Researchers document evidence of folk magic in colonial Australia

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AUSTRALIA – For many, it has long been thought that there was little or no practice of witchcraft and folk magic during Australia’s colonial period. But a number of researchers across the country are uncovering more and more evidence that convicts and free settlers from Europe brought a number of their superstitions – particularly apotropaic symbols and customs – with them.

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The Tasmanian Magic Research Project

Launched in January 2018, the Tasmanian Magic Research Project was established to investigate and document physical evidence of “the material state of magic” throughout the state of Tasmania during the 19th century. The project is led by author, publisher, and historian Dr. Ian Evans, who has written numerous books on the history and conservation of old Australian houses. Evans is credited with contributing to the growth of the heritage movement that spread throughout Australia in the 1980s and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2005 for service to the preservation of the country’s architectural heritage.

“Australia was thought to be a desert as far as the practice of magic was concerned,” Evans said in a recent story on ABC Television’s 7:30 Report. “Because generations of researchers had worked their way through archives and libraries and memoirs and reminiscences – not a word about magic.”

However physical evidence of the practice of magic existed, not in the archives but in the buildings themselves. Since commencing fieldwork, project researchers have documented a number of apotropaic marks – that is marks considered to have the power to avert evil or bad luck – in old homesteads, inns, stables, courthouses, and more.

Safe from Harm: Apotropaic Marks in Colonial Australian Buildings

Marks found in Tasmania to date include hexafoils, which are made up of six circular arcs overlapping to form a flower-like image, a consecration cross, concentric circles, and burn marks.

Hexafoils seem to be among the most commonly used apotropaic symbols – a sentiment confirmed by Timothy Easton in Ronald Hutton’s (ed) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: a feeling for magic:

Hexafoil is used here as a generic term because other names frequently used to describe this symbol, such as ‘daisy wheel’ and ‘marigold’ (Mary’s Gold), imply flowers, femininity and an association with the Virgin Mary. However this design has, a long association as a sun symbol which was usually considered masculine, whether as Apollo the sun god, or later as Jesus Christ. They first appear as solar wheels on stone and rock engraving in prehistoric times. In more recent times these symbols were applied to all types of buildings, whatever their construction, and they are found also on furniture, domestic containers and household equipment. On medieval church chests these hexafoils can appear to be mere decoration, with no certain apotropaic use. However, certain later pieces demonstrate a layout which, when combined with other symbols, strongly suggest that the hexafoils were applied for apotropaic reasons.

Concealed Objects

Project lead Dr. Evans received a PHD in 2010 from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales for his thesis entitled Touching Magic: Deliberately Concealed Objects in Old Australian Houses and Buildings. This thesis set out to establish whether the European practice of concealing objects in sealed hollows in old houses and other buildings for protection from evil or harm also took place in Australia. The work outlines many instances of objects – such as children’s shoes, clothing, and even dead cats – being sealed into wall, roof and floor cavities, usually upon a building’s construction.

Notable examples of object concealment in Australia include a child’s shoe found hidden in foundations of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the discovery of a prisoner’s shirt secreted under the boards of a staircase at the Hyde Park Barracks. When discussing the latter in a 2012 BBC News article, Evans remarked, “…this was a strange, alien, land for these convicts, cut-off from their loved ones in England and they were most likely terrified by the noises and other sounds around the jail, so they sought refuge in mystical customs they’d brought with them.”

In Tasmania, the Tasmanian Magic Research Project has also documented quite a few object concealments throughout the state during the 19th century. The most notable of these is the discovery of 39 concealed shoes and variety of other objects at Woodbury House, north of Oatlands in the state’s east.

The Victorian Goldfields and the Gothic

Victorian historian, lecturer and author of Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival, Dr. David Waldron’s recent research has documented and evaluated apotropaic marks and more in and around the regional city Ballarat, which once served as a busy hub of the state’s gold rush.

The population boom following the discovery of gold in the early 1850s meant that people from all over the world and of all walks of life journeyed to south-eastern Australia to seek their fortune, bringing their culture and folklore with them. This vibrant jumble of hitherto unrelated immigrant communities, the indigenous folklore of the Waddawurrung people and the unruliness that was the goldfields at the height of the gold rush led to what Waldron describes as “a proliferation of stories, subaltern histories and urban legends about events and locations which remain to this day.”

