Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

A Loop of Rowan Tree: amulets against witchcraft

Sandra Modh,
Harris Manchester College

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]

The density of rowan wood is supposed to make it a suitable material for walking sticks, magician's staves, and druid's staffs. In addition, the branches can be used for metal divination, in dowsing rods, and to make rune staves. Leaves and branches that are tied about a cow's head secure a good milk supply, and cattle and other animals are protected from harm by the hanging of springs of rowan tree above the doors to their sheds. Pieces of rowan tree kept inside houses may guard against lightning, whereas pieces placed on top of graves will prevent the dead from haunting. Rowan tree is also carried on board vessels by sailors and fishermen as good-luck charms, especially when hoping to avoid storms. Another common use of rowan tree is as protection against witches and witchcraft. The numerous associations tied to rowan tree is reflected in the many popular names that have been given to it, for instance Witch Wood, Witchbane, Witchen tree, Rune tree, Whispering tree, Whitten tree, Rawn tree, and Mountain Ash (even though it is not an ash). [4] [8] [9] [10]

On the British Isles, the rowan tree features in several recurring themes of protection. One of them is the protection of a household by a rowan tree growing nearby. Even in the twentieth century, people on Ireland and in the Scottish Highlands were being warned against removing or damaging a rowan tree growing in their garden. A local informant in Advie, on the River Spey, furthermore claimed that adders tend to avoid rowan trees. [5] [7]

In the Highlands, branches of rowan tree were burnt before people's houses, so as to keep witches away. On May-day, huge fires were lit in a Druidical festival known as the Beltane festival (Beltane, 'fires of Bel'), since this was a day when witches were known to be particularly active. In the northeast of Scotland, these fires were lit on May 2nd, Old Style, and were there known as bone-fires. [2] [4]

According to John Ramsay, laird of Ochertyre, near Stirling, and the patron of Burns, the people of Strathspey would make a hoop of rowan tree on May-day and force sheep and lambs to pass through it, both in the morning and in the evening, so as to protect them against witchcraft. Cattle were also vulnerable to spells if left unprotected, which could result in, amongst other things, their milk being enchanted or stolen. In Strathdon, pieces of rowan tree were put in every cattle-byre on May 2nd ('Reed Day'), but not until after sunset, and only done so in secret by a so-called goodman. The pieces of rowan tree that were hung above stable doors, on the other hand, were intended to prevent witches from entering the stables and taking the horses out for a midnight ride. Conversely, on Ireland, a branch of rowan tree was put over the door on May Eve to protect people, animals, and crop from fairies, not from witches. [4] [6] [7] [8]

On the Isle of Man, equal-armed crosses made from rowan twigs were hung over the lintel on May Eve as protection against witchcraft. Such crosses had to be made without the use of a knife, and could sometimes also be fastened on cattle or worn by people for personal protection. From Scotland to Cornwall, similar crosses were bound with red thread and carried around in people's pockets, or they could be sewn into the lining of coats. [7]


An amulet is an object that is believed to have some type of intrinsic power. Most such objects are found in nature, and may simply have been selected for their striking looks. The amulet is used with the intention to protect people, animals, and property against various evils, such as disease, magic, and death. Unlike charms, individual amulets can function as prophylactics against a range of different evils, depending on the owner's needs. The amulet works either by rejecting a certain evil, or by giving the owner the strength to resist evil influences. In no case, however, does the amulet cause the owner any harm. While some amulets require direct contact with the owner in order to be truly efficient, others function through their mere presence. For this reason, amulets are rarely, if ever, destroyed or hidden away, as is often the fate of charms. [3]

In Britain, potatoes and rowan tree amulets were once among the most common prophylactics used; the former protecting against rheumatism (!), the latter against witchcraft. The Pitt Rivers Museum has got two kinds of amulets made from rowan tree: crosses and loops. They were all donated by Canon Atkinson in 1893. [3]

