting grotesques and gargoyles, we may all remember the hilarious scene in the British comedy film ‘Carry on up the Khyber’, where the British forces are losing, so the commanding officer lines up all the soldiers, and then orders them to lift their kilts, to the sheer fright of the attacking force, who turn around and flee!
So, the phallic symbol representing strength, and manliness, protects these structures from the aggression of the evil entities wishing to gain entry.
In both cases, the bearing of one’s genitals, before the modern held view of nudity being a taboo, especially since the Victorians, gives the bearer a sense of strength (especially to exhibitionists), against the aggressor who may be clothed, since the bearer is so confident to be fully naked, and to show off their private parts, in front of them. To bear the private parts may also infer to the enemy, that the bearer’s are mad, and therefore more dangerous, like the Viking berserkers frothing at the mouths, on the battlefield, or like the Roman’s battles in north-west Europe, under Julius Caesar, when they came across naked Celtic tribes, fighting naked, covered in blue wode!
Two such rude apotropaic figures exist on both Barthomley Church Tower, near Crewe, in South Cheshire, and Astbury Church Tower, near Congleton, in Mid Cheshire. At Barthomley, a grotesque, now missing its head, exhibits its male genitalia, half way up the tower, on the
north eastern angle of the tower and its buttress; and at Astbury, a gargoyle, exhibits its
male genitalia high up on the eastern side of the tower; both of which seem to us modern day folk to be rather odd as well as rude, as well as embarrassing or laughable to speak about!
A Grotesque and a Gargoyle exhibiting its Genitalia; on Barthomley Church Tower (Left); and Astbury Church Tower (Right); Cheshire
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Carvings upon Buildings
Like the apotropaic carved guardians upon churches, houses and other secular buildings also have protective devices, either carved in stone or in the majority wood.
Like those upon churches they appear in a range of forms, from grotesques and green men, like on churches, to figures, faces, mythological beasts, animals, symbols, plants, flowers, and floral patterns.
Each has a meaning, which in its symbolism protects the occupants of the house from evil influences, in the outdoor world, from visitors of either this world or another, and like churches, they often appear near entrances, openings, or by chimneys / fireplaces.
Some also serve as good luck practices, to give the occupiers prosperity, etc.
The eyes of human, mythological representations of man or beast or animal, as an apotropaic device, further reinforce protection from the most prevalent of themes throughout world cultures, that of the ‘Evil Eye’, the blighting envious gaze. Whether day or night, these protective carvings, and their eternal watchful eyes, defend the occupiers and ward off the malevolence of the Evil Eye’s gaze.
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Sometimes Green Men appear upon secular buildings, such as on the corner of the 17th century timber framed gatehouse at Stokesay Castle, as well as on a late Victorian commercial building, most likely as a copycat feature, rather than them being designed for protection, such as upon the facade of 13-21 (odd) Percy Street in the City Centre of Stoke on Trent.
Green Men at Stokesay Castle Gatehouse, Shropshire; and 13-21 (odd)
Percy Street, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire (centre and right)
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Other forms such as dragons also appear upon buildings, one such dragon carving appears again, on the gatehouse of Stokesay Castle, where two mirror image dragons face each side of the building from the corner, with a grotesque bearing its teeth to the twin dragons’ lower centre.
On the Tudor Arch door lintel to the entrance to the Great Hall wing at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, two winged dragons, with protruding tongues face each other, in mirror image above the visitor’s heads. This is again true of Stokesay Castle gatehouse, where over the gateway entrance is a Tudor Arch door lintel, with again mirrored dragons, but this time coiled around, to face outwards, and made up of foliate design, as well as a protruding foliate tongue.
A Dragon Corner Bracket and the Dragon Door Lintel at Stokesay Castle
Gatehouse, Shropshire (left and top) the Dragon Door Lintel at
Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire (middle) and a Dragon Frieze at the
Sandbrook Vaults, Market Drayton, Shropshire (bottom)
Another example is an intertwining dragon pattern frieze upon the Sandbrook Vaults public house, in Market Drayton town centre.
Dragons, like on churches, and secular buildings around the world, especially upon boundaries, gateways and entrances, act as guardians between the boundary of the outside and inside. They protect the occupants of the interior, from the peril of evil spirits of the exterior. The dragon’s protective qualities are self explanatory, from their depiction in film, television, fiction, art, etc, of a menacing flying fierce fiery mythological creature, and an eternal carved representation guarding and defending those within.
In the case of the dragon frieze on the Sandbrook Vaults in Market Drayton, the interconnecting dragons form a physical band or barrier to the whole front facade of the building, protecting those inside, and anything evil from crossing the sacred barrier.
The dragons, and the green men above, also like any depiction of a human, beast or animal, whether mythological or not, with eyes, guard against the ‘Evil Eye’, and its cursing gaze, as mentioned above.
Another feature of these dragon guardians is that they are depicted with their tongues protruding, which may also infer another protective act, as many snake-like creatures use venom and are poisonous to anything which may want to cause harm, never mind their bite.
Another possibility of the protective depiction of dragons, is that they may also serve as spiritual safeguards against the destroying element of fire, as these beasts are fire breathing, possibly a similar notion to the later phrase to ‘fight fire with fire’.
Again, another carved dragon on a supporting bracket, but this time inside Little Moreton Hall, exists next to the large bay window, which was inserted at a later date to the Great Hall, protecting against any evil spirits which may enter through a window opening, rather than a doorway, again with a protruding tongue.
Carved Winged Dragon on a supporting Bracket inside the Great Hall at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
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Another mythological creature, this time the Salamander, was used in its apotropaic capacity, as a protection of a building from fire. It was also a well known alchemical symbol.
Salamanders were thought to be born out of fire, because they hibernate in decaying wood during the winter, and when these salamander sleeping abodes, were collected by people for firewood, when the salamander woke from slumber and fled the flames, people thought they were created from the fire itself, and as such immune to its effects, again like above, another creature protecting buildings from fire whilst being linked with fire.
A beautiful example of an apotropaic salamander carving exists in the town of Nantwich in Cheshire, upon the Tudor Churche’s Mansion, which coincidentally was one of the few historic buildings to survive the Great Fire of Nantwich in 1583, which devastated the majority of the historic market town.
< The Salamander on Churche’s Mansion in Nantwich, Cheshire
Again like the dragon creatures above, the salamander is a serpent like creature, and it has its tongue protruding, symbolic of its poison like protection to those malevolent forces who mean harm to the inhabitants of the house.
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Mythological animal heads, and animals, or their faces also adorn timber work on old buildings, protecting those within from the dangerous forces which exist in the outer realms.
Examples of carved animals or their heads exist in the historic town of Nantwich in Cheshire, on external supporting console brackets on Churche’s Mansion and on 46 High Street, which was built for the nephew of the owner of Churche’s Mansion.
Animals or Animal Faces upon Churche’s Mansion
and 46 High Street Nantwich, Cheshire
On Churche’s Mansion on Hospital Street three animal related apotropaic carvings exist, again gilded like the Salamander we looked at earlier: a lion head with protruding tongue, a monkey bearing its teeth and staring, and what is thought to be a Devil with a sword in his back.
The lion is quite comedic, possibly taunting and laughing at the evil spirits, the monkey looks aggressive so is ready to attack, and the Devil with a sword in its back is a warning to evil spirits of their inherent demise.