In Ballarat, no greater example of this folklore exists than the mystery that surrounds the marks carved into the southern wall of the bluestone works along the Yarrowee river. As Waldron describes in his essay ‘A Medieval Mystery in Modern Ballarat’:

…over the course of a mile through the centre of town, are several hundred occult-seeming symbols carved into the stones. There are several dozen different symbols, each carved on the face of a bluestone brick (though some stones feature two or more such symbols), repeated randomly along the southern wall. Each carved symbol is roughly six to eight inches in diameter. Collectively, they create an odd effect, as if walking alongside the ancient stone walls of a British castle or church wall with apotropaic markings to ward off evil spirits and masons’ marks pertaining to the esoteric traditions of stonemasons’ trade guilds long since forgotten. If one was prone to flights of fancy, like many who have walked past this odd collection of carved symbols, one might speculate some kind of occult purpose to these markings, the meanings of which have been lost since the goldfields era.

While urban legends would have us believe these marks are from satanic cults, druids, witches or even 19th century burglars leaving clues to hidden loot, Waldron, who also researches and co-writes for the Goldfields History podcast series Tales from Rat City, discovered through his research that these were masons’ marks, specifically bankers’ marks.

Some examples of “witches’ marks” found in old buildings. [courtesy Dr David Waldron]

Bankers’ marks were not widely used in Europe after the 17th century; these marks were once used to signify authorship but became less necessary as literacy rates rose. That these marks would appear on 19th century stonework in Ballarat presented even more questions for Waldron and his fellow researchers, who included Dr. Dorothy Wickham Research Associate Federation University, PhD candidate, Federation University, and bluestone expert Susan Walter; and dark history tour expert and owner Nathaniel Buchanan.

While this research remains ongoing, one hypothesis is that these marks have something to do with the flooding issues faced by European colonisers in Ballarat, and were etched into the waterways as a means of protection.

Australian History and Folk-Magic

Documenting finds such as those made by Evans, Waldron, and by the Tasmanian Magic Research Project is critical in piecing together an unique and important history of magic and folklore in this country.

“These marks, rituals and foundation sacrifices are the fragments of a unique legacy of folklore, magic and ritual practice from the pre-industrial era.” Waldron told The Wild Hunt. “The fragments that remain in Britains former colonies in Australia, Canada and the United States, are testament to the pervasiveness of those magical traditions.

“Indeed, the colonies were a uniquely eclectic crucible for these traditions as immigrants were motivated by both the desire to remain connected to their cultural heritage, as well as by the exposure to many diverse cultural traditions of the multi-cultural British Empire. Chinese traditions blended with Cornish, Irish and Indigenous and those legacies remain in the foundations, walls and fireplaces of 19th century homes throughout the world.”

Some examples of “witches’ marks” found in old buildings. [courtesy Dr David Waldron]

When asked what conclusions could be drawn from his work by modern magic practitioners and what the implications were for the history of folk magic in Australia, Evans told The Wild Hunt, “as a result of nearly 20 years of work we now know that magic was part of the fabric of life in Australia in the 19th century.

“Known practitioners of magic include builders and building tradesmen who concealed shoes and garments in the houses they constructed, grooms who ran the stables on major estates and who used burn marks on the timber of horse stalls to immunise the stables against fire, and the blacksmiths who forged heavy iron hinges that were placed on rooms and spaces where food was prepared or stored. They placed a forbidding large X on the terminal end of those hinges.

“Is that it? I doubt it. I think it is very likely that other bodies within the Australian community had their own variety of magic. This is an area of research with which any one can assist. If you find anything odd or unusual on an old card, for example, please get in touch with me.”

The Tasmanian Magic Research Project has put together a guide for finding and documenting apotropaic marks in old buildings here. David Waldron recently edited and contributed to an anthology by local historians, Goldfields and the Gothic, which explores some of the long buried legends, histories and folklore of the Victorian goldfields. It is available from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.


Works Cited:

Easton D. ‘Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures for Protecting Buildings against Misfortune’, in Hutton R. (ed). Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: a Feeling for Magic. 2015. 39-67.
Waldron D. ‘A Medieval Mystery in Modern Ballarat’, Agora: Journal of the History Teacher’s Association of Victoria. Volume 52, No 1, 2017.4-9.