The witch-marks of Tasmania

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Tasmania is a beautiful, haunted place.

Some of the most picturesque places on this island, like Port Arthur, are haunted by the past, distant and recent. Sarah Island’s wild beauty is haunted by the memory of the time when the entrance to its harbour was named “Hell’s Gates” by the unfortunate men who knew only too well the truth of the sobriquet. There are other giveaway names dotted around the island, like Gibbet Hill.

Even the most mundane locations contain eerily jarring remnants. At a local service club, the cold storage at the back of the kitchen looks odd and archaic, for good reason: it was originally the solitary confinement cell, when the building was a local lockup. The chill lurking behind its thick oak door seems not entirely natural.

Recently, though, a whole new window onto our haunted past has begun to come to life: reminders of a time when nearly all the common folk ardently believed in spirits and witches — and took measures to guard against them.

Old houses across Tasmania have been found to be commonly marked with hexafoils: “witch marks”. These strange designs were carved into wood or scratched into the stone of buildings, to ward off evil spirits. The 18th century British country folk who settled Tasmania brought with them the whispered stories of generations, of spirits and witches. The very real threat of mundane attack, from Aborigines and bushrangers — early Tasmania was essentially an open prison, so escaped convicts were common, and at one point threatened the very governance of the colony — would have only reinforced the notion that the common people lived in a truly demon-haunted world.

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Burn marks and hexafoils were carefully placed to ward off evil.

With the passing of time, though, most of this was forgotten. The illiterate early commoners, some of whom didn’t even speak English as their native tongue (notorious cannibal convict Alexander Pearce, for instance, made his last confession in Gaelic), never left a record. More importantly, the villagers who diligently went to church every Sunday, but carved witch marks on their lintels, kept their superstitions an open secret.

A historical research project into such folk magic, here and “back home” in Britain and Ireland, is slowly unearthing the forgotten dark magic of Tasmania’s past. Hexafoils have been recorded on many old houses across the island, as well as other signs of folk magic.

Dozens of burn marks, also believed to ward off evil, have been found in Tasmanian buildings: stables especially. Of 21 stables investigated so far, only one had no burn marks. At one property, 58 burn marks were discovered in seven old horse stalls.

Burn marks were a kind of sympathetic magic, designed especially to protect buildings from fire. The marks were made very deliberately, by holding a candle against the wood, scraping the soot away, and repeating the process.

The burn marks are also thought to possibly be linked to a secret horseman’s society, The Society of the Horseman’s Word, and kind of 18th century trade union.

But the creepiest finds so far are objects like shoes, children’s toys, and mummified cats, found hidden in the cavities of buildings.

The new owners of a remote farmhouse were terrified to find dozens of objects concealed in the building’s spaces: dolls clothes, toys, and shoes. In 1860, tragedy had struck the house, when five members of the same family died within a month. The family had deliberately hidden the items throughout the building, in a folk ritual designed to ward off evil and death. Items were also hidden in chimney stacks, in the belief that they would deter witches, who entered houses through chimneys.

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Shoes and boots found hidden under a kitchen floor in Hobart

Even more eerie was the mummified body of a cat. Cats were not only a witch’s common familiar spirit, but useful household animals which trapped vermin. The body of a cat concealed in a secret place in a house was thought to trap or ward off a witch trying to enter.

Tasmania is a place rich in folklore. Ghost stories and spooky local legends are everywhere. But the revelation of the widespread practice of folk magic by early settlers adds a new dimension to the dark-shrouded history of this haunted island.

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