Illustration by Eli Valley
Etched in the ancient walls and pews of Medieval churches are spells, talismans, and curses. They were created by both the parishioners and, more surprisingly, their church.
In Matthew Champion's new book, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches, he surveys churches across England for graffiti on the walls and under the pews when a very curious theme appeared; the church was much more involved with what can be considered "magic" than many originally believed. Indeed, the church served as a sort of battleground for "strange medieval beasts, knights battling unseen dragons, ships sailing across lime-washed oceans and demons who stalk the walls," according to Champion. The walls and pews also contained, "latin prayers for the dead" jostling next to "medieval curses" and "strange and complex geometric designs, created to ward off the 'evil eye' and thwart the works of the devil."
Writing for the BBC's History Extra, Champion explains.
"Today, graffiti is generally seen as both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches. However, that attitude is a relatively modern one. During the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches and cathedrals quite literally covered with inscriptions."
While the church may not have sanctioned magic, it's parishioners still managed to etch their belief in curses, spells, and protection into the walls of the hallowed buildings. These etchings are called apotropaic graffiti, also known as witch marks and ritual marks, were used to protect the individual who created it or the area into which they inscribed the marking. The markings were also respected—they weren't drawn over or disregarded; instead, they were added to and redone. Many of these markings have been dated to medieval times. They have been found everywhere from demolition rubble in Walsingham Priory, to Norwich Cathedral, to Litcham in Norfolk, to some domestic medieval buildings as well.
These symbols were used to protect the individual who created it or the area into which they inscribed the marking. At its core, these markings were used for good luck and fortune. At a deeper level, these witch marks offered protection to a particular individual or object from a specific threat or threats.
The idea of folklore and magic was intertwined with the everyday lives of those who worshiped at the parish church. Taking wine and bread at a church service meant physically taking the body and blood of Christ, while practices like ringing the church bell to ward off lightning and blessing the plough to ensure a healthy crop were all everyday tasks. This level of belief meant that differentiating between superstitious magic and "legitimate" church practice was very tricky.
These ancient graffiti markings typically take one of three forms: as a compass drawn design, a pentacle, or a "VV" symbol. Although a variety of marks have been discovered, these are the most common. Most of these symbols, with the exception of the "VV" markings, are all made from "endless lines". This in itself is said to be a protection from evil, much like the Gordian knot or Solomon's knot. Demons are said to be attracted to these lines, and the evil begins to follow the line of the endless knot to no end, eventually trapping itself in the symbol.
Compass drawn designs, or hexfoils, are the most common of all, which makes their origin all the more debatable. Although theories that masons created them, to train their apprentices in geometry and also to create blueprints, the masons' work was too large to compare to the average compass design, which was usually no more than ten centimeters. Beyond this, there are hundreds of these marks, alongside other symbols that are regarded as ritual protection marks today. An intriguing fact about these designs is that the compasses thought to create the marks themselves weren't very common—however, shears and scissors were tools extremely accessible for women.
Demons are said to be attracted to these lines, and the evil begins to follow the line of the endless knot to no end, eventually trapping itself in the symbol.
These hexfoils are also found along fonts, or stone receptacles containing the water used for a baptism, which could have been an invitation for protection for unbaptized children. It could have easily been women creating many of these compass drawn designs. Astrology was also an important aspect of medieval life in general, and having your chart consulted before any major event was normal. Back then, the stars and planets were attached to "celestial spheres" which were how they rotated around the earth. These spheres were taken into account when charts were being drawn, which explains all the compass style birth charts across ceilings and walls of medieval parishes. Placing birth charts in a sacred space like a church was like adding a spiritual magnifying glass to the chart itself—and the person who it was reading.
Compass drawn designs via the The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey
Although many churches today have a bitter taste in their mouth when it comes to pentacles, in the medieval churches, pentacles were witch marks that served a specific function—one of protection. The pentacle offered five ways to protect you. It represented the five wounds of Christ, five faultless fingers, the five senses, the five joys of the Virgin Mary and her son, and the five virtues of knighthood. Pentacles have only been discovered a dozen or so times, but in the heyday of these medieval churches, the six pointed star, or Star of David, and the pentacle were interchangeable. Pentacles were seen in graffiti, placed atop demons and lying alongside human figures. By placing the pentacle atop the demon, you were asking for protection from that evil; by placing the symbol alongside an individual, you were asking for protection for that individual.
Traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, the VV symbol probably stood for "virgin of virgins" or M for Mary, or Maria, when it was inverted. This witch mark was cast for good luck and to put ill fortune at bay, and is one of the few markings that crossed over into Orthodox Church art. These were used to confuse and trap spirits, and variations of the VV mark include a zigzag motif, probably to ward off lightning, and a ladder motif for salvation and climbing away from evil.
Matthew Champion and Ebury Press
Although it's easiest to imagine this parish using these hexfoils for protection and for the good of all, the church also used hexfoils to curse. There are curses on the church ceilings. The idea of cursing isn't a new one, and the church was well aware of this, inserting Chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy into their services. This chapter deals specifically with blessings and curses, which range from curses for adulterers, drunkards and slanderers; if you sinned against the church, in word or deed, you were cursed.
The church was very willing to curse someone, especially if the crime committed was against the church itself. Most of these hexes are based upon one simple concept—that reversing the normal practice, or hexfoil, will invite the opposite effect. This is found in graffiti that has been deliberately damaged or left incomplete, like a compass drawn daisy missing a single petal.
Roman curses have also been discovered in medieval parishes, which take the form of the name of the person to be cursed along with a description of what's to happen to them. The entire text, or the person's name, is "corrupted" by being inverted or having letters jumbled. This curse was usually included alongside an astrological symbol, and in Roman times, the finished curse was thrown in water or nailed to a holy site like a shrine or temple. These same styles of curses are found in medieval churches.
Nowadays, the graffiti covering churches is probably vandalism and less along the lines of protection, but that doesn't meant that ritual marks and witch marks have lost their value completely. Much like sigils in forms of chaos magick, different symbols and markings can be used in talismans and spells for protection, invocation or banishment. Compass drawn designs are also linked to sacred geometry, and the belief that god is the "geometer of the world". Astrology is still a common spiritual practice, and astrological and planetary markings are still used in different metaphysical paths and traditions. As far as cursing and pentacles go, however, the church will have nothing to do with either, seemingly forgetting their dark past—or simply refusing to acknowledge their own dark side.
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