The Craft and Magic of Buildings
Other Apotropaic Devices
It is a widespread folk belief that mirrors reflect not only visible light but also intangible spirits and energies. All over Europe are traditions of straight spirit-paths along which, at certain times, travel dangerous inhabitants of the otherworld. Like light, spirits travel in straight lines, and unless something is done to stop them they will enter dwellings whose entrances (windows and doors) are approached by lines-of-sight. To prevent this happening, various techniques are employed by those whose expertise it is to remedy bad places and ward off harm. Mirrors, often in the form of silvered glass balls, are placed at strategic points to reflect the perceived intrusion.
Witch balls are lustrous blown-glass spheres around a foot (304.8 mm) in diameter, usually blue or green but also of silvered clear glass. Their reflective quality comes from silvering the inside glass sphere with a metallic mercury mixture, the traditional way of making mirrors. To prevent evil spirits entering the house, witch balls are hung in a window or in the window above the door in houses without leaded glass.
In recent years, with a renewed interest in Chinese feng-shui, octagonal ba gua geomantic mirrors have in some cases taken the place of witch balls, having the same apotropaic function (e.g., Lip, 1979, 109--13). But mirrors and other reflective devices have one weak point. During thunderstorms they are believed to attract lightning, which was viewed in the past as a material thunderbolt. In Britain wall anchors in the form of an S were believed to ward off lightning from a building. In Normandy houseleeks were planted on the roof ridges of farmhouses for the same purpose. An eastern English way to try to keep lightning away from one’s dwelling is to bury a toad in the middle of the garden, with others at the four corners. This is quincunx magic, covering an area by treating the four corners and the center. Bay trees planted around the garden, the skin of a seal, and eagle feathers are also anti-lightning charms (Jobson 1966, 112).
The pentagram is an ancient apotropaic sign. It is also called “pantacle,” “pentangle,” “pentagramma,” “Solomon’s Seal,” “Drudenfus,” and the “rempham.” It is known from Lombardic and Alamannic sources before the year 700. Medieval and later folk magic gives the pentagram protective power over thresholds. Goethe, in his Faust, makes the demon Mephistopheles gain access to Dr Faustus’s house because the Drudenfuss was drawn inaccurately upon the threshold. A traditional English counting song known as “The Twelve Apostles” tells “Five for the symbol at your door,” which was interpreted by folk-song collectors Broadwood and Maitland as the threshold pentagram (Broadwood & Maitland, 1893, 154-59). The pentagram has an important place in sacred geometry because the fivefold division of the circle is the starting point for the Golden Section ratio. Before the nineteenth century it was not considered significant which way up the pentagram was made. The concept of the evil inverted pentagram was invented by followers of French magus Éliphas Lévi. The medieval choir stalls in St. Botolph’s church at Boston, Lincolnshire, England, show the medieval use of the pentagram in this orientation, certainly not with evil intention. The pentagram at the centerpiece of a medieval rose window in Paderborn Cathedral in Germany is also oriented that way. The starfish is pentagrammic in shape and was used as a magical protection. The fish called “stella” (starfish) was to be fastened with the blood of a fox by a brass nail to the gate as a preventive against “evil medicines” (Agrippa 1533 I, XLVI).
House Glyphs, Sigils, and Spells
When bricks began to be used in buildings, they were handmade and fired in wood-burning stacks, so they were not all the same color. Bricklayers made patterns in the walls they built, and a popular design was the diamond or ing-rune shape. The protective pattern called “God’s Eye” and “Godsoog” on English and Dutch fishermen’s ganseys (sweaters) is an array of five diamonds. The sigil was painted on wall plaques in fishermen’s inns, with the motto “God sees you,” warning the fishermen to behave properly when away from home. Traditional knitters from Arnemuiden used diamond motifs symbolizing prosperity that came from the brickwork of the buildings in the fishing port (van der Klift-Tellegen, 1987, 19, 36). In eastern England in the nineteenth century bricks were being made on a large scale in different colors, so bricklayers chose contrasting colored bricks to make diamond and ing-rune patterns.
On Twelfth Night in German-speaking countries, the Sternsinger go around houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole. They sing an Epiphany carol, and then one of them writes in chalk over the door a formula consisting of the initials of the Three Wise Men in the Nativity story--Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar--with crosses between them and the year on either side; for example, 20 C+M+B 15. This is said to protect the house and its inhabitants until the next Epiphany. Another German tradition is that if one draws crosses on the doors before Walpurgisnacht (May Eve, after sunset on April 30th) the house is protected against witchcraft (Schmidt 1988, I, 93).