The Witch Posts

The dark recesses of Whitby’s Pannet Museum have always fascinated me. It was here, when I was 12 years old, that I proudly told the old custodian, who had asked what I was writing so furiously in my notebook before a display of Neolithic artifacts, that I was researching ancient aliens. He delivered a scathing rebuke I will never forget, in which he castigated Von Daniken as a “horrible old fraud” and myself as a very wrong-headed boy. I do not suppose he was wrong in either regard.  

I often, as a melancholy, bookish lad with no interest in sports and a great interest in the macabre and the irrecoverable nature of the past, spent through many Saturday afternoons wandering Pannet Museum’s gloomy Victorian aisles. It was here I first saw the famous ‘Hand Of Glory’, being the desiccated hand of a hanged man preserved for occult reasons and found, so I was told, behind the wall of a house in Goathland with an ‘evil reputation’; there were shrunken heads, brought back from God knows where by Whitby sailors; a ponytail cut from a decapitated pirate with the sword that removed both head and lock; and the eeriest collection of porcelain dolls this side of a Horror movie. 

 It was, however, the Witch Posts that always ultimately drew me towards them; dark, smoke-stained columns of ancient oak racked against the far wall; black as coffin nails and deeply carved with crosses and letters, whorls, and alchemical symbols. They are found exclusively on the North Yorkshire Moors in the villages that stand against the heaving darkness and beneath the fuming grey air like jewels thrown across black cloth. Their true purpose has been lost to time but, it was assumed that, when carved, they protected against the predations of witches.

 

Now these were not your witch as the village healer, or a misunderstood widow, or as practitioner of a continuing and hidden pagan tradition. These were Moorland witches, creatures rather than people, filled with malice and the darkest magic. The ancient fear of witchcraft, of the Witch as something apart from men and women, stems from old Norse beliefs in night creatures, jötnar and awfs, things that stalked the dark moorland as the wind whistled through heather and over standing stone ( Awf is an old Yorkshire Coast dialect term for something like a malicious elf. Indeed, it derives from the same Germanic root. Flint arrowheads were called ‘awf-shots’ for years in the environs of Whitby). The country people believed witches cast cruel curses upon them, their hearths and their cattle and made use of various charms to distract their baleful attention, including Witch bottles under the threshold, iron horseshoes, rowan wood and a bewildering multitude of super local charms.   

The complete lack of a living folk tradition to explain the Witch posts has led to at least one alternative theory. Records from the 17th century refers to them as “priest posts”. Some claim priests on blessing a house, would make a mark to confirm the work and that this would explain the use of the saltire, the cross of St. Andrew upon the posts. Another idea is that they showed a room where the Catholic Mass could be safely performed in days when a Catholic priest could expect a grisly end on the scaffold in York for such. 

In the end the witch posts are silent, remnants of a folklore lost, their significance and their occult symbolism a reminder of how the high moors are thick with mysteries that must remain out of reach. Yet, if you get the chance, visit the museum in Whitby, work your way past the fossils and the jet jewellery, and the displays of Victorian costumery to the northern wall where, beneath a display of civil war pikes and battered blades, the Witch post stands waiting. Hold the palm of your hand to the oak, feel the cold electricity of centuries, and listen…