Mysterious witch marks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are to be displayed to the public for the first time in Somerset
The mysterious symbols and letters scratched into walls at Wookey Hole Caves as witches’ marks in Somerset around 400 years ago are to be displayed to the public for the first time.
The marks, which lay undiscovered for hundreds of years in the limestone caves, were first thought to be graffiti but specialists from Bristol University now believe the ritual markings were made by people who believed they would ward off the evil of the Witch of Wookey Hole.
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Wookey Hole Caves, which as well as being a famous commercial tourist attraction is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is believed to have more ritual protection marks and symbols than any other cave in the UK. Most of them are located in a vertical feature known as the Witches Chimney, close to a stalagmite that local legend says is a witch turned to stone.
Many of the markings found there appear to be the letter W or the letter M but specialists believe they are really double a V and are a reference to the Virgin Mary. Many others are Christian symbols – sometimes called apotropaic marks (from the Greek word for avoiding evil) of the type that can found in the timbers of houses, churches and barns – particularly on doorways and hearths to ward off evil spirits.
In 2016 English Heritage launched a public appeal to locate witches’ marks in medieval buildings around the country to try and better understand why they were used.
According to the research at Wookey Hole carried out by Christopher Binding and Linda Wilson at the Univeristy of Bristol, the majority of the ritual protection marks date to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are located in “a closed aven, which results in a convection draught caused by the body heat of those standing below it displacing the cooler surrounding air which then descends noticeably.”
The specialists believe this strange, ethereal effect would have been more pronounced years ago, before a low rock lip was removed to make it easier for visitors to pass through, but it can still be felt today.
Similar markings were found by Binding and Wilson in the nearby caves at Goatchurch Cavern, North Somerset.
The Wookey Hole marks are now being pointed out to visitors of Wookey Hole Caves, who are looking at ways to use the latest technology to protect them and illuminate a small area of the most accessible marks so visitors can get a look at them.
“It is clear that the majority of these markings date from a period from 1550 to 1750,” says Daniel Medley, owner of Wookey Hole Caves. “So there is evidence of 200 years of fear and superstition over the witch and her powers.”
“It is quite chilling to think that people hundreds of years ago were deep underground carrying flaming torches for light and scratching these symbols on the rocks because they believed it would protect them from the witch and her evil.” Wookey Hole Ltd. employs an actor to play the Wookey Hole Witch, who can be encountered by visitors as part of the varied attractions at the site.
For more on Wookey Hole Caves attraction see www.wookey.co.uk