The witch's ladder: curse, pendulum, rosary and amulet.


The witch's ladder, also known as the feather rope, knotted cord, is a magical fetish (tool) that has had different methods and objectives over time. Spells with knots have been frequent in the history of witchcraft, and can be divided into knots to preserve, attract and protect, such as love ties, petitions, against illnesses... and knots to hinder or prevent the advance of the enemy, pregnancies, business, etc. Likewise, undoing knots could facilitate childbirth, undo spells, Frazer in The Golden Branch (1922) called this type of magic, sympathetic magic, by making an object refer to the other and affect it.

Although its use has become popular in modern witchcraft, especially among Wiccans, the truth is that the origin of the knot ladder is a couple of centuries earlier. It already existed in multiple cultures of the East and West, but the first time it took the name of a witch's ladder and was inserted into Western witchcraft was in 1878, when after demolishing an old house in Wellintong, Somerset, England, they discovered a meter and a half rope, which is currently in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (or at least one that recreates it, donated by the family of one of the anthropologists who postulated its function, Tylor). The rope had interwoven feathers, with three knots and a space to hang it, in the idea that it would help to climb to the ceilings (hence ladder, eng. ladder). Although its function was not clear, it was identified by A. Colles and E. B. Tylor as a ritual act or tool, given that it happened to be in a room with six brooms and a chair, and they investigated similar superstitions, reaching an apparently childish conclusion, feverish to a certain extent by the emotion of the moment. In Tylor's academic presentation of the witch's ladder, there were detractors who ruled that said rope was nothing more than an animal scarer, like those that are hung in windows and gardens on farms and country houses, and that its location in the attic of an old and abandoned house had no justification. Tylor tried to contact novelists in which instruments similar to the so-called witch's ladder appeared, but he did not receive from them any conclusive origin beyond the aforementioned popular knotting spells, leaving his theory lame, but not exempt from the fact that the interpretations he made passed into the world of occultism and neopaganism.

The anthropologist Frazer was a fervent supporter of Tylor and the theory of the magical artifact. In his studies, Frazer, as indicated at the beginning, raised a lot of questions about knots for magical purposes, and pointing out folkloric situations where ropes were associated with witchcraft, reporting various cases from around the world that could support Professor Tylor's theory. For example, he indicated Scotland, where cases of women and children joining ropes and hair from the tails of neighboring cows had been reported, obtaining milk from them by "milking the ropes", given the similarity of tightening the knots, and leaving the neighbors with cows that, despite being healthy, did not give milk. He collected other testimonies in British lands where knotted ropes were hung from ceilings - hence, according to him, the final loop of Colles and Tylor's witch's ladder - and spun once more to obtain milk or butter by a resemblance of squeezing and releasing. Justifying this popularity, he indicated that something similar was done in the Bohemian region, in what is now the Czech Republic, with the explicit indication that the rope belonged to a bell, the chimes being indicative of magical action, and the propitious moment for "milking". In Germany, in addition to ropes, there was a ritual for the same purpose through the use of a broom that, fixed to the wall from the end of the stick, moved up and down, as if pumping milk into the fireplace.

Outside of Europe at the time, he pointed out that in India, a rope must touch the person to be conjured, preferably from above and at night, and then, the witch or sorcerer ties one end and sucks and sucks at the other, extracting the blood of the bewitched, making him ill. As a counterpoint, in Australia a knotted rope was used for the sick person and the sorcerer sucks out the illness through the rope.

This was all very well, but a knotted rope was not the same as a knotted rope with feathers in between. Frazer indicated that in Australia it was common for the tribal sorcerer or shaman to tie to a stick or spear feathers from different birds, human or animal fat and an object of the person whom he sought to conjure and kill. The stick was stuck in the ground and then it was set on fire in a small bonfire at its feet, enunciating a series of incantations, so that when the stick fell, so would the bewitched person. Frazer's intent here was to indicate the symbolism of the feathers: that the spell would "fly" towards the gods or towards the enemy tribe, considering that the feathers on the witch's ladder could have had an analogous function, either against someone or, again, with someone's cows.

One of the testimonies that Frazer collected, but equally unprovable, belonged to a certain W.H. Ashby, which ensured the continued use of the witch's ladders, which Frazer preferred to call "feather rope", but for pendulum purposes. That is, they were made with certain elements considered magical such as straw, live bird feathers, etc., and they were hung from the ceiling, asking questions and letting it sway, seeing where it leaned, being able to indicate an affirmative or negative answer, or pointing in the direction where a culprit or desired person was.

On the other hand, shortly after, the folklorist Godfrey Leland (1887), in his studies in Europe, specifically in Italy, identified this "witch's ladder" as a type of ritual carried out by Strega or Italian witches, who called it garlands, and which had destructive purposes, such as making those who slept near them sick (evidently, the witches or culprits placed them that way). Based on a Florentine case, these ropes also differed in that the feathers, from a black hen, were knotted and not interwoven, and that they were also joined or rolled into a figure or chicken doll made of cloth before leaving it in the place to be enchanted. According to Leland (1892) this tradition would be a continuation of the Etruscan spells braiding hair. It also indicated that in African and Afro-Caribbean rituals, the use of feathers and bones was widespread in amulets and spells. However, the works of this author were never considered strictly academic, since he collected tales and popular traditions that he used to embellish with all kinds of metaphors, symbolisms, and surprising elements. Who did take it into account was Gerald Garner, considered the father of Wicca, and other precursors of neopaganism.

