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 . . .


  1. Hullo there BB,

    Its a shame that Hallowe'en is now so Americanised. Trick or treat indeed! When I was wee we used to go out in the village, me chaperoned by a big brother also done up in some disguise. Indeed we called it 'guising' which I think might just be an abbreviation.

    We had to perform some song, poem, joke or story and dependant on how good it was {or how well you knew the person who's house you were in} you got fruit or nuts and a very rare sweet. then you had to carefully conceal the treasure somewhere just in case you were robbed by some of the bigger boys - occasionally even a brother....

    The photo of the church is very reminiscent of 'stavekirch' we saw in Norway. Its amazing how many apparently pagan references you can find in the really old kirks if you look carefully, from green men to trees of life and bushels of harvest crops. Its amazing how many images Christianity has had to adopt to assume the place it has, to take on the festival dates and iconography of old belief. Maybe this is a vestige of this. You could read the face as a Christ like face or as an older deity.

    Lovely post. Very thought provoking once more.....


  2. Hullo BB,

    Theres a documentary on BBC1 about Fleetwood Mac on Sunday if you fancy it.....

  3. A very interesting post BB.
    I hope the cat wasn`t boarded up live? I have heard that was sometimes done.

    Have you been to Wild Somerset Child`s blog today? She has a poem called "Dear Ancestor" that brought your Great Grandfather to mind.

  4. I wonder how many of these ancient customs came to America early in its settlement? New Englanders with their strict puritan viewpoint, were notoriously harsh on anyone suspected of witchly doings.
    I think its fairly well known that Christianity early on made concessions to win pagan peoples to their ranks--is there such a thing as "pure" religion?
    The gruesome quality of some of these rites troubles me---propitiation, appeasement?
    I like to consider some of these customs as an oddity--but from a "safe distance."

  5. I read that the Irish immigrants took many Celtic traditions to America, which is why people think trick or treat was an American invention.

  6. Al - have noted it down, so will check out the time. My husband will raise eyebrows and sign meaningly! Wait until my DVD of Tess of the D'Urbervilles arrives next week (the 1979 one with Natassia Kinski as Tess) . . . Guising, as term, rings a bell with me, but I can only ever recall punching patterns in baked bean tins and putting string round the top for a handle and a candle inside as light. Then one year I was dressed up as the guy and slumped on the low wall outside the Bullseye pub and my friends tried to get a penny for me!

    DW - it was Somerset Days blog, and thankyou for that - just my thoughts exactly. I have just had the only photo of my g.grandfather (along with my dad and his mum, so the three generations), and in the photo my dad and his mum are looking at the camera, and g. grandfather looks in a different world entirely - not looking at the camera at all, which speaks volumes . . .

    MM & Kath - I am sure that our customs went out to the New World and got polished up a bit, before returning here, where them are now embellished by the ragtag of street oiks who use them as more than a "trick" and it's more like money with menaces.

    I think there could well be a very long and much researched thread about the early Christian church and its appropriation of pagan dates and spiritual places. Watch this space and wait for a rainy day!

  7. enjoyed the subject and especially the photos of the beams with cryptic markings--a thrill thinking of those who lived there before--

  8. Fascinating post BB - would really be interested in a post about the appropriation of pagan feasts and customs. Edwin Way Teale has arrived by the way - thank you so much. He will go on my pile of books for reading over the dark winter months. I will get to that letter! Probably next week as the forecast is bad so no gardening in prospect...

  9. Mike and I visited the Witches Museum in Boscastle when we were in Cornwall in 2000...very interesting, as is your story.