The creatures on 46 High Street (Nantwich Bookshop) are rather weathered to pick out their detail, but both stand either upright or level, beneath a foliated flower and its stem.
In the historic Shropshire town of Ludlow on Tudor Cottage, 104 Corve Street, there are many carved supporting brackets, two of which depict a lion’s face, which serve as apotropaic devices. The lion was known as the king of the animals and was well respected as a great hunter, proud and full of aggression, never mind the lion being the only big cat which lives together in a pride, so reminiscent of the family. The lion is also associated with Christ, so with this and the latter’s attributes, this device protects the household living here, from any evil forces wishing to gain entry, through its main and flanking windows along its front facade.
The shield below is also indicative of defence against any malevolent attack.
The Lion Head on Tudor Cottage (104 Corve Street), Ludlow, Shropshire >
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Animalistic apotropaic devices such as bull’s heads with or without horns and just the horns themselves exist upon buildings too. Bull’s horns and skulls were often depicted upon buildings, in timber and in stone, often fixed on gables, or over a doorway, or above or below windows, as a protection device against evil spirits and as a guarantee of prosperity (i.e. a horn of plenty). Cattle horns and skulls since the prehistoric period have been used for protection and burial rites, as well as denoting wealth to others, of the cattle herder / farmer, and of course fertility.
One such apotropaic symbol exists on the Rear Elevation of Hollyhedge Farm in Weston, Cheshire, to the left hand side of the rear entrance, where small flanking windows existed eitherside of the hall / house-place window. This animal horns carving is original to the farmhouse, and consists of two long curving outward from and into circles, bull’s horns, with alternating raised and incised squares within. There is also a brow to the top centre and three tassels to each horn as it radiates outwards from the head.
It is thought these originally would have been richly coloured. Of course the timber has weathered over the centuries from the original date of construction of the farmhouse, but the carving still stands out.
This design is certainly applicable to a farmhouse, as long and short horn cattle as well as sheep were often kept by farmers in Cheshire, throughout history. These bull’s horns act as a protective device for the farmhouse and its occupants, and from evil spirits or witches entering through the window or the rear entrance.
The Bull’s Horns insitu and in Diagram Form which exist below where a
flanking window existed, and to the left of the Rear Entrance,
at Hollyhedge Farm, Weston, Cheshire
A bull’s head with horns exists on a replacement fascia or window head board on the south facing gable of the eastern bay window at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire; presumably this replacement board depicts what the original timber included. In this case the bull’s head and horns are above a window, and would have protected the hall’s residents from evil spirits or witches entering through the window opening.
The Replacement Fascia or Window Head Board to the Eastern Bay’s South Facing Gable with its Bull’s Head with Horns at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
At Moreton Corbet Castle in Shropshire, both bull’s heads and skulls with horns and tassels exist, carved in stone to the facade of the ruined hall.
These skulls are known as ‘brucranium’, which was a common feature of carved decoration on Classical buildings, often appearing on friezes, like that at Moreton Corbet Castle, however they are also apotropaic protective symbols.
Another example is carved upon a stone keystone to the entrance to the Market Hall in Crewe town centre, this time it is of a bull’s skull, with the horns chopped off, this however may be a copycat feature, and not indicative of an apotropaic device, however it would represent the desire of prosperity to the market sellers here, when the building was built for that purpose in 1854.
The Bull’s Heads and Skulls with Horns and Tassels at Moreton Corbet Castle in Shropshire; and the Bull’s Skull at Crewe Market Hall, Cheshire (far right)
The hand sign of the ‘horns’, made by extending the index and little finger, which has been made more famous by followers of heavy metal music, was also an apotropaic symbol, signifying the prowess of the bull and like above, symbolic of the male strength of the phallus, celebrating male power, much like ‘the finger’, which is used as a response to aggression, and serves as a warning to others.
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Deities and Religious Figures also adorn historic buildings, protecting them from the unholy and diabolical.
Adam and Eve are sometimes represented, as well as figures which may only be described as Venus like women.
Adam and Eve knew God, and He created them in His image, so when depicted upon carvings on buildings, may represent the protection of their children, humanity, from those creatures deemed unholy and not of God’s earth; whereas the Venus like figures, represent again like the Sheela na gig above, the wonders of childbirth and creation; which serves again to subdue those unholy creatures, whose overriding purpose is to tempt, deceive and destroy humanity, and whose abode should be hell, in the minds of our religious forebears.
At Stokesay Castle on the Tudor Arch entranceway lintel to the bailey side of the gatehouse, exists a depiction of Eden, with two oak trees eitherside of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with Eve and Adam depicted eitherside of it. Eve has an outstretched hand beckoning Adam to eat of the fruit, which according to the Biblical account, Eve had already been tempted and eaten of the fruit, and then tempted Adam, here Adam has the plucked fruit in his hand.
This represents the idea of original sin of mankind, after God had forbidden the taking of the fruit, but after being tempted by the serpent, Eve, and then Adam disobeyed, and were no longer innocent. So therefore this depiction from the Book of Genesis acts as a warning, most likely to the inhabitants of the castle, and the men to also be wary of fallen women, that on leaving the safe haven of the fortified manor, not to be tempted by those who wish humankind harm, or to shun the temptation of any serpents, physical or metaphysical, in the wilds of the world outside.
Eitherside of the Tudor Arch lintel depicting the story of Adam and Eve, to reinforce its message, are two standing figures, on the left, Adam, and on the right, Eve.
Whilst outside, eitherside of the Tudor Arch Door Lintel, with its foliate dragons, appear, the lady of the house, flanked by a naked male figure, on the left, and on the right, the man of the house, flanked by a naked female figure. These possibly serve as a reminder to those returning from outside of their protection, where serpents dwell, and possibly that if you are tempted or fall, you will not be welcome back into the protected safe haven from which you came.
At Nantwich, again on 46 High Street (Nantwich Bookshop), is a corner bracket, high up above the street, with what may only be described as a Venus like figure of a pregnant woman, appearing from a vulva like shape. This like the Sheela na gig, is an apotropaic device, to scare off evil entities, by the wonders of childbirth, creation and female genitalia.
The Adam and Eve Scene Tudor Arch Gatehouse Lintel; Adam; Eve; the Lady of the House; the Man of the House; at Stokesay Castle, Shropshire; and the Venus like Figure at 46 High Street, Nantwich (top; then from left to right)
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Again at 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire, is another female figure, depicted upon a console bracket to the front elevation, indicative of childbirth and creation, as well as a modern replacement bracket on 14 & 15 Raven Lane, Ludlow, Shropshire, where the female figure is holding her stomach.
Female Figures at 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire, and 14 & 15 Raven Lane, Ludlow, Shropshire >
Human figures and faces upon buildings are numerous, and sometimes depict the builder of the property, and most likely represent the warding off of the ‘evil eye’, but also as watching guardians, with their eyes open throughout the day and night, to ward off anything which tries to gain entry without being seen, staring out eternally. Two human armed soldiers guard against malevolent entry eitherside of the internal courtyard of the gatehouse at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. This is the only entrance to the Hall, through a towering gatehouse gabled and jettied porch and wing, via the stone bridge over the moat. They both stand high above the internal opening, as if hiding ready to pounce and attack, anything they find threatening, entering into the internal courtyard. They face the opening, whilst armed with spears, or possibly halberds, dressed in Tudor soldier’s costume.