The rowan tree crosses are claimed to have been made by an old man in Corgarff, Strathdon, Aberdeen, and, supposedly, the sacred shape of the cross enhances the protective power of the rowan tree itself. This type of amulet was put into every opening of a house, so as to keep witches out. On August 1st ('Lammas day'), such crosses allegedly had to be placed over all doors at noon, in secret, by someone who did not stop and speak to anyone he met on his way. [3] [6]

According to the card catalogue for loop No. 1893.18.1, two of the three rowan tree loops had been placed as protection against witches on the railing of a certain Dr. Alexander's house, in Castleton, Yorks. The third of these loops, on the other hand, had been fixed on a gate-spike before the church porch, "by a horseman who turned his horse thrice before setting each loop." The power of the rowan tree appears here to have been enhanced through the performance of a magic rite; a practice that is more commonplace when it comes to charms, since the efficacy of a charm depends on the rites and incantations that accompany its manufacture. [3]

It might also be worth mentioning that knots are generally ascribed magic virtues in many parts of the world. Often they are considered spiritual fetters of sorts. Although the powers of the knot may be of a maleficent kind, they can also act for the good of people, and relieve them from evil. In Russia, many amulets derive their protective powers from knots. Crucially, though, the special virtue of a knot only lasts for as long as the knot remains untied. [4]

Tales from a moorland parish

Rev. Canon John Christopher Atkinson was born and reared a South-country man. Still in his young age, he was one day shown a letter, purportedly intended for his eyes. It was an offer of an ecclesiastical post in a parish in North Yorkshire, with a salary of £95 per year. Even though a friend discouraged him from accepting the offer - saying that if the moors had been known at the time of Napoleon, the island of St. Helena would never have had to serve as a prison - the young Canon Atkinson made up his mind and went. [1]

Shortly thereafter, he arrived in a solitary and hostile landscape, unlike anything he had ever know, in which the church turned out to be located at quite some distance from most parishioners (mostly Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists). At that time it was not unusual for the farmers to be illiterate, and although this might have changed slightly during the forty-five years that Canon Atkinson came to stay in the parish, not everything changed to the better. In his Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891), he states that:

Certainly, I have myself, in several instances, given friendly assistance, in the way of Latin or arithmetic and accounts, to lads of promise who wished to "better themselves", and so have helped to swell the ranks of "professional men." (p. 6)

Canon Atkinson appears to have been a man of many talents, and like many of the antiquarians of his time, he acquired a taste for digging barrows. Yet, he explicitly expressed a disapproval of the unscientific, and often non-methodical, work of many of the antiquarians. Equally, he found the history of earthworks and old settlements much appealing, and, quite in opposition to the mainstream thinking of his time, he did not hesitate to search for testimony for their old age (and indeed pre-British roots) in the geological record. [1]

Canon Atkinson also had a keen interest in the folk-speech that had survived in a very distinct form in the remote and secluded landscapes around his parish, particularly within the Dales district. Since the whole region had once been populated by Danes - and probably still hosted a large population of Scandinavian descendants - there were a number of expressions and place names that could be shown to be derived from Danish. Moreover, some of the terms and idioms used in Cleveland appeared to be similar, or identical, to those of Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the Scottish Lowlands, and parts of Cumberland, to mention a few. This led Canon Atkinson to speculate that the Cleveland folk-speech might be a survival of the tongue once spoken in the "great Northumbrian kingdom." [1]

The intensity of Canon Atkinson's interests eventually resulted in the publication of a number of books. These include The Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect and A History of Cleveland (author), as well as The Whitby Chartulary, The Rievaulx Chartulary, and The Furness Coucher Book (editor). But maybe it is only in Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) that he really reveals a completely different area of interest, that suggests he was indeed fortunate to have accepted his post in the Yorkshire parish:

Fifty years ago the whole atmosphere of the folklore firmament in this district was so surcharged with the being and the works of the witch, that one seemed able to trace her presence and her activity in almost every nook and corner of the neighbourhood. (p.73)

