The Witches' Ladder

The "Original" Witch's Ladder

The Somerset Witches' LadderThe first recorded "witch's ladder" appears to be the one found in Wellington, Somerset, in 1878. It consists of an approximately 5' cord, made from twisted strands, with a loop at one end and with feathers having been inserted between the strands at various points along it. It currently hangs in the "Magic and Witchcraft" case in the Pitt Rivers Museum after being donated in 1911.

An article in The Folk-Law Journal of 1887 states that it was found in the roof space of a building that was being demolished, along with a stool and six brooms. Workmen who made the discovery apparently stated a belief 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 (there being no means of accessing the space from within the building). Thus the name "Witch's Ladder" appears to have been born.

The purpose of the witch's ladder is unknown although there seems to have been rumour around the time of the discovery that it was for use in "getting away the milk from neighbour's cows and for causing people's deaths". Comparison with the "witches garland", an item know to have been used by witches in Italy, and made from cord with interwoven black hen feathers, also suggests a malevolent purpose.

One of the better articles on the web about the Wellington Ladder can be found at http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-witchs-ladder.html

Modern Witch's Ladders

In a modern, Neo-Pagan context, the term "witch's ladder" gets applied to a number of different items including:

1. A knotted cord created during a ritual, especially a spell casting.

2. A length of cord made from twisted strands through which various items, not just feathers, are pushed to create a talisman.

3. A number of cords which are braided, with items being woven in, to create a talisman

4. A strand of beads, often to be worn as a necklace or bracelet, primarily for decorative purposes but also as a means of counting, i.e. a form of "prayer beads".

A Spell Casting Tool

Many sources that describe the witch's ladder as a spell casting tool also present the following rhyme:

+-------- By knot of ONE, the spell's begun
+-------+ By knot of TWO, it cometh true
+---+---+ By knot of THREE, so mote it be
+-+-+---+ By knot of FOUR, this power I store
+-+-+-+-+ By knot of FIVE, the spell's alive
+++-+-+-+ By knot of SIX, this spell I fix
+++++-+-+ By knot of SEVEN, events I'll leaven
+++++++-+ By knot of EIGHT, it will be Fate
+++++++++ By knot of NINE, what's done is mine

This comes from the practice of knot magic and the little "illustrations" at the start of each line show knots being tied onto a cord. I knot is initially tied at each end. The space between them is then divided into two by tying a third knot in the middle. Dividing these two spaces results in five knots with four spaces. Tying a knot into the middle of those spaces result in nine knots.

It is suggested that items can be tied into the knots.

However this is clearly not the same thing as the Wellington Ladder and the counting within the rhyme makes little sense given that:

a) the procedure for tying the knots results in there being nine of them with no need to count.

b) the rhyme makes no mention of the spell's intent. So rather than the knotting being an aid to counting repetitions of a spell it has now become a distraction.

Other sources that describe this strategy for placing nine knots on a cord as an aid to repetition advocate repetition of the spell (which makes much more sense) and do not call the cord a witch's ladder.

Talismen

While the spell casting tool idea focusses on the construction of the "ladder", the talisman idea has greater focus on the finished item. This is not a contradiction. While some spells are over and done with at the end of the casting, others need time to work after being invoked; so it is quite reasonable that an item created during a ritual is kept or passed on to someone else. Similarly, while some items can be purchased, cleansed, and dedicated, others are imbued with power in the course of their construction.

Different sources suggest different method and practices for the creation of a witch's ladder talisman with, somewhat irritatingly to my mind, the word "traditional" being banded about to the extent that it cannot be taken seriously. Sources refer to traditional, colours, numbers of course, items to be tied, and number of items, with no information being given as to the origins or reasoning behind the "tradition".

Beaded Jewellery

Alas descriptions of the beaded jewellery versions are also plagued with unsubstantiated claims that, for example: 40 beads are traditional, arranged into groups of 3, 7, 9 and 21 beads. On only one occasion have I found any suggestion on how these groupings are to be used. That (online) source no longer exists... but it didn't make a whole lot of sense as it related the 3 to the repetition of a short prayer and the 7 to seven lines within a single prayer (so no real need to keep count there methinks). Its suggestions for 9 and 21 were also illogical.

Conclusions

I'm sure there are some who will read this and be disturbed by it as it doesn't hold with what they BELIEVE to be true. If that's you: please don't be upset. I am NOT suggesting that any of the above mentioned practices or interpretations are bad and if tying knots, creating talisman, or counting beads, works for you: that's great. All I am really disputing here is whether or not any of this relates to the Wellington Ladder i.e. the REAL witch's ladder, and whether or not I should be using the term in relation to jewellery items.

My own thoughts on the subject are that:

1. Based on observation of the Wellington ladder, it would appear, given that there is a loop at one end, that the object was intended to be hung. This could be with the intention of it emanating it's magic from wherever it is placed.

2. The Wellington Ladder appears to have been made by inserting feathers into a cord made from twisted strands and NOT, as some suggest by weaving them in a the time the cord was made.

3. An interesting suggestion that I have encountered, and the one that I prefer (because it makes the most sense), is that the intention of feathers was done to count a number of events or repetitions of a ritual that took place over an extended period of time.

Sometime rituals have a "natural" duration. In others there is a need to allow a length of time to pass... and strategies such as the burning of a candle are used. Then there are occasions, such as when chanting or praying, when a number of repetitions needs to be counted... this is where tying knots, notching sticks, and counting beads, can be useful. Finally, there are times when a ritual needs to be performed repeatedly over a long period of time, say once a day for 40 days, and it is my belief, as a result of my research and the application of logic, that this could well have been the true purpose of the Wellington Ladder i.e. that it began as an empty cord that hung up and feathers were inserted over a period of time to keep count of something...

... like how many times they had chicken for dinner.

Either that or it was an elaborate cat toy. <ducks for cover>. ;-)

Seriously though: while it is possible that the workmen of Wellington had previously heard of a witch's ladder, without knowing its purpose, and presumed to have found one, it seems much more likely that they invented the name based on speculation about the function of the found object. Furthermore, it being a catchy name, it seems likely to me that the term has since been embroidered into post-Victorian versions of "traditional" folklore and Neo-Pagan beliefs.

Coda:

If you are aware of particular sources of information that you think I should consider in relation to this subject, please let me know... but please, please, do not refer me to sources that describe things as being traditional or magical, without reference or explanation as to why the author believes that to be the case. In the course of researching this article I have seen the same claims, apparently copied and presented over and over again without the author having done any investigation as to where their preferred source might have blindly copied it from.


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