Original publish date: July 14, 2010
In the spirit of the approaching Halloween season, I’d like to share a story with you that combines many of the elements that peak my curiosity and fuel my passion for history and folklore. Recently, transplanted British antique dealer and collector Rick McMullen traveled back to his motherland in search of merchandise to sell in his shop or add to his home, which he describes as “virtually architecturally antique.”
Rick journeyed to an antique fair near Lincolnshire County in the Midlands of Great Britain where he found a curious large hand-carved oak panel. The 200 pound panel stood over 7 feet tall and was over 4 feet wide and was made in the “Carolean” style dating to sometime in the 1600’s. He had the panel shipped back to the states along with a Gothic-Victorian Era staircase and a 16th century oak timber frame with the intentions of incorporating all of them into his Virginia home.
However, it was that panel that made Rick’s mind race. What was it? What would he do with it? Where did it come from? When Rick’s wife saw the panel, she thought it might make a good headboard for a bed, but Rick quickly nixed that idea. Instead, the panel was set aside for future consideration while ongoing remodeling projects took precedence. There it would rest in peace until one fateful October evening when Rick was watching the history Channel and he saw something that seemed “hauntingly” familiar.
He was watching a documentary about witches and soon a segment flashed across the screen that told about the superstitious markings made by ancient people used to ward off witchcraft. The program talked about an English estate called “Kew Palace”, built in 1631. The owners were particularly superstitious, and believed that evil influences or witches could enter the house disguised as cats or frogs and cast spells on people while they slept. To ward this off, the original carpenters who made the roof carved special secret signs near windows, doors, fireplaces and other vulnerable places, to protect themselves from evil. ( Other ways of protecting a house included hiding old shoes, mummified cats and kittens under the floorboards, or ‘urine bottles’ filled with hair and nail-clippings in special, secret cavities.)
Rick immediately realized that he’d seen these very same markings before but couldn’t remember where. He searched his home and inventory looking for something that might jog his memory. He was about to give up when it came to him. It was the panel.
He turned the panel around and discovered about 40 hand carved figures and markings. These hand-cut marks varied in design and structure from interlaced V’s that more closely resemble fancy old English W’s to numerour carved daisy wheels. McMullen learned that these marks were called “ritual marks” or “apotropais”, a Greek word meaning “Intended to ward off evil” and were an important part of the folklore of Great Britain from the 15th to the 17th centuries. They were designed to keep witches, evil spirits and things that go bump in the night out of the home.
Among the Ancient Greeks the doorways and windows of buildings were felt to be particularly vulnerable to evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures would be carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Those other openings, fireplaces or chimneys, may also have been carved. Rather than figural carvings, these seem to have been random simple geometric or letter carvings.
Contrary to what you may think, these ritual marks were not displayed prominently in the British Isles. It might make sense to put them over doors and above windows, but they were most often secreted away in hidden places to prevent a witch seeing and combating them. There is evidence of these “witches signs” appearing in churches, homes and other stone buildings all over the British Isles dating back to the late Medieval, Jacobean and Carolean Eras.
Rick has no idea where the panel originally came from but he suspects that the symbols were cut into the item by the resident family before being affixed as a softening decoration to an ancient stone wall. That way the marks would be unseen by the casual observer, presumed witch or evil spirit, but still provide protection for the family at the same time. Rick quickly discovered that there has been little formal study of these “witches signs” and historians have offered little support to his theories, choosing instead to dismiss them as silly superstitions.
Rick McMullen surmises that the two sets of deeply carved double V’s invoke the protection of holy Mary, “Virgin os Virgins” and mother of Jesus Christ. He believes that the carved daisy wheels, one of which is 18 inches in diameter, represent the “circle of life” with the petals overlapping each other to effectively become one.
McMullen admits that his theories are based on the scant available research and conjecture on the subject. “It’s quite bizarre,” he says. “But I believe it’s the only one in America…to my knowledge, these ritual marks predate Jamestown (1607, the first English settlement in the United States) and by the 17th century, it’s believed the marks were no longer used.”
However, the tradition can still be found in the often grotesque exaggerated faces carved into pumpkin jack-o-lanterns displayed each Halloween on porches and in windows of houses all over central Indiana. These cute childish symbols of Halloween were originally designed to avert evil and ward off the souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walking the earth at that time. Today, carved pumpkins are considered to be a wholesome part of the Halloween season shared by children and their parents in kitchens all over the state. A far cry from the origin of the mysterious ancient cravings known as “witch marks.”