Friday, 30 October 2009
The Witching Hour
This "face" is above the porchway of a church near Brecon. I think it's a bit "belt-and-braces" and paying lip-service to the pagan past.
As Halloween draws near, and children get excited and dress up in Halloween costumes, we think that all these Halloween shenannigans have come over from America with the Trick or Treat practices which fortunately we don't suffer here, as we are out in the sticks. However, to people in our not too distant past, witches and ghosties were very real belief.
The date of 31st October was when the festival of Samhain was celebrated in pre-Christian times. Samhain is derived from Old Irish and roughly translates as "summer's end". Our Celtic ancestors believed that on this night, the veil between this world and the next was very thin, and both good and bad spirits could pass through to their world. Harmful spirits were warned off by the wearing of costumes and masks which would confuse them into believing they had met one of their own kind and thus do no harm. Fire was a very potent part of the celebration, as indeed it was at Beltane (May Day) when cattle would be driven between twin bonfires to cleanse them and protect against evil spirits. This sometimes happened at Samhain too. However, the bonfire was more important as house fires would be doused and then relit using wood from the bonfire This was also a traditional time to reduce the livestock, which took much feeding over the winter months.
In our part of Wales, I think that people were rather more scared of people that were perceived to be witches, or to have the power to harm them or their livestock by curse or spell. Whilst carrying out renovation work on this old farmhouse (it is first mentioned in records of around 1485), we have found several devices against witches. All were over doorways.
In this photograph you can see the cat skull, the old child's tackety boot, and the mummified rat. All were tucked into walls and all above doorways (the cat a few feet above the doorway).
Several of our beams have odd marks on them. Some are almost definitely to match them in the building of the "extension", and the one below is obviously the re-roofing date for our attic, but others - well, I'll let you decide.
Not sure about this one . . .
This is one I am REALLY not sure about . . .
Below - instructions I think.
We haven't found any witch bottles, but they were often buried under hearths or just outside of the house to protect it. There is a link HERE to an interesting example recently unearthed. These have been found to contain urine (human or animal), nail clippings, human hair, bent pins, pieces of wire, bent iron nails, and sometimes a felt or cloth heart pierced with pins. One example contained 9 bent brass pins, but I don't know if the number has to be specific. Many of these heavy ceramic bellarmine witch-bottles (a name given to a specific style of German-made bottles with an old man's "greybeard" face on.) These are particularly abundant in East Anglia/Suffolk. The pierced cloth heart would be a malevolent sort of magic one assumes.
The urine was the most important ingredient, as this account of "counter-witchcraft described by Joseph Blagrave of Reading, in his Astrological Practice of Physick, published in 1671, as one of a number of 'experimental Rules, whereby to afflict the Witch,causing the evil to return back upon them'. His recipe is as follows:
Another way is to stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witche's life: for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all, and the more if the Moon be in Scorpio in Square or Opposition to his Signifiator, when its done."
Of course, we are not the least bit suspicious these days. We never throw spilt salt over our left shoulder, try not to cross knives, hang horse-shoes up for good luck, touch wood and whistle, cross our fingers, touch our collar if we see a magpie, even tread on the cracks in the paving stones . . . and those lucky stones with holes through them that we bring back from the beach . . .