Historic England needs our help! The historical society has turned to the public on this very spooky day to ask them to keep an eye out for “witch marks,” symbols carved into wood and stone to protect houses from witches and their demonic crafts.
The Guardian reports that churches have largely kept careful records of their witch marks, or Apotropaic (from the Greek word for “averting evil”) marks, but most secular homes do not. Why? Because they’re so darn common you probably haven’t even noticed them. If you live in England in an ancient manor house, that is.
Even Shakespeare’s home on Stratford-upon-Avon has one of the daisy-chain carvings, likely from when the house became a pub and the mark was used to keep witches from turning the beer sour. Historic England’s buildings inspector, Nick Molyneux, says the push isn’t just a festive tie-in for the season. They want that sweet, sweet data:
“Basically the marks have been recorded where people have taken the trouble to go and look for them.... We just don’t have enough data to say whether they are more concentrated in certain parts of the country, or whether patterns are regional, so these are questions we would really like help in answering.”
It looks like people have been documenting their alleged witch marks on social media for awhile. Most frequently noticed are the elaborate loops, called a hexafoil, which supposedly confused spirits trying to follow the tangled lines.
But there are also lots of random marks carved on doorways, windows and fireplaces, like an intertwined V and M for Virgin Mary, or AM for Ave Maria, or just M for Mary or VV for Virgin of Virgins. Mary had a lot of work to do most nights, apparently.
Chief Executive of Historic England, Duncan Wilson, said in a statement:
Witches’ marks are a physical reminder of how our ancestors saw the world. They really fire the imagination and can teach us about previously-held beliefs and common rituals.
They were such a common part of everyday life that they were unremarkable and because they are easy to overlook, the recorded evidence we hold about where they appear and what form they take is thin. We now need the public’s help to create a fuller record of them and better understand them.
Molyneux says that the marks seem to have become less common as people essentially had less reason to be afraid of the dark: “More efficient oil lamps in the 19th century seem finally to have banished witches. We see them from the 16th century on, often in buildings already centuries old, but there could well be earlier and later marks that just haven’t been recorded.”
One reason it might also be difficult to collect data on Apotropaic marks is simply that people love scratching symbols into everything:
The true spirit of mischief is embodied by defacing private property. Happy Halloween!