Reflection in Glass

Originally I was going to entitle this installment "Get Thee Back, Sorrow" a line from a poem titled "Youth and Sorrow" I just recently read in The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1878), but decided to scrap it. At the time I thought it an appropriate title for the latest in my series of curious curios concerning the always charming witch ball. As with any informative post I make I do perform the necessary amount of research; sadly upon doing on this specific topic I came up with very little useful information. A bulk of it being rather inaccurate—a conflation really of various similar curiosities, which would ultimately confuse anybody with out prior familiarity. In any event what useful resource I could dig up was quite interesting and I just would love to share it with you.

As it is always best to begin at the beginning; one who is not acquainted with the term “witch ball” must wonder what one is, what one does, and where does one come from? The witch balls that I speak of are these wonderful objects made of glass. Typically they are seven inches (or eighteen centimeters) in diameter, yet they can be much larger. Historically they are silvered (reflective as a mirror) and produced in various colors sometimes decorated with elaborate swirling pattern. These orbs would be suspended in a corner of the home or a window. Their primary function was to prevent ill wish, misfortune, and malefic witchcraft by reflecting. Another theory proposed by the Museum of Witchcraft (Boscastle) asserts that “some believe that the glass ball will itself attract the influences of ill-luck and ill-wish that would otherwise have fallen upon the household.” These types of glass balls within the museum’s collection (museum nos. 939, 1464, and 1501) were manufactured in England by the Nailsea glassmakers who were a group of glassmakers who established themselves southwest of Bristol in the year 1788.

In doing research I ran across a reference to witch balls being used as a speculum or "shew" stone; a device in which one sees the future, yet these glass balls should not be confused with those old exquisite glass floats used by fishermen, which has long since been replaced with their horrid plastic contemporaries. Glass fishing floats have a very special place within the areas such as the southwest of England. It was these float that have the uncanny ability to channel images; as noted by contemporary witchcraft matriarch Doreen Valiente.

A close relative (and in my opinion are a possible origin) of the witch ball are the reflective spherical glass gazing globs, which were originally hand blown in thirteenth-century Italy. Allegedly King Ludwig II of Bavaria (known as Mad King Ludwig; and a very dapper gentleman if you ask me) had taken a liking to these globs and adorned the ground of Herrenchiemsee Palace (also known as Neues Schloss or "New Palace"). Interestingly enough in the small town of Lauscha, Germany in the mid-nineteenth-century (circa 1847) glass artisans were created small decorative orbs for Christmas trees, i.e. the Christmas kugel. Of course Ludwig's reign lasted from 1864 to 1886 so the dates do not match and English witch balls predate the kugel by approximately fifty year or so.

The Imperial Dictionary (the basis of Webster's English Dictionary) lists an entry for "witch ball" but defines it as "a name given to interwoven roller-like masses of stems of herbaceous plants." This sort of witch ball is nothing new in The Historical Magazine (1870, vol. 17-16, p. 57-8) collected a story titled, "'Wooballs,' 'Hairballs' and 'Witchballs'" that talks about a bewitched calf who upon being eviscerated was found a ball of hair implanted by a witch. These type of ball made of hair appear many times in literature of the period. Of course a hairball is a far cry from a one wrote of plant matter, however, the intent seems to remain the same.

Glass witch balls are produced today by many glassblowing artisans; always remember it is best to keep them polished for effectiveness.

Twist Ye, Twine Ye!

Twist ye, twine ye! even so.
Mingle shades of joy and woe,
Hope and fear, and peace and strife,
In the thread of human life.
-Sir Walter Scott, Guy Manning

A rather lovely way to start off a new post, no? I have been wanting to write about common charms that are associated with witchcraft for some time; my previous entry on witch bottles has kicked off this series of magical devices whose intent vary from the protective and curative to the harmful and malefic. I also want to touch upon some lesser known practices in witchcraft that might seem rather unusual because they are so commonplace. In any event in this entry I wanted to touch upon the infamous witches' ladder; it's origins and contemporary uses (or the evolution) of this rather popular magical device.

The witches’ ladder is an object that falls into the category of a fetish—an object that has alleged supernatural abilities; by making a series of knots or by the plating of fibers is one fashioned. Interestingly enough this follows in a series of magical practices that are worked via the bind of material in one way or the other. Concerning contemporary witch ladders the intent of the device is only limited to the individual who procures it. Historically speaking as it concerns the "Wellington Witch Ladder" the purpose has been an enigma. This very first published account of a witches’ ladder appears in an 1887 edition of Folk-Lore (Vol. 5 No. 1) contributed by Abraham Colles. The illustration left is a portion of the original article in Folk-Lore depicting the found object. During the demolition of an farmhouse in the town of Wellington, in Somerset a region in the southwest of England known for it's prevailing magical traditions—witches, spell, and the lot; a secret room was discovered closed off from the rest of the home, wherein there contained a series of decaying item: six brooms, an arm chair, and a curios object—a measure of rope with a series of fathers (of various kinds) woven into it:

It is composed of a piece of rope about five feet in length, and about half-an-inch in diameter. It is made from three strands, and has at one end a loop, as if for the purpose of suspending. Inserted into the rope cross-ways was a number of feather—mostly goose, but some crow or rook—not placed in any determinate order or at any regular intervals...examination makes it evident that these feathers had been twisted into the rope at the time when it was first made, not inserted into it consequently (p. 3).

During Colles' investigation, which subsequently turned up very little; though we can learn from him that the ladder was made of new rope with feather woven into them, "[Colles' opinion] which was confirmed by Mr. Bubear, owner of the house, himself a rope-manufacturer, who declared that on that point there could no doubt," that the rope was not bought prefabricated but actually wrought by whom ever owned the home (originally). As to the purpose of the ladder that was referred to by one of the workers a "witches' ladder" the use of the ladder was for witches to climb the roof of the home, while this is obviously a rather superstitious (and irrational) supposition. Colles informants appear to be well aware of the charm, however, not as to what it means or how it is used. The ladder came into the ownership of one Edward Burnette Taylor an Anthropologist who had corrected Colles’ article for Folk-Lore and was Reader in Anthropology and Keeper of then University Museum in Oxford. In 1911 Taylor retired and the object was donated the institute where is currently is housed, University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum (No. 1911.32.7), the label reads:

Witches' ladder made with cock's feather. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour's cow and for causing people's deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington.

In a note sent with the ladder when it was included into the museum’s collection Anna Taylor suggest the plot of a novel contributed to the witches’ ladder as a death-charm. As to what novel she is making a reference to is not disclosed, however, a novel published in 1893 by folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould entitled Mrs. Curgenven does feature a witches’ ladder used as a death curse, where a knotted cord with feather is tied around a stone and submerged into Dogmare Pool, the contact with the water would rot the cord unloosening the knots and the ill wish then would be released as bubbles from the pool arose. If this was the novel that she was making reference to it does expose some inaccuracies as to what the ladder was assumed to represent. Allegedly in a letter in 1893 Edwards Burnette Taylor would write to Baring-Gould as to the source of this ritual, which he would reply that the ritual was a mere invention.

Ultimatrely the Wellington Witch Ladder never achieved any solid evidential support; the popular opinion contributed towards the ladder does not replace supported facts. Taylor has presented the ladder to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences in 1887 where it was speculated the object could be a sewel or an object used to turn back deer when hunting. In Taylor’s research of the ladder he attempted to secure this other object for comparison. It was never known if Taylor has successfully been able to find said object to perform a comparison, so the mystery of the witches’ ladder continues.

Upon hearing of the discovery in Wellington, folklorist Charles Geoffrey Leland became fascinated by over the artifact so much so that he conducted his own investigation; subsequently his search would evidently turn up an Italian equivalent. This is documented in the second part (chapter five) of Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition (1892) entitled “Amethyst”. However, it should be noted that in the Leland text there is a grave error in the account as to how the ladder was first brought to his attention:

In the year 1886 there was found in a belfry of a church in England a curios object of which all that could be learned at the first was from the authority of an old woman and that it was called a witch’s ladder. An engraving of it was published in the Folk-Lore Journal, and several contributors soon explained its uses. It consisted of a cord tied in knots at regular intervals, and in every knot the feather of a fowl had been inserted.

This almost entirely inaccurate; whether Leland had confused the original article in Folk-Lore with his own field notes of an artifact similar used by the witches of Italy or completely fabricated the paragraph quoted above as to in some way validate his own claims to the so-called “witches’ garland” is debatable. However, it should be noted that no such article exists in the year 1886 in Folk-Lore. This could of course be a slight oversight on Leland’s part, yet what makes it more discouraging is his description of the ladder found in Wellington, which is totally false.

