Dried cats, old shoes and earthenware bottles of pee


Don’t you hate it when a favorite link goes dead? I woke untimely early this morning, figured I’d paddle around some old bookmarks and was bummed to find the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project has gone dead. Don’t follow the link, dipstick; it’s dead. [Edit, months later: Hey, it’s live again! check it out!] There is a cached Google version of their old links page, though, and putting that together with some deft Googling, I managed to piece together what I was looking for.

Deliberately Concealed Garments

 

The DCG Project was an attempt to catalogue the bits of clothing (and many, many shoes) that have been found hidden in the walls, hearths, windowsills, thresholds, chimneys and roofs of Great Britain. They turn up all the time when people go to fix up old buildings (of which there are still zillions in the UK). How often, no one knows — many builders and owners won’t report them, refuse to move them or quietly get rid of them.

Some assume they’ve found random bits of old junk and throw them out, but it’s clear from the arrangement and placement that these things were deliberately placed and significant. Some kind of protective folk magic, everyone assumes. The clothes are often bundled, almost always worn (but not, perhaps, past using). Nearly half the shoes belong to children. The placements tend to be at the openings of the house.

The oldest pieces found go back to the 1400s. The newest…there are recent reports of builders pestering people for a shoe and refusing to say why. Caches are found all over Britain, but also Northern Europe and former colonies.

There are scattered reports of clothing caches turning up in old homes in New England, too. I’ve Googled in vain for an article I read in the last couple of years about — I think I have this straight — a pair of trousers and a cigar that turned up on a high shelf in a Boston theater (church?) during renovations. There was a note in the pocket dated from the time of the last renovation (1870? 1914? I don’t remember). It said something like, “hello, future! Have a cigar!” That may have been some old plasterer’s spontaneous lark, but I know from experience that if you eschew formal religion a kind of rump paganism tries hard to take its place. Some of this stuff is instinctive to the monkeybrain.

We held onto a few obvious shreds of these old ways. We’re still tying shoes to the bumpers of newlyweds, for example.

Anyhow, archeologists and textiles researchers love this stuff. They often turn out to be the only surviving examples of the clothes of ordinary people.

Dead cats and skeletal horses

 

And then there are dried cats. Some of them are probably poor pussoes that ran into the walls chasing mice and got stuck. But some are posed in a hunting attitude and clearly were deliberately walled up where they are found. Warding off varmints? Distracting witches? Who knows.

One of my sources quaintly opined that they were faithful family pets preserved after a natural death. Ha! I’m guessing, not. Some people are not shy about offing pussycats today. (It’s not against the law in many places. Legally, a dog is property but a cat belongs only to himself. Which is about right). I doubt our ancestors were shy about a little kittycide, especially in aid of scaring the bad spirits away.

Horse skulls! Forty of them were found screwed to the underside of the floorboards in a pub at Staunton-on-Wye in Herefordshire (oddly, it’s not mentioned on their web site). Three were in the bell turret of a church in Northumberland (proving our forebears had no problem mixing Jesus and juju).

Cats and horses. Both were believed to be able to see things we can’t. That’s the best anyone can come up with.

Witch bottles

 

Now, these are some creepy little bastards. A couple hundred of them have been found, usually buried under the hearthstone or threshold. No pretending these were left there by accident. They were usually small earthenware bottles. Inside, most commonly, iron pins bent into an L shape. Human hair. Urine. Sometimes a piece of cloth cut in the shape of a heart.

What is this all about? Who. The hell. Knows. Keeping witches away, mostly; they coincide with the era of witch trials. I note that a search on “witch bottles” turns up a bunch of hits on eBay, so our modern crop of pretend witches has latched onto the idea (what are they doing, exactly — warding themselves away?)

These kinds of artifacts frequently make their way to little local museums in the UK. England is stuffed with small town and county museums showing things taken out of local homes or turned up by the plow. I don’t know from magic, I tell you what, but all these old spells and charms sure have plenty of teh spooky left in them.

