Pre-modern home security
January 27, 2008 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Apotropaios contains much fascinating information about the (here, mainly British and Irish) folk magic practice of concealing objects in buildings for ritual protection purposes. Yes, mummified Ceiling Cat is averting your evil. One aspect of the practice, the deliberate concealment of garments, has provided us with insight into ordinary costume of bygone days.
posted by Abiezer (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Lamens were once very popular, even in early America, and they were hidden behind walls, near doors, often with blessings on them.
posted by Brian B. at 11:04 AM on January 27, 2008

I love it! "Actually, I *meant* to leave that t-shirt on the floor behind the bed. That right there is an apotropaic t-shirt! So I'll hear no guff about it."
posted by facetious at 11:05 AM on January 27, 2008

Prior to becoming a WWI flying legend, Eddie Rickenbacker was a track racer in Iowa, where he earned the nickname "Fast Eddie". He competed in events with a "Lady Luck", a cat which he kept hidden inside his car. When the animal disappeared prior to the 1914 Sioux City 300, Rickenbacker instead tied a bat's heart to his finger with red thread, and won the competition.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Bugg at 11:10 AM on January 27, 2008 [8 favorites]

Smart Dalek: so he was bat's heart insane? A hoo, a ha, erk.
posted by Abiezer at 11:21 AM on January 27, 2008

New Englanders used to do the same thing. We called it "insulation."
posted by Dave Faris at 12:04 PM on January 27, 2008

I have my doubts.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 1:18 PM on January 27, 2008

As a super here in NYC for a bunch of years I was always fascinated when things would turn up in the walls or floorboards during a construction or renovation of an apartment. Among the treasures I found were an old address book/diary of a construction guy back in the 1930's inside a wall. I think he must have put it on a wall slat and forgotten it. In another apartment layers of old newspaper dating back to the 1940's underneath linoleum. In the back yard were bottles dating back to 1879, meerschaum pipes, dolls arms. In the Tenement Museum a sample of the kinds of wallpaper in old NYC buildings.
posted by nickyskye at 4:10 PM on January 27, 2008

Cavity Creeps.
posted by nickyskye at 4:38 PM on January 27, 2008

Curzon Street Station, a derelict train station in Birmingham UK, has one.
posted by srboisvert at 4:40 PM on January 27, 2008

I loved finding 1910 newspapers in the hollows of my old college dorm. I didn't love knowing that newspaper and horsehair was the primary original insulation, and that the place was a firetrap, but you take the good with the bad.

I remember studying apotropaic objects in archaeology classes, but I didn't know that clothes were apotropaic in Britain. Of course, it just now occurred to me that the horseshoe, which I learned about in elementary school as an old-fashioned American custom, is apotropaic. (And it's probably Irish, at that.)
posted by Countess Elena at 5:30 PM on January 27, 2008

Man, those daisy wheel carpenter marks sure look like German-Pennsylvanian hex barn symbols to me.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:08 PM on January 27, 2008

So were the cats sealed into walls and floors alive, to starve to death in confinement?
posted by orthogonality at 10:22 PM on January 27, 2008

Traditional Malay house construction has something similar. Square swatches of cloth are placed over the main posts beneath the roof beams, for ritual protection. They're not exactly concealed - at my MIL's house you can see the musty old cloth poking out in the corner of the living room - but I'd say it's the same general idea as the English practice.

On a darker note, a Melanau woman here in Sarawak was telling me about the old Melanau practice of human sacrifice prior to a major construction project, particularly bridges. The victim would end up under the footings: concealed human corpses for ritual protection. She wasn't willing to say it wasn't done anymore...
posted by BinGregory at 11:20 PM on January 27, 2008

orthogonality - I did a search on the references at the bottom of the cat page linked here, and the consensus seems to be that the fact that the cats were sometimes posed/positioned indicates they were dead before being walled up, though it seems there's nothing conclusive.
BinGregory - thanks for that added insight too.
posted by Abiezer at 12:10 AM on January 28, 2008

I've never seen a mummified cat or a horse's skull, but I found a mummified bird when I opened up the chimney of my last house. I guess it had flown in and hadn't been able to find its way out again.

