Our home is protected against witches. It always has been, but I did not find out until I discovered the secrets hidden beneath the black paint on an old door.
As I washed away layers of paint, strange symbols began to appear. I could see circular patterns with variations of six arcs. At first, I thought they had been made by children using protractors. But I soon learned these ancient markings are hexafoils. Hexafoils are the most frequently used symbols for averting evil.
Our door was covered with them, plus a symbol for averting the evil eye. These ‘apotropaic’, or evil-averting, markings were intended to ward off domestic misfortune, harm or the malevolent influences of witches in past centuries. They can be found in many old houses, usually near the fire because people believed witches came down chimneys.
Michael Cole first made the supernatural discovery when he washed away the paint in an old barn in Suffolk
But our door had originally hung in a small barn that I now use as a garage. Because of its rarity, the door is going to star in an exhibition next year at the world-famous Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is staging an exhibition provisionally titled ‘Spellbound: Thinking Magically, Past and Present’.
This will be the first large-scale installation to explore the concept of ‘magical thinking’, revealing how people in all ages and cultures have tried to connect with an unseen world of perceived power.
‘The idea of magic belongs to the cultural mainstream: from folklore and legends to Harry Potter and horror films,’ says the museum’s director Dr Alexander Sturgis. ‘Spells, magical objects and rituals are engines of hope, and hope is essential to physical and mental health, indeed to survival.’
‘We hope to reach people who recognise magic in this way yet are unaware of how their own thoughts, words and actions might constitute magical thinking.’
Wow! And to think our old barn door is going to be a part of that. That is magical in itself.
The door contained hexafoils, which are frequently used symbols for averting evil. It will soon go on show at Oxford as part of a exhibition on magical thinking through the ages
It all began for me 29 years ago. Despite the serious misgivings of my wife and daughter, I insisted on buying a range of tumbledown barns and cow sheds in the middle of a 70-acre field in Suffolk. There was no water, power or drainage. But we set about turning the old buildings into our home, converting the cart sheds one by one, as we could afford it.
The oldest was a small 18th-century barn constructed of blocks of clay baked with straw — a traditional building technique known as ‘clay lump’. We repaired the crumbling clay lumps and re-layed the pan-tiled roof on bent beams. But we did not change the old door.
With its ancient hinges and a hole next to the latch for a cat to get in and out, the door had to make do. But its bottom was badly worn and ragged. Eventually, my wife declared that, if we were ever to stop the mice treating our property like they owned it, the door would have to be replaced.
The hexafoils all consisted of circular patterns with variations of six arcs
A new door was made and hung. But what to do with the old one? I contemplated chopping it up for kindling wood. But something made me stop. In the Seventies, I had stripped a lot of pine furniture. That was the era when every young couple aspired to an ‘SPLA’ home — Stripped Pine, Laura Ashley wallpaper.
I decided to tackle the old door, no matter how many times it had been covered with paint. I scrubbed away. Then, cryptic symbols began to appear. Two local men, working at the house, took one look and said: ‘That’s witches.’ I knew I had to find out more.
As a television reporter in East Anglia, I knew the region had always been a hotbed of superstition. I had made a film about witches being ‘swum’ in the mere, a prehistoric lake, below the battlements of Framlingham Castle.
Suffolk was Witchcraft Central. It even has a village called Occold. In the 17th-century, a local man called Matthew Hopkins styled himself ‘The Witchfinder General’ and made Suffolk a very profitable stamping ground.
A bent lawyer by trade, Hopkins charged fat fees for ridding towns of demons and witches. Such was their paranoia that the people of Stowmarket were happy to hand over £23 to Hopkins to be witch-free, while Aldeburgh got away with £6.
The Witchfinder General, immortalised by American actor Vincent Price in the 1968 British horror film, presided over the killing of 300 women he condemned as witches.
In the 17th century Suffolk was renowned as a hotbed of witchcraft
It was Hopkins who came up with the devilish Catch 22 for snaring witches: they were ‘swum’ in a local pond. If they floated, it proved they were witches and they were killed. If they drowned, well, that solved the problem anyway. Many innocent old women were murdered in this horrifying way.
King James I had been obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. Fifty years later, Hopkins exploited the King’s irrational fears. Hopkins’s book, The Discovery Of Witches, was known to the Puritan settlers of New England, many of whom came from East Anglia.
