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Warding off evil with witch marks

The superstitious mark in one of the ceiling timbers in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
The superstitious mark in one of the ceiling timbers in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Etched on the walls of many of the houses, barns and buildings that we care for are symbols known as witch marks or apotropaic marks. Discover why these marks were added to buildings and what they mean.

What are witch marks?

Despite their name, witch marks have very little to do with witches or witchcraft. The markings are believed to have turned away evil, providing protection to the building and those who lived or worked within it. The evil that was being ‘turned away’ may have been demons, witches or the then ever-present evil eye.

Witch marks are also referred to as ritual protection marks or apotropaic markings.  The word apotropaic comes from the Greek word apotropaios which is translated as turning away (evil).

A quote by Rachael HallNational Trust Consultancy Manager and Archaeologist

Where can you find witch marks?

Witch marks can be found in all types of buildings from barns and cottages to grand country houses to churches. The markings can also be found on furniture, gravestones and in caves such as Reynard’s Kitchen Cave in Dovedale.

Markings are usually found next to windows, doorways and fireplaces in buildings. These draughty locations were the most vulnerable and potential entrance points for demons, witches and evil spirits. The witch marks were etched into stone, plaster and woodwork.

Types of witch mark and protection symbols

Protection marks include daisy wheels, overlapping Vs, the Auseklis cross and consecration crosses. Other types of marks appear as pentagons, mazes, crosses and diagonal lines. Meanwhile deliberate burn marks found on wooden beams, were thought to protect a building against fire.

Historical graffiti on a wall at Belton House showing a post mill and octogram shapes known as auseklis crosses in Lincolnshire.
Auseklis crosses at Belton House, Lincolnshire | © National Trust/Janet Roworth, Belton Research Group

The Auseklis Cross

This rare protection sign more commonly found in Eastern Europe, can be seen in the stable block at Belton in Lincolnshire. It's seen as a ‘sky’ symbol, associated with stars and night time, and regarded as one of the most powerful symbols for driving away evil spirits. It was believed that the stars brought light to banish the darkness.

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Dating protection marks

Although many of the symbols associated with witch marks date back to much earlier times, the great majority are found in buildings dating from the medieval period through to the early nineteenth century. This was a time when belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was widespread and the use of magical symbols and ritual objects was part of everyday life.

Other forms of protection from evil were charms and ritual concealments. Often shoes, dolls, cats and witch bottles are found hidden away within buildings.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire

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