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Halloween hunt for the witch carvings of England

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People in England are being asked to go on a witch-hunt — not for modern-day witches but for ancient carvings that were supposed to ward them off.

Historic England, a government body tasked with protecting the historic environment of England, is calling for help in finding these so-called apotropaic marks and start a comprehensive record of where they can be found.

It says they have never been fully recorded and want searchers to share their pictures and information about the locations.

These spooky scratchings date back to times when witchcraft and beliefs in the supernatural were more common, and many date from the 16th century onwards.

The meaning of apotropaic comes from the Greek for averting evil. The marks are usually found carved into stone or wood, usually near entrances, doors, windows and fireplaces. Their purpose was to supposedly protect inhabitants and visitors from witches and evil spirits.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England said in a statement: “These 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.

‘Thousands falsely accused’

“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.”

Historic England explains on its website that witchcraft was made a capital offense in 1563.

“This led to thousands of people, mostly women, being falsely accused, forced to confess under torture and punished,” it says.

“One of the most famous witch trials in British history is that of the Pendle witches in 1612, where 12 ‘witches’ who lived around Pendle Hill, mostly women, were charged with the murders of 10 people using witchcraft. One of the accused died in custody, another was found not guilty and the other ten were found guilty and hanged.”

Dead cats used

Professor Ronald Hutton, an expert on ancient and medieval paganism at Bristol University, said “fear of magic had been around since pre-history” and that it grew out of a lack of understanding of misfortune and illness.

He explained that people would put up charms, objects and markings in the hope of protecting themselves.

“These objects could be amulets, plants and even dead cats. It was believed that a dead cat spirit might hunt down supernatural enemies,” he said.

“The fact there are so many marks — they are really common — show a real fear of magic. It looks as if they are everywhere.”

The marks take up many different forms. The most common is a daisy wheel, or hexafoil which, in its simplest form, is a six petal flower design. These are formed by using a single endless line which is supposed to confuse and entrap evil spirits, according to Historic England

Top sites are churches, old houses and barns

But there are other types of apotropaic marks. Pentangles, five-pointed stars, the letters AM for Ave Maria, M for Mary or even VV for Virgin of Virgins, are also common versions.

The most likely place to find these witch marks are on medieval houses, churches and barns dating from the 16th century to the18th century.

Some have been recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of England’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare. He notably gave witches a key role in one of his most famous plays, “Macbeth.”

Other apotropaic marks have been found at Witch’s Chimney in Wookey Hole in Somerset, and in the three English counties of Sussex, Wiltshire and Norfolk.

Perhaps at Halloween you too will be able to find some previously undiscovered spooky signs.