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When Shakespeare plays are performed on stage and the magic of witches dazzles us with lights, smoke, and mirrors, it’s easy to think these spells and incantations are just folklore, designed to be nothing more than a theater spectacle. Archaeological evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, indicates that when Shakespeare had the Second witch in Macbeth declare “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble” these items being listed in connection with a witches brew were more than just ingredients for a nasty smelling soup. Charms, and real life objects imbued with spells and magic were believed to be capable of causing not just harm but very real “double double toil and trouble.” To combat the evil spirits, and the rampant working of witches in the 16th century, your average man or woman in London would hide countermagic items such as witch bottles, cats, shoes, and even horse skulls in the walls of their home as good luck against very real evil spirits. Our guest this week is an expert in these charms, having written the journal article, The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic in which he set out to find the various surviving counter magic artifacts in the UK and cataloged a list of not only what kinds of items were kept to ward off evil like witches, but also where they were kept, and why. Here to share his findings with us and explain the details behind a few of the counter magic artifacts from Shakespeare’s lifetime, is our guest, Brian Hoggard.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Brian Hoggard about:
Brian’s writes that when it comes to material evidence, “it seems that the decline of magic was a slow and long-drawn-out affair.” Brian, working backwards from the decline of magic to the life of William Shakespeare, was his lifetime a hey-day for the presence of magic?
What was the correct method of using a witch bottle so as to ward of the spell of a witch?
Another object thought to ward off evil spirits is that of dried cats. Brian’s work draws attention to the fact that there is a controversy of sorts concerning the dried cats concealed in walls from Shakespeare’s lifetime, because many scholars contest that the animal could have simply crawled into the tight space and died there accidentally. Brian, what has your research uncovered in the archaeological record to address the objection of cats accidentally dying in the walls of Tudor homes?
Brian Hoggard has been studying history, archaeology and folk beliefs since his teens. His undergraduate dissertation focused on folk beliefs and witchcraft he noticed there was a huge amount of work which could be done to further explore the archaeology of witchcraft. At that point – back in 1999 – his research really escalated into a major project which has culminated in the publication of Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft (Berghahn 2019).
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I see these witches are afraid of swords.
Charms to Frighten Witches
Date from the 17th century, bellamine witch bottle. Cardinal Bellamine. Big roundbelly, bearing a coat of arms, in the design of a flower, stout neck with a grimacing face on it (Cardinal Bellamine was much hated at the time). Began in the third course of the 17th century, tpyicaly contained urine, bent nails, pins, and hair.The idea behind using a witch bottle and urinating in it specifically was because the Elizabethan belief thought that being bewitched meant some of the witch who cast that spell on you was residing inside of you. Brian explains why there were multiple approaches to how to use a witch bottle, including boiling one over a hot fire:
Boiling up a witch bottle, pseudoscientific practice, if you were bewitched, there was some of hte witch inside you, so if you urinated in the bottle, some of the witch was in the bottle–boiling with pins and nails would cause pain to the witch. The idea was that the witch would come running. Buried ones contain different artifacst. Buried ones contain bent nails and hair, not usually in boiling bottles.Whether you were persecuting the witch by stabbing her in a similar to voodoo practice way through pins and needles in the bottle, or you used pain of boiling water, the idea was to capture some of the witch in the bottle and then run her off by inflicting pain.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull’d
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.
An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. Unknown artist. Public Domain. Source
Another object thought to ward off evil spirits is that of dried cats. Brian’s work draws attention to the fact that there is a controversy of sorts concerning the dried cats concealed in walls from Shakespeare’s lifetime, because many scholars contest that the animal could have simply crawled into the tight space and died there accidentally. Brian’s research into the archaeological record addresses this objection directly, providing evidence that the cats were, indeed, placed in the walls of homes on purpose and specifically to ward off evil spirits.
