Starsingers, witch bottles and herb charms

spin–  A visit to a traditional farmhouse in Teutoburger Forest, including a presentation of the amuletts of the house and a cleansing rite –

Autumn has come, and the Goddess of the land wears her cloak of red and golden foliage. Not long, and the hounds of the Wild Hunt will be heard in the howling storms of the season.

Samhain is drawing near, heralding the darkest time of the year, when mischievous spirits and evil witches were thought to threaten the well being of humans, animals and harvest supplies.

Precautions were thought to be vital. Farm mansions were regularly fumigated; protective charms were distributed all over the place, and entrances were magically sealed to keep evil outside.

Standing at the front door of an old farmhouse, typical for the region, you may see the transom above the front door being decorated with the names of the couple, for whom the house had been build and often some quote from the gospels.


The letters CMB, followed by a year, with crosses between the letters and an eight rayed star to symbolise the star, that lead the three magi to Bethlehem are drawn with white chalk on the front door. Children, called “Sternsinger” – star singers – go in groups of three and carrying a golden paper star with them from house to house around epiphany. They are disguised as the three magi and sing a song, specially made for that occasion. They get money, and with a blessing they write the beneficent inscription and the actual year on the front door. These blessings are never wiped out and only wither away by weather effects.


Nowadays the Sternsinger are collecting money for projects against the poverty of children all over the world. In the 16 th century the custom had been invented by those pupils of monasteries, who didn’t get financial support from their families.

The CMB inscription as a protective charm had been in use earlier, only written by a priest as part of the blessing of the house.

Folklore says, that C M B is the abbreviation for the three magi’ s names, which were given as “Caspar”, “Melchior”, “Balthasar” , but the real meaning of the abbreviation is Christus mansionem benedicat” – Christ may bless (speak good on) this house.

Another protective amulet had been buried under the threshold – a bundle in which protective items had been wrapped, and which had been taken secretly to church, so that holy masses were spoken over it before being buried.

The so called ” witch bottle” is another variation to keep off evil spirits and unwelcome guests. It contains unpleasant items, for example rusty nails, glass splinters, urine and excrements and is also buried under or beside the threshold.

As a welcome visitor you may enter the house. Turning your look upwards, you see several bundles of herbs hanging from the hooks along the transoms.

cowslipA bunch of cowslips, resembling with it’s key like shaped calyxes a bunch of medieval keys, usually hanging for the belt of the lady of the house. The cowslips, sacred to the Goddess, for some Freya, for others Mother Hulda and for those, having their spiritual refuge in christian belief the Holy Virgin. signal that this house is under divine protection.

Neatly wrung wreath of mugwort, heather, clivers and broom are hanging in the frames of the little crown glass windows.

Mugwort is one of the most potent herbs of protection and an indispensable ingredient for the country lady’s cleansing incense formula.

Heather, the hardy and unpretentious inhabitant of moorlands is according to folklore growing for the blood of the mythical heroes of the past, said to be buried under these massive rocks, which once had formed their megalithic tombs. So heather is strongly related to the ancestors and the guardian spirits of the land.

Clivers is also “Mary’s bedstraw”, because it had been used by the Holy Virgin to bed her baby on it.

Broom is used to cleanse the house materially and spiritually. In some parts of Southern Germany the housewife has a Whitsuntide broom made of broom especially for that occasion to cleanse the house from both – material dirt and negative vibrations.


In folklore from all over Continental Europe broom is closely related to the idea of cleansing and protection of the house, whereas in England it is said to attract misfortune, when brought into the house.

Looking at the fireplace you may detect a bundle of St. John’s Wort hanging beside, as it does not stjohnsonly protect against fire. It is also sprinkled into the hearth fire to protect the farm from the sometimes heavy thunderstorms of late summer.

Hanging down from a hook in the ceiling’s crossbar you may detect a vessel of glass with a round bottom, altogether resembling a ball with a small bottleneck. It contains “he’ll away”, healing water, that had been ladled from silently from the sacred wells of the region before sunrise of Easter morning. That water may not touch the soil, except when being used for healing, cleansing and protection.

The bottle, which contains the holy water is flanked by a twigs of hawthorn, as these are also powerful charms of protection. The bottle’s plug is also made of their wood.

It is All Hallow’s Eve, and as a guest you may join the cleansing ceremony, which is done each evening before the day of each of the so-called “High Feasts” of Whitsuntide, Easter and Christmas as well as on the evenings before All Saints’ Day and the 1rst of May.

Starting time for the cleansing rite is after curfew.

Embers from the hearth fire are scattered on a metal dustpan, reserved for that purpose.

Now a potpourri of herbs – ingredients varying from region to region – is sprinkled on the glowing embers.

The whole procedure is backed by praying, reciting psalms, the rosary and prayers to local saints, the latter often being well disguised deities of the region.

The procession walks through the whole house, making sure that the rising smoke reaches every corner of the house before the family procession is proceeding to stables and barns.

Supplies and the implements of farming, dairy, spinning, weaving and household are fumigated, too.

Being back in the house, the remnants from the dustpan are scattered into the hearth fire.

Now fresh bread and home brewed ale are served, and the rests of the meal are thrown into the fire – for the souls of sinners in the Christian house, and for the spirits of the place in the house, where the inhabitants are still in close contact to the spirits of the land.

The most incenses, which we know nowadays consist of a mixture of resins, woods and aromatic herbs.

Resins as styrax, mastic and frankincense were extremely costly in the past. Only churches and monasteries could afford them.

The formulae of the farmer’s cleansing incenses vary in different regions. Mugwort and sage, lavender, tansy and rue appear in many of the mixtures.

Before you end your visit and leave the safety of the little farmhouse, you may be presented with a small linen bag, containing a piece of hawthorn wood, root of mugwort and tansy, all bound together with a red woollen threat.

Hawthorn is protecting you from evil spirits, luring in the bubbling ponds of the moorlands to draw the innocent wanderer into the dark water’s bottomless depth.

Mugwort is helpful against exhaustion, which may be caused by unfriendly local spirits, when you are walking in strange lands. And tansy helps you to keep safe on your way without getting lost in the inhospitable moorlands, home only of the ghosts of fallen heroes and the spirits of the black ponds and dangerous swamplands.


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