Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Demon Traps: a beginners guide

I was asked yesterday about the title of this blog (which proves that at least somebody reads it). What exactly is a ‘demon trap’, are they very expensive and are there any local stockists?
To understand the concept of a ‘demon trap’ it is first necessary to understand the world from which they grew. The medieval world was one of uncertainty and fear. Where a miasma blown on the wind could bring disease and death, and evil spirits roamed the landscape in search of vulnerable souls. It was a place where death and misfortune could strike without any apparent reason, and where the only protection lay in the arms of Mother Church - or the more down to earth fall back of folk magic and traditional charms. These ‘folk’ traditions (and I do so hate that term) may not have been part of the orthodox ceremonies of the Church but, based upon the evidence we see inscribed into church walls, were most certainly tolerated on a local level, and may well have been regarded as complimentary to the more orthodox beliefs.
Indeed, the concept of a demon trap actually has its basis in the Old Testament apocrypha. According to the legend King Solomon was given a signet ring by the Archangel Michael inscribed with a magical seal (the Seal of Solomon). The ring gave Solomon particular powers, but most especially it gave him the power to command demons. The seal itself is depicted in several ways in Christian, Islamic and Jewish culture, but most commonly as a Star of David or a Pentagram. By the late middle ages, at least in England, this symbol to command demons, and the belief in the way it functioned, appears to have evolved or morphed in a number of important ways. In essence, it was believed that the demons that roamed through the earth bent of causing mischief were actually rather stupid. They were attracted to bright shiny things and, should they come across a line, then their stupidity and curiosity would cause them to follow that line to its conclusion. However, should the line have no conclusion and continue repeating itself forever, then the demon became effectively ‘trapped’ within the symbol.
And that’s the general theory behind ‘demon traps’ (I’ll work of a ‘special theory’ later on). As I have mentioned previously, the largest proportion of inscribed symbols we find when carrying out graffiti surveys are what are termed ‘apotropaic’ or ‘ritual protection’ markings. They are symbols designed, at their most base level, to ward off evil. However, amongst these we get many different types of apotropaic markings – of which some of the most common types are these endlessly repeating patterns. Many are compass drawn designs, from simple circles and Daisy wheels to complex geometric design, and show clear distribution patterns. Others are knot-work patterns more reminiscent of early Anglo-Saxon art. It is argued that many of these designs were intended to function in just the way mentioned above. They were designed so that any passing demonic entity would see the line, be tempted into following it, and remain trapped forever within the symbol. However, the most obvious symbol we come across that can be considered to be directly associated with the idea of ‘demon traps’ is the pentangle or five pointed star – and some come with the demon already in situ.
On the east face of the chancel arch of St Mary’s church, Troston, is one such demon trap. Lightly inscribed into the stonework is the profile face of a wide mouthed and sharp toothed demon. Its tongue lolls out and eyes bulge forwards, as though screaming in anger or agony. Then, across the surface of the head is another inscription. Cut deep into the stonework, as though gone over time and time again, is a pentangle. It fits neatly inside the demon’s head, trapping it and pinning it to the wall for evermore.

Now many of these apotropaic symbols continue to be used on domestic buildings well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, I would argue that, within certain trade groups, they continue in use until the present day (just go and look at the rear doors of a west midlands narrow-boat and tell me what you see). However, although they continue to be used I’m not going to argue that their function and meaning has remained the same. Whilst they may have been thought of as demon traps in the middle ages their function has evolved. Their original meaning has been lost and new meaning, making them generally associated with ‘good luck’, has become associated with them.
The best analogy I can come up with is throwing coins into a fountain or well. It’s something that almost all of us have done at some point in our lives. Now, in purely archaeological terms, what we are doing when we throw a coin into a wishing well is exactly the same as those people were doing 4000 years ago at places like Flag Fen – where bronze objects, tools and weapons have been ritually deposited in water. As far as the archaeological record of material culture is concerned the two acts are identical. However, we can hardly argue that the meaning and function of the two acts are the same. Whilst we can theorise about the intended function of Bronze Age ritual deposition in water it is difficult to ascribe any other function than falling back on the old archaeological get out clause – and using the term ‘ritual’ far too many times. This is perhaps highlighted by the fact that, should you ask three or four people today exactly why they throw coins into a fountain, the chances are that you will get three or four different answers. Unless, of course, those people are archaeologists. In that case it could be as many as a dozen different answers.

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