“Men see clearly at midday, but when the sun goes down and at the witching hour, the shadows loom, and all the world becomes unfamiliar”
As a descendant of Yorkshire Hedge Witches, the association of Whitby Jet, magic and witchcraft has always intrigued me. It is undoubtedly true that during the 2nd Millenium Whitby Jet, like it’s Spanish counterpart Asturian Jet, became important and powerful amulets in the protection of both the person and the dwelling place against the potential threat of witchcraft. Here in North Yorkshire, many cottages have witchposts by the fire to prevent the entry of a witch down the chimney, and examples are known of jet charms nailed to beams to prevent a witch crossing the threshold. Whitby Museum has one such charm, the Egton Cross which was nailed to a C14th dwelling. There are however earlier examples including the Jorvik Cross, an artefact discovered at Viking Coppergate in York. We also see examples from C17th American deposits, six of which are the subject of my current research collaboration at the University of Yale. Charms, in the form of balanced crosses decorated with the circumpunct are also seen as amulets for the protection of the person, the “evil-eye” in particular, and like in Spain we also have documentary evidence of the Higa symbol having been used in the Whitby area as late as 1860 for protection against the evil-eye. Beyond this context of protection however, the history from a pagan perspective is very different. Jet has been used by many cultures around the world from prehistory as a shamanic material. We see it primarily used for banishing, cleansing, purification and divination. A C1st writer tells us that “The Magi, it is said, make use of it in the practice of what they call ‘axinomancy’”.
Axinomancy is better known as ‘divination by axes’. It is also likely that Whitby Jet was also used for scrying as it makes an excellent mirror. The Greek philosophers tell us that jet was burnt to purify and cleanse, a practice still maintained by Amazonian shaman from jet working tribes today. The following verse was written in C4th and attributed to Orpheus:
“…when Jet in rising clouds consumes,
The nose provoking with its pungent fumes.
Black as a coal, but yet of lustrous shine,
It blases up like torch of driest pine…“