Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Animal Guardians on the Roof

A while back, my husband and I came across Escape to the Country on Netflix. We love house-hunting shows in general, and we enjoyed the glimpses into the local cultures, traditions, and landscapes of different regions of the UK, where the majority of our ancestors came from. In episodes featuring thatched homes, the straw bird finials that sometimes occupy the roof lines stood out to me as a particularly interesting craft. The show didn't make too much mention of them, but it was obvious that there was more to them than mere decoration.


Made of straw and wire netting, these figures are opportunities for thatchers to showcase their creativity and skill. In use, they mainly serve to distinguish homes from each other and deter birds from picking the straw from the roofs, but in the past they were also credited with warding off evil spirits and witches. Other animals besides birds also decorate English thatched roofs, including snakes, pigs, rabbits, and foxes. Viewed by some as twee work for thatchers with “more time nor sense,” it is nonetheless one of those still-ringing reminders of the folklore and cultural heritage of a place.


England is not alone, of course: peoples across the world have placed animal figures on roofs for similar reasons. Russian izba roofs are decked with horses, which are associated in many European cultures with travel to the Otherworld, the dead, and household spirits. In the U.S., owl figures can sometimes be found on roofs -- predatory night birds that often symbolize death but serve a protective function nonetheless (perhaps because of their fearsome symbolism). In China, dragons, phoenixes, qilin, and other mythical animals are found on imperial and temple roofs.

Why the Roof?

In northwestern European traditions (and I suspect it's the same or similar in other cultures), the roof is a major protective barrier in the home, both materially and spiritually. In Scandinavian folklore, revenants -- the animated dead -- attacked from the roof. This is because the dead, if not removed through a special door that was afterwards sealed, would be taken out through a hole in the roof rather than the front door or a window. This was done to confuse the dead, who might try to return the way they came.


Revenants are not mere ghosts -- they are physical beings that can be engaged with all our bodily senses. Claude Lecouteux explains that the Old Norse revenant called a draugr was animated by their “inner shape” (i.e. the hamr) which was “corporeal” and “bore traces on its body of any wounds it suffered” (179).  Still, death alters them: they often become literally larger than life, stronger than any living person, and more violent. Hilda Roderick Ellis [Davidson] notes in The Road to Hel that “the characteristics of [deceased individuals] have not changed; they are only, as it were, intensified on the other side of the grave” (148). It took a person with powerful resolve, cunning, and often physical strength to put them back in the grave and prevent them from rising again.


Of course, in lore the dead -- and other spirits -- have more subtle ways of influencing the living. They could come as dangerous storms (as with the Wild Hunt) or spread disease and illness. Invoking the power of animal spirits through icons on the roof is a powerful and evocative old warding method that also serves moremundane and ornamental functions.

Idols of the Home

Someday, I'd like to have a bird finial installed on the roof of my old farmhouse -- a turkey vulture or maybe a blue jay. I like the idea of crowning a home with an animal idol and, through it, beckoning tutelary spirits that would protect it. It could be a little extra insurance on those wild nights when spirits of many kinds fly about in the skies (like Walpurgisnacht, which is coming up soon!)


Which animal spirit would you choose to guard your household?


Unlinked Works Cited

Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel. Greenwood, 1968.


Lecouteux, Claude. The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind. Inner Traditions, 2009.


Image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. 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.  


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