Sunday, 18 October 2009
Keeping the Witch from the Door...or out of the Chimney!
I read an amusing piece by Amanda Vickery in the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine on anti-witch precautions in old England. Occasionally, when an old building is demolished or undergoes extensive remodelling, baskets or bottles are discovered containing an assortment of bizarre items. After a fire at Lauderdale House in Highgate a basket was found to contain two shoes, a candlestick, two strangled chickens and what must originally have been two squawking chickens, walled up alive when the place was built in 1600. In 2004 a seventeenth century ‘witch bottle’ was found in Greenwich, containing nails, fingernail clippings and urine.
Offerings like this are most commonly discovered near fireplaces or doorways, or buried outside under the front doorstep. In essence they were sacrifices and precautions, an attempt to seal up the most vulnerable entry points against the ingress of ghosts, demons, fairies and witches!
Going right back in time houses were perceived a little like living entities. The windows were the eyes, the doors the mouth, the hearth the heart or the soul. All apertures, and all points of vulnerability. It was commonly believed that witches would attack a house at the various weak-points, down the chimney, through the window or the door, just as demons entered the body through its orifices.
Although witchcraft as a criminal offence was abolished in 1736 the popular belief in malevolent magic continued for generations after. In the nineteenth century John Atkinson, a curate in Yorkshire, noted that local people were stripping the area of rowan to nail to their doors as ‘witch wood.’ Having done this they also burnt animal hearts at midnight while reciting the psalms.
Although such beliefs were more persistent in rural areas they were also to be found in London, where witch bottles were still being buried by the threshold or behind the hearth of new buildings right into the eighteenth century. Horseshoes as ways of hindering the power of witches were still nailed to doors in the 1790s.
It takes more than that to keep a witch away. :-))