< The Two Guarding Soldiers by the entrance at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Directly beneath the two guarding sentinels, is a radiate face holding two trumpets each, to their mouths as if announcing who gains entry to the inhabitants, and the rest of the protective devices here; along with below the trumpeters, repeating interconnected facing faces, as if they are squaring up to each other ready to battle.
If we put the whole of the vertical carving together, topped with their soldier supporting brackets to the jettied first floor, it is reminiscent of an army, with the soldier’s being the commanding officers, and the trumpeters ringing out the command to attack, to the rank and file soldiers beneath, to protect the Hall’s inhabitants from any enemy who wishes to gain entry, albeit at a spiritual level, as they are not real soldiers, which could subdue a physical enemy.
Another detail which is relevant is that the soldiers have wings upon their helmets, as well as the trumpeters having wings, and stylised wings to the faces below, which may represent a heavenly army, again ready to fight spiritually with any devils or demons or witches, wanting to enact evil upon the Hall’s household. This is further reinforced by the left hand soldier having a Christian cross carved upon his heart.
Alongside these, to each side of the entrance, on each supporting bracket upon the wall posts, to the jettied floor above are more human representations, but this time not figures but heads, either supported by symbolic carving below or upon their head dresses.
To the far left is what may be described as a messenger, because he is shown as having two serpents rising from flowers, to his mouth, with a double beard, with a central staff below. This most likely is symbolic of the caduceus, an ancient symbol of two serpents entwining around a rod, which was held by the messenger god Hermes, to herald the gods, but later became associated with healing and hence medicine. Again like the trumpeters at the entrance, this carving is announcing to the household and its guardians, who is gaining entry.
Between the heralding figure and the entrance, a figure head with a crown topped by dragons facing each other, is depicted, this time baring their teeth, again protecting the household from whatever lurks in the wild outside world.
The next figure head, to the right of the entrance, is very similar to the other, but this time the crowned face is surmounted by a double headed dragon, with their heads facing outwards, again with teeth bared.
If we put both these nearly identical in symbolism figure heads together, it may symbolise that the dragons facing inward deal with the evil spirits within, and the dragons facing outward deal with the evil spirits without? Possibly meaning those within to be the unclean thoughts of visitors who are allowed entry, and those without to be those who did not gain entry but hold a grudge for not being allowed entry? A double form of protection?
To the far right, is another figure head, again a crowned face, but this time surmounted by a dragon or the Moreton Wolf, facing toward the entrance, and the staircase entry, to its left, with bared teeth and a slurping tongue, as if snarling ready to gobble up anything it doesn’t like.
The Protective Figure Heads at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Human Faces also adorn buildings, and must signify protection, as watching eyes against the ‘evil eye’, evil spirits and the curses of witches. Often the original owners of buildings and their wives are depicted (the first occupants of houses are often viewed as the timeless head of the household guardians), as well as other human faces, acting as immortal guardians to the buildings.
At Churche’s Mansion in Nantwich, human faces watch over the building, as well as the two original owners of the building, Richarde and Margerye Churche, who appear eitherside of the front entranceway, inside the porch, watching who tries to gain access, for perpetuity.
Above the porch entrance are depicted upon two timber brackets, the face of presumably Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, signifying the royal protection of the building.
All the faces have been gilded.
The Royal and Household Protective Faces upon Churche’s Mansion,
Again in Nantwich, on 46 High Street (Nantwich Bookshop), presumably the original owner of the building, Thomas and Anne Churche, the nephew of Richarde Churche of Churche’s Mansion, are depicted upon two timber console brackets, high above the street, watching over their home.
< Depictions of Thomas and Anne Churche on 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire
Many buildings depict human forms protecting the household all across the country. In Shropshire’s Ludlow, Tudor Cottage, or 104 Corve Street, cavalier-esque figures are carved upon the facade of the building, again guarding the home from malevolence.
The Cavalier Figures on Tudor Cottage, 104 Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire
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Tree, Plant, Herb and Flower motifs are also commonly carved on old buildings. In the past most people understood the mythology and symbolism of trees, plants, herbs and flowers, and their medicinal uses, both as remedy and in ritual, as folk magic. Like today, they were often used as a gift or token of love, good fortune, as home decoration, for their perfume or aroma, or in an act of remembrance.
Actual trees planted near homesteads were also grown there specifically for their apotropaic use. Such trees as the yew, rowan, hawthorn and holly were grown, indicative of their protective folklore associations. Witch hazel and rowan twigs were sometimes tied over doors as it was thought to ward off witches.
Oak trees, or oak leaves and acorns are a common site carved upon historic buildings, as may be seen from some of the examples above, where they are depicted with Adam and Eve at Stokesay Castle, or with a bull’s head with horns, at Little Moreton Hall. Oak tree symbolism is also depicted within buildings, on wall paintings as well as on timber carvings. Many homes have friezes carved with oak symbolism, like those at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, or at Ravenshall House in Wrinehill, Staffordshire. The tree and its imagery guarded against lightning, because it is rarely struck, but if an oak was in the past, the area struck by the lightning was often harvested to make fire charms, which could be hung up or worn to guard homes and people against the same fate.
Other floral decorations exist, often as interweaving patterns carved on external and internal timber work, as well as upon console brackets, or on internal painted plaster.
One of the most predominant floral motifs depicted on buildings is that of the rose, and often this symbolises the Tudors, but may also indicate protective symbolism, whether using its royal, folklore or biblical associations.
Apotropaic Flower Carvings on Console Brackets: two Tudor Roses on the Central Gable of York House, 69 Corve Street; Ludlow, Shropshire; a Rose or Daisy on the Front Elevation of Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire; a Daisy on 2 Dinham, Ludlow, Shropshire; and a Clover on the Old Bull Ring Tavern, Ludlow, Shropshire
The red rose and its five petals also symbolises Christ, his blood, suffering and five wounds. It is also associated with the Virgin Mary, representing her purity and as the Mother of Christ, and hence childbirth.
The rose or more accurately the Rose of Sharon, which may also be seen depicted upon graves, as a rose like flower, although its actual identification is a subject of debate, has biblical symbolism, and thus is apotropaic. Another flower linked to the Rose of Sharon, is the Lily of the Valley, which is often seen on graves accompanying the rose. These flower associations were only popularised after the King James Version of the Bible was published in the early 17th century.
Rose water and capsules were often used medicinally in the past, for infections and colds. It was even successful in curing the bubonic plague in Southern France during the 16th century, the creator of which was the apothecary and prophet, Michel de Nostredame.
Other flowers like that of the daisy and clover are other symbols carved onto old timber-framed buildings.
Clovers like today were a good luck charm. Many timber-framed buildings depict decoratively framed quatrefoil infill panels, which are thought to represent the four leafed clover, giving protection to the buildings. It was also thought to have the added attribute of detecting witches and fairies. Cheshire’s Little Moreton Hall’s north gables carry many decorative quatrefoil panels.
Decorative Quatrefoil Panels to the North Gables at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Roses, Daisies and a Clover Flower Motifs on the Gable Timbers of 1A High Street, Ludlow, Shropshire
At Hollyhedge Farm in Weston, Cheshire, an ornately carved timber bracket depicting a flower, sits high above and to the immediate right of the original front entrance to the farmhouse, jowled from the left corner post to the front gable. This ornately carved console bracket consists of a nine petalled flower, with leaves and a stalk beneath, and most likely depicts a daisy flower. However, at some point in the past it has been daubed in bitumen, which was thought to be good to keep the weather from the timbers, and stave off rot, which sadly is not the case, and that is why it might look more modern, to the untrained eye.
