Friday, 7 August 2015

A Loop of Rowan Tree: amulets against witchcraft

A Loop of Rowan Tree - 1893.18.1
On February 28, 1893, three loops of rowan tree were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by Rev. Canon John Christopher Atkinson, from Danby Parsonage, Grosmont, York. (Accession Nos. 1893.18.1-3) These are now on display in Case 31.A - Magic, Witchcraft and Trial by Ordeal, located in the Court of the Museum. The records describe the rowan loops as amulets against witchcraft, but they also appear to have been prophylactic against ghosts, fairies, spirits, and the Evil Eye. All three loops are of different size, one of them measuring 70 mm at its maximum length (1893.18.1). Their provenance is stated alternatively as "England, North Yorkshire, Grosmont [Esk Valley]" and "England, North Yorkshire, Grosmont, Castleton."

Rowan trees

The European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) has long been associated with magic and protection against enchantment and evil beings in Europe. [10]
This tradition allegedly goes back at least to Greek mythology. We are told that Hebe, the goddess of youth, in a moment of carelessness lost her magical chalice to the demons. Having thus been deprived of their source of rejuvenating ambrosia, the gods decided to send an eagle to recuperate the cup. In the fight that stood between eagle and demons, some of the eagle's feathers fell to the earth together with a few drops of blood. There they became rowan trees. The feathers took the shape of leaves; the drops of blood that of the rowan's red berries. [7]
In Norse mythology, the first woman (Embla) is said to have been made from rowan tree. The rowan also figures in the Æsir story of Thor's journey to the Underworld, in which Thor, after having fallen into a rapid river, is rescued by a rowan tree that bends over and helps him back onto the shore. [7]
Some of the rowan tree's magic and protective qualities may stem from the fact that there is a small five-pointed star, or pentagram, opposite the stalk of each berry; pentagrams have long been considered symbols of protection. The berries' red colour is also claimed to be the best protective colour against enchantment. Linguists say that the name 'rowan' might derive from the Old Norse raun or rogn, which could have its roots in the proto-Germanic *raudnian, 'getting red'. However, druids would use both the berries and the bark of the rowan tree for dyeing the garments that they wore at lunar ceremonies black. [7] [10]
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Sandra Modh,
Harris Manchester College

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