Typically, when we think about magic, we think of it as being the domain of the magical or ritual specialist – as being some occult domain that was forbidden to the average person, and that there was some unseen line that wasn’t to be crossed.
That there was such a line, is indisputable, but it wasn’t as clear cut as a line between ‘magic’ and ‘absolutely NO magic’. In fact, there was often an entire body of folk practice that was magical in nature, but that somehow did not cross the line in most cases.
One type of folk practice, known as ‘apotropaic magic’, or magic focused on ‘turning away(evil)’ was (if the numerous finds of apotropaic items in old houses are anything to go by) widely practiced by people that in all likelihood were not magical or ritual specialists.
From shoes up chimneys and dried cats buried in walls, to horse skulls under floors, witch bottles, and mysterious marks made on fireplaces, apotropaios spanned from the gruesome to the seemingly odd. But what, if anything, can we take from these practices today?
Old Shoes in Chimneys
When I was at college, there was a tree in the local park called (unsurprisingly)’The Shoe Tree’. It was a large tree, with eye-like knots covering its wide trunk, and in its branches were hundreds of pairs of shoes. Nobody really knows how it started, but by the time I was studying in the area, it was something of a local tradition for people to knot the laces of their old shoes and throw them into the branches. It was so popular that the local authorities had to periodically come and remove batches of shoes from the branches lest the tree itself be damaged. There was something very eery about that tree, and its branches filled with the shoes of people living and dead. To think of all the daily wear, all the footsteps taken, all the places visited, and all the aspects of human life that might be imprinted on those shoes is just fascinating to me. So innocuous, and yet ever present.
Which is one of the main characteristics of apotropaic magic. In all cases, the apotropaic items were innocuous in some way (mostly through concealment or careful placement), but they were always present, always there to work in the background.
An old shoe superstition is that one should not be buried with one’s shoes lest the spirit be trapped in the coffin with the body, the implication being that the shoes function as some kind of ‘spirit trap’, and conceivably, the apotropaic chimney shoes performed the same function. There is a long tradition of trapping spirits, especially evil ones in shoes in English folklore, and as a practice, we can date it back to the 14th century and Sir John Schorne and his reputed trapping of the devil in a boot.
However, while I am going to focus on the use of shoes as protective devices, as this survey by June Swann demonstrates, there were probably many traditions attached to the keeping of old shoes in homes, and that they weren’t just kept in chimneys.
In the modern day though, many of us don’t have chimneys to put shoes up, but I don’t think that makes them irrelevant to us. In my own case, I’ve used them to trap bad dreams (tied to my bedpost with a written charm stuffed inside), and have found other places to hide them. I also like to take my shoes off at the door and keep them in a rack in the near vicinity.
Because of how often a person wears them, shoes are such a useful magical tool and can be combined with charms and knot spells laced into the lacing holes.
Dried Cats and Horse Skulls
This category is probably the hardest or even least desirable for us to recreate in the modern day. Typically buried in the walls or floorboards, and positioned post-mortem as though on the hunt, it’s not clear whether dried cats for apotropaic purposes typically died because of natural purposes, or were killed specifically for the purpose. Regardless of cruelty issues though, the rationale behind the placement of dried cats in walls, and horses in bell towers or under floors, appears to have been the same.
In folklore, both are animals that are credited with the ability to see that which humans cannot typically see, and while the protective/hunter aspect of a horse is less obvious to me than that of a cat (especially with the positioning of some of the cats into ‘hunt positions’), it would seem (especially with the connection between the horse skull and bell tower – bells being believed to scare away evil spirits), that both cat and horse were considered protective.
Interestingly enough, while the cats are very widespread, the horse skulls have been found in England, Wales, and Ireland, but not in Scotland. One has to wonder if it’s not so much a quality of the horse itself that’s being invoked in the use of horse skulls, but rather something or some protective being connected to horses in some way, and one that wasn’t to be found in Scotland at that.
As I mentioned before, it’s far less desirable for us moderns to go round killing cats or horses for either apotropaic purposes, or even those of a foundation sacrifice. However, I see nothing wrong with the settled family that loses a beloved pet cat, drying or preserving that cat and then encasing it in the walls of the home to serve the same purpose. And although I do realise that many would think that macabre, I think it’s no more odd than say funeral jewellery! If you can source a horse skull ethically, I’d say go for it there, too.
Hearth Marks and Written Charms
Along the theme of ‘innocuous but always present’ are what were previously called ‘Witch Marks’ but are now known as ‘Ritual Marks’ so as to avoid any confusion with the kind of ‘Witch marks’ that were used to identify Witches in the middle ages. Generally found along hearth lintels, wooden ceiling beams, and doorways in houses pre-dating the 18th century, the meanings of these marks are not entirely clear. Commonly these marks include the letters ‘W’, ‘P’, ‘M’, ‘V’, circles, and ‘daisy wheels’ (compass drawn flowers in a circle, not unlike what you might see in a hex sign). One characteristic which is common is that in a lot of cases, they’re either carved somewhere that is not so easy to see, or can only be seen if you know where to find them and are shining a light directly on them.
This idea of hidden magical symbols that work in the background is something that has been noticed by runologists in their examinations of certain runestones and the existence of runic cyphers such as branch runes, or beard runes (!!) in order to obscure the meaning of inscriptions. I could probably do an entire blog post and more about the hidden or concealed aspect of magical runic inscriptions, but for now, I’m just going to stick to what I have and follow up with how we as modern Heathens can take this information and use it to create our own ‘Ritual Marks’ in our homes.
