Odds and quads

January 28, 2010

This 1.5m long feathered rope was found in a Somerset attic in the late 1870s, alongside six brooms and an old chair.

It was presented in The Folk-Lore Journal in 1887 as a "witches' ladder": the chair was for witches to rest in, the brooms to ride on, and the cock-feather ladder to help them cross the roof. It still bore this description when it was donated to the University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum in 1911. But its purpose is in dispute.

Some, including the Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Frazer, claimed that the rope was intended for alternative magical purposes such as obtaining milk from neighbours' cows or causing the death of enemies. Others have suggested that it was used by hunters to turn back deer or to frighten birds from crops.

Although the idea of feathered witches' ladders rests on hearsay rather than solid evidence, it was much discussed by folklorists and so proved influential. It has since been adopted in contemporary witchcraft, or Wicca.

Send suggestions for this series on the sector's treasures, oddities and curiosities to: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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