In many ways, buildings are like people.  As they grow older, they wrinkle, creak and groan.  They become weak.  With age, other people lose interest in them.  They move away, taking away all care and affection with them.

But like people who have become more and more antique, buildings of a certain age become mysterious and eccentric.  They harbor odd secrets; hidden twists and kinks that defy explanation.  Or if there is an explanation, it sometimes lingers close to the unbelievable.  One walks timidly towards its shore, as if it were a lake made of fire.

During these contemporary times we quake with fear.  And in our anxiety we turn to technology to protect our homes.  They are monitored with wires, alarms and machinery; they are locked, bolted and secured with fences and gripped with steel.  We see our threats in the night; we hear the footsteps – the hand on the door, the nails on the window.

But before all the modern devices, the gears and utilities, the engines and the tools, during a vague, historical time, the enemy was more nebulous.  It was part of an obscure and ethereal population, one which cast no shadow and possessed no dimension. It was born from the elements, lived in the shadows and huddled in spectral corners.

So the weaponry that people resorted to was odd, symbolic.  They were designed to pierce the haunting spirits that cast no reflection; the invisible wraiths that gathered outside, their breath collecting on the windows like troubled clouds.  They hid them in the depths of their homes, in the comforting places:  inside hearths, below beds, nestled in the frameworks and timbers of doorways.

Witch bottles, filled with an assortment of curiosities and charms that represented the earth, the body and the home, would be buried deep in the structure of a building.  Witch bottles could contain sea water, earth, sand, feathers, flowers, salt, oil, vinegar or wine:  fragrant, worldly and safe.  Sometimes urine, hair, nail clippings, bone and blood would be added – the remnants of humanity.  Each bottle had its own complex recipe to counteract the nefarious magical schemes of all evil spirits.

The dried bodies of cats have also been found within a home’s walls – posed courant, fleshless and feral.  Their desiccated muscles are still tense – prepared to attack whatever malevolence that would dare permeate the wood and brick of their arid coffin.

Entire skeletal menageries reclined deep inside a building’s heart, like benign parasites.  Rats and horses’ skulls kept their strange and silent vigil, waiting for the inevitable, invisible invasions.

A 14th century English saint once claimed that he had trapped the devil in a boot – the monster’s acrid breath coiling between leathers and singeing the laces.  Ever since then shoes have been closeted in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – homely icons symbolic of humanity born of the earth.  These waiting collections were the scuffed charms used against the evil machinations surrounding the home trapped inside dark perimeters.

The only outward sign that a house was under spiritual protection were the “witch marks” that were tattooed across rafters and the wooden frameworks of fireplaces and bed chambers.

An assortment of circles, triangles and crosses invoking the Virgin Mary, vague geometric shapes knitted together to create cat’s-cradle-like “demon traps”, they have been found in buildings such as Knole House, the Fleece Inn and Sevenoaks.

Marks have been found scorched and scratched into the dense oak beams beneath the floors of 17th century Knole, in particular near the fireplace, a common entrance for witches and demons with no fear of flame and ember.

Originally built during the 1400’s, the Fleece Inn is laid equally thick with such traps – they have also been found by the door, to keep inopportune devilish visitors out.

In the early 17th century, the great house at Sevenoaks was being prepared for the anticipated visit of James I.  It was shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and was a time of national paranoia:  it was not enough that the conspirators were condemned to a traitor’s dreadful tripartite death, or that the new tradition of the effigies of Guy Fawkes burning merrily had been born.  The carpenters working to construct the new state rooms of Sevenoaks took no chances, carving witch marks and demon traps in the bed chambers that had been prepared for James.

Embargoed to 0001 Wednesday November 5 A view of the 17th century 'witch marks' hidden beneath floorboards of National Trust property Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent, which were discovered during a major repair and conservation programme currently underway at the property. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 4, 2014. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

They are scattered across countrysides and crooked streets – the old, whispering houses, with their mysteries rattling deep inside them or scored across their fragrant skin.  It is said that some are haunted, and perhaps they are – by owners or patrons not ready to vacate the comforting buildings with their walls of patterned woods.  Or maybe they are troubled by the spirits and familiars that still struggle in the demon traps that were set for them long ago.


7 responses to “Sanctuary

  1. Where were you during our fireside camping ghost stories? This was marvelous! We don’t have anything as grand except dragons at each window.

    Have you been watching Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell?

    • Dragons at windows! How lucky I would feel should I one day see such marvelous creatures peering through my window!

      BBC America is NUTS – I can never track down their schedules…all I get are endless showings of ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘Top Gear’. ‘Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell’ looks very lush and fascinating…wish I could see it!

      • BBCA is truly awful. Kitchen Nightmares reruns are from 9 years ago! But Strange & Norrell is on BBCA not sure of day or episode, I bet reruns are active though. Definitely lush and wonderful.

  2. Fascinating post! It reminds me of Peter Ackroyd’s novel “Hawksmoor,” about an 17th-century architect who’s a practitioner of the dark arts and who uses human sacrifice to “seal” the foundations of the churches he builds. It’s an interesting suspense story which falls short of delivering what should have been a good, creepy read: but I was troubled to find out there really was a tradition of sealing up live animals in the cornerstone of buildings. A cat or toad was most often used, but there were legends about kidnapped orphans also being sealed inside of these stone boxes. I hope they are just that, legends, but just the thought is disturbing.

    I’ll have to look a lot more closely at ancient buildings when I visit them. Even if they aren’t actually haunted by ghosts, their histories are certainly haunting.

  3. Excellent, love your piece! I still know people who plant witch bottles and other items in their yard / earth for protection… I personally have my gorgeous, glass multicolored witch balls hanging in the windows to do the trick. 🙂 (The thought is that evil spirits are entranced by the intricacy and color of the glass, and become trapped. But they’re just lovely creations!)

    You must try to watch Norrell & Strange on BBC — it’s fantastic and fun!

  4. Lovely post (as always!). I nth the Jonathan Strange suggestion, it is really fun so far, I think we’ve seen four episodes now (and remind you to check out Miss Fishers murder mysteries as well, if you haven’t)

  5. Until technology got so huge, I think even the homes of the 20th century were guarded by spirits if you’d talked to the owners. I mean, how many houses have a statue of St. Mary or Jesus somewhere in their home? How many have rosaries above their beds? How many home have the Star of David above their door?

    I enjoyed this post. It conjured up thoughts I haven’t had in a while.

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