Many modern Heathens make use of bindrunes, and I would say that they would work perfectly as ‘Ritual Marks’ in this way. Many of the extant examples of ‘Ritual Marks’ that we have to this day, are a combination of the letters ‘V’, ‘M’, and ‘W’ with intersecting lines. In his paper, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’, Timothy Easton makes the case for these particular marks as being a kind of invocation to the Virgin Mary for her help and protection. I think we can look to a runic inscription on a bracteate found in Sjaelland here for our inspiration here.
I’m not the Sjaelland bracteate, but I’m a type C, so at least you have that!
The bracteate, Sjaelland-II-C dates back to the Migration period (around 500 AD), and carries the following inscription in Elder Futhark runes:
‘hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : ttt’
Roughly translated, this is taken to mean, ‘Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one (also translated as ‘travel-wise one’, ‘danger-wise one’): I give luck.’
Typically, the final ‘ttt‘, or triple tiwaz runes, are interpreted to be an invocation of Tyr, however the inscription not only seems to be referring more to Odin, but is found on a type-C bracteate, a type of bracteate which is generally interpreted to depict Odin and a quadruped.
Regardless of how we interpret it though, the key elements are clear and useful to us:
*Reference to a luck-giving god/goddess (either through reference to a quality of the god, written in the first person, or through triple repetition of the first rune of the deity’s name).
*The formula ‘gibu auja’ (I give luck).
So, for example, you might want to go with ‘ttt gibu auja’, or write something narrative as though the god is giving the message ‘gibu auja’ to you. In this way, you’re making use of two traditions: that of the apotropaic Ritual Mark, and an attested runic formula.
Also in the ‘written’ category is the written charm, which again, were pretty widespread. However, unlike the other types of apotropaic practice here, also had a negative application should the practitioner so wish. Charms for protection, and charms for cursing have both been found. Often, these charms take the form of a prayer calling upon divine protection of land, livestock, and loved ones. Sometimes they’re augmented by magical formulae such as the Abracadabra triangle or the SATOR square, which although these formulae are not Germanic in origin, were not so dissimilar from the ‘thistell, mistell, kistell’ formula (thistle, mistletoe, casket) which was rendered thus:
þmk iii sss ttt iii lll
Moreover, the similarity of concept was such that the Norse adopted the Abracadabra and SATOR formulae into their own practice. (1)
In one case, one charm was found hidden in a bottle, however you can get pretty creative with this. Some friends of mine wrote charms and then plastered them into the walls of their new home, other people *ahem* write them directly onto the walls when the wallpaper is being replaced so that they’re hidden by the wallpaper for another few years. For those that paint rather than wallpaper, charms can be written in ballpoint pen on the wall and then easily painted over, thus sealing the charm onto the wall in a way that no one will see.
Beginning in the 16th century and most popularly in the stone wear Bellarmines of the time, the witch Bottle is quite a common find in old homes. Generally containing urine and nails,but also smashed glass and sometimes even human hair, the witch bottle is often misunderstood by modern witches.
Nowadays, a cursory glance of recommended uses for witch bottles on the internet gives the impression that it’s often taken to be protective in a general sense, as opposed to the directed counter-curse that it originally was.
The original witch bottle was created with a specific person in mind,and in many cases it was designed to hurt the person you believed to have cursed you so that they would remove the curse from you. For extra effect, it could be boiled to provide extra discomfort for the witch in question.
In my opinion, the witch bottle works best with that specific person in mind, especially if you are able to get something of them to personalise the bottle with, however it does also work well as a kind of ‘absorber’ and destroyer of ‘negative energy’ (urine performs the function of destroying malefic magic in several folklore traditions), especially when buried under the threshold of a home, or at any other potential entry point.
Making a bottle is simple enough, and sadly never depicted in the kind of TV shows that depict witchcraft – which is a shame – Alyssa Milano trying to get pee into a bottle or mason jar for a Witch bottle would have made great prime time viewing…
Other Apotropaic Practices
Throughout the ages, be it dried cats, witch bottles, or charms plastered into the very walls of your home, people have always sought to find ways to protect their homes from less tangible threats. In the modern day, the hanging of crucifixes, placement of bibles, and use of the dreaded white sage are perhaps most common among mainstream folks. In PA, there is the added heritage of the hex sign magic. Amulets may be made from natural materials believed to have certain inherent properties e.g the use of rowan crosses bound with red thread as a protection against baneful wights (typically fae). Personally, I’ve used all kinds of measures at various addresses, from bottles, to rune-marked stakes driven into the ground around a property. Were I to ever settle down in one place, maybe I’d consider including any pet cats that pass over or take other equally permanent measures.
Whatever you use though, always remember that concealment was a factor for good reason. There has always been a power in secrets and mysteries, hell, one of the meanings of the word ‘rune’ itself is ‘secret’. More pragmatically though, to keep silent is to stay protected, whereas to let others know what you have and where, is to give them a way to figure out an ‘in’ should things turn sour.
And then before you know it, you’re trying to aim piss into a mason jar…
To read more about Apotropaios and see some cool photos, go here
1. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects -Mindy MacLeod, Bernard Mees Pp. 139 – 152