Brian explains that in one archaeological find,
Cats [were] attached to timbers–one example of a cat tied with wires to the floor joists of a house. Deliberaately put there. He himself found a cat that was compressed, there was no entry way, no exit point, owners and builders in the thatchery involved all convinced it was intentional interment of the cat. Another example of a cat being welded ot the tiles by plaster. Claw marks in the cavity where the cat was found, showing it was trapped there.
Of course I asked Brian, “Why cats?” as it seems so counter cultural for today’s mindset. What was it in ELizabethan England that made cats the source of protection against wtiches? Brian explains that proximity, and large lack of affection overall, may have played a role.
[Cats were considered a] witches familiar, [used to] ward off a spell, and cats were hugely more prevalent (lack of spaying and neutering) cats were prolific and seen as a problem more than a pet. Not so much love lost in killing them for this purpose.
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To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Horse Skulls under the Floor
Across England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, animal bones, and specifically horse skulls, have been found concealed inside homes dating back to pre-1700s. Brian writes that “in Herefordshire at an inn called the Portway in Staunton-on-Wye at least twenty-four horse skulls were found screwed to the underside of the floor where they were reputed ‘to make the fiddle go better’.” It is impressive to think a single horse skull has been affixed to the inside of someone’s home but 24 horse skulls is a great many horses to have dispatched for this purpose. Brian explains that the purpose behind horse skulls in the floor boards may have been two fold.
There were what’s known as Knacker’s Yards available in Shakespeare’s England where horses were butchered. This particular industry lead to a surplus of horse heads and skulls which were often used for placing beneath floor boards. Yet, why 24? Brian explains,
Multiplying the benefit of having one skull by having 24. Seems to be that when we find these skulls, and ask what was the purpose, people do say it was to improve the music.
There are some historical accounts that confirm the usefulness of horse skulls in the floor to improve the acoustic quality of an establishment, but Brian suspects there was superstition to blame, concluding that when it came to the argument that horse skulls inproved the music Brian thinks it’s more likely that declartion was:
Passing off the presence of a superstitious object in your home. If you’re walking around with a horse skull you’re looking to put in your home, “to improve the music” was a better answer than “to ward off evil”
The ringleader and head of all this rout,
Have practised dangerously against your state,
Dealing with witches and with conjurers:
Whom we have apprehended in the fact;
Raising up wicked spirits from under ground,
Traditional stone fireplace in northern England. The carved St. Andrew’s cross in the left hand wooden post was to prevent witches from flying down the chimney. Witch post, Stang End Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum, York. Photo by Lee Hadden, CCASA3.0, Source
In addition to cats and horse skulls, old shoes were popular to bury in the walls or floorboards of one’s home to ward off evil spirits. The shoes, though, instead of being used to scare away evil spirits were something of a decoy. Apparently, some of your essence would transfer to the shoe as a wearer of it (shoes in general being much more personal and individually crafted items then than they are today) so that if you put one in your home, should an evil spirit come after you they might get distracted by the old shoe and attack it, missing you. Brian explains,
Generally speaking, the odd shoes, there are some closer to 90%, some pairs, but generally it’s just an old, worn, odd shoe, and sometimes there’s lots of odd shoes all together in big deposits. What we’ve got there, by the time you are ready to discard your shoe, it’s unique to your foot. If you had bunions or corns, you had your shoes adjusted for your foot ailments, and because they were expensive ot have made, they were an artisan/craft item that was repaired and repaired until it couldn’t be repaired anymore making it specific to the person wearing it (similar ot the Cinderellas story).
If your shoe was concealed in the home, this evil energy might be gooled into thinkingthe shoe was you instead of you, and become trapped in the shoe. Some folklore suggest that evil enegry can’t travel backwards, so if tyhery go into something, they can’t come back out again. John Sean, unofficial saint, second most popular pilgrimage site, cast the devil into a boot. Trap evil in a boot. Commonly distributed in England from the early 14th c for about 250years. Huge pilgrim badges showing the devil in aboot. This idea was visually communicated to huge numbers of people.
Additional tools to ward off evil included daisy chains, hex foils, or hiring someone to write a powerful charm for you.
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