Monday, March 7, 2011
Witches' Ladder: the hidden history
1911.32.7 Witches ladder found in Wellington, Somerset
When a string of feathers was found in a Somerset attic alongside four brooms, suspicions of witchcraft began to fly. This hint of rural magic and superstition captured the imagination of the Victorian folk-lore community, however not everyone was convinced.
Hanging in the "Magic and Witchcraft" case in the court of the Pitt Rivers Museum is a strange object from Wellington in Somerset. [Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1911.32.7] It is a one and a half meter long string with a loop at one end through which feathers have been inserted along its length. The label declares it to be a:
"Witches ladder made with cock's feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour's cows and for causing people's deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington."
This information is based on a note sent to the museum with the object in 1911 when it was donated by Anna Tylor, the wife of the famous anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. This stated:
"The "witches' ladder" came from here (Wellington). An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of "stag's" (cock's) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours' cows - nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called "The Witch Ladder" by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one's death."
This brief explanation is a highly summarized, and largely inaccurate version of the sequence of events that surround the discovery of this curious object. Even based on this description however, the label has embroidered the facts by suggesting that the ladder may have been used for causing deaths, when Anna Tylor's note only suggests that the plot of novel used it in this way. The history of this object seems to point to the ways in which the stories about an object may grow, allowing folk-lore itself to become folk-lorised.
Front page of "A Witches' Ladder" Dr Abraham Colles
Publication in the Folk-Lore Journal
Twenty four years earlier, in 1887, an article appeared in The Folk-Lore Journal with the title "A Witches' Ladder." Down the right-hand side of the page a hand-drawn illustration marks a change to the blocks of text that usually make up this journal, normally devoted largely to subjects such as folk-tales, myths and superstitions. The author of the article is Dr Abraham Colles, but a corrected draft that exists in the Pitt Rivers Museum, suggests that the article may have been submitted and corrected by Edward Burnett Tylor, then a Reader in Anthropology in Oxford and Keeper of the University Museum.
The article records how during a home visit, Colles had come to hear about the object. This had been found in the roof space of an old house demolished nearly ten years earlier, in 1878-9, alongside six brooms and an old chair. According to Colles, the workmen who made the discovery stated that the chair was for witches to rest in, the brooms to ride on, and the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof. He states that he was not able to discover the grounds on which they based their assertions but that they had no hesitation in "at first sight designating the rope and feathers "A witches' ladder.""
Further enquiries revealed little about the possible function of the object, except some old ladies in Somerset mentioned the "rope with feathers" when asked about witchcraft and spells. Future issues of the Folk-Lore Journal saw a number of correspondents making contributions, including J.G. Frazer who made the suggestion about getting milk away from neighbours cows, based on traditions from Scotland and Germany. Charles Leland wrote from Tuscany, about a tradition of causing death with a feathered ghirlanda or garland.
Drawing of Tylor presenting at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. From The Graphic, Saturday September 10
Presentation at the British Association for the Advancement of Science
When Tylor presented the item to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Manchester on Friday 2nd September 1887, two members of the audience stood up and told him that in their opinion, the object was a sewel , and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting. Tylor said that he would try to get one of these to compare it, but there is no record of whether he was successful. Interestingly though, a second "witches' ladder" was donated to the museum by the Tylors in 1911 and this has much newer looking feathers. [1911.32.8] Could this be a sewel and not a witch's ladder?
The International Folk-Lore Congress
Following his embarrassing experience at the meeting in 1887, Tylor seems to have been very reluctant to exhibit the object at the 2nd International Congress of Folk-Lore when it was held in London in 1891. In the report on his talk he states that it was suggested that he bring the ladder to show it, "but I did not do so, because from that day to this I have never found the necessary corroboration of the statement that such a thing was really used for magic." However in the catalogue of exhibits for this conference it is recorded that Tylor did show the object, probably because he was persuaded to do so. Also recorded is the fact that Mr Gomme exhibited a small photograph of Dr Tylor's Witch's Ladder, perhaps in case Tylor could not be persuaded to show the original himself.
