HUNDREDS of “witches’ marks” — created to deter evil spirits from rising from the underworld — have been discovered in the caves at Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
The marks were discovered by Hayley Clark and Ed Waters, members of the Subterranea Britannica group, during a tour of the caves. They had originally been thought to be graffiti.
Alison Fearn, of the University of Leicester, who undertook doctoral research on apotropaic marks (from the Greek apotrepein, meaning “to turn away”), believes it to be “the largest number of examples found anywhere and in any context in the UK”.
The marks are most commonly found in historic churches and houses, near the entrance points, and were made from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Those at Creswell Crags include the double V — believed to refer to Virgo Virginia (“Virgin of Virgins”); and PM — thought to mean “Pace Maria” (Peace, Mary).
“Even 200 years ago, the English countryside was a very different place,” the chief executive of Historic England, Duncan Wilson, said last week. “Death and disease were everyday companions, and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark. We can only speculate on what it was the people of Creswell feared might emerge from the underworld into these caves.”
Tours of the areas containing witches’ marks will begin, for the first time, tomorrow.
From the 16th century to the early 19th century, when people made witches marks, there may have been a lack of association with religion, such as today when people might cross fingers or say “Oh, God”. She said: “It just becomes a protective symbol. It was a mark you always made to protect yourself.”
Read about the history of witches in our special feature this week