Daisy Flower Carving on a Decorative Console Bracket above the original Front Entrance, at Hollyhedge Farm, Weston, Cheshire >
The word daisy comes from the Old English ‘dæges ēage’ meaning ‘day’s eye’, because the flower opens in the morning and closes at night. The daisy also blooms in the summer months when thunder storms are prevalent, without closing or wilting, and as such represents a possible protective device and may be to protect the home from lightning. The flower sometimes also represents St Mary the Virgin, and also Mary Magdalene, but medieval artists sometimes depicted the flower as a representation of The Christ child, or the Star of Bethlehem, so these symbolic meanings are also indicative of protection to the house, but from evil spirits or witches. And as the flower’s name means ‘day’s eye’ it is also indicative of the Sun, and its rays spiralling outward, another protective symbol throughout mythology, of the prevalence of the Light over the Darkness, and as this Daisy never closes at night, it is always watching, and protecting.
Another plant which was made famous by the many books, films and television series based upon the stories of the vampire, was garlic, a plant often used for its culinary uses, as well as medicinally, and often hung in the home, for its aroma, as well as used in folk magic, to advert evil, and as we all know in fiction a herb hated by the vampire, but also by the malevolent fairies.
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Geometric Protective Devices
Geometric protective devices also exist at historic properties throughout the UK. They are made up of many forms, some of which are deliberately designed as part of the building or its interior, and have been written, drawn, inlaid, carved, scratched, incised, moulded or painted, sometimes at a later date, on stone, wood, brick, iron, lead, plaster and infill, either as part of a ritual against evil spirits, or by household occupants wary of the malevolent forces prevalent in the world.
Sometimes they are made up of symbols upon panelling, either upon walls or ceilings, and like those on the outside of the building, are often placed near openings, like doors, windows or fireplaces.
They are also present in religious buildings, often carved, incised or scratched upon the sacred stones, often near boundaries within the church, minster, priory, abbey, cathedral or monastery.
Four examples from Cheshire and Staffordshire, of geometric apotropaic devices, made up of coloured inlaid woodwork upon either wall or ceiling timber panelling, exist at: Little Moreton Hall, near Congleton, and Churche’s Mansion, in Nantwich, both in Cheshire; and Ford Green Hall, in Smallthorne, Staffordshire.
At Little Moreton Hall and Churche’s Mansion, they are made up of Stars of David; at the former, one decorates a triangular door pediment, above the main gatehouse entrance, to the doorway to the upper porch room off the Long Gallery, as well as a castellated line to the door head, and three appear on timber panelling, above an ornate stone fireplace to the private quarters, above the Withdrawing Room; and to the latter, part of the entrance porch’s ceiling panelling, where nine appear above the visitor’s head.
At Ford Green Hall, three geometric shapes are depicted upon the panelling above the parlour’s fireplace, consisting of: a downward pentagram or pentangle, or five pointed star; and two alternate forms of the hexagram.
All of these apotropaic shapes are made up of endless lines which interweave above and below each other, which is indicative of their protective power, and serve as an unbroken boundary which an evil spirit could not pass. They are also known as demon traps, because of the incised or scratched criss-cross or mesh designs. It was thought by people in the past that evil entities were attracted to lines, and this is reinforced from examples of intertwined endless geometric shapes, older than Christianity itself. It was felt that a demon would follow the lines to their end, but being endless, the entity would become trapped in a type of infinite daze.
The ‘Star of David’ or the ‘Seal of Solomon’, are formed by two triangles, and are hexagrams, and as such they are symbolic of ‘above and below’, relating a religious angle to their protection, as is found in the Lord’s Prayer, etc, and are often found near entranceways, like in the two examples above, where they appear above the main entrance. They are also an ancient symbol used to repel demons, as is the pentagram, or five pointed star, which also is an ancient symbol, associated with Solomon.
According to a leading apotropaic expert, Matthew Champion, in his book ‘Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, 2015, pages 47-49’, the five pointed star is a “specifically Christian symbol with no ‘evil’ connotations” and “was seen as a symbol of protection” which is proved by documentary evidence like that of the late 14th century Middle English poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, where Sir Gawain’s shield includes the image of the five pointed pentangle, and its symbolism is detailed “as a symbol of Solomon”, “as a token of fidelity” and as the “endless knot”, and that it has “five ways in which it will protect and inspire the knight”. Namely “it is a symbol of the five wounds that Christ suffered upon the cross, of his five faultless fingers, of the five senses, of the five joys of the Virgin Mary in her son and, lastly, of the five virtues of knighthood – the ‘pure pentangle as people have called it’.” This is in complete contrast to the later Victorian adage of the five pointed star to be associated with magic, and later with black magic, the Devil, and that of neo-pagan spiritual paths.
The Star of David Apotropaic Symbol on the Pediment, above the Doorway to the Upper Porch Room at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
The Stars of David Apotropaic Symbols on Panelling above an
Ornate Stone Fireplace, to the Private Quarters above the Withdrawing Room
at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
The Triangle is also a sacred symbol, and symbolic of trinities and the number 3, they are sacred throughout history, as well as any multiple thereof, especially of nine, which is a multiple of three threes, many ancient religions grouped their gods into multiples of three, never mind the infinite array of symbolism associated with the number. Some Daisy Wheels sometimes have three petals also indicative of the Trinity, as well as a triskele, in either a three legged or three interwoven spiral form.
The Nine Stars of David Apotropaic Symbols to the Porch’s Ceiling Panelling at Churche’s Mansion, Nantwich, Cheshire
The Pentagram and Hexagram Apotropaic Symbols on the Panelling
above the Fireplace at Ford Green Hall, Smallthorne, Staffordshire
Another geometric design is the daisy wheel, which is also known as a ‘hexfoil’, or as ‘the flower of life’. These are often scratched or incised by an occupant after the building’s creation, as some sort of ritual against devils, demons or witches.
The flower of life as well as that of the five pointed star, pentangle or pentagram, in some forms of mysticism, are connected with the boundaries between the spiritual body to that of the physical form, enclosing the spirit into the body, in a 3D infinite like interwoven shell, and hence whilst in a state of trance these boundaries may be dissolved, much like when knocked unconscious, many people say they saw stars.
Again, like the examples of endless lined Stars of David, pentagrams, or similar, daisy wheels were thought as demon traps, to ward off or confuse, or entrap those malevolent creatures.
An example with 12 petals rather than the usual six, exists to the head beam to the eastern wall of the Withdrawing Room, at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, as well as another, hard to see incomplete daisy wheel to the left of the fireplace in the first floor Guests’ Hall.
A 12 petalled Daisy Wheel to the East Wall Head Beam to the Withdrawing Room; and a hard to see incomplete Daisy Wheel to the left of the Fireplace in the First Floor Guests’ Hall; both at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire
Incomplete geometric protective devices either signify that the mark has an opposite effect, i.e. it curses the malevolent spirit, rather than protecting against them, or they are left incomplete to signify that this world and humanity are not as perfect as God, and therefore it begs Him, to make it complete and perfect, further protecting against evil.
They may also link in with the floral depictions of daisies upon console brackets on the external timbers of buildings, which protective symbolism and attributes we investigated above.