In any event Leland “by mere chance” found one woman with whom he conversed who told him of the story of how her child had become bewitches by what she called a guirlanda delle strege or witches’ garland. Fortunate for Leland (all most too fortunate) is the process in which one is made. She told him “[the garland] is made by taking a cord and tying knots in it,” additionally “while doing so this puck feathers one by one from a living hen, and stick them into the knots, uttering a medication with everyone.” Unique to this malefic operation was found under the child’s bed a stuff figure in the shape of a hen—from Leland we learn the spell is called Il Pollo nero or the Black Hen.

Leland a member of the Folk-Lore society with others such as Gerald Gardner, Margaret Alice Murray, as well as Taylor would have been aware of one another thus the ladder would have been common knowledge to each of them. Chris Wingfield suggest in his piece for “Witches’ Ladder: The Hidden History” (as part of “The Other Within” project) it was much a contemporary invention of the time. Whether this is true or not the witches’ ladder has become a very prominent practice in contemporary witches. Yet as with many older charms it has taken on a kinder appearance. Wishes, desire, and the like are woven into cords in hopes for their manifestation.

What Becomes a Legend Most?

I am currently revising the entry I wanted to post after I cam across an article I wanted to include in it. So please excuse the interruption in transmission and enjoy Rasputina's "The Olde Headboard" (Weathered Remix).

The Witch Bottle

The "witch bottle" is one in a variety of container spells whose origins begin roughly in sixteenth century England and was eventually transplanted into early colonial America. Overall the purpose of the device was to trap evil directed towards its owner; this was done by thwarting magical attacks through torment. Fashioned from either glass or earthenware jars they would contain a series of unpleasant items: pins, nails, &c. Commonly found within excavated witch bottles the device would also contain a felt scrap, which usually taking the shape of heart with a series of pins stuck into the material. The whole lot would be added to the bottle or jar and topped off with urine (sometimes hair depending) of its owner.

Common examples of a witch bottle were those that were created from either Greybeards or the so-called Bellarmine jugs; the latter an earthenware container German in origin. It would come to be produced throughout Europe; allegedly named after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. As a major export of Germany since the medieval period and well into the early modern period the Bellarmine jug was exported to Eastern Europe, Britain, as well as North America. More accurately called the Bartmann jug (Bartmann Gr. "bearded man") they are identifiable by the grimacing face of a bearded man as well as their peculiar shape. An archeological in discovery in 2009 unearthed the remains of an American witch bottle in Essington, Pennsylvania, which contained six pins; additionally buried with it a potsherd and a fragment of bird bone. In an article in Archeology (2009), Marshall Becker posits that the bearded face "resembling the face of a warlock, one probable reason for their use as witch bottles." However, more plausible is the fact they were an easily obtainable item. Whatever the case may be the Bellarmine or Bartmann jugs are exemplar of the housing structure that constitutes a witch bottle; both term are accurate, however, the reason as to why two names no one is completely sure. One possibility is that Bellarmine jars were a sort of ridicule; Bellarmine being opposed to Protestant England and Germany as well as his opposition to alcohol, which the jars usually held.

Historically how the device works is based on the understand that the afflicted party's urine is in someway connected to whoever initiated the attack. With the inclusion of pins and the like it provides torment for the tormentor, sympathetically speaking. This is seen elsewhere in other charms such as the "witch cake". Most notably utilized during the Salem Witch Trails this charm according to lore would reveal witch as well as to cure an afflicted person. A cake was prepared with the urine of one alleged to have been bewitched and fed to a dog. The witch (unknown) would suffer as the urine of the bewitched contained part of whatever the witch had sent, "The Salem justice, at least some of them, do assert, that the cure of the afflicted persons is a natural effect...instructed in Cartesian philosophy and in the doctrine of effluvia...the venomous and malignant particle, that were ejected from the eyes, do, by this means, return to the body whence they came, and so leave the afflicted person pure and whole" (Hill, 87).

Modern witch bottle have the tendency to be kinder than their predecessors containing herbs, sometimes pins, and at times omitting urine; rendering it more of a warding charm than one that is tailor to counteract witchcraft (I prefer the former as oppose to the latter). Deployment of such charms are historically hid on the property, usually the farthest corner of the home, or beneath the hearth, or in an inconspicuous spot in the home. Of course many charm especially those that are English in origins have turned up hidden within the walls of the home or even bricked into the chimney.

This was originally a discussion post that I have edited and expanded on.

