Friday, 17 January 2020

Witch Marks After Dark: Apotropaic magic at Creswell Crags

Apotropaic magic is a very interesting and mysterious subject. In recent years the interest in apotropaic magic has soared, largely I believe due to our increasing understanding of the subject, and the ongoing discovery of apotropaic marks and objects in all sorts of places. One of these places is Creswell Crags. It would be tempting to say that recently apotropaic marks were discovered in their largest cave system, however the term ‘identified’ is actually much more appropriate.



In an unusual turn of events, two visitors to the Crags Hayley Clark and Ed Waters, avid hunters of so called ‘Witches Marks’ spotted some marks within the cave and informed their guide. After further research and observations in the cave what had previously been thought to be nothing more than (reasonably) modern graffiti was actually suddenly understood to be hundreds upon hundreds of apotropaic marks.


A brief explanation on apotropaic magic; the term literally means something which has the power to ‘turn away’ evil. There are countless different examples of this in most cultures throughout the world; the evil eye charm in Greece and Turkey, the Cimaruta and Mano Cornuto in Italy, Witches bottles and Horse shoes in Britain, the Eguzkilore in Basque France and Spain, to name just a few. The main purpose of these objects is believed to be to cast away evil spirits, Witches, Demons and Dark Magic. Apotropaic items have been found hidden within buildings; in cavity walls or under floorboards. But most apotropaic items or symbols are situated in or around entrance ways, to prevent the evil entering the building. A very common form of apotropaic magic as well as objects is marks, like the ones seen in Wookey Hole, Woolsthorpe Manor, Tithe Barn and of course Creswell Crags.


Creswell Crags has the largest concentration of spotropaic marks in Britain, and specialists are still trying to fully understand why. There are a few theories; perhaps to keep evil spirits from the cave so it could be used for winter storage, perhaps the site was a focus for local folklore and superstition or maybe the cave was perceived as a meeting place between worlds and the hole which plummets into the earth (incidentally where the concentration of the marks is most fervent) was perceived as a ‘well to hell’ and the Marks served the purpose to keep the demons from entering our world. Maybe we will never know what was going through the minds of the people who laboriously scratched these marks into the rock, but it’s certainly a major cause for curiosity.

The symbolism of the particular marks at Creswell are largely derived from Latin words or phrases commonly thought to be protective in the 17th century. The most heavily featured is the double V, which looks a lot like a W, which stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of Virgins), but there are also many ‘C’s for Christ, I for Iesus (original Latin spelling of Jesus), R for Rex or Regina (referring to king or queen) and several other variations which generally all relate to Mary and Jesus in some form.



There are also some which may take the form of ‘demonic traps’ designed to ensnare evil in a maze like form, such as a Merels board, ladders and other usually straight edged shapes.


As you might imagine there has been some scepticism from visitors suggesting that the symbols are merely graffiti. However when you take into account the sheer volume of symbols, witness first hand their obsessive repetition and are aware of the presence of the same symbols hundreds of miles apart the significance of these marks becomes startlingly obvious.



I hope that in years to come more becomes known about the Witch Marks at Creswell Crags and that we learn who put them there and exactly why. But the team there are certainly up against it with all the changes that have happened on site over the last few hundred years, in particular Victorian excavations which didn’t record findings as rigorously as archaeologists do today, and considered anything from the 17th century too contemporary to bother with and sadly may have discarded many clues to deciphering the mysteries of the cave.

A huge thank you to the team at Creswell for their dedication and passion, and of course to our guide Sarah who made the experience a fantastic one!
Witch Marks After Dark tours run on select dates until the end of the month. Check out the Creswell Crags website here to find out more!



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