Ryedale Folk Museum’s Rosie Goodwin talks about their rare collection of Witch Posts
Ryedale Folk Museum has been awarded a bursary by GEM, the Group for Education in Museums, to explore how museums are engaging visitors with narratives relating to witchcraft.
The project has been inspired by three rare ‘witch posts’, as they’re called, within the Museum’s collection. There are fewer than twenty posts known to exist, almost unique to North East Yorkshire, with just one from neighbouring Lancashire.
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The accepted interpretation is that they were thought to protect the house or hearth from the influence of witches. Positioned near the fireplace, the carved posts were most likely believed to prevent evil from entering through the chimney.
King James’s Daemonologie, the king’s treatise on necromancy, magic and the occult written in 1597, identified the importance of protecting the hearth from witches’ familiars, claiming: ‘they will come and pierce through, whatever house or church, though all ordinary passages be closed’, specifically gaining access through any opening ‘the air may enter in at’.
The village of Hutton-le-Hole, home to Ryedale Folk Museum, is a popular destination with tourists to North Yorkshire, a bucolic moorland idyll, known for the sheep that range freely and a tumbling beck which cleaves its journey southward. Inside the six-acre open-air museum site are twenty heritage buildings, including Stang End, a seventeenth-century cruck-framed cottage from the nearby village of Danby.
It is this building which houses one of the three posts in situ, as it would have been when the cottage was inhabited, before it was moved stone by stone to the museum in the 1960s.
The ‘witch posts’ are so-called based on the apotropaic-style protective markings, including the carved X-shaped St Andrew’s cross that adorns them. Most people will be familiar with superstitions surrounding the impulse to cross – we still cross our fingers for good luck and mark hot-cross buns, nowadays for tradition’s sake but once upon a time for protection.
Apotropaic markings speak of the superstitions and fears that were once widespread, particularly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, with protective marks often placed near doors, windows and chimneys. Hundreds of similar marks have also recently been identified elsewhere, at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, with dozens more adorning the caves at Wookey Hole, Somerset.
The posts at Ryedale Folk Museum also contained objects, secreted in the dowel holes, including a silver threepenny bit. One story tells that when the cream was ‘witched’ and wouldn’t churn into butter, the threepenny bit should be carefully dug out from its hiding place and dropped in the pail.
A further ‘witch post’, originally from the nearby village of Gillamoor and currently in store at the Museum, secured two of the three items traditionally placed inside: a coil of sheep’s wool and a piece of blue calico, but no coin. Two further grooves in the wood reveal not a silver threepenny bit, but, curiously, carefully-snipped sprigs of horse hair.
Ritualistic steps to keep evil away from the home or outbuildings weren’t unusual: a single boot ensconced within a thatched roof; a horseshoe above the door; a rowan tree planted nearby. There are also several ‘hag stones’ on display at Ryedale Folk Museum, rocks or pebbles with naturally-occurring holes, favoured for their purported magical properties.
From the late eighteenth-century onwards it seems that the ‘witch posts’ had lost their significance and some may have been taken out during rebuilding, sometimes reused as lintels. Nowadays, their ritualistic markings and embellishments are not widely understood. The geographical clustering around the North York Moors is additionally intriguing. Why here, in this pocket of North East Yorkshire?
Their rarity is part of the puzzle and visitors are often fascinated by them, even travelling from across Europe on occasions to see them. Staff at Ryedale Folk Museum are exploring new and engaging ways to share their stories, capturing something of the intrigue and mystery whilst avoiding some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that can surround collection items relating to witchcraft and the supernatural.
The Museum is keen to hear from heritage organisations with similar marks or items via the email address firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryedale Folk Museum
Hutton le Hole, North Yorkshire
Nestled in the beautiful village of Hutton-le-Hole, in the heart of the North York Moors National Park, the museum offers a unique glimpse of the past. For half a century we’ve conserved some of Ryedale’s most magnificent bits of heritage for future generations to enjoy. Our atmospheric buildings and collections,…