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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Keeping Salt Nearby
Salt has long been thought to have protective powers. This is particularly true when performing religious rituals. For example, blessed salt is used to make protective circles during exorcisms and is also used to make holy water.
In parts of Europe, people believed that salt protected one from the evil eye, witches, witchcraft, sprites, and demons. They believed that witches couldn't eat anything salted, so to defend themselves from evil, people would do things like wear an amulet made from blessed salt and other blessed herbs (pressed into a piece of blessed wax) around their neck, or they'd carry a concealed packet of salt or a jar of salt and a knife.
Another way to ward off a witch was to throw some salt outside of their front door and lean a broom next to it. The idea was that any witch that came by would have to count both the grains of salt and the pieces of straw in the broom before she could commit any evil.
In another Christian tradition, the devil and other demons exist on or behind a person's left shoulder, while guardian angels are behind or on the right. So if someone wanted to ward off evil spirits, they would toss salt over their left shoulder.