Apotropaic magic is more common than you think
I saw an article recently which I found quite interesting. So much so that I have been researching the topic ever since. It seems that quite a lot of houses in Britain and across Europe were making unusual discoveries during renovations. Upon further research, the same has been found in houses here in Australia. A worldwide phenomena it seems of finding shoes, children’s toys and clothes in the walls of an old home. What would prompt someone to store these items in the walls of their home? One word …….. Witches. These items were put in the walls to ward of witches. I found this a fascinating topic that I had to investigate further. What I found is that it is a form of apotropaic magic that pretty much every single person has practised in some way.
What is Apotropaic magic
Apotropaic magic or Apotropaism is basically the use of a magic ritual against an evil or harmful influence which was thought to cause harm, injury or bad luck. It can be as simple as wearing an amulet or it can be quite a complex long ritual. When you think about it, this covers a pretty broad area and at some point we have either worn something or even done some sort of ritual (usually passed down through the family) that protects us from evil. As an example, I know friends of European decent where it was custom for them when moving into a new house to display a blue eye known as a Nazar (which is the Evil Eye). They tell me it is good luck for them to have it in their house because it wards off evil and keeps them safe from harm. When you ask them why they do it, they tell you it is just what we do, our family has always done it. This custom is the perfect example of Apotropaic magic.
Why was everyone so scared of witches?
Back as early as a century ago, medicine was not what it is today. It was unfortunately quite common for illness to strike down an otherwise healthy person. It was very common for children to pass away of illness. In fact it was not unheard of for a family to have suffered the loss of several children. I know when I research back into my family tree when we reach the 1800’s there were a lot of children in the family that died. If a child or two died, it was seen at the time by the family as bad luck and superstition came into play. People believed back then that spirits and witches entered a house through a chimney to spread evil and misfortune. By placing these objects in the chimney which were items that belonged to the family members of the house (such as their shoes) it worked like an armoury to help defend themselves against this evil. When we look back at a lot of old literature we can see that people were very religious compared to today and we know this to be true. Any misfortune and that which they did not understand was considered to be work of the devil. Look at the stories like the Devil of Glenluce. Anything that was negative was considered evil and had to be the work of witches or the devil himself. It wasn't just witches that people were afraid of. Every culture had some sort of evil that it felt it needed protection against. Some of the most well known symbols today are that of apotropaic magic and they all have the one thing in common. They were used to ward off some sort of evil.
Well known apotropaic symbols
In Egypt deities were invoked usuing a ritual which would protect the caster frim evil spirits. They were performed in people’s houses (not in the temples) and the two most common gods who were invoked in this ritual were Taweret the hippopotamusiform fertility goddess and the lion demon Bed. An ivory apotropaic wand was use to protect pregnant women and children and protection amulets were worn.
In Ancient Greece the symbol of the Gorgon is commonly used. The symbol of the evil eye probably one of the most well know apotropaic symbols was used as well in the form of a drinking cup. The evil eye itself is used quite commonly in jewellery where the wearer is protected by evil spirits.
You will noticed that over the doorways on churches and castles there are items like gargoyles or other weird animal and sometime alien like beings are displayed. A popular 12th century item was the Sheela na gig which were carved in the stone to frighten away the witches and any malevolent spirits. People would even carve a drawing of these items in the woodwork to their chimney (because it was easy to do on the wood beam) again to repel the witches.
Mirrors and other shiny object were used as well as they were thought to deflect the evil eye. People would hang what were called ‘witch balls’ in their windows which were shiny glass ornaments almost like Christmas baubles as they were said to ward of witches. Items like crosses, crucifixes, silver bullets, garlic were thought to ward off vampires and werewolves who at the time were considered a genuine threat. There are obviously quite a lot of different symbols and a lot that you can look into, and I encourage you to do that because it really is quite interesting.
They are not good luck charms
It is important to separate the difference between a protect amulet or item which uses apotropaic magic and an item that is a good luck charm. The difference of course being that an apotropaic item is used to protect the wearer or the person casting the ritual. A good luck charm or token (such as giving someone a horseshoe at their wedding) is to bring them good luck.
So the next time you wear a piece of jewellery or hang something in your house for protection, look into why you are doing it. Is it a family tradition that your family has just always done? Maybe ask your relatives about it and it’s origins. There is nothing more fascinating than our own history. Sometimes we just do things because we have always done them. For example we may display the eye in our home for protection because our parents did it. Ask them about it and find out the roots of the custom. You may find it quite fascinating, especially when your own family is involved.
What customs do you and your family do to ward off evil?
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