Further reading: the best overall site I found was Apotrapaios, which I had bookmarked back when it was called Folk Magic in Britain. Beyond that, Google searches of deliberately concealed garments or witch bottles will turn up lots of good museums and archeology sites. Be careful with the modern pagan and Wiccan sites, though. They’re often — what’s the word I’m looking for here? — full of shit.
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9 Comments

  1. nbpundit
    Posted December 3, 2006 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Wonder if anyone happened up on
    the emperors clothes and didn’t
    bother to report it. heh

  2. Posted December 3, 2006 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I leave messages scribbled on stuff stuffed in walls. In one of the units in an 100+ year old building I own I had to do some hardwood floor repair and left a long exegesis written on the builders paper you lay down under the hardwood…

    I don’t remember all the details of what I wrote anymore, but it was quite disparaging towards a guy who’d screwed me out of $30,000.

  3. Posted December 4, 2006 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    It all makes sense to me now.

    I’m going to start demolition right away on my house, did you get any details on typical locations of non-paired socks?

  4. Posted December 4, 2006 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    What do you know about Santeria?

    Not that any of this has anything to do with Santeria, but Santeria, to me at least, reveals our primal attraction to paganism and superstition.

  5. Posted December 5, 2006 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard that they have to sweep dead chickens off the front steps of the Miami courthouse every morning thanks to Santeria (or maybe it’s the really nasty variant, palo mayombe). My local supermarket has a section for those creepy votive candles with the saints on, which I gather is some kind of voodooish thing.

    Yeah, I think there’s an unconscious element of folk magic and superstition that many, many people indulge in and will happily mix with their more orthodox religion. Without even being aware of it, often enough.

    Like…how about those spooky shrines people build at the scene of a fatal accident? Brrrr.

  6. Posted December 5, 2006 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Witch bottles, my guess would be as follows:

    put stuff in them representing the magical effect you want, conceal them near the target. Usually this would include some sort of fetish (as in a piece of the person in question like a fingernail, hair, etc). The heart is kind of obvious, not sure what the bent nail is unless it represents a failure curse of some kind.

  7. Posted December 5, 2006 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m impressed, S. Weasel and Chrisopher Taylor.

    I was involved with Santeria and Palo for a short while. But enough to give me an insight into those strange, primitive worlds. The worlds of Santeria and Palo are quite active in the United States, although they tend to keep a low profile (though there are exceptions).

    My mind is still divided as to whether letting them have such free reign is good (and sanitary) or not.

  8. WNY Witch
    Posted March 13, 2007 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Taylor,

    The bent nail is to shred evil attempting to enter. Likewise is the urine to ward evil or the unwanted — after all, you pee in the woods and the animals who normally hang around the area decide to find a new area to roam.

    But, yes, some of the New Age Witches have made the witch bottles their own — and are marketing them thus.

    As a witch, I have little difficulty entering a house because of the talismen placed to ward witches. However, I do get creeped out by some of the people who live in the houses.

    Bright Blessings,

    WNY Witch

  9. Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    ❦ Please read & make your own mind up , Im an ecleptic witch who sees the sacred within the physical, the magical in the mundane, and uses this knowledge to incorporate spiritual practice into her everyday life. The way of the Hearth Witch is an uncomplicated, direct form of magic, deceptively simple and unspeakably profound. She draws her strength from the sacred flame that burns in her hearth, from the earth that sustains her, the water that nourishes her, and the inspiration of her breath. She finds her gods in the land around her: the spirits of water, stone and tree, Earth, Moon, Sun, Stars and Sky. She needs no watch, calendar or magical almanac to tell her when to work her magic, but works with the observable ebb and flow of the changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, and the waxing and waning of the moon. A Hearth Witch is drawn to the traditional ways, the rhythms of nature and the call of the wildwoods. The Hearth Witch of today inherits the mantle of the village wise woman or cunning man. She is part shaman, part seer, part herbalist, part spiritual healer, and all witch. Hers are the Old Ways of the countryside, once passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, crone to apprentice. It is as old as time and as new as the newest witch.Blessed be V
    ✰✰✰


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