By Brian Hoggard. Magical House Protection: the Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft (New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2021. 340 pages) ISBN  9781800730212

Magical House Protection represents nearly 20 years of Brian Hoggard’s dedicated work meticulously recording the physical evidence of counter-magical practices in the British Isles and the US. These are commonly unearthed during renovations and building works in the form of witch-bottles, concealed shoes, dried cats, charms and protection marks. These magical protection systems provide deeply fascinating insights into the fear of supernatural threats haunting Britons mainly before the twentieth century. The volume, which adopts an archaeological methodology, is in two parts. The first describes artefacts in categories of physical evidence, providing an excellent overview of each type of find. The second part contains case studies of magical protection systems combined in buildings and a gazetteer of finds listed by geographical location. This book is an invaluable source for those hoping to study the archaeology of the apotropaic, evidence of deposits or markings deliberately created to ward off potential sources of evil or harm. It contains a wealth of information about these disparate types of magical protection collected together in one volume. It aims to compile the evidence and provide commentary on the troublesome meaning of these artefacts. Hoggard’s long-standing fascination, as demonstrated by his website, has deep roots and a wide level of support from those who notify him of their mysterious finds. His work complements other projects in the field, such as Concealed Revealed, a strand of the Inner Lives project, exploring interior emotional lives between 1300-1900. This paperback, at a more affordable price than the original hardback edition, is a very welcome release.

As Hoggard notes, with the exception of witch-bottles, there is little or no written historical evidence of these physical finds, rendering them even more curious. Hoggard notes that this topic represents a lacuna in the study of historical witchcraft and supernatural belief (p.11) and an elided topic within archaeology.  Like the spiritual middens hidden in the liminal borderlands of roof and chimney spaces, the physical evidence of magical building protection has fallen between the disciplinary cracks of archaeology and history. This topic deserves greater critical attention. This is underlined by a lack of public knowledge, which means builders often discard these objects as old rubbish and museums can overlook their significance. Hoggard’s volume represents an extensive attempt to elucidate these finds, which ‘testify to people’s acute fears regarding witchcraft and other supernatural dangers’, representing ‘an everyday battle with perceived forces of evil which, it was believed, existed all around them’ (p.12). 

Hoggard examines the beliefs and fears of individuals concealing objects, shining a light on this mysterious topic. He notes many objects were concealed in ‘portals’, such as hearths, voids and thresholds, suggesting ‘that people believed it was possible for dark forces to travel through the landscape and attack them in their homes’ (p.13). This was a worldview animated by ghosts, witches, fairies and demons who terrorised people. An uncanny haunted otherworld, with malign supernatural beings and the omni-present threat of supernatural attack. Likewise, Hoggard notes that people who uncover these objects develop a deep curiosity and even ‘experience a deep-rooted emotional response’ (p. 14). These revealed objects re-haunt their surroundings, making an ‘almost visceral connection’ with the motivations and fears of those who initially concealed them (p.14). Cyclical repetition and re-haunting are a central themes of the Gothic, rendering concealed magical protection objects deeply uncanny. Julian Wolfreys in Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature (2002, p.113) highlights the haunting nature of ‘That which Returns’, the ‘manifestation or persistence of the past in the present, though never as a presence as such’. The concealed objects unveil the supernatural fears of the past, playing out the fears of previous occupants in new ways. This critical element might have been further interrogated in Hoggard’s volume.

Hoggard provides suggestions of how such counter-witchcraft devices might have functioned on a spiritual and symbolic level. For instance, the witch-bottles which are often human-shaped bellarmine bottles, filled with urine and sharp objects, act as spiritual counter spells. The bladder-shaped bottle could act with sympathetic magic, causing the witch excruciating pain, thus releasing the victim from their malign curse (p. 42). The pins in these bottles are often found folded, the bottles themselves chipped. Hoggard suggests this represents the ritualistic killing of objects, allowing them to function on a spiritual rather than physical level (p.67). Hoggard also moots that these bottles were deployed as general spiritual traps, concealed under the hearth opening. A demon or evil-spirit entering the chimney ‘would smell its victim and plunge downwards to attack, only to discover it had been fooled and was now trapped inside the belly of a tiny, urine-filled humanoid (the bellarmine) and skewered by the ghosts of dead pins, nails and thorns’ (p.44). Recently in a short video for the BBC’s Animated Thinking series, a humanoid bellarmine jar tells its story from a personal perspective, representing an animism of this stoneware. This is a topic which is deservedly garnering more mainstream interest.  