Nasty fucking thing. When I picked it up, it was so brittle, my finger just went straight through it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:00 AM on January 28, 2008

So were the cats sealed into walls and floors alive, to starve to death in confinement?

I think they were generally posed, so they were either dead first, or extremely cooperative.
posted by me & my monkey at 7:26 AM on January 28, 2008

Very interesting stuff. Thanks Abiezer!
posted by malocchio at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2008

A number of older homes in rural areas of England have special objects. My mother's cottage has an old leather shoe nailed to the inside of the roof, and the house came with a specific reminder not to remove the shoe.
posted by mdoar at 11:16 AM on January 28, 2008

This reminds me of an interesting story about one of the forges I work in. It's a 19th century farrier's forge that was worked by the same family of blacksmiths for a few generations until it fell into disuse. Eventually it was donated to the local museum - they carted it up and moved the entire building to the nature center where it now operates. I don't shoe horses but it's a fine forge with two big flues and a great history.

Anyway, the archaeologists took the thing apart and documented every little piece of it before they put it back together so we could smith in it. They compiled a nice picture book with the history of the Stillwill forge. One day, I was hammering away at something when a grizzled old man interrupted my labor. He looked about 90 years old.

"Excuse me, but your book here says that old man Stillwill was a teetotaler."

"That's right," I said. "He didn't drink. Dangerous. Drinking around forges and angry horses."
"Son," he stared at me, "That ain't so. I knew him. When I was a boy, Stillwill shoed my daddy's horses."
"Is that so?" I replied. At this point, I figured the old guy was yanking my chain. I can't even remember the name of the dusty, back country town they found the forge in, but the odds of this guy knowing one of the original smiths had to be a million to one.
He pointed at me. "His WIFE was a teetotaler. J.B. would sneak a drink when he was at work."
"O.K." I said, "So you say he was a drinker."
"And I can PROVE it!" He cackled at me. "Let me back there. I wanna show you something."
I let the air out of the bellows and opened the little security gate that keeps the visitors (and weird old men) from coming back by the coal bays. He scurried back around behind the center flue and reached high up behind the bricks, between two planks on the back wall. I'll be damned if he didn't pull out a pint bottle that looked like it had come out of a civil war movie. The cork was still in it. He shook it at me.
"Well, I guess you're right," I said, "I'll let the archaeologists know so they can update their book."
He laughed and tossed me the ancient bottle before skipping out of the building.

The thing that gets me to this day - they put the building on a truck and moved it hundreds of miles. Then some folks took it apart, documented all the stuff in it and put it together again, and nobody found that whiskey bottle. Crazy stuff.

As for me, though, I don't drink and blacksmith. I need my fingers for playing the fiddle.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:05 PM on January 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

What a great story Baby_Balrog!
posted by nickyskye at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2008

posted by tellurian at 6:38 PM on January 28, 2008

Oh Lordy, tellurian; that's a full-on double; just seems the urls I posted differ enough so they didn't show up! Since jessamyn posted the one you link too, surprised she's not cleaned this away.
posted by Abiezer at 7:15 PM on January 28, 2008

No way! It was year's ago and has broken links. You also have Apotropaios. All in all an interesting subject, well presented. I only remembered that old post because I found it fascinating.
posted by tellurian at 7:59 PM on January 28, 2008

I think the Apotropaios site is just a new url for the Dorset folk-magic thing jessamyn posted too though, tellurian. I have MeMailed her with a heads-up, but she may well take a similar view to you. Just wouldn't want the mods to think I trawl the archives looking for ways to rip off their older contributions :D.
posted by Abiezer at 8:12 PM on January 28, 2008

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