Damsel's Plight

Saint Agnes (of Rome) is a virgin martyr who is venerated in most ecclesiastical bodies; a patron of chastity, virgins, and girls. Executed during the tenth persecution of the Emperor Diocletian (304 C.E. or 306 C.E.) she is alleged to have born in Rome to practicing Christians. Though living only a brief life she has gained rather large recognition by way of legend; described as possessing a far surpassing beauty, which drew the affection of the son of the Roman prefect Sempronius. Having devoted herself to service of God, the unrequited suitor when to far as to denounced her as a Christian; Roman law at this time did not permit the execution of virgins thus Agnes was to suffer torture. In an 1849 edition of the Journal of British Archaeological Association, H. Syer Cuming, esq., V.P., and F.S.A. Scot account for the little saint's tribulation:
When her virginity was assailed in the public Bordellos, to which she was condemned, she was miraculously preserved by lightening and thunder from Heaven. When stripped by her persecutors, the angels immediately veiled her who person with her flowing hair [some accounts suggest a mantel]…the next act of her cruel foes was to light a huge pile of faggots, into the midst of which they cast the hapless child; but no sooner was this done than the flames were extinguished (Cuming, P., & Scott, 1849: 268).
All acts that would kill any other, Agnes was at last beheaded at Rome, where a church marks the event. Though veneration of Saint Agnes was uncommon in Germany Naogeorgus recounts of Roman celebratory rites held during the feast of Saint Agnes; he describes as the offering of two white lambs, which were kept by the priest until Holy Thursday, then sheared. The wool was then used to produce palls (known as pallium, which is an ecclesiastical woolen cloak), which were then given to the archbishops. An obscure ritual indeed, yet the lamb is come to be an emblem of Saint Agnes, possibly due to the lore that surrounds Agnes and her parents after her death; eight days after her parents took to visiting her tomb, where they would mourn. Agnes appeared to them in a company of angels with a white lamb at her side. She bade them to no longer grieve for she was united with her savior. Some might attribute her very name, however, this is false etymology. The Latin word agnus meaning "lamb" does appear to be similar to "Agnes" yet the name actually derives from the Greek hagnē (ἁγνή) meaning "chaste".

Saint Agnes has a great popularity in England, however, as it would appear in a very closet capacity, take for instance that “in Cambridgeshire there is a village of Papworth St. Agnes; but its church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist.” Agnes’ appeal appears because of association with divining, "it was that pining lovers sought he maiden's aid in solving their doubts, and lulling ehir fears by resorting to strange divination" (Cuming, P., & Scott, 1849: 271). In Faiths and Folklore by William Carew and John Brand (1905) points to a passage in the "Portiforium ad usum Sarum" that declares she was so well versed in magic, she was said to be the spouse of Christ (p. 2). Many texts will make mention a fast called "Fasting Saint Agnes' Fast" which among one of the best documented rituals attributed to the saint:
The proper rite was to take a row of pins, and pull one out after another, saying a Pater Noster, and sticking one pin the in sleeve. Then going to rest, without food, their dreams were expected to present the images of their future husbands (Encyclopedia of Superstitions, p. 1499).
To accompany this little ritual are a variety of lovely incantations to see the Saint's divine assistance, Ben Johnson writes:
And on sweet St. Agnes' night
Please you with the promis'd sight,
Some of husbands, some of lover,
Which an empty dream discovers.
Another such ritual published Mother Bunch's Closet Newly Broke Open, by George Laurence Gomme (1885) prescribes that for one to divine they must avoid being kissed during the day and when going to bed, which has been dressed in clean linen lay straight as possible with hands place beneath the head repeat this:
Now, good St. Agnes, play thy part,
And send to me my own sweetheart,
And shew me such a happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss.
Of course fall to sleep as soon as possible and upon awaking from your first dream you will see him. Keats most gracefully spoke of these practices performed upon the night of before the feast day in his poem entitled "The Eve of Saint Agnes". One could go on with the abundance evidence of this species of divination. The day that commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Agnes is the twenty first of January (and prior to 1962 a feast day commemorating her birth on the twenty eighth).

Mourning: A Lost Art

Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.
- Benjamin Franklin

I had the fortune of finding this amazing website The Art of Mourning by Australian jewelery historian and graphic designer Hayden Peters. Just full of useful information about the lost art of mourning; death is never easy and for the longest time (especially during the reign of Queen Victoria, who took mourning to the say the least) series of customs were in place. They were initiated to express the loss for a loved one as well as memorialize show that they were (or are) loved.

Peters' website is charmingly period and has multiple examples of memento mori, so have a look I'm sure you'll enjoy it!


I found this marvelous image on tumblr last year and saved a copy of it, but come months later I cannot find the original blog where it was posted. To make matters worse I cannot make out the artist's signature in the lower righthand corner; if anyone knows who created this image I would love to know! I remember they did a series of these.