Both in this and in other examples from more modern contexts, there are repeated elements in the preparation of the spell: the rope must always be made of some natural element, fibers, wool, cotton... The feathers must be inserted, in any way, during the weaving or tying of the rope: it is not worth nailing the feathers afterwards, they must be attached to the fetish during its creation. The same goes for knots, since there is no way to tie them after the fact. With each knot the spell must be pronounced or meditate about the objectives that are pursued. By tying the last one, the energy conduit is closed, which remains in the rope and in what it symbolizes. The same thing would happen when untying it, if you wanted to cancel the spell or promote an "exit" of energy; Other methods to avoid the effect of the spell were to discover it and burn it, or go to purify yourself with holy water.

Some of these aspects are preserved in the Wiccan and Neopagan traditions that make use of this type of instrument, such as the use of natural elements in its manufacture. Regarding animal elements, these must have been obtained without suffering the animal, and feathers or fallen hair can be collected. The same in the case of the use, instead of the previously mentioned, of bones, a custom that seems to have its origin in the fusion with Afro-Caribbean rituals. In Wicca, moreover, the use of crystals, especially quartz, to decorate and charge these fetishes, along with medals, amulets or beads that carry symbolism and meaning to the request, has become popular.

There are multiple examples of current knot magic in different books of shadows and modern magic manuals, from Celtic and Nordic knots with universal and human meanings, such as the union of the elements, the masculine and the feminine, the cycle of time, the achievement of prosperity, friendship, etc., to different associations of colored ties and objectives such as love, intertwining flowers; money, inserting coins between the strings; protection of health or travel, through plants or feathers, and a long etcetera that varies by book or region. Thus, in Greece or Turkey there is no shortage of Turkish eyes to avoid the evil eye or enchantments, nor in North Africa and South Europe the Hamsa or hands of Fatima, nor of course the pentagrams or crosses.

The witch's ladder, taken in its traditional form, continues to be made, normally with three cords, or with a specific number of cords, which are braided, and whose colors indicate the objectives of the spell. The most common number of knots are three (literally, beginning, knot and outcome of the spell), and nine. Of the latter, a poem of supposed tradition from the north of British lands has become popular, but really popularized by the novelist and historian Deborah Harkness:

By the knot of one, the spell is now begun,

By the knot of two, my words are true,

By the knot of three, it comes to me,

By the knot of four, may the spell be strengthened more,

By the knot of five, may the spell come alive,

By the knot of six, the spell is fixed,

By the knot of seven, may the power through me be given,

By the knot of eight, may the power within be great,

By the knot of nine, may the thing I wish for be mine.

(Of which there are several translations into Spanish, having chosen for the Spanish post the one that tries to preserve the rhyme the most, always a mnemonic facilitator of the ritual, although not so much the literal translation:

Con el nudo primero, el hechizo empiezo,

Con el nudo segundo, se realizará seguro,

Con el nudo tercero, obtengo lo que deseo,

Con el nudo cuarto, el poder guardo,

Con el nudo quinto, doy vida al hechizo,

Con el nudo sexto, afirmo que ya lo tengo,

Con el nudo séptimo, ocurrirá lo que pido,

Con el nudo octavo, el destino ato,

Con el nudo noveno, el hechizo está hecho.)

These knots have a preferred way of being made: the first central, the second initial or final and the third final or initial. The rest would be knotted in order from right to left, centering between these three initials.

However, two important changes that witch's ladders have undergone in their passage into the Western Neopagan world should be noted:

The first, that the knots have been replaced, in many cases, by beads or beads, which will preferably be made of crystals or minerals, clay, or mixtures of it with certain spices, wood or natural fibers, and colored, or not, with symbolic intentions. The number of these beads varies depending on the manufacturer, with the largest standard number being 40, which on the other hand holds great symbolism about great changes (as can be seen in Biblical examples, or in the fact that it has exceeded three tens, a considerable number among the most complete and balanced), as well as multiples of other numbers with a particular meaning for the intended purpose, or repeated numbers or palindrome to intensify said power.

The second point is its practical use. At present, although there are still knot spells like the ones mentioned above, it has become much more popular for witch ladders to be used as personal amulets, to fulfill the request made on the wearer, as well as, in the event that the knots have been made with such intention, to serve as protective talismans or amulets. Given the increase in followers of traditionally magical customs, their use as ritual tools has spread, fulfilling functions similar to those of a Christian rosary or Tibetan mala, where the beads help the owner to more accurately count the number of repetitions of prayers, meditations or incantations. These accounts can be divided within the rope by means of the knots, grouping in smaller numbers (three by three, ten by ten, etc.)

They are also used as necklaces or bracelets, and as protective amulets and wall decorations, in the manner of dream catchers or ritual garlands. Their use as pendulums is remarkably less.

Whether the considerations of the criticized Colles and Tylor were real or not, the truth is that, without their contribution, it is likely that current neopaganism and magic would lack a tool that is as aesthetic as it is versatile.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -


- Colles, A. A Witch's Ladder" Folk-Lore Journal. Vol 5, No 1 (1887), pp 1-5

- Guiley, R. E. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts On File, 1989

- Frazer, J. "A Witch's Ladder" The Folk-Lore Journal. Volume 5.

-Frazer, J. La rama dorada. Trad. Campuzano, E. y T. Fondo de cultura económica, México (2011)

- Leland, G. Another witch's Ladder. The journal of American Folklore. (1892)

- Leland, C. "The Witches' Ladder" The Folk-Lore Journal. Volume 5.

- Wingfield, Chris (2010) "A case re-opened: the science and folklore of a 'Witch's Ladder'", Journal of Material Culture, 15(3)302-322.

Related posts:

> Egyptian Talismans

> Candles and their esoteric use

> Neopaganism and magic

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