The book helped inspire the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. These resulted in 19 executions of alleged witches on the testimony of hysterical young girls, 150 imprisonments and the pressing to death of one man, Giles Corey, who refused to plead.
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible used the Salem story as a satire on McCarthyism, the hysteria-raising inquisition carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy on anyone suspected of being a Communist or anti-American.
Paranoia is never far below the surface, even in our modern world, for all its apparent rationality and sophistication. Fear of witches continued well into the last century, and perhaps even the present day.
Timothy Easton is one of the world’s leading experts on the marks and symbols used in early times to ward off the powers of darkness. He lives near us, and first explained the marks on our door, showing me that one of the circular patterns imitated a ‘consecration’ cross blessed by a bishop. Another revealed a symbol like an eclipse.
In the door’s centre is a small hexafoil with a larger one below, and two incomplete ones above.
Some experts call the hexafoil by the modern name ‘Daisy Wheel’ or ‘Marigold’ — Mary’s gold, implying flowers, femininity and an association with the Virgin Mary.
This would tie in with the large ‘M’ markings inscribed on posts in our barn. These so-called ‘Marian’ markings are also evil-averting symbols and are very common.
King James I was reportedly obsessed with rooting out witchcraft
Our barn was originally used for rearing calves. At a time when people’s wealth was tied up in their livestock, they were fearful their animals may be spooked by evil spirits. They believed these caused cows to miscarry or calves to die. Thunderstorms were also regarded as supernatural. In an instant they could destroy a family’s livelihood.
The death and damage caused by lightning strikes left strong enough memories to be recorded in 17th-century documents. The pungent after-smell of sulphur, associated with Hell, led to the belief that the Devil had come calling.
With no insurance companies to write a policy protecting against witchcraft, it is hardly surprising that superstitious people adopted any means to safeguard themselves and their livestock.
Pigs were often mentioned in connection with witchcraft if they died or became ill. In Macbeth, Shakespeare has the First Witch ask: ‘Where hast thou been, sister?’ The Second Witch replies: ‘Killing swine.’
Hag stones — stones with a hole in the middle — were hung up to ward off witches. We have several ropes of them around the barn. On the beach, I always pick up a pebble with a hole and add it to the collection. And people still nail horseshoes above doors.
The religious folk song, Green Grow The Rushes, O refers to these anti-spook symbols: ‘Five for the symbols at your door.’
Hexafoils that look like spectacles were meant to avert the evil eye and bewitchment of animals, prevent nightmares and their effect on horses, and stop fires breaking out. They were also scribed near threshing floors where the grain was beaten out — our barn was once a threshing floor.
Throughout Germanic Europe, the initials of the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, are chalked on every door frame at Christmas, for prosperity and protection. Greenery is hung on our doors in the same season for the same reason. But it has to be removed by Twelfth Night or you risk inviting bad luck.
Our modest, six-feet-by-three door, crafted from four deal planks sometime in the middle of the 19th century and decorated by unknown hands, is now the cover photograph of a new book entitled Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, edited by Ronald Hutton.
Throughout Germanic Europe the initials of the three kings were chalked on door frames before Christmas
The book says the angular markings were done with a scribing tool called a race knife, the round ones with a pair of dividers. Although plentiful in Suffolk, hexafoils are found in most other places. There are spectacle marks on hearth beams in Norfolk and Sussex. Fear of witches was widespread.
As no modern insurance company covers against ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties’ either, you could do it yourself, following these patterns with a compass or protractor.
Instead of trying to woo customers with meerkats, a fat opera singer or a Hollywood actor trading on past roles as a gangster, perhaps those companies ought to offer us insurance against black magic.
Ridiculous? Not really. As Dr Sturgis says of his upcoming exhibition, it will take the audience ‘back into the inner lives of their ancestors and focus on key emotions: love, rage and fear’.
They sound like pretty modern emotions to me.
Now our door is famous, I suggested to my wife that we ought to consider donating it to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket or perhaps selling it at auction.
My wife looked at me: but wouldn’t we be losing our protection against witches? Yes, we are modern, sophisticated and rational people. But you never know, do you? So we are keeping the door.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4594486/Spells-guard-home-WITCHES.html#ixzz4jvQXxSI2
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