I saw an article recently which I found quite interesting. So much so that I have been researching the topic ever since. It seems that quite a lot of houses in Britain and across Europe were making unusual discoveries during renovations. Upon further research, the same has also been found in houses here in Australia. A Worldwide phenomenon it seems of finding shoes, children’s toys and clothes inside the walls of an old home. What would prompt someone to store these items inside the walls of their home? One word …….. Witches. These items were put in the walls to ward off witches. I found this a fascinating topic that I had to investigate further. What I found is that it is a form of apotropaic magic. What makes it more interesting is that that pretty much every single person has practised apotropaic magic in some way.
Apotropaic magic or Apotropaism, is the use of a magic ritual that was performed to combat against evil or harmful influences which was thought to cause harm, injury or bad luck. It can be as simple as wearing an amulet or it can be quite a complex long ritual. When you think about it, this covers a pretty broad area and at some point, we have either worn something or even done some sort of ritual (usually passed down through the family) that protects us from evil. As an example, I know friends of European descent where it was custom for them when moving into a new house to display a blue eye known as a Nazar (which is the Evil Eye). They tell me it is good luck for them to have it in their house because it wards off evil and keeps them safe from harm. When you ask them why they do it, they tell you it is just what we do, our family has always done it. This custom is the perfect example of Apotropaic magic.
Back as early as a century ago, medicine was not what it is today. It was unfortunately quite common for illness to strike down an otherwise healthy person. It was very common for children to pass away from illness. In fact, it was not unheard of for a family to have suffered the loss of several children. I know when I research back into my family tree, when we reach the 1800’s, there were a lot of children in the family that died. If a child or two died, it was seen at the time by the family as bad luck and superstition came into play. People believed back then that spirits and witches entered a house through a chimney to spread evil and misfortune. By placing these objects in the chimney which were items that belonged to the family members of the house (such as their shoes) it worked like an armoury to help defend themselves against this evil. When we look back at a lot of old literature we can see that people were very religious compared to today and we know this to be true. Any misfortune and which they did not understand was considered to be the work of the devil. Look at the stories like the Devil of Glenluce. Anything that was negative was considered evil and had to be the work of witches or the devil himself. It wasn't just witches that people were afraid of. Every culture had some sort of evil that it felt it needed protection against. Some of the most well-known symbols today are that of apotropaic magic and they all have one thing in common. They were used to ward off some sort of evil.
This woman's shoe, which dates from 1675 to 1699, was found in a wall in Ely Cathedral.
Image Source: NORTHAMPTON MUSEUM
In Egypt, deities were invoked using a ritual that would protect the caster from evil spirits. They were performed in people’s houses (not in the temples) and the two most common gods who were invoked in this ritual were Taweret the hippopotamus of fertility goddess and the lion demon Buer. An ivory apotropaic wand was carved out of hippopotamus ivory and decorated on one side with the figures of protective deities that carry knives to ward off evil. These were used to protect pregnant women and young children. There were also placed in tombs to offer protection to the deceased when they 'rebirth' or reincarnate.
Image Source: MET MUSUEM
The symbol of the evil eye is probably one of the most well known apotropaic symbols that was used in the form of a drinking cup known as an 'eye cup'. Many believe that being on the receiving end of the evil eye gaze causes harm on others. Another belief is that it casts or reflects a malevolent gaze onto those who wish harm upon others. It is used across many cultures to ward off evil. The evil eye itself is used most commonly in jewellery where the wearer is said to be protected from evil spirits.
Image Source: https://www.galenleather.com/blogs/news/evil-eye
You will notice that over the doorways on churches and castles there are items like gargoyles or other weird animals and sometimes alien-like beings are displayed. A popular 12th-century item was the Sheela na pig which were carved in the stone to frighten away the witches and any malevolent spirits. People would even carve a drawing of these items in the woodwork to their chimney (because it was easy to do on the wood beam) again to repel the witches.
Image Source: Wiki Commons
Mirrors and other shiny objects were used as well as they were thought to deflect the evil eye. People would hang what were called ‘witch balls’ in their windows which were shiny glass ornaments almost like Christmas baubles as they were said to ward of witches. Items like crosses, crucifixes, silver bullets, garlic were thought to ward off vampires and werewolves who at the time were considered a genuine threat. There are obviously quite a lot of different symbols and a lot that you can look into, and I encourage you to do that because it really is quite interesting.
Image Source: Pinterest
It is important to separate the difference between a protective amulet or an item that uses apotropaic magic. It is even different to an item that is a good luck charm. The difference of course being that an apotropaic item is used to protect the wearer or the person casting the ritual. A good luck charm or token (such as giving someone a horseshoe at their wedding) is to bring them good luck.
So the next time you wear a piece of jewellery or hang something in your house for protection, look into why you are doing it. Is it a family tradition that your family has just always done? Maybe ask your relatives about it and its origins. There is nothing more fascinating than our own history. Sometimes we just do things because we have always done them. For example, we may display the eye in our home for protection because our parents did it. Ask them about it and find out the roots of the custom. You may find it quite fascinating, especially when your own family is involved.
What customs do you and your family do to ward off evil?
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