Daisy wheels may also be found on lead Pilgrim Ampullae, which were bought from shrines and holy places across Europe by pilgrims, and contained holy water, and likewise the protective design must have been moulded upon these objects to protect the holy water inside and the pilgrim wearing one, from malevolent forces.
The Concentric Circular Apotropaic Devices at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Other compass drawn protective designs, like Daisy Wheels and other hexfoils, also exist at Little Moreton Hall, but this time are made up of concentric circles, again endless lines as all circles are, but multiples of them, and acting as demon traps, to ward off, confuse or entrap any evil forces. Circles were often thought to confuse demonic entities because they had no corners to hide in.
These are located to a timber post in the Great Hall and to a vertical stud in the first floor Guests’ Hall.
Two Compass Drawn Demon Traps, one a Single Circle, and the other two Concentric Circles, at Norton Priory in Cheshire
At Norton Priory in North Cheshire are two circles, one a single circle, and another, two concentric circles, which again act as protective devices to ward off evil. These exist on the stone walls between the arcades above the stone benches in the outer parlour, to the north end of the remaining standing part of the priory’s ruins.
These concentric circles are sometimes known as bull’s eyes and as such guard against the evil eye, as well as being demon traps, and used to expel malevolent forces. At Norton Priory they exist where high class visitors would have sat waiting for an audience with the monks, or the prior, and as other religious apotropaic devices, cleanse and cast out any malevolent forces the visitor / worshipper may have brought with them, keeping the religious building holy, and devoid of malevolence.
A mixture between concentric circles and the daisy wheel exists on the stone staircase to the Bishop’s St Anselm’s Chapel at the west end of Chester Cathedral. It is made up of two concentric circles and four daisy petals, in the guise of the cross, in order to guard against unwanted evil spirits accessing the chapel above.
The Demon Trap at Chester Cathedral
At St Bertoline’s Church at Barthomley in Cheshire, an Elizabethan oak parclose screen encloses the North Chapel, which did house the Crewe family pews. This oak screen depicts three ranges of pentacles (one of which is a later replacement), all within a pentacle, or circle, with endless lines, with criss-cross or mesh designs, some formed with central flowers, Stars of David, eight pointed stars, or the Auseklis Cross, square geometric shapes, hexfoils, some with inner circles with triskele (three legs), or triple spiral forms within. Also in some of the pentacles, grapes are exhibited, which is symbolic of the Christ, for He is the vine and we are the branches, and as such we are united as brothers.
These all act as demon traps or protection for what lay within, much like a rood screen, which likewise acted as a spiritual boundary between the nave and the most holy area of a church, the chancel, where the mass was performed.
The Apotropaic Pentacles at Barthomley Church, Cheshire
Like above, pentagrams / pentangles are sometimes incised upon buildings for their apotropaic use to repel demonic forces, often some time after the buildings were founded.
Three examples of incised five pointed stars, or pentagrams / pentangles, exist on: the north wall of the tower, to the north transept known as St George’s Chapel, at St Mary’s Church in Nantwich; and again on the walls between the arcades within the outer parlour of Norton Priory; both in Cheshire.
These pentagrams may not just be symbols to repel demonic forces for their geometric form, but also Catholic Graffiti. In this case the five points of the star, represent the Five Holy Wounds or the Five Sacred Wounds or the Five Precious Wounds which pierced the crucified Christ. They therefore represent the nail wounds on his hands and feet as well as the lance which pierced his side. And as such represent the Crucifix worn by those of Catholic faith. In this interpretation, they represent the re-Catholicisation of the post Reformation Protestantisation of Religious Buildings.
Most churches before the Reformation also had stone altar tables, which usually had four consecration crosses to each corner, and one to the centre. These five crosses in a St Andrew’s cross or Saltire shape, like the pentagram when used in a Catholic sense, again represented the Five Holy Wounds of the crucified Christ. After the majority of these altar tables were destroyed in Puritan iconoclasm, did the outlawed Catholics place the pentagram in the now Protestant churches, hidden away upon a wall or pillar, to re-sanctify them as Catholic edifices, where they could again worship but secretly?
This is quite a contrast to the general public opinion that the five pointed star or pentagram is something pagan, and linked with the Devil and his worship, whereas it actually, in this context, most likely represents Christ on the Cross, and his worship, but from a Catholic perspective.
Incised Protective Pentagrams at St Mary’s Church in Nantwich
and Norton Priory, Cheshire
Incised and scratched criss-cross, chequerboard or mesh patterns were also employed in order to defeat demons by trapping them in their curious natures of their love of endless lines, supposedly imprisoned in an infinite game following the lines.
Scratched Mesh Demon Traps at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Some examples of incised or scratched mesh pattern protective markings exist at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. One example on wall panelling to the Great Hall; another on a wall timber to the first floor Guests’ Hall; two eitherside of a burn mark on the wall panelling rail above the fireplace to the first floor Guests’ Parlour; and a series of them on stairwell wall timbers to the front (south) (two to the bottom left), and east range (two to the bottom right), staircases of the hall.
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The Marian Symbol
The Marian symbol is a geometric protective mark, but deserves its own title. They are incised on many religious buildings, especially near to doors and windows, and between the boundaries within such buildings, such as between the nave and chancel, etc. They also appear on secular buildings in similar places, like near doors, windows and fireplaces, where devils, demons or witches may try to gain access from the outside world.
It is usually made up of two ‘V’s which often intertwine in the middle, to form an inverted ‘M’, or upright ‘W’, but sometimes appear in other formats.
These symbols represent the protector, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (known also as the ‘Virgo Virginum’ i.e. Virgin of Virgins). They invoke her protection as the Queen of Heaven, and as such drive way any demonic forces trying to access religious or secular buildings.
Matthew Champion an expert on apotropaic symbols and church graffiti, believes that the Marian symbol, which is by far the most common apotropaic symbol, was even used until the 18th and 19th centuries, and must have become a general good luck symbol as well as a device to ward off evil, to be still used after the Reformation, although in Catholic households its original meaning may have remained.
They may also be symbolic of the vulva, as we saw above, under Sheela na gigs, which were as well as other depictions of goddess or pregnant female forms, were used to ward off evil, and signified the wonders of childbirth and creation. What better way to shun the wicked than with the vulva that gave birth to the Christ. Many churches depict the vulva almond shape in carvings, art, stained glass, etc, which is known as the ‘vesica piscis’, which is often depicted enclosing the Christ or the Virgin Mary.
At Norton Priory Marian symbols are incised upon the stone window jambs to the remaining undercroft, once protecting the contents from demonic attack.
Marian Symbols at Norton Priory in Cheshire
At Little Moreton Hall a Marian Symbol is incised into the timber panelling to the right hand side of the south door into the Withdrawing Room. This would have protected the room from any demonic entities trying to gain entry.
Another Marian Symbol exists carved into the threshold stone to the south doorway at St Mary’s Church at Astbury, also in Cheshire. This would have protected this doorway from demonic forces trying to access the church.
Marian Symbols as well as incised crosses may also be found at the Old Medicine House at Blackden, near Goostrey, Cheshire. The house is open to the public on specific days and is part of The Blackden Trust. This house was moved from Wrinehill, near Betley, in North Staffordshire.
