Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Protecting the Threshold

Just as a field has a fence or hedge, and every forest an edge, so does every household have a boundary, a liminal space in which, for perhaps no more than a split second, one is neither in nor out. One is in between.

Power lies in these in-between, or liminal, spaces – power that can be benign or malign. Scholar Claude Lecouteux describes the house as a "protective cocoon, one that is sacred and magical" (48). As ancient homes tended to be passed down from generation to generation, it was common for a man (as women often joined the homes of their spouses when they married) to be born in the house in which they lived and to die there. This means that inherited homes were also the places in which one's parents, grandparents, and so on had been born, lived, and died.

Home, therefore, is the seat of ancestors. It is the connective structure tying individuals together across time. Home is also a refuge from the outside world -- literally, in that it protects us from the elements; figuratively, in that even today, home is one of the few places where one is guaranteed privacy (at least from those with whom we don't live; family members and roommates are another story).

The openings of the house, therefore, are points of vulnerability, "breaches in this sacred and protective envelope" (ibid.). As with most things, freedom bears with it risks: in order to enter and leave one's home, one must accept the risk that someone -- or something -- else may enter as well. It is a good idea, then, to protect the openings from mischief and malice, especially the door, which is the main point of entrance and departure.

Various spirits, both benign and malign, are believed to inhabit doors. In pagan Roman religion, it is the Manes. In parts of Germany, the recently deceased were believed to linger in the door hinges on Saturdays. In what used to be called Bohemia (now the area in and around the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as well as in Germany, souls in torment lived in doors.

There are various methods traditionally used across Europe to protect the threshold:

  • The marking or placement of the Tau (the letter T, also a cross) on the door or threshold to ward off evil of all kinds
  • Protection via sacrifice of an animal, such as a snake that would become the tomt orna (house serpent spirit) in Sweden, which would then be buried near the threshold or even within it, or else a rooster
  • In a newly constructed house, the owners would send in a (preferably black) animal first, or else the oldest member of a family, as the first to enter a new home would be the first to die (and become the household spirit, or accepted as an offering to the land spirit which then becomes a “tamed” household spirit)
  • Touching the doors of houses with wool and crowning the door with wool, to avert illness
  • Hawthorn, boxwood, or serviceberry branches attached to doors to ward against grief, illness, and malevolent magic
  • Iron objects like axes or brooms placed above or near the door during times when the veil is thin
  • In Germany and Russia, the dead would be passed through, or the coffin knocked against, the threshold three times to prevent them from becoming revenants or otherwise haunting the home

In addition, certain images would be placed on or near doors to protect the dwellers from outside, malevolent forces. These include:

  • Gorgoneion, images of the faces/heads of gorgons
  • A single, often blue eye to repel the evil eye (a gaze of power possessed by some to send curses)
  • Gargoyles
  • Green Men, which, symbolizing fruitfulness and vitality, drive away death, illness, famine, blight, etc.

I think we all have known houses in our past – perhaps we lived in them, perhaps only visited – that resonated deeply with us and left their marks upon us. They have a kind of energy about them, a personality. We feel this especially in older homes. They live. Rather than just a place to sleep and store our things, homes are sacred structures and, as such, can be powerful protectors against a number of forces, as long as we care for them and include them in our magical lives.

 

References

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Image source: MARTHA STEWART LIVING, OCTOBER 2009

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

Comments

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 21 July 2017

    My parents kept a wreath on the door most of the year. Theirs was just decoration I'm sure but the habit probably grew out of earlier customs using the boxwood, hawthorn, and serviceberry you mention. I've also read of the mezuzah custom in some Jewish homes and the Himmelsbrief among the Pennsylvania Dutch.

  • The Cunning Wife
    The Cunning Wife Saturday, 22 July 2017

    Thanks for sharing! Very cool that your parents carried on that tradition with their wreath. I'm not very familiar with Jewish or Pennsylvania German customs, so thanks for mentioning those as well!

  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert Friday, 21 July 2017

    Informative and interesting, Thanks!

  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah Monday, 24 July 2017

    We have two Foo lions who guard our front door (male and female) and an iron dragon who watches the back. We also painted protective rune scripts along the sides and top moldings for both doors. The scripts are designed to promote protection, health, and prosperity every time we pass through the doors. :)

  • The Cunning Wife
    The Cunning Wife Thursday, 10 August 2017

    Very nice! I also have a bindrune written beneath our threshold that I created for protection. Love your guardian figures as well. Thanks for sharing!

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