Similarly, for Hoggard, shoes and other personal items ‘due to their uniqueness to the wearer’ would act as lures or decoys for malevolent forces, causing them to plunge into voids, becoming trapped on jagged spikes and sharp traps (p. 51). Shoes can also be connected to the Buckinghamshire rector John Schorne, who cast the devil into a boot; the footwear acting as a spiritual container. Likewise, dolls might ‘lure harmful energies towards them instead of the children to whom they belonged’ (p. 127). More eerily dried cats, as well as being a foundation sacrifice, might ‘act almost like a gargoyle or guardian, warning away spiritual foes such as the witch’s familiar’ (p. 58). These familiar objects are deeply uncanny as they are found claustrophobically trapped in dark places and they represent a very different new function. We cannot be exactly sure why they were there, or what their meaning is. Wolfreys (2002, x) argues that ‘spectrality appears in a gap between the limits of two ontological categories’, which can be ‘between life and death, though neither alive nor dead.’ Concealed objects can be viewed to sit between life and death, as spectres of past beliefs. There is much critical scope to explore the cultural position of concealed counter-witchcraft objects in relation to their spectral existence.

Perhaps the most apparent evidence of magical building protection are the various protection marks, often called witch-marks, scratched into fireplaces or roof beams, and also found in many old churches. Hoggard sees the daisy-wheel mark as a ‘solar related symbol’ with an ‘additional role as a decoy or spirit trap’, which as a never-ending line has a hypnotic effect on spirits ensnaring them (p.97). The daisy-wheel acted as a light, shining into dark corners where spirits might be prone to lurk. Likewise, Hoggard sees the deep deliberate burn marks, often found on wooden beams, as ‘creating some illumination on a more spiritual or astral plane, shining some light into the darkness’ (p.107). This is in opposition to the commonly suggested theory of the burns inoculating the dwelling against fire. These were ‘the physical vestige of an ethereal flame forever shining a light in a vulnerable spot in a building’ (p.146). Equally mesh marks ‘acted as a symbolic net which could either trap or bamboozle energies that encountered them’ (p.146). Hoggard correlates scratch marks, like pins in witch-bottles, with the surfaces of lintels being ritually ‘killed’ in order to create ‘a fearsome line of spikes on which any malevolent entity plunging down the chimney could become impaled’ (p.103). Marian marks are commonly suggested to employ the power of Mary or Virgo Virginum as protection (p.99). All of these marks, accompanied by various concealed cats, witch-bottles or shoes, provided a supernatural security system for dwellings. Hoggard’s assemblage demonstrates the mysterious nature of these findings and the multiple layers meaning and symbolism possibly attached to spiritual protection measures.  

Hoggard highlights that these concealed deposits are ‘very important for developing a true understanding of what witchcraft actually meant to real people’ (p.147). He rightly observes how many major volumes of witchcraft history pay limited attention to this important body of archaeological evidence. Hoggard’s volume goes some way in rectifying this lacuna. This volume will act as a source book, a starting point for those hoping to draw evidence into future works on the history of magic. Hoggard highlights ‘[w]hat we rarely get from the documents is any real sense of how people perceived magic and the evidence for their interactions with it’ (p.148). By adopting a multidisciplinary approach, employing Hoggard’s archaeological evidence, with folklore and also written sources on the history of magic we can hope to develop a more insightful understanding of the role magic played in everyday lives beyond the witch-trials.

The finds gazetteer will be useful for those hoping to employ evidence in their writings or further explore sources in their local area. The number of finds is enormous, underlining the importance of this topic. Hoggard highlights how many finds have been overlooked or discarded in the past, his compilation represents the tip of an iceberg. Magical house protection was an important feature in the life of buildings and something which should no longer be overlooked in the history of the supernatural. The finds are also highly repetitive, each one an individual act of concealment, repeating in a different locality and providing a sense of abundance. An entire army of bellarmine bottles sit ready to be called into action trapping malign spirits up chimneys. A secret network of items that were domestically familiar employed in an uncanny setting. These items traverse between the corporeal and the incorporeal, sitting in a liminal space. There is much scope for this topic to move into a cross disciplinary arena, with witchcraft history and gothic studies, providing new understandings of everyday supernatural beliefs. These could be furthered by readings of concealed deposits through an ecoGothic or ecophobic lens. Simon Estok’s paper ‘Theorising the EcoGothic’ in Gothic Nature Journal (2019, p. 46) notes:

‘Unpredictable and uncontrolled nonhuman agency is troubling. The ecophobic loathes the unpredictable. Ecophobia emanates from anxieties about control. The prospect of a loss of control—the perceived threat to human agency by nonhuman nature -is at its core ecophobic.’

We might view these concealed objects as attempts to gain control over threatening and unexplained events, such as illness or inexplicable agricultural losses, blamed upon supernatural entities. Hoggard’s work will hopefully act as a springboard for exciting future readings of concealed objects situated within the history of belief and magic.

Review by Francesca Bihet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s