How Urban Legends Are Born

I love research, and I love holidays. So it should come as no surprise that researching holiday history and traditions is a special hobby of mine. Sometimes, this leads to bunny trials that go so far, it becomes impossible to trace the ending back to the beginning. That’s the case in a recent discovery: how did I get from old Christmas traditions to witch’s ladders? However it happened, I discovered along the way how urban legends are born.

Almost all information these days says witch’s ladders are an old, traditional, homemade cord spell. Legend has it that witches would knot a string (or rope, hair, etc.) with feathers while cursing someone, then hide the string. The only way for the victim to escape the curse was to find the string and untie every knot.

Deeper research reveals another story.

“In the town of Wellington, in Somersetshire, [stood a] building of considerable antiquity…Some eight or nine years ago [1878] it was discovered that this building was in so unsafe a condition that its instant demolition was become a necessity…In pulling down the upper storey [sic] there was found in a space which separated the roof from the upper room, and to which there was no means of access from below—First: six brooms. Second: an old arm-chair. Third: a rope with feathers woven into it.”

The above is from an article entitled “A Witch’s Ladder” by Dr. Abraham Colles in the 1887 Folk-Lore Journal (Vol 5, No 1).

The original “witch’s ladder,” AKA sewel.

The article goes on to say, “The workmen who made the discovery of the articles declared them with confidence to be for the following purposes:—The chair for the witches to rest in: the brooms for them to ride on: the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof… they had no hesitation in at first sight designating the rope and feathers ‘A witches’ ladder.’”

An associate of Colles, Edward Burnett Tylor, a Reader in Anthropology in Oxford and Keeper of the University Museum, presented the item to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later that year. Immediately two members of the audience stood up and informed him the object was a sewel, and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting.

SEW’EL, noun Among huntsmen, something hung up to prevent deer entering a place. —American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828

Sew’el, n. [Etymol. uncertain.] A scarecrow, generally made of feathers tied to a string, hung up to prevent deer from breaking into a place. –Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1909

Undeterred, Colles’ continued to try to connect the object with witchcraft. He asked some elderly women thought to have knowledge of witchcraft, and a couple of them supposedly mentioned a “rope with feathers” but denied knowing what they were for or how they were used.

Colles published the article quoted above in an attempt to gather more information. He got several responses; among these was a claim that such items were used in Germany and Scotland for “getting away the milk from the neighbor’s cows.” Another came from a man in Italy, who wrote that in that country, such a tool was called a witch’s garland and was used to cause ill fortune. No documentation could be found of either, however.

Then, in 1893, a Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about a witch’s ladder in his novel Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven. Colles’ associate, Tyler, wrote to Baring-Gould to ask where he’d gotten his information on witch’s ladders. Unfortunately for the two seekers, the author said he’s made it all up. But on entreaty by Tyler, Baring-Gould asked a local woman known as a witch about the object in question. She said it was “nothing but a string set with feathers to frighten birds from a line of peas.” Another novel about a witch’s ladder appeared a few years later, but again with no documentation.

With no further information to be found, the feathered string was forgotten until 1911, when Tyler’s widow sent it to the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford with a note that read, “The “witches’ ladder” came from here. 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.”

The string is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, labeled as: “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.”

See how a sewel became a witch’s tool? Urban legend born.

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