I don't think I am acquainted with any part of England in which these observances have not obtained, and in the days of my youth I met with them in a still flourishing condition. Of late years they may have not unusually fallen into a condition of decadence, but I have met with some or other among them in different parts of Lincolnshire and in the north in such vigorous existence, within the last ten to fifteen years, that my interest in them has never been permitted to die away. And all the less because at an earlier period still I had been able to connect modern English notions and usages with certain analogues undoubtedly as archaic as they were non-English./ For years ago I had gone through a course of Folklore reading, very copious and equally curious, mainly (though not exclusively) Danish and Swedish, in which I had met with quite unanticipated illustrations of a great variety of our Yorkshire superstitions and practices founded upon them� (p.128)

As it turned out, folk-speech was not the only thing that had survived in the isolated landscapes of North Yorkshire; superstition and folklore were as alive and active as ever. [1]

It seems that the witch was the most prominent character in the moorland folklore. Many of the stories of witches were localized; often to the extent that the villagers could name and identify a number of notorious witches, and even point out the houses in which these witches were perceived to live! [1]

Canon Atkinson learned from the parishioners that there were a number of antidotes against witches, the simplest and least expensive one being the "witch-wood". Witch-wood was the local name for rowan tree, and upon first arriving in the region, Canon Atkinson noted a considerable consumption of this article. [1]

In order for witch-wood to be truly effective, it had to be collected in the right manner, in the right place, and in the right season. Needless to say, it also had to be used in the right way. An old woman, named Hannah, once recounted to one of Canon Atkinson's local informants that to protect a farm from witches, several pieces of witch-wood were needed: one for the upper sill of the house-door, one for the upper sill of the stable, the cow-byre and so on, one for personal use, one for the head of the bed, one for the house-place, etc. [1]

The pieces of witch-wood could only be cut on St. Helen's day, preferably with a household knife, so as to achieve the best effect. Moreover, the person cutting the wood must never have seen, heard about, or even suspected the existence of the tree in question. For the old woman, Hannah, this meant that she was forced to seek out her witch-wood far from her house. Once it had been cut from the tree, the witch-wood had to be carried home by a different path than by the one on which the cutter had come. Whether or not these conditions were always and painstakingly observed by all villagers, though, Canon Atkinson could never positively confirm. [1]

In the documents file pertaining to rowan tree loop No. 1893.18.1, there is a photocopy of a letter from Canon Atkinson to [E.B.] Tylor, dated March 5, 1892. The letter reads:

[I] am disappointed that I get no confirmation from any of my correspondents. It is the same with the witch-wood. There is an unlucky spirit of reticence upon those who, I am convinced, could give information; a spirit which more than one of my correspondents notes quite independently of my own experience.

One year later, Canon Atkinson donated three loops of witch-wood (or rowan tree) from the Yorkshire moorlands to the Pitt Rivers Museum, where visitors can see them on display in the Court today.


[1] Atkinson, J.C. 1891. Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland. London: Macmillan. (Second edition)

[2] Burne, C.S. 1917. Classified Catalogue of Brand Material (continued). Folklore 28(1): 52-86.

[3] Ettlinger, E. 1943. Documents of British Superstition in Oxford. Folklore 54(1): 227-249.

[4] Frazer, J.G. 1900 [1890]. The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan. (Second edition)

[5] Gregor, W. 1889a. Some Folk-Lore on Trees, Animals, and River-Fishing, from the North-East of Scotland. The Folk-Lore Journal 7(1): 42-44.

[6] Gregor, W. 1889b. The Witch. The Folk-Lore Journal 7(4): 277-286.

[7] Kendall, P. Mythology and Folklore of the Rowan. Trees for Life - Restoring the Caledonian Forest. http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/rowan.html (Accessed on February 1, 2008)

[8] Kinahan, G.H. 1881. Notes on Irish Folk-Lore. The Folk-Lore Record 4: 96-125.

[9] Kinahan, G.H. 1888. Irish Plant-Lore Notes. The Folk-Lore Journal 6(4): 256-267.

[10] Wikipedia

Key words: Rowan trees, amulets, Canon Atkinson