Marian Symbols on Timber Panelling to the Withdrawing Room of Little Moreton Hall; and to the Threshold Stone to the South Doorway of St Mary’s Church at Astbury; both in Cheshire
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Burn marks are also apotropaic, and exist in many historic timber-framed buildings, or timbers within historic stone buildings, and sometimes on timber doors of medieval churches. They are also known as scorch or taper marks. They were originally thought to have been unintentional, however in recent years their protective attributes and intentional use has been verified, through the evidence of experimental archaeology.
Again like the use of dragons and salamanders, as we saw above, their deliberate form, made by charring the wood with a candle or taper, often the gouging out of the charred wood with a tool, and then the rubbing of them with the finger, to form a droplet or tear shape like groove, in a patient ritual, is the symbolic use of fighting fire with fire. But they are also thought to guard against lightning too.
These marks may have been made soon after a building or extension was erected, or at some point in its life (although some examples had been added prior to the timbers being erected, by the carpenters in their framing yard), when a ritual of burn marking was performed, possibly at All Hallows, Christmas or the feast of Candlemas, when candles held power, and blessed candles were available from churches, especially in the two latter cases, and thus used to guard against malevolent forces, in opposition to God. They are sometimes found singularly, but are often found in multiples.
It is also thought that these symbols may have been burnt into timbers which existed in areas of shadow within rooms, where demonic forms may hide in the darkness.
In Cheshire there are over 250 examples of burn marks at Little Moreton Hall. They exist upon the timber-frame, wall panelling and to some doors, to numerous rooms.
Burn Marks at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire
There is another example of a burn or scorch mark at Baddiley Church near Nantwich, in Cheshire. This protective device exists on a wall post to the internal right side of the south door to the timber framed Chancel, and was obviously placed here to protect the church from evil spirits entering through the door opening.
Burn marks also exist at All Saints’ Church at Siddington, north of Congleton in Cheshire, where one has been applied to the left hand internal side of a wall post, to the old north entranceway, which now accesses the vestry, as well as two on the internal right hand door of the main south entrance double door.
Also at St James’ and St Paul’s Church at Marton, also north of Congleton in Cheshire, three burn marks exist on wall posts, to the western wall of the Nave, to the right hand side of the west entranceway.
Burn Marks at Baddiley Church; Siddington Church; and Marton Church;
all in Cheshire
Also in Cheshire, near the town of Knutsford, at Tatton Old Hall, exist many examples of protective burn marks to the long cross-wing range, running south-west to north-east. These may be found to the first floor bedrooms upon the timber frame partition walls, to both the smaller central bedrooms as well as to the north-east large bedroom, and also to the corridor serving them. Most appear inside the rooms upon the wall timbers, but there are also a few protecting the doorways, both inside the rooms and outside the rooms.
Burn Marks to Doorways (First Five Top Left) and Burn Marks to Wall Partition Timbers at Tatton Old Hall in Cheshire
At Boscobel House in Shropshire, a number of burn or scorch marks exist. The highest concentration are visible in the 16th century original timber-framed farmhouse: a burn mark exists to a first floor timber wall stud to the Entrance Hall wall to the south-east; another to a timber wall stud to the north-east wall of the Scullery; to the door jamb stud to the first floor Exhibition Room to the south-west, leading into another Exhibition Room above the Scullery; and a multitude of burn marks to the timber frame to the Exhibition Room above the Cheese Room.
Also in the 17th century Lodge, to the first floor White Room, and to the timber panelling to the left of the fireplace, exist three burn marks to one of the panelling rails.
There are also a few burn marks to the timber frame and roof trusses to the 17th century timber-framed barn to the north-west of the farm complex. Some of these appear on diagonal timber members, but run along the length of the wood, and therefore must have been applied before the barn’s timber frame was erected.
Burn Marks to the Timber Frame in the 16th Century Old Farmhouse
at Boscobel House in Shropshire
Burn Marks to a Panelling Rail to the First Floor White Room in the 17th Century Lodge at Boscobel House in Shropshire
Burn Marks to the Timber Frame and Roof Truss Members in the 17th Century Barn at Boscobel House in Shropshire
Care must be taken when identifying burn or scorch marks on old timber-framed buildings, because sometimes death watch or woodworm insect holes upon the timbers have sometimes been treated with a solution which leaves a dark stain.
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The Horseshoe, Door Ironmongery, the Floral Wreath and other Household Protection
For many centuries the horseshoe was used as a magical device against the forces of evil. They can still be seen adorning doors, nailed above windows and upon gables of historic buildings, both on homes and places of business.
A Horseshoe on a Door at Hollyhedge Farm, Weston, and a Ten Horseshoe Sculpture at The White Lion, Barthomley; Cheshire
Originally it is thought that they were nailed above doors or other openings in the form of an ‘n’, so that the two legs or prongs would spiritually fall upon any evil spirit or witch trying to gain entry, injuring them.
In recent history though their use has been inverted, in the form of a ‘u’, to bring good luck to the household or occupiers of a building, and so that the luck the horseshoe catches from the heavens doesn’t run out, housed like a bowl inside the shoe’s two legs.
However, being made of iron and the metal long being the enemy of devils, demons and witches, they are still apotropaic. Their crescent shape was symbolic of the moon, and hence gave the household protection.
Door Knockers and Door Furniture also often took the form of protective devices, often grotesque, animalistic or symbolic ironmongery was used. Sometimes incised lines, crosses and similar marks were often included on the drop handles and latches of entranceways into the household.
To a double garage door, and some of the stable doors, to the Barns at Hollyhedge Farm, Weston, Cheshire, cast iron latches exist with apotropaic markings: to the double door is a latch with three incised vertical lines of dots, with two ‘X’ details in between; and to a few of the top or bottom stable doors, either facing or on the reverse of the latch, are two incised vertical lines of dots eitherside of an ‘X’ detail.
This is a form of an apotropaic mark, with the lines representing the door jambs, and the St Andrew’s crosses, also known as a cross saltire, crux decussata, and the Boundary Cross, barring entry to evil forces, through the door openings. This was revealed by a 20th century Suffolk blacksmith, according to another leading expert on apotropaic marks, Timothy Easton, in his article ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber, Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999, page 26’.
Incised Apotropaic Markings on cast iron Door Latches
to the Barns at Hollyhedge Farm, Weston, Cheshire
This symbol of an ‘X’ between two lines is also indicative of what is known as the ‘butterfly cross’, which as we see from the examples above, is an apotropaic mark, often incised on door latches and other door or window ironmongery. However another possible interpretation exists, and that is its use stemming from the runic alphabet, and the symbol for ‘D’, or ‘dagaz’, which is thought to mean a dawn, or the beginning of the day, and obviously like the daisy, has solar attributes, signifying good luck, protection and the triumph of light over darkness. This is explained, as well as the ‘butterfly cross’ by CJ Binding and LJ Wilson in their article, ‘Ritual Protection Marks in Wookey Hole and Long Hole, Somerset, 2010, UBSS Proceedings, Volume 25(1), pp. 47-73’.
Other door ironmongery, such as decorative hinges were also employed, as well as iron door studs.
Some internal house doors also exhibit incised lines and crosses, as further protection for the internal boundaries of the layout of the rooms, especially between lower and higher status areas, or to the doors to butteries.
Floral Wreaths and flower garlands were often hung on doors, at certain points within the yearly calendar, like we often still do for Christmas, which further protected the home from dark forces.
