If you follow me on instagram, you’ve probably seen a photo of the tattoo on my knee. Surrounded by a cluster of foliage, most of which are native plants of British Columbia, is a bold, black hexfoil. I’ve talked about this symbol on the blog before but today I wanted to a bit more of a deep dive into the symbol’s history, it’s distribution, and it’s significance in a mortuary context. If you’re interested in this topic, keep an eye out for my upcoming book “Burial and Death in Colonial North America“, where I will be discussing hexfoils in a mortuary context in much more depth.
Consider this the taster!
Hexfoils, also called a hexafoil, daisy wheel, or witch marks, are just one of many protective marks, or apotropaic marks meant as a form of magic usually to protect someone or something from harm. In the field of North American gravestone studies, the hexfoil is often referred to as a ‘rosette’ (Ludwig 1966 for instance). With this name, the symbol is referred to as a simplified form of a flower without recognizing the history and power behind it. The six-pointed star/flower inside a circle is found on structures and objects throughout Europe and North America, and while it is commonly associated with medieval graffiti inside churches in England (see Champion 2015) it appears with some regularity on gravestones or ossuary boxes in a mortuary context.
The symbol appears on gravestones from the Roman Empire in the British Isles and across Europe, on personal headstones for individuals’ burials (British Museum 2019). On this example, the decoration is described as ‘rosettes’. This is a standard description due to the difficulty in tracing personal protection symbology. It wasn’t a topic people were typically writing about in their documents, it was something spoken, something that was used. Everyone already knew what such symbols meant. Cross-slabs with hexfoils will be familiar to anyone who has visited the Isle of Man, where several examples can be seen at Maughold amidst the fabulous collection at that site which date to the early Medieval Period. Due to the chi-rho and cross symbology on these slab, we know that the population had been exposed to Christianity by the time of their carving. However, it is not likely that the hexfoil is a Christian symbol but more likely continued to be utilized by populations which had converted.
At this point, it is also important to mention that a hexfoil is a geometric shape which can easily be created by a compass, a pair of scissors, even a pencil and a string. It is suspected to have originated in multiple places on their own, much like pyramidal shaped structures. For instance, in Slavic traditions the symbol was associated with the god Perun, and called the ‘thunder mark’, which protected homes against misfortune (Areta 2018).
An early example of hexfoils in a mortuary context can be seen on Jewish ossuary boxes, dating to around 100 BCE – 100 CE, from the Herodian Period, Second Temple Period. There are several examples of these boxes on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM), which I had the opportunity to visit in February of this year (2019). Their label reads:
“Jewish Burial: The association of the resurrection of the dead with the coming of a messiah was an idea that emerged in Jerusalem in the first century BC. To prepare for this event, the desiccated bones of the deceased were placed in ossuaries (stone boxes) which were then put in a crypt. Six-pointed rosettes were commonly depicted on one side of the ossuary. Rosettes appeared frequently in the Herodian period and may have had a significant meaning”
The label does not elaborate further, but provides several excellent examples of these ossuary boxes (no human remains are visible in this picture). Along which hexfoils, the pinwheel or whorl design is also visible on some examples I’ve seen, which is another apotropaic mark that I also discuss in my upcoming book! Goodenough (1957) suggests that Jewish symbolism in the cases of motifs and designs on ossuaries during the Greco-Roman period was borrowed from earlier pagan religions (not major religions). He goes on to to indicate that these borrowed symbols had no meaning left or were just abstract enough to be used in Judaism without being a contradiction to the no imagery rules (1957). While it is currently unknown if the use of these protective marks on ossuaries was purely aesthetic, but the use of the symbols in mortuary contexts as a widespread occurrence indicates that it had religious significance and therefore had probably retained its protective meaning (Figueras 1983:41).
When viewed in a mortuary setting, on a gravestone or as part of a burial practice like an ossuary), the use of a hexfoil could be viewed as intending protection for the soul of the deceased, protection for their earthly remains, or a bit of both. This use of magic made its way to the British Isles and throughout Europe, and eventually to the colonial settlements in North America. Hexfoils are not the most commonplace image on early colonial gravestones, but they certainly appear with enough frequency to notice them, transported across the Atlantic as they began to go out of public (public = visible to all) use in the UK. They can be seen across New England and up into the Maritime Provinces, with many 18th century examples present at the Old Burying Ground in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In conclusion, it is clear that not only does the hexfoil appear as a symbol on gravestones in colