Britain’s historical obsession with witchcraft is well-documented. Some medieval English churches contain prisons specifically for housing witches, and English women have toured the world under the auspices of spreading the teachings of the “Old Ways” of witchcraft as recently as 1964. Further evidence of England’s historical belief in witchcraft can be seen across the country in the form of faint marks etched into the exterior walls of historic buildings or carved into doorways.
These marks are known as “witches’ marks” or, more technically, apotropaic marks, and were a common sight throughout England from the 16th century to around the 19th century. Now, England’s public historical body, Historic England, has asked for the British public’s help in hunting down and cataloguing these relics of a more mysterious time.
According to Nick Molyneux, Historic England’s historic buildings inspector, the marks went out of style roughly around the same time that indoor lighting rid the human imagination of many of the bad things that once went bump in the night:
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.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, believes the witches’ marks might be able to teach us about the beliefs and values of the English people of the past:
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. Ritual marks were cut, scratched or carved into our ancestors’ homes and churches in the hope of making the world a safer, less hostile place.
The most common witches’ mark is the hexafoil, or six-sided flower. The hoop surrounding them is believed to confuse spirits, who get lost in the endless line of the circle. A more recent iteration of the witches mark is the powerful magic talisman known as the Burglar Alarm Sign, placed in front of suburban homes in an attempt to keep evil-doers away.