Folk Beliefs

Good luck rituals - The luck of the house

Locally, the rebuilding of houses in stone took place early enough in the 17th century for local traditions to survive the intense cultural turmoil of that century. As a result, many of the old stone houses of the borough retain features of folk beliefs relating to the protection of enclosed spaces and their tenants.

In some cases, these are largely invisible until major renovation takes place; for example, tucked up into the chimney underdrawing people have found used clothing, such as petticoats or shoes. It seems to have been necessary that they were used garments, possessing an association with the wearer; they were not intended in any maleficent way.

Shoes were also placed in other locations at the thresholds of houses – one pair was found in the chimney of the caretaker’s house at Shade School, Todmorden, and a single shoe in the chimney of the ancient section of Broadbottom, Mytholmroyd, while a pair of child’s clogs were placed in an alcove behind panelling by the front door of a cottage in Hebden Bridge.

Shoes from the caretakers house, photo © John Billingsley

Symbols may also be found inscribed on to plaster, perhaps by the builders when they finished their work. Three five-pointed stars, or pentacles, were found scrawled above the main fireplace of an Old Town cottage built around 1910.

Customs such as these are usually thought of as luck rituals, but their precise intention or interpretation is no longer known, nor their period of use. The social milieu in which such customs thrived rarely left documentary evidence explaining them.

A ‘witch peg’ – a piece of notched wood – dating back over 150 years was found fixed into the corner of a post and beam in a farmhouse in Heptonstall, and rowan branches have been recovered from the attics of houses in Midgley.

So when you are renovating, keep an eye out for the unusual! The Central Reference Library in Halifax would be happy to hear of any local examples of these house talismans.

Local Window Terminals, Images © Old Halls & Manor Houses of Yorkshire by Louis Ambler

Good luck motifs - More luck of the house

Luck talismans and other symbols may be found built into houses in the Calderdale area. There are some that protect the luck of the house and others constituting distinctive local traditions.

Favourite locations are thresholds, such as windows, doorways and gable ends – the kind of place where you might see a horseshoe hung. Two symbols are especially local to West Yorkshire and Calderdale in particular – the archaic stone head and the arrowhead terminal. They are mostly features of seventeenth-century buildings, and often appear together.

The archaic head – a mysterious carved stone head with very basic and simple facial features – has a long tradition as a magical motif, and it resurfaced locally with a vigour in the seventeenth century as a device to protect a house and its occupants from misfortune. Well over a hundred examples are known from around the borough.

Another frequent location for protective emblems is the terminal to the drip moulding above a door or window. As well as heads, arrow-like terminals, roundels, diagonal crosses and other shapes are known locally. The arrowhead was known as 'the devil's arrow' in the 19th century, indicating its intention of warding off anything demonic; but the roundel, often with a 'pupil' in the centre, warded off the evil eye, and the diagonal cross, before being known as St Andrew's cross, was the Norse 'dag' rune, bestowing good luck on houses to which it was affixed. Spirals, also, are found, symbolizing smoke and thus protection against fire, as on the fireplace in the White Lion Inn, Hebden Bridge.

Some houses, such as Magson House in Warley, have a more Christian emblem to look after them. The sacred monogram of Jesus, or very occasionally a simple cross.

All these folk beliefs emerge from days when the world was more complex and capricious than it seems today, and there were no insurance companies to buffer the shock of misfortune.

The archaic head

Attention was drawn to the archaic head in the late 1960s, when local antiquarians started asking questions about the naïve sculptures of the human head being found around West Yorkshire, in field walls, on houses and in other locations.

At that time, they were sometimes called ‘Celtic’ heads, in a mistaken belief that they were around 2000 years old, and connected with a Celtic ‘severed head’ motif.

Image © A Stony Gaze by John Billingsley

Folklore implied that they protect the house and occupants from misfortune or magical interference, or commemorate deaths during construction. Further research has demonstrated that, even if they are not themselves old, they have a place in an older tradition stretching back to pre-Christian worldviews. This research also indicates a particular concentration of such stone heads in the Calder valley dating from the 17th century, with another concentration from the 19th century. Indeed, two 17th-century folktales talk about the origin of the name ‘Halifax’.

Archaic heads are most often found in gable ends, or at windows, doorways or gates; they can be found on churches, halls, farmhouses and even wells and the Hebden Bridge aqueduct. All of these are locations traditionally thought to have a thinner veil between this world and the next, indicating that the heads are part of folk magic beliefs, rather than decoration.

This point is made doubly clear in the case of the Hebden Bridge Rochdale Canal aqueduct, where the head is placed overlooking the Calder, in a position where people are unlikely to see it. The head protects the aqueduct itself, and also looks towards the site of a whirlpool known to be one of the most dangerous stretches of the river. The head, dated 1795, is the only one along the whole length of the canal, and appears to confirm that even at that time the notion of the magical protective head was current in upper Calderdale.

Recommended reading: North Country Folk Art by Peter Brears, and Stony Gaze by John Billingsley (Capall Bann, 1998) which is available to read in the Reference departments of Central Library, Halifax and Hebden Bridge Library.

See also