Even at All Hallows, rather than the modern usage of a carved pumpkin, which is a modern American import, carved turnips or swedes were used in the same way, as a grotesque with candlelit features, to scare off any demonic elements which may wish harm to the occupants of the home, when all may walk the earth.
Crosses, much like the use of the crucifix above those sleeping in their beds, also offered Christ’s protection whilst folk rested.
Pilgrim’s Ampullae (decorated lead holy water containers) were also used as protective devices inside homes. They were sometimes nailed to a beam or the mantle piece.
Candles were also often lit and placed in lanterns or inside windows to ward off malevolent forces, especially at times when family members were vulnerable, such as whilst giving birth.
Herbs and flowers were also brought into the home not just for their culinary, aroma and medicinal qualities, but also to ward off evil, often being hung from beams, or scattered upon the floor coverings.
In Shropshire there is a custom of bringing in snowdrops, which were known as Christ’s Flowers, to cleanse the house, as part of the spring clean, although in other areas it was thought unlucky to bring in snowdrops, because it was thought dead spirits hid within their petals.
Even the timber or sandstone heck posts or pillars were known in Yorkshire as Witch Posts, and often had apotropaic devices carved upon them.
Even the reciting of prayers, and hymns, offered protection to the occupants of houses.
The keeping of household pets was also thought to ward off evil, as well as having swallows nesting under the eaves, which were believed to guard against fire, lightning and storms.
Sometimes an animal’s heart, a lamb’s or bullock’s was stuck with iron nails or pins, and hung up the chimney from red thread, to deter the entry of malevolent forces coming down the chimney.
Another protective right is the covering of a mirror with cloth, when someone has died, because the mirror was thought to be a direct doorway, or another version of one’s self, because the soul of the deceased was thought if it was able to escape the world of the dead through the uncovered mirror, it could take the soul or inhabit the body of a relation.
People could also wear charms to protect them from the dark forces inhabiting the world, and from witches’ curses, or for good luck.
Other charms, spells or magical prayers written on parchment or paper were often hidden in the fabric of homes to protect the occupants from certain fates, or incite good luck or fortune, as well as to guard against evil, often created by local cunning men or women; even curses by witches have been recovered from homes. They are in rare cases scratched into lead tablets, but in the majority written on parchment or paper. The scribe often used a mixture of Latin and English, biblical phrases, but also used codes and unknown alphabets, symbols, some astrological and alchemical, as well as magical words, and word amulets, protecting the contents of the charm, spell, magical prayer or curse.
Another form of sacred protection, especially houses built for Catholics, was to construct the home in the cruciform shape, indicative of the sacred body of Christ, in the same manner as religious buildings were built as a representation of the body of Christ.
Papists also used Catholic motifs or abbreviations, on the facade, as well as internally, usually, like early Christian symbols, hidden in metaphor and allegory, to make it difficult for identification by the Protestant authorities.
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It had been a common custom to hide objects in the structure of a building, for magical defence, such as mummified cats, horse skulls, concealed shoes, charms and witch bottles. These sorts of objects are known as: ritual deposits which are usually a one-off form of protection; or spiritual middens, which is a deliberate place where objects are continually added over time. Some of these objects are dealt with below:-
Replica 17th Century Shoes
(Photo by Stephen Simpson)
Old leather shoes have often been found in the fabric of buildings, especially within roof spaces, next to chimneys, or inside them, or in walls over lintels. They are usually found in the singular, but sometimes as pairs, but also as a cache of shoes.
Because shoes were well worn possessions they attract the persona of the wearer, and in this way this may be why they are used as apotropaic devices, to ward off those who are not connected with the people who make or made the building their home, and if the shoe does not fit that which demands entry, then it cannot fill the shoes, so cannot enter. Shoes in the past were always worn into, and always formed themselves around the readers feet, making them individual fitting. Sometimes they have been scratched with a mesh pattern, which may add weight to another theory that they are used as spirit traps.
Other theories may also point to their protective function because shoes were used for protecting the feet whilst walking, i.e. on the every-day journey of life, so possibly they were concealed in buildings, to protect it whilst the building itself travelled, like the human who wore the shoe, through the journey of time, another in perpetuity spiritual device, of course until found and removed.
Another theory where they are hidden near or in chimneys is that the fairies, which were originally viewed as malevolent creatures, before the childhood fiction which popularised them as helpful, virtuous sprites, was because burning leather, or the smell of leather deterred them, like other strong smells of such things as garlic.
One other albeit rather modern use of shoes, or in this case trainers, was imported across the world from modern day America, where two trainers with their laces tied together, are flung over overhead wires to signify a local gang’s turf boundary, as a warning to others that this area is protected, and if you cross that divide, expect aggression. This may indicate another sub-conscious spiritual continuity of the warning that a well worn shoe or shoes, signifies to any visitor from outside of the area, who crosses a boundary, and possibly, but as a slight metaphorical conjecture, that somehow this practice evolved from their use as apotropaic concealed objects to protect historic homes.
Clothing was also often concealed in buildings, most likely for the same protection reasons as concealed shoes, if not one theory, but a whole host of protective reasons are prevalent.
Two old odd shoes were found in the fabric of the Old Medicine House at Blackden, near Goostrey, Cheshire, which was moved from Wrinehill near Betley, in North Staffordshire, as well as an old leather shoe which disintegrated upon finding, in the loft space, below a roof truss with wattle and daub infill, at Hollyhedge Farm in Weston, Cheshire.
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The Bellarmine: The Witch Bottle
The ‘Bellarmine’ Jug, a type of German stoneware salt glazed bottle, often with a decorative bearded grim face (although originally known as a ‘Bartmann’ jug), became famous for its use as a Witch’s Bottle, although other types of vessels were used as well. They were used by the cunning man or woman of a community, who re-used these durable vessels, to invoke the protection of buildings, and sites, often by burying or concealing them. The bottle invoked protection from evil doers, spirits or magical attack, and to trap the devil, demon or witch inside, or to harm them. Sealed inside the vessel was usually a concoction made up from such things as: hair; finger nail clippings; clothing threads; fabric shaped hearts; rusty nails; pins; thorns; glass; bones; herbs; vinegar; oil; and predominantly urine; etc, and were mixed together. In houses, they were often placed in the chimney flue, the inglenook, or under the hearth, floor or threshold.
The inclusion of iron objects especially nails and pins were used due to the long held belief that iron guarded against malevolent creatures as well as the devil, as we saw above with horseshoes.
Bellarmine Jugs at Norton Priory and Bunbury Church, Cheshire
Original 17th ‘Bellarmine’ Jug Collection, one with the contents still intact
(Photo by Stephen Simpson)
A witch bottle containing urine was found in the fabric of the Old Medicine House at Blackden, near Goostrey, Cheshire, which was found when it was dismantled and moved from Wrinehill, near Betley, in North Staffordshire.
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A Replica Purse with actual 16th and 17th Century Silver Coins
(Photo by Stephen Simpson)
Coins or purses containing coins are sometimes concealed within historic buildings, sometimes within the fabric itself, or under the hearth or threshold flagstone.
They may have been used again as protective devices, to entice the demon to be trapped by its own greed within the purse, or because if silver coins were used, like the folklore attributes of mirrors, the silver surfaces could trap the soul of an evil entity. Silver in sometimes recorded in folklore, to be the enemy of the witch, and would guard any home where silver was deposited at openings to prevent them from accessing the interior.
