Britain’s Ritual Protection Marks

Witch marks‘ is a relatively new term popularly used to describe a range of ritual protective marks and charms that are carved and etched into the structure of churches, grand buildings and caves in Britain and elsewhere.

I have summarised the most recent scholarship that added to our knowledge of these mysterious carvings in the May 2020 issue of Fortean Times (FT392). Some have been dated to the late middle ages, such as those identified on wooden beams in the National Trust property at Knole in Kent.

Others such as the ubiquitous double V or ‘Marian marks’ have been identified in both pre-Reformation contexts and more recent locations – dating to the Victorian era – when it was used as a more generic evil-averting symbol.

Apotropaic carvings, counter-witchcraft charms and the folklore that surrounds them will be the subject of my next book currently in preparation. My PhD, completed in 1999 at the University of Sheffield, examined carved stone faces and heads that performed a similar function in buildings and archaeological sites across the British Isles. The word apotropaios means ‘to turn away’ and reflects their evil-averting function.

Thousands of these secret charms have been identified by folklorists and archaeologists during the past two decades. The marks were largely ignored by architectural historians before this century because they were so common and easily dismissed as graffiti or masons marks.

An example of a so-called ‘Marian mark’ or apotropaic symbol carved on the wall of a medieval rock shelter at Stanage Edge in the Peak District National Park (copyright David Clarke)

The subject hit the national headlines in February this year when a huge collection of markings, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, were discovered at Creswell Crags on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the English midlands. The crags already had an international reputation as the site of the only confirmed Ice Age art in the British Isles.

Earlier this century similar examples of marian marks and other apotropaic symbols had been identified in the Cheddar cave complex in southwest England.

Brian Hoggard completed a thesis on charms and runs that provides a database and clearing house for new examples. His book Magical House Collection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft (Berghahn 2019) lists the principal ‘charms’ found in buildings and archaeological contexts as so-called ‘Witch Bottles’ or Bellarmines, concealed shoes, dried cats, horse skulls, written charms and ‘protection marks’ (the so-called Witch Marks). The gazetteer contains hundreds of examples from across the British Isles and parts of the northeast USA.

In my Fortean Times article I list the major categories of ritual protective marks identified in the British Isles. These include:

An example of a ‘daisy wheel’ or hexafoil carved on a beam inside a medieval barn in Derbyshire (copyright David Clarke)

  • Daisy wheels, hexafoils or triskeles – based on an ancient solar symbol, these geometric marks were sometimes cut with compasses. Examples have been found in many Tudor buildings in plaster and wood.
  • Pentagrams – the five pointed star was described as a potent protection against demons in ancient texts and is mentioned in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Examples are much more difficult to find but have been identified in a number of secular and religious buildings.
  • Marian Marks – the VV symbol is probably the most ubiquitous example of protective charms in the British Isles. The mark invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary, ‘virgin of virgins, mother of Jesus Christ’.
  • Mesh Marks – these are often found etched into secret places in old buildings and functioned as demon traps to ensnare evil spirits in an endless maze.
  • Burn Marks – these were made with a candle or taper as a form of protective magic that aimed to expose timber to a deliberate flame to protect wooden buildings against disastrous blazes of the type that were common in the past.
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