The First Fictionalisation
In 1893, the Devon-based folk-lorist Sabine Baring-Gould published a novel, Mrs Curgenven, in which a witch-ladder featured. The object discovered is a line of black wool entwined with white and brown thread, hanging by a fireplace into which cock's and pheasant's feathers were looped alternately every few inches. In Baring-Gould's witches ladder "There be every kind o' pains and aches in they knots and they feathers;" and the when finished the ladder would have a stone tied at one end and would then be sunk in Dogmare Pool and "ivery ill wish ull find a way, one after the other, to the j'ints and bones, and head and limbs, o' Lawyer Physic." In this version the water would unloose and rot the ties releasing the ill wishes, which appear in the pool as bubbles. Was this new independent evidence to support the magical interpretation of the witch's ladder?
1911.32.8 Possible sewel donated by Tylor, and recorded as a Witches Ladder
Tylor evidently wrote to Baring-Gould to ask him about his source for the information in his fictional story. He received a letter back in 1893 in which Baring Gould said "I wish I could give you any thing certain about witch ladders." He states "What I put into "Mrs Curgenven" about sinking the ladder in Dogmare Pool so that as it rotted, the ill wishes might escape was pure invention of my own. I felt they must be got out somehow & so created a fashion for liberating them." Baring-Gould then enquired for Tylor with Marianne Voader, a women locally reputed to be a witch and she "professed to know nothing about such a thing and thought what you got at Wellington was nothing but a string set with feathers to frighten birds from a line of peas."
Tylor, it seems never found the evidence he was looking for. By 1911, when he had retired from Oxford and the object was donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Witches ladder had itself become an item of Folk-Lore. It was re-used as a plot device of a second novel in 1911, which took its title from the object. In 1891, Tylor had suggested that "The popular opinion" was that the object had been used for magic, "but unsupported opinion does not suffice, and therefore the rope had better remain until something turns up to show one way or the other whether it is a member of the family of sorcery instruments." Whether or not the original Witches' ladder was ever used for magic, today witches ladders definitely are.
The Second Life of the Witches' Ladder
Since Tylor's day Witches' Ladders have become an item in the practice of Wicca or contemporary witchcraft, into which positive wishes may be bound. However, this tradition has drawn strongly on the works of Gerald Gardner, Margaret Murray and Charles Leland, all prominent members of the Folk-Lore Society, and therefore likely to have known of Tylor's discovery. As no other example of an old Witches' Ladder has ever been recorded, it is quite possible that much of the contemporary tradition of using the Witches' Ladder in witchcraft might derive from this single discovery in the attic of an old house in Somerset in 1878-9.
Text by Chris Wingfield
A longer article by Chris Wingfield will appear in Autumn 2010, Journal of Material Culture 15 (3) "A case reopened: the science and folklore of a 'witch's ladder'."
The Folk-Lore Journal:
* Colles, A. (1887). "A Witches' Ladder." The Folk-Lore Journal 5 (1): pp. 1-5. [Image 1]
* Folklore Journal Vol. 5, No. 2. (1887), pp. 81-83 J.G. Frazer letter
* Folklore Journal Vol. 5, No. 2. (1887), pp. 83-84 W.H. Ashby letter
* Folklore Journal Vol. 5 No. 3 (1887) pp. 257-259 Charles Leland letter
* Folklore Journal Vol. 5 No. 4 (1887) pp. 354-356
Gould, S. B. (1893). Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven . Lond.
Tylee, E. S. (1911). The witch ladder . Lond.
Jacobs, J. and A. Nutt, Eds. (1892). The International Folklore Congress 1891: Papers and Transactions. London, David Nutt.
The Graphic, Saturday September 10, 1887, Issue 928. [Image 2]
English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum