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Witches’ marks - ritual protection symbols or apotropaic marks - have been found in many historic places, from medieval churches and houses, to barns, and caves.
The word 'apotropaic' comes from the Greek word for averting evil. The marks were usually scribed onto stone or woodwork near a building’s entrance points, particularly doorways, windows and fireplaces, to protect inhabitants and visitors from witches and evil spirits.
They date back to times when belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was widespread. Magical symbols and ritual objects were a common part of life from around the 16th to the early 19th century.
A common type of apotropaic mark is known as a daisy wheel, though most research in this field describes these marks as hexafoils.
These six-lobed ‘flower’ patterns vary considerably in size. According to the responses we had from the public, the hexafoil was by far the most commonly occurring mark. They are certainly the most easily recognisable.
The origins of the symbol can be traced back into antiquity. They have been found in English buildings from the early medieval period, up into the 19th century.
The purpose of hexafoils is disputed. For example, the world of Wicca, which is a contemporary Pagan religious movement, sees them as sun motifs. Another school of thought suggests they are purely secular and could be geometric exercises for apprentices - they certainly do appear as geometry exercises or in manuals. However, their interpretation as a ritual protection mark is the most widely accepted theory at present.
They are found extensively on churches in the form of graffiti, and also occasionally in the designs on portable and not so portable medieval objects, for example chests and heavy stone fonts to name but two.
They have also been spotted in barns once used to store grain, often around the door openings. They appear on the stonework of some of the grandest barns, such as the 15th century barn at Bradford upon Avon, Wiltshire (now in the care of English Heritage), and on the doorway of the barn at Middle Littleton, Worcestershire (a National Trust property).
Beyond barns, hexafoils have been identified in many timber-framed buildings across the country and indeed many of the responses we had to our call out for examples from across England came from historic houses.
A few examples were submitted of daisy wheels on furniture dating from the 17th to the 19th century when it becomes more difficult to interpret their meaning: does a hexafoil on a piece of furniture have a ritual meaning or is it simply a decorative mark? This is a matter which would benefit from further research.
If you're visiting historic listed buildings, keep your eyes open for witches' marks and add your photos to the Missing Pieces Project.
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