Silver coins especially the sixpence, which was often thought as lucky, could be used to charm luck or prosperity for the occupants of the home, and is known as a custom at weddings, where a sixpence would be put in the brides right shoe, for a prosperous, love filled and happy marriage, by the bride’s father, and is thought to stem originally from the custom of a dowry.
Sometimes odd coins may be found pushed into the gaps between floorboards, possibly again as a charm against an evil spirit or where a person has died and has not rested, possibly trapping the prevalent ghost for perpetuity in the silver disc.
In the past many silver coins included cross designs, as well as the King or Queen’s crowned head, as well as later, the Royal coat of arms, or Royal symbols, such as the rose, which would have included the attribute of Christian as well as royal protection.
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Mummified Animals, Burials, Skulls, Bones and Blood
The Mummified Rat at the White Lion, Barthomley, Cheshire
An example of a mummified animal may be seen at the White Lion public house in Barthomley, Cheshire, where a glazed panel shows the wattle and daub construction of the building, along with the skeleton of a rat. Possibly this rat served as a spiritual reminder to other vermin that they were not wanted within the household, and the fate which awaited them.
Mummified and dried cats are the most predominantly found animal, being recovered from the fabric of many historic buildings, and must have been placed there as guardians against evil forces that might try to gain entry. The cat’s hunting skills, nocturnal habits and psychic abilities were well known in folklore of the past, the ancient Egyptians viewed cats as living deities upon the earth, and often their mummified remains were given their own sarcophagus in Royal and High Status tombs. It may also be like the adage of fighting fire with fire, cats were known to be witches’ familiars, so why not fight a familiar with your own spiritual familiar.
It was also common practice to bury an animal, sometimes a cockerel, before the foundations of a building were laid, or to bury skulls such as of the cow, bull or especially the horse, as well as their bones, beneath hearth stones or beneath floors. These foundation rituals are synonymous with the churchyard guardian, see link to my article below.
At the Old Medicine House, when it stood at Wrinehill, near Betley, North Staffordshire, before it was moved to Goostrey in Cheshire, animal bones, which weren’t identified at the time, were found beneath the floor. It wasn’t known whether they were placed there on purpose, however the prevailing thought at the time was they were linked with a butcher and innkeeper, who had lived there in the past, when it was known as the Red Lion.
Whatever the mummified or buried animal, or animal skull, they may have been sealed into or under the building, so that its soul may act as a guardian in perpetuity, much like that of a churchyard guardian, as I wrote about in ‘The Ankou, Churchyard Guardians, Black Dogs and Memento Mori, Charles E S Fairey, 2014’ (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-ankou-churchyard-guardians-black-dogs-and-memento-mori).
Blood could also be added to the mortar of houses, as well as iron objects to invoke spiritual protection.
An example of a mummified cat found under a hearth, as well as a horse skull, both found in houses in Blackden, near Goostrey in Cheshire, may be seen on a Blackden Trust Event Report entitled: ‘Pilgrimage and Protection, Saturday 4th July 2009, by Tom Hughes’, see link: https://www.theblackdentrust.org.uk/reports/report20090704.php.
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Please also see my accompanying article
Please also see my accompanying article
Please also see my and Vincent Reed's Website
Apotropaic Ethiopia: Early Examples of
Spiritual Protection from Christian Africa
Photographs all taken by Charles E S Fairey, other than the three examples above, where the photographer Stephen Simpson is acknowledged, and as the below acknowledgment description.
Tom Hughes (Historian, Museum Officer, Historic Musician, Pilgrimage Expert and Folklorist) & for giving me a guided tour of the new museum he was in charge of creating at Norton Priory in Cheshire, as well as the apotropaic devices at the Priory.
Staff at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, who pointed out where the apotropaic devices existed within the historic National Trust property.
Stephen Simpson (Re-enactor and 17th Century Specialist) & for the using of his photographs of his 17th century ‘Bellarmine’ Jar Collection, a replica purse with actual 16th and 17th century silver coins, and of his replica 17th century shoes.
Roy P Rushton (Local Historian and member of Betley Local History Society)
Derek Inskeep (Local Historian and member of Betley Local History Society)
Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, Matthew Champion, 2015.
The Graffiti Inscriptions of St Mary’s Church, Troston, Matthew Champion, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 43, 2, 2015, pp. 235-258.
The Medium is the Message: Votive Devotional Imagery and Gift Giving amongst the Commonality in the Late Medieval Parish, Matthew Champion, Kenyon College: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol 3, Issue 4, 2012, pp. 103-123.
Hidden Charms, A conference held at Norwich Castle, April 2nd, 2016, Edited by John Billingsley, Jeremy Harte and Brian Hoggard, 2017.
Gargoyles and Grotesques, Alex Woodcock, 2011.
Grotesques, Gargoyles, Divine Architecture and Sacred Geometry: A Spiritual Mechanism, Charles E S Fairey, 2014. (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/grotesques-gargoyles-divine-architecture-and-sacred-geometry-a-spiritual-mechanism)
The Sheela Na Gig, Charles E S Fairey, 2014. (http://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-sheela-na-gig)
The Green Man: An Extract from ‘The Ancient Trees of Crewe & Nantwich’, Charles E S Fairey, 2018. (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-green-man)
The Ankou, Churchyard Guardians, Black Dogs and Memento Mori, Charles E S Fairey, 2014. (https://www.mysticmasque.com/history-mystery/the-ankou-churchyard-guardians-black-dogs-and-memento-mori).
Medieval Pilgrimage in England: A Talk by Tom Hughes, Crewe & Nantwich Metal Detecting Society, 17th December 2013 & C&NMDS January Newsletter.
The Reformation Period: A Talk by Stephen Simpson, Crewe & Nantwich Metal Detecting Society, 26th March 2013 & C&NMDS April Newsletter.
The Horns of Moses: Old Symbols and New Meanings, Norman Cohn, Commentary Magazine, September 1, 1958.
Ritual Marks on Historic Timber, Timothy Easton, Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999, pp. 22-30.
Four Spiritual Middens in Mid Suffolk, England, ca. 1650 to 1850, Timothy Easton, Historical Archaeology, September 2014, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp. 10-34.
Ritual Protection Marks in Wookey Hole and Long Hole, Somerset, CJ Binding and LJ Wilson, 2010, UBSS Proceedings, Volume 25(1), pp. 47-73.
Shoes Concealed in Buildings, JM Swann, Northampton Museum Journal No. 6, December 1969, pp.8-21.
Fighting Fire with Fire: taper burn marks, Matthew Champion, British Archaeology, March April 2018, pp. 36-41.
A Light in the Darkness – the Taper Burns of Donington le Heath Manor House, Alison Fearn, Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture Vol 6, Issue 1, 2017, pp. 92-118.
Belief, Influence and Action: Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Yorkshire, AG Sceats, 2016, Postgraduate perspectives on the past, 2(1), pp. 77-94.
Silent Sentinels: Archaeology, Magic, and the Gendered Control of Domestic Boundaries in New England, 1620-1725, CKR Auge, May 2013.
Shropshire Folklore, Ghosts and Witches, Jean Hughes, 1977.
Folklore and Customs of Rural England, Margaret Baker, 1974.
Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, Reader’s Digest, 1977.
Superstitions, Peter Lorie, 1992.
Useful Website Links
The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey
The SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) Blog
Pagans for Archaeology Blog
The History Girls Blog