Nevern’s Apotropaic Slates

by Dr Chris Caple

In 2011, we unearthed a series of slates forming a threshold in the gateway of the southern entrance to the castle.  A number of these slates contained faint scratched designs.  As the slates were bedded on their edges, these designs could not be seen by the people passing over the threshold; only by supernatural forces.  The designs were almost certainly incised into the slates by the workmen building the gateway (constructed circa 1170-1191). 

The symbols are apotropaic—designed to turn away evil spirits; a number match later 17th -19th century symbols, scratched into wooden beams, door-frames and window-frames, that were designed to repel witches and other evil spirits. 

Details of these 2011 slates were published in the Archaeological Journal vol. 169.  However, in 2012 a couple more slates appeared, displaced from their original location during the castle’s 1195 destruction.  One contained the scratched design of a spider’s web, shown in this image of the slate drawn by student Bethany Markham.  Drawings show the faint images far more clearly than photographs.

The apotropaic images normally fall into a number of categories including:

  • Traditional symbols; saltire (diagonal cross in a box), pentagram (five pointed star associated with the 5 wounds of Christ and other symbolism)
  • Nets and meshes to ensnare evil spirits and so prevent entry
  • Warrior and weapons images, designed to scare away or stab evil spirits
  • Nine Men’s Morris Boards (merrels) designed to delay the evil spirits playing an endless game so they never enter the castle
  • Many lines and slash marks which may represent sword strokes, points on which the evil spirit would be impaled or just wooden fences or palisades to keep out the spirits.

The spider’s web was initially thought to be a net or web in which the evil spirit might be caught.  However, in the Torah there is a story about David, later King of Israel, who hid in a cave whilst being pursued by soldiers sent by King Saul.  A spider crawled into the cave and built a huge web across the entrance. When the soldiers saw the web across the cave  entrance they didn’t bother to search it – after all, no one could be hiding inside it if the spider’s web was undisturbed.   A similar story is related about the prophet Mohammed. So, the spider’s web may have obscured and disguised the entrance to the castle dissuading the evils spirts from entering.  This is a new way in which apotropaic symbols may work, not previously published. 

Though the grand architecture of castles and cathedrals, and the rich coloured wall paintings, commissioned by aristocrats is frequently seen throughout the medieval period, we rarely glimpse the images made by the peasants who struggled to make a living on the land.  These apotropaic scratches are some of the few images we have ever seen made by them. (But see the Medieval Graffiti Survey.)

Though undoubtedly Christian, the medieval people of Cemais also clearly also believed in good and evil spirits—including the churchmen of the period such as Giraldus Cambrensis, who writes about such spirits in his Description of Wales and Journey through Wales written in the 1190s.

These ‘folk’ ideas persisted for many centuries. In later years, the carved symbols were often letters such as VV (Marian Marks) which invoked the Virgin Mary’s protection. Old shoes and garments were put into walls and beneath floors of buildings to trap evil spirits.  Even now we cross our fingers for luck, making the sign of the saltire. 

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