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The curious story of Witch’s Ladder

5 min read

A witch’s ladder (also known as witch’s rope) is a practice in folk magic made from knotted cord or hair, that normally constitutes a spell, based on the magic of knots.
The number of knots and nature of charms varies with the intended effect (or spell).
In ancient times it was believed that this type of fetish was used to bring evil or even death, and the only way to remove the spell was to find the ladder and untie every single knot.

The first recorded witch ladder found was in an old house in Wellington, Somerset which was demolished in 1878.
Six brooms, an old armchair and a rope with feathers woven into it were found in the space that separated the roof from the upper room and was inaccessible from the interior of the house.
The brooms had handles so decayed they snapped, but these had been replaced so they could be used.
No one had ever seen anything like it.

This particular item was was donated in 1911 by Anna Tylor, the wife of anthropologist E.B. Tylor. It was accompanied by a note that read:

An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of “stag’s” (cock’s) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours’ cows–nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called “The Witch Ladder” by E. Tylee in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one’s death.”

An 1887 article detailed the object more specifically, and when Tylor presented it at a symposium that year, “two members of the audience stood up and told him that in their opinion, the object was a sewel, and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting.
In other words, the Somerset ladder could have been used for this purpose, rather than for malevolent ones. Either way Tylor backtracked and said he had “never found the necessary corroboration of the statement that such a thing was really used for magic.

When American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland received news of the Wellington find whilst in Italy, he investigated and found that the witches there used a similar item, called “witches garland”, made of cord and containing black hen feathers.
The malediction was uttered as each knot was tied in and the item was placed under the victim’s bed, to cause the ill fortune.
This version differs from that found in Somerset in that the feathers were knotted into the cord rather than braided, and the cord was to have hairs of the victim braided into it.
The feathers were plucked from a live black hen one by one and inserted into the knots as they are made, and intrinsic to the witch garland was the placing of an image of a hen or cock (made of cotton or similar) next to the garland, upon which a cross of black pins is made.
The whole was then hidden in the mattress of the victim.
The curse is lifted by finding the hen and the wreath, and throwing the whole lot into running water. The bewitched was then taken into a church whilst a baptism is being carried out, where he must repeat a certain spell before bathing in holy water.

Anglican priest and hagiographer Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 –1924) from Devon, England, included an extensive article on the witch’s ladder in his novel “Curgenven” published in 1893. In his story the ladder was made of black wool, with white and brown thread, and it was tied around cock’s feathers. The maker would weave into it aches and pains and other ailments intended for the victim. Eventually the ladder was thrown to the bottom of Dozmary Pond, a small lake located in the civil parish of Altarnun on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.
They believed that as the bubbles rose to the top of the pond, the curse was released, taking with it the aches and pains of the sick and ailing.

Another version of a witch’s ladder consisted of a rope of three, nine, or thirteen knots while, in modern times, one example of witch’s ladder is a string of 40 beads or a cord with 40 knots. Sometimes feathers, bones, and other trinkets are braided into the string as symbols for a desired spell effect.
The witch’s ladder can be created a section at a time or all at once. In any case, special chants are spoken during the creation process to empower the talisman to do its creator’s bidding.
Once finished, the knots of the witch’s ladder enable a witch to concentrate on repetitive chants or incantation without having to keep count and this allow the witch to focus will and energy on the desired goal.

There are many uses and, whatever your intention is, its purpose is similar to that of a rosary, basically a tool for meditation and ritual, in which often different colors are used as symbols for one’s intent.
It’s also used as a counting tool, because in some spell workings there is a need to repeat the working a particular number of times.
You can also use the ladder to keep track of your count, running the feathers or beads along as you do so, or even making your own using yarn or cord in three different colors, and nine items that are similar in property but in different colors (for example nine beads, nine shells, nine buttons, etc).
As the feathers are tied into knots, focus your intent and goal, and the energy is literally stored within the knots of the witch’s ladder. When you’ve completed the string and added all nine feathers or beads, you can either knot the end and hang the ladder up, or you can tie the two ends together forming a circle.
I’d stay away from hair…

Images from web – Google Research