A witch's ladder plays a role in Bound, Book 1 in my Witches of Doyle series. Today, they're used for protection or spell work.
Where did this tradition come from?
In 1887, Dr. Abraham Colles published an article about an odd object discovered in a Somerset Attic.
Workmen found a string, a meter and a half long and stuck through with rooster feathers. Alongside it were six brooms and an old chair. The workmen insisted the string was used as a ladder for witches to cross roofs. Colles was never able to figure out where this idea originated from, but he published and presented his findings. In later issues of the journal, other scholars speculated about the possible magical uses of the mysterious “rope and feathers.”
But what was it, really? Colles’s editor, Edward B Tyler, presented the ladder at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Two audience members stood up and told him it was really a sewel, used to manage deer. An 1867 book on deer park management describes the sewel as, “lengths of cord on spindles, with turkey feathers knotted onto them, at the interval of a couple of feet.” The book explains “it is found that deer are afraid of these strings of feathers, when stretched across a large park, and are by their means kept within a certain space.”
On the other hand… In Charles Leland’s 1892 book, Etruscan Roman Remains, he writes of an encounter with an Italian woman, who told him a story about a spell-casting device called a witch’s garland. Later, he showed her a drawing of the witches ladder discovered in Somerset. Surprised, she told him that was a witch’s garland.
So what was this odd object?
Soon after publication of the article, the witches ladder turned up in Victorian fiction. In the novel Mrs. Curvengen, author Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about a knotted witches ladder made from black and white threads and feathers, and used for cursing. The ladder would be sunk in a local pond and “ivery ill wish ull find a way, one after the other, to the j’ints and bones, and head and limbs, o’ Lawyer Physic.” Tyler read the book and asked Baring-Gould where he’d heard of the ladder, hoping to turn up another instance of it. But Baring-Gould replied, “What I put into “Mrs Curgenven” about sinking the ladder in Dogmare Pool so that as it rotted, the ill wishes might escape was pure invention of my own. I felt they must be got out somehow & so created a fashion for liberating them.” He did follow up for Tyler, asking a local witch about the ladders. She’d never heard of the practice.
Modern Wiccans ran with it. Influenced by Charles Leland’s report, Gardnerian Wicca embraced the tradition in the 20th century, when the witches ladder became alternately known as a wishing rope or a “sewel,” and was used for white magick.
Today, there seem to be three methods for making a witches ladder. The first treats it as simple knot magic. Tie knots in the string, imbue the knot with a spell. Add feathers and beads as fetishes, coordinating their colors and correspondences with the spell’s intent. Untying the knots can activate the spell — i.e. cause the healing to act. Alternatively, tying the knot can activate the spell. You can find an example of the incantation for the tying the knots here.
Another method is to braid the strings and insert the feathers inside. The third is to simply jam feathers through a thick cord, as seen in the photo above. Personally, I believe these last two forms are more shamanic, a tool to focus the shaman’s will so he can travel to lower or upper world, much like he would use a tree or chimney.
As a side note, my friend and fellow teacher in the Everyday Magic Class, Elizabeth Barton, intuited that the feathers should all from the same bird, to strengthen the magical link.
They’re not as easy to make as they look. Since I’m including a witches ladder in my manuscript in progress, Bound, I thought I’d try to make one. My string kept tangling like necklaces in a jewelry box. The feathers didn’t hang the way I wanted them to. In short, I’m not a crafty person (and probably should have used a thicker cord and beads with bigger holes in them). But if you are crafty, witches ladders can be lovely in a window.
Witches’ Ladder: The Hidden History, by Chris Wingfield
Some Account of English Deer Parks: With Notes on the Management of Deer, by Evelyn Philip Shirley
The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 5, A Witch’s Ladder (Colles), 1887
Hereditary Witchcraft, Secrets of the Old Religion, by Raven Grimassi (you can find some nice knot incantations in this book)