Fear of witches and evil spirits was commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries, but more than 400 years later, belief in witchcraft is still strong - a 2005 poll found that 13% of the surveyed people from Canada and the UK said they believed in witches, compared to 21% of the Americans who were polled.
Over the centuries, people have tried many methods to protect themselves and their property from falling under a witch's spell. Which of the ways of warding off evil listed below are the strangest?
- 198 VOTES
Placing A Dead Cat In Your Walls
In 1951, a British archaeologist named Margaret M. Howard published a research paper in the publication Man about the phenomenon of mummified or "dried" dead cats being found inside the walls of a wide variety of buildings in the US, Australia, and many parts of Europe.
Howard came up with three theories as to why the cats had been buried inside the walls: They were foundation sacrifices; they were meant to scare off rats, mice, and other vermin; or they were accidentally trapped inside the walls.
Over the course of history, cats have been seen as both protectors from and agents of evil; for example, in ancient Egypt, Bastet the cat goddess was worshipped as a protector from both disease and evil spirits, while in the later Middle Ages, many believed cats to be representatives of the devil, so they would often be burned to death in a bonfire or drowned during a major Christian holiday.
Foundation sacrifices were meant to appease the forces of both good and evil. Many believed cats to be witches' familiars, giving the animal magical qualities, so if a cat was entombed inside the walls after its death, it would then protect the building and its inhabitants from witches and other forms of evil. This practice likely peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries when the hysteria over witches was quite widespread.
- 274 VOTES
Hanging Hag Stones
Found primarily on coastlines, beaches, and in riverbeds, a hag stone can be any stone that has a natural (not manmade) hole in its center. These stones are supposed to have magical properties that ward off any type of evil, including witches. Although the origin of the belief that the stones are magical is uncertain, some think that it began with the Druids.
According to the superstition, while good things could pass through the hole in the stone, evil and other bad things would be too large to be able to make it through the hole; instead, those things would get stuck in the middle of the stone. Some believe that a person doesn't find a hag stone; instead, the stone finds the person.
There are many ways that a hag stone can protect its owner. These include hanging a hag stone over a front door or window to keep evil spirits out of that structure; wearing a hag stone around one's neck to keep one healthy, as well as cure any minor medical issues the person might have; and tying a hag stone to a ship to prevent witches from hanging on to the vessel.
Some believe that if a person looks at a witch through the hole in the stone, the witch's powers will be damaged.
In addition to protecting someone from evil and bad luck, folklore claims the hole in a hag stone is also thought to be a portal that would allow the owner to enter the land of the fairies.
- 373 VOTES
Growing Rowan Trees
According to Greek mythology, when Hebe, the goddess of youth, lost her magic chalice to demons, the gods sent an eagle to retrieve it. In the ensuing fight, the eagle lost some feathers and blood. Rowan trees grew in the spots where the blood and feathers fell to the ground, with the blood informing the shape of the trees' berries and the feathers the shape of their leaves.
In the folklore of the British Isles, meanwhile, the rowan tree has a reputation for being able to protect someone from witchcraft and enchantment. Each berry has a five-pointed star, or a pentagram, located opposite its stalk; a pentagram is thought to be an ancient symbol of protection. The berries are also a vibrant red, a color many people believed was the best protection against any form of magic.
The tree itself, meanwhile, was thought to protect the building closest to where it stood. Because of this, the inhabitants of the building would take great care not to damage the tree.
According to this folklore, people would carry pieces of the tree or sew crosses made out of it into their clothing in order to try to protect themselves from witchcraft.
- 491 VOTES
Building A Witches’ Seat Into Your Chimney
On many of the cottages and homes on the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, one can see small ledges known as "witches' seats" or "witch stones" built into the side of the structure's chimney.
Although the initial purpose of these stone ledges was to protect a home's thatched roof from water running down the sides of the chimney, local folklore claims they were also used as a place for witches to sit.
As the story goes, on Friday nights at low tide, witches would gather on Grande Greve on the island of Guernsey to dance across the sand. When returning from this gathering, one could use the witches' seat to take a rest before continuing on her way. If no such seating was available, the fear was that the witch might simply slide down the chimney and take up residence in the house.
- 590 VOTES
Burying A Witch's Bottle
In the 16th and 17th centuries, many people blamed witchcraft for any illness or other bad luck they might have suffered. In order to remove the curse and protect themselves from future spells, a person would bury a "witch bottle." The person would put urine inside the bottle and add in various things, including nails, pins, fingernail clippings, and human hair.
In 2009, Alan Massey, a retired British chemist who had been asked to examine the contents of a rare sealed "witch bottle" dug up from a site in London, explained:
The idea of the witch bottle was to throw the spell back on the witch. The urine and the bulb of the bottle represented the waterworks of the witch, and the theory was that the nails and the bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you.
Owen Davies, a witchcraft expert at the University of Hertfordshire, added:
The whole rationale for these bottles was sympathetic magic - so you put something intimate to the bewitched person in the bottle and then you put in bent pins and other unpleasant objects which are going to poison and cause great pain to the witch.
- 664 VOTES
Carving Witch Marks
Witch marks - also known as ritual protection marks or apotropaic marks - are most often found carved into the sides of homes and other buildings. They can also appear on gravestones, on the walls of a cave, or carved into furniture. The markings were thought to be able to protect the building (and its inhabitants or workers), object, or site from all sorts of evil, including witchcraft.
The witch marks that appear on buildings tend to be found near doorways, windows, or fireplaces. This is because those were thought to be potential entry points for witches, demons, and other forms of evil.
Witch marks come in various shapes and sizes. One very common type is the daisy wheel or hexafoil. Drawn with the use of a compass, the symbol resembles a six-petaled flower.
Another common symbol is a pair of overlapping V's, which were believed to be the Virgin Mary's initials. Also known as a Marian mark, this symbol was thought to be a way of asking the Virgin Mary to protect the site where the symbol appeared.
Other witch marks include crosses, mazes, pentagons, and diagonal lines.
Witch marks tend to be found primarily on buildings that date from medieval times to the early 19th century - a time when there was widespread belief in witchcraft and the supernatural, and it was common for people to use rituals and charms to try and protect themselves from evil. But the marks continued to be carved into buildings long after the fear of witches and demons faded from daily life, as they continue to be seen as symbols of good luck and protection.