Concealed Shoes and Other Apotropaic Devices

The ritual concealment of charms to ward off evil has an extraordinary but largely unknown history in the building tradition of Atlantic Canada.  Its sequestered quality lends mystery to the practice and is likely to blame for its largely undocumented existence.  Placing carefully selected objects, such as shoes, in walls, attics, floors, or cellars in the belief that it will afford the inhabitants some supernatural protection or other benefit comes to our region from Britain and its roots there likely extend across Europe and beyond.

Above: In 1981 this shoe was added to the collection of the Parkdale-Maplewood Community Museum in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.

The Jews of the Old Testament were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on their door posts and lintels before the Spirit of the Lord was to descend on all the houses of Egypt and take the first-born of people and animals.  His Spirit passed over those houses marked with lamb’s blood on the door frame.  Did this Biblical example of household protection offer our ancestors some inspiration for other means of “marking” their homes as somehow set apart or protected?  Was placing objects in walls a physical component of Christian folk ritual or was the practice tied to pagan or non-religious traditions?  Current research does not provide definitive answers – only clues – but whatever the roots of the odd practice it appears to have been motivated by a desire to safeguard loved ones.

The practice of concealing shoes in walls enjoys slightly better than sparse awareness in our region but horse skulls, witch bottles, or even dried cats are largely unknown.   Ritual marks on framing and sheathing was another practice connected to protection and is often dismissed as carpenters’ marks. 

Collectively, these practices are termed apotropaic, a suitably mysterious word with a Greek origin that simply means to ward off evil.

So how were these charms supposed to work?  Was the intention to repel evil or to trap it in the shoe?  Did the protection relate specifically to the shoe’s wearer or to every resident – or perhaps just to the structure?  Was the shoe a fertility charm?  Did those placing the shoes wholeheartedly believe in the promises of the practice or did it eventually diminish to a mere exercise of continuing with the “old ways” simply to honour those who came before?

Now, placing a shoe in a wall and enclosing it behind lath and plaster in the expectation that it will somehow protect or bless one’s family has an endearing quality to it; but the same feelings do not easily extend to dried cats and horse skulls. The animals though are in many ways more fascinating. Most of us can recall countless experiences where a cat or a horse became spooked for some unapparent reason.  It is believed that the “sixth sense” sometimes attributed to these animals is behind the usage of their remains as apotropaic devices.  The inference being that the animal’s spirit – or simply its form – may ward off evil spirits or rodents.

The meanings behind concealed shoes, which are more likely to be retained and documented than dead animals when found, are not entirely understood.  One theory suggests that to give one protection, the shoe must be imbued with the wearer’s essence – which is one explanation for why it is well-worn footwear that is most commonly found.  A related tradition calls for burying an old shoe under a tree.

Placement is important.  Chimneys, a favoured location for apotropaic devices, were often selected because they are always open to the outside and otherwise unprotected.   Similarly, window and door openings were seen as vulnerable to entry and so adjacent wall spaces can sometimes contain a well-worn shoe or animal.

Vineberg & Fulton has endeavoured to create a database to document the discovery of apotropaic devices in Atlantic Canada and we request your help.  So far, the earliest documented find of a concealed shoe in this region occurred in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1891.  Its discovery was lauded, and its finders marveled at its style which featured a pointed toe – a style they noted was so old that it had come back into fashion at that time!

Apotropaic practices were likely far more pervasive than we will ever know.  When we have the opportunity to peer into the “insides” of historic buildings it is helpful to know what to look for and where to look.  It is hoped that this article will raise awareness of this mysterious part of our built heritage and result in more findings being documented.  In response, Vineberg & Fulton has developed a curatorial policy and documentation sheet for recording historic concealed charms.  Please send us records of your finds so that we can add them to our Atlantic Canadian database of apotropaic objects.  The database is available in a limited format by selecting this download link.

 

Posted by Joe Dec 17, 2015 Posted in Architectural History, Atlantic Canada, Publications & Research Comments Off

Comments are closed.