This month’s Archaeology magazine has some photos from Knole House in Kent showing a series of hatch marks carved into the floor beneath where the protestant King James I would have slept in the early 1600’s. The marks are intended to protect the king from “witchcraft and demonic possession.” (you can read the article here.) It got me thinking about the many ways that people tried to defend against such supernatural attacks.
In my own book Elisha Magus, Elisha finds the kitchen at the prince’s hunting lodge hanging with betony and primrose, two of many herbs which are said to prevent the incursion of witches. Herbs like this would be hung around doorways or in barns to ward off witchcraft. Hazelnuts in some circumstances were said to be proof against witchcraft as well, and could be thrown at witches to discourage them.
As in Knole House, mentioned above, houses often had defenses built in, most commonly around entrances. Knole House has its hatch marks near the fireplace as well, because witches were said to use chimneys, like some kind of nasty Santa. Thresholds are popular places to conceal anti-witchcraft charms, often boxes or jars containing protective herbs and amulets, bits of bone or other relics. One dwelling cave at Amman, Jordan, has the skull of a dog buried outside.
Iron has long been associated with the ability to ward off magic (faeries are said to recoil from it), and often figures in both household charms–including “lucky” horseshoes, and iron knives buried beneath the threshold–and in amulets carried on one’s person. Tim Powers uses nails driven into wood as a proof against some supernatural evils in his book The Stress of Her Regard, which, like many of Powers’ books, is deeply informed by 18th century beliefs about sorcery.
It also figures in another form of buried protection, the witch bottle. These were a sort of curative when a victim had already been struck by an illness or misfortune attributed to witchcraft. The victim would place personal relics, like hair, nail trimmings, navel lint and urine, into a clay jar along with items said to be proof against witchcraft (iron nails, brass pins, minerals like brimstone), and bury the sealed jar upside down. This amalgam of intimate leavings would attract the witch’s power, drawing it away from the victim and thus curing him.
It’s interesting that if you look up many of these items on-line, you are likely to find a string of websites associated with pagan religions and Wicca in particular, offering spells and recipes for creating your own charms. (You can also purchase your witch bottle from Etsy or E-bay, but presumably you have to supply your own urine). These contemporary individuals are using the same techniques of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period to defend themselves and their petitioners against Black Magic. Even during the Middle Ages, there was a sense that some magic was good, and some was not, thus people had no qualms about seeking advice from one local practitioner to dislodge the Evil Eye of another one.
Official Church doctrine about magic swayed between poles, from similarly accepting this idea of White Magic, to condemning all magic as defying the Lord. One of the most powerful weapons against magic of any kind is, of course, Holy Water–but running water itself has long been thought to prevent passage of certain forms of evil.
Salt is another preventative, and if you’ve ever thrown a pinch of salt over your shoulder, you know this belief persists in a custom many have forgotten. Witches are said not to be able to eat salt, and that pinch of salt will ward off the devil. Nowadays, I think most of us take fears about sorcery with more than a grain of salt.