Erin Horáková

The Charming Home

ISSUE 88 | MAGIC | JUL 2018

J. Wortley Axe, equid skulls, 1905

The history of human habitation in Britain is simultaneously a history of domestic charms. For over a millennium, marks, architectural decoration, and hidden objects worked together to enrich homes and to protect them from both quotidian and exceptional threats. Charms were installed during the building process and maintained and refreshed throughout a structure’s habitation, thus marking out the shared communal life of a home, which usually outlasted the family that had built it. These approaches rely in turns on display and secrecy, thus revealing the seeming contradictions at the heart of domestic magic. “Charm,” in the many senses of the term, is best understood as a network of related phenomena, all of which draw strength from a series of binary oppositions: threat and comfort, public and private, cajoling seduction and violent force. Attempting to reconcile these contrasts is impossible, but more than that, it’s beside the point. Charm is a series of practices, affects, and relations generated by playing with and traveling between such antitheses, a way of negotiating oppositions and a mode of working in the world, expressed in magic, literature, and interaction. In looking into the history and governing logics of domestic magic, we gain valuable insights into the lived experience of people in the past. More than that, we begin to apprehend key aspects of the world we occupy today, and our own behaviors, both of which are still shaped by this inheritance.

Making magical symbols is a form of marking territory, but we shouldn’t necessarily understand this as a boastful or aggressive act, and what there is of boasting may simply be the forced bravado of David standing against Goliath. We think of magic as unbridled, wild, and anti-social, but for medieval and early modern people charms could be viewed as a means of domestication. Domestic magic was a significant part of what made a building a civilized communal space distinct from wilderness—what made a house a home. James Wright reminds us that “during the medieval and early modern periods, graffiti was not necessarily a transgressive act. It was a physical rendering of the psychological experience expressing the hopes, fears and desires of ordinary people.”1 If you were uneasy, troubled, or simply being prudent, making a graphic charm was a practical response to possible threats or difficulties as well as an act of self-soothing. People carved out, sometimes quite literally, a place of safety for themselves. We find Marian symbols scrawled in bedrooms intended for kings and servants alike, as well as in dark caves. According to Wright, the owners of high-status homes like the Queen’s House at the Tower of London and the King’s Tower at Knole, Kent, piled on the pentagrams and other protective marks.2 More was more, as with charms on a bracelet, and besides, different sorts of marks all ‘worked’ slightly differently.

Mesh patterns acted as demon traps intended to create an endless line which would arouse the curiosity of the evil spirit, leading it to want to find the end of the line—thus becoming trapped by the grid, which literally pinned the malefactor to the wall. Compass-drawn designs, such as the hexfoil or triskele, also relate to the unbroken line which an evil spirit could not pass. The hexfoil is a very ancient symbol which can be found dating back at least 2,000 years, and although its Christian ecclesiastical use seems to have died out in the late medieval period, continuity occurred in domestic settings.3

You could take care of matters yourself by creating a mesh, compass, or angle-point, which would trap those who sought to harm you, or you could elliptically identify and draw the attention of a powerful protector. M or double-v Marian symbols, or “witchmarks,” were cut into timbers at Kew Palace “in the positions near the potential points of danger, the door and window entry points,” along with eye and sun symbols, “to keep witches from flying in at the window or down the chimney.”4 The v-v may have been derived from a very popular prayer that suggested “flying to the virgin of virgins” for safety. Witchmarks were both common and enduring, surviving even the downfall of an officially sanctioned Marian cult.5 Inhabitants also deliberately burned magically significant marks into timbers—modern attempts to recreate these have proved them to be far too difficult to make and too strategically placed to possibly be accidental.

In some cases, the markings were part of a premeditated security plan, installed by the builders with the knowledge and consent of, and possibly even at the behest of, the owners. When a wealthy lord sought to curry King James I’s favor by building a comfortable modern retreat for him, he didn’t feel it would be complete or comfortable and welcoming (and doesn’t a place’s being “charming” rely on such qualities?) without obvious, visible protection marks in place. “It seems that ritual protection was added by the carpenters in a planned system on-site under orders from Sackville’s master carpenter Matthew Banks. The marks created a zone of protection between the fireplaces and beds of the two chambers.”6 It wasn’t a room fit for a king, especially one as famously interested in witchcraft as James I, without such provisions for his safety.

Protective marks on buildings could take on a sculptural “dimension,” if you will (sorry). Writing about external English protective charms, John Billingsley draws our attention to the two heads that top a particular home’s main door. One is the sort of handsome head we might expect to see, styled in then-contemporary fashions. The other, below it, is a luck-charm. This “apotropaic,” functional carving is what Billingsley calls “the archaic head”: a flat, almond-eyed, goblinish approximation of a human face that looks like nothing so much as what’s left of the flesh after a crude accidental mummification by the elements. Who’s to say that wasn’t its original inspiration?

