Having just gone through the trick or treat experience, it seems a good time of year to hark back to earlier folklore traditions that mark the beginning of winter and which help guard against the presence of malevolent spirits.
In Sussex there has been a long tradition of hanging ‘witch stones’ in your house, barn or stable to ward off witches, bad luck or illness. These stones with a natural hole in them were believed, by local people, to have lucky powers that could protect the householder against such threats.
This type of tradition may even date far back into our prehistory. At Whitehawk Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure in Brighton, shepherds’ crowns (fossil echinoids) were found deliberately buried alongside two female skeletons and, one case, two chalk blocks with holes drilled in them – similar to witch stones – were also buried with the body. We can only speculate what meaning these stones had but it’s not a huge leap of imagination to think that they may well have been placed in the graves to ensure good luck and a safe passage into some sort of afterlife.
At Brighton Museum we are indebted to one of our earliest curators, Herbert Toms, who spent a lot of time recording these folklore traditions and noting similar practices at archaeological sites. We can only guess what Toms would have thought about present day Halloween celebrations but we owe him a debt of gratitude for preserving a record of our earlier folklore traditions. Perhaps next year at Halloween we should be placing a lucky witch stone on our windowsill instead of a pumpkin?
Posted by James Dixon on behalf of Andy Maxted