Billingsley has found these goblinish heads across a wide geographic and temporal range; appropriately, the ”archaic head” has its roots in prehistory. The upper head

is more attractive in itself, and hence it is a decorative addition. It is also the kind of face we might very well happen to see on an individual in the street, which cannot generally be said of the archaic type of face.… Folklore and tradition seem to prefer their protective heads to be anything but realistic.

Perhaps it’s unfair to call only the archaic head functional: the ”classical” head was meant to impress this family’s new wealth and status on their community, and thus to shore up both. The archaic head, however, was charged with the serious business of protecting that wealth and status from their community, as well as from unforeseen chances and supernatural forces. Like evidence of conspicuous consumption paired with a sign warning passers-by that a property is monitored by CCTV, both heads were meant to be seen. Part of how this magic is supposed to work is that you see the archaic head, and the archaic head sees you.

Charm has affinities with both display and coy secrecy, existing in the slippery negotiation between them. The lucky or protective archaic head was visible. Grapheme charms were concealed within the home and in private rooms. They were comfortingly present for their users and beneficiaries but hidden from ”the opposition” and outsiders generally. Yet many domestic charm objects were fully concealed after their initial installation. British homes, from at least the medieval period up until the 20th century, were often protected not just by charm marks on the lintels but also by horse skulls in the hearth, mummified cats in the walls, and witchbottles in the attic.

We broadly know, at least via the distorted lens of more contemporary folklore in an admittedly imperfect Finnish analogue (which will have to suffice, extensive surveys being hard to come by), what people installed the concealed objects to do.The most common reason for making such deposits

(in 35% of the accounts including such information) is protection against some sort of evil (so-called apotropaic practices). Moreover, the evil is most often specified as witchcraft caused by envious neighbours. The second most common reason (31%) for concealment is a more general wish to make the building ”lucky” and the third is repelling pests (15%). Other reasons that occur in smaller percentages are, for example, malignant magic, offering to a guardian spirit, and counter-magic against witchcraft believed to have already occurred. Study of Finnish folklore also reveals that specific meanings are connected to specific types of objects and their chosen location. Concealments of mercury in threshold contexts especially have a very strong correlation with apotropaic practices, while animal remains in hearth contexts are strongly connected with pest-repelling meanings. [In] the British Isles, there seems to be a consensus that apotropaic meanings are prominent here as well.7

But why hide all these charm objects, especially when the wish to avoid being bewitched was universal and taken quite seriously? Why not keep your horse skull on the mantel so anyone or anything peering through the window can see you’re insured and decide to magically sod off? It seems magic was somehow marginal even when it was omnipresent. Perhaps it’s simply the Anglo-Saxon connection between magical secrecy and potency, derived from Scandinavian sources that also underlie Finnish practice. There’s a notion of strategy about it, like not quite knowing the contents of an opponent’s hand at cards. And there’s still palpable mystery and power in a thing’s being hidden. We still half believe that telling someone the wish you made on a star or when blowing out birthday candles will spoil it, yet the annual ritual of private wishing is intrinsically public.

Like graphic charms, hidden magical objects were a major part of domestic arrangements. A heap of rubbish in a bend in the chimney flue, composed of household waste, could be as valuable in terms of keeping out supernatural intruders as a lock was in preventing more mundane ones from entering. “The purpose of this type of deposit—known as a spiritual midden and invariably associated with chimneys—appears to be related to the fear of conflagration, which was often blamed on malevolent forces.” Middens protected “the house by diverting the evil forces from the hearth and into the deposit by the presence of so many well-used domestic artefacts within. Once inside it was presumably believed that the evil spirit became trapped.”8 These forces might want to consume flesh, or they might seek specifically to harm the particular inhabitants—in which case either animal bones or objects members of the household had used so well they could no longer repair them, which thus ought to be very imbued with their owners’ essences, were thought to prove a suitable diversion. It's not just that middens were quite purposefully created. People’s relationships to and use of their possessions were inflected by those objects’ potential afterlife, or second-phase of use.

Witchbottles, which function somewhat similarly, seem to be unique to Britain. No examples have ever been found outside the Isles. These vaguely human-shaped vessels were filled with some bodily byproduct of their maker and broken pins or the like, then buried or concealed, often in a chimney. They were made to snag professional wielders of ill-will and cause them pain in return for the pain they were attempting to cause their victims.

These tricks and strategies imply a somewhat confused idea of the intelligence of malevolent forces. Were they the blunt energies of a supernatural practitioner, pushed out into the world with legalistic instructions would-be victims could cheat, or were they perhaps familiars or demons, endowed with sufficient agency to hunt down members of the household, following their scent or lingering metaphysical traces on former possessions? If the latter, how could they be deceived so easily and trapped so thoroughly? The logic behind protection magic is seldom straightforward or neatly resoluble.

In addition to protection magic employed in order to produce given effects, some homes or families also possessed “lucks,” or family amulets. These weren’t really lucky charms, though they could sometimes function in that capacity. They were proofs of status, objects to pin explanations for historical turns on, and, looked at in another light, burdens, curses, and dire portents:

A luck is an object that must not be moved, broken, or destroyed, for fear of dreadful consequences. Deprived of its favorite plaything, [a household] ghost will turn sour; the nameless something locked in a bottle will burst free; the fairy charm that protects the house will be broken along with its fragile glass; and the former owner of a skull will return to shrieking life. Now at first view these lucks seem to be very similar to ritually concealed deposits. In both cases we are dealing with the same sort of things—vessels, weapons, bodily remains and so on, which are carefully secreted about the house. But when examined more closely, they turn out to have a very different magical character.9

You installed or performed domestic magic to protect yourself, but a luck came or happened to you and could, if crossed, just as easily destroy a house as safeguard it. This forcefully reminds me of Frazer’s comment in The Golden Bough that a taboo is the inverse of a charm.10 The canny, heimlich, and houselike (as well as crafty) and the uncanny, unheimlich, and un-houselike, as Freud suggests, are intimately connected, actively construct one another, and are always in danger of slipping into one another.

Since we stopped “charming,” our reactions to now-estranged customs that have in some form helped define Britain since long before “Britain” was even a concept have varied. According to Brian Hoggard, (formerly) hidden household charm objects fare indifferently when inhabitants discover them in the course of moving and rebuilding. “Many objects end up in the builder’s skip or for sale on the black market.… One independent museum I visited had a box of old shoes and fragments of bellarmines [witchbottles] which people had brought in—but they had not recorded the address of the properties, the context of the objects within the building, or even the name of the finder.”11

Many museums are of course strapped for resources, but why is the museology horrorshow Hoggard encountered, in his own words, “not entirely unusual”? Charms once gave definition to life in Britain and offered comfort; now we make a hurried effort, strangely in concert with the secrecy attendant on charm practice, to destroy them and even records of them. True, the practice has faded in the last centuries, but it’s odd how marginal and unknown such artefacts are now—how even the archeological study of them exists on the margins of several disciplines, failing to cohere to any degree until the 1987 publication of Ralph Merrifield’s Archeology of Ritual and Magic.

For all this apparent disrespect, Hoggard records new owners of old homes who lack connections to its previous inhabitants’ eerily persistent reactions to the discovery of previously concealed charms:

It's interesting to note that when people today (who, by and large, are not predisposed to fearing dark forces) have a strange experience or find something odd within the walls of their home, their world-view can often dramatically change. Down fall the walls of cynicism and disbelief about the supernatural, and in rushes a sense of vulnerability to supernatural forces. Many times people have asked me for help and advice about what to do with a shoe, a cat, or a witch-bottle which has turned up in their home during some alteration or renovation. The fear and concern they often have about it is palpable. They suddenly become aware of the presence of former occupants and feel a connection to the same fears they had. Usually they are convinced that whatever the object is must be cared for properly and, ideally, not leave the house.
Often (but not always), the type of people who end up living in nice old houses tend to be professional, highly educated people not normally prone to associate themselves with magic and the supernatural. When they discover these objects in their walls or under their floors there is often a distinct and marked change—they suddenly become highly alert and concerned about these topics. It can be argued that this sense of vulnerability and awareness echoes a feeling that was a normal part of the pre-modern psyche and that magical house protection (along with a huge range of other personal charms and edible remedies) was born directly out of it.12

Clearly charms, either because of what they are or due to their startling rediscovery after a long concealment, exercise an imaginative thrall that has outlasted even their magical potency. Being hidden has protected them and given them power to replace some of what they’ve lost as revered magical totems. A charm in a manuscript may be avoided by most people or explained away as a quirky facet of religion or historical exaggeration. But there’s no gentle explication of the mummified cat that falls out on you when you try to remove your chimney during a remodeling sesh. Magical charm deposits intrude on life. Once they were everywhere, and they remain potently present in the way an illegible page does not—in fact their current illegibility only adds to their horror and power for us.

It is viscerally strange to realize that in all likelihood, my own 1862 terrace house—a two-up two-down that once belonged to Croydon factory workers—was almost certainly charmed at some point in its construction. Unless the terrace is demolished (what did people find in the Blitz, I wonder?), I’ll likely never know what’s between its walls. The smattering of broken objects I found while trying to dig up my in-filled, row-end lawn is probably just mid-Victorian garbage, but then it might not be—or at least, not all of it. I’ll never know whether the builders, in a playful or a tradesmanlike fashion, performed a mock horse sacrifice to mark the house’s completion, as we know one such team did for a much later London terrace by pouring ale on a skull. We still live in a charmed world, even if white British people by and large opt out of most of the participation involved in perpetuating that today. Like old houses themselves, feeling that you’re still surrounded by lingering traces of domestic magic, regardless of whether you “believe” in any of it, makes you feel the frail brevity of your allotted hour on the earth and your position as a single bead locked somewhere in the long strand of people who’ve lived in a place. Sometimes it’s healthy to destabilize what E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”—to disrupt our too-easy sense of the present and the ways we occupy the world therein as normative and perpetual.

Edward Lovett, a folklorist who also lived in Croydon, “during his life amassed a huge collection of objects mostly relating to his passion for folklore, charms, amulets, and superstitions.… He acquired a wealth of material from sites such as herbalist shops, the barrows of costermongers, and the city's dockyards, collecting from people neglected by most historians.”13 In 1925, when Lovett published Magic in Modern London, charms were still widely available for sale in poorer areas of London, including those inhabited by rural and foreign migrants to the city. In 2012 the Wellcome Collection, which collaborated with Lovett during his life and hosted an exhibition with him in 1916, once again displayed a part of his collection in their exhibition Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects. All of it was fascinating in the way only an array of neatly organized objects you’ve no personal use for can be (the lure of the stationery shop is as the lure of the abyss), but one item was particularly striking. “Although [Lovett] was himself dismissive of the idea that amulets could work as effective magical objects, he did, poignantly, make his younger son an amulet to wear against the dangers of the front during World War I.” In the face of that danger, you would, wouldn’t you, even if you didn’t believe? What else could you do, against a violent world you didn’t fully understand and couldn’t control? Looked at with any historical perspective, modern Britons are the strange ones—our unsafe homes, our uncharmed lives, our hubris in the face of the world and our refusal to seek such comfort as we can make or beg or borrow.

Yet from another perspective, even the present is rich in modes of relating to the supernatural. Signs and bus-stop businesses cards in London’s immigrant neighborhoods, mine included, still advertise professional purveyors of curses and protection therefrom. The internet and modernity, advances in medicine, world wars, disenchantment, and the nation state have all failed to kill magic in London. Nothing stops the cunning man. He just learns how to intervene when the Home Office is getting you down. Perhaps the secret behind the survival of magic lies in how seductively and totally charm has woven into human material culture and lives—in how difficult the workings of charm, in all its forms, are to ferret out and pin down. Our thoughts, feelings, and social practices exceed our own rationally expressed beliefs, our official narratives. We can never fully reconcile or deny our unconscious, either as individuals or as cultures.


1 “Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early modern houses” Wright, James. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 71-81.

2 “Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early modern houses” Wright, James. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 71-81.

3 “Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early modern houses” Wright, James. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 71-81.

4 “By Midnight, By Moonlight’: Ritual protection marks in caves beneath the Mendip Hills, Somerset”. Wilson, Linda. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 41-51.

5 “By Midnight, By Moonlight’: Ritual protection marks in caves beneath the Mendip Hills, Somerset”. Wilson, Linda. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 41-51.

6 “Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early modern houses” Wright, James. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 71-81.

7 “Same mental idea, different manifestation? Hidden charms in Finland and the British Isles”. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 14-24.

8 “Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early modern houses” Wright, James. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). pp. 71-81.

9 “Luck and dread: How household curiosities become ritual protectors”. Harte, Jeremy. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017). Pp 24-31.

10 Frazer, James George, 1854-1941. The Golden Bough; a Study in Magic and Religion. [New York] :[The Macmillan Company], 1935. Print. PAGE?

11 “Introduction.” Hoggard, Brian. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017) pp. 3–5.

12 “Evidence of unseen forces: Apotropaic objects on the threshold of materiality”. Hoggard, Brian. In Billingsley, John., Harte, Jeremy., and Hoggard, Brian. (eds), Hidden Charms -- Transactions of the Hidden Charms Conference 2016 (Hebden Bridge: Northern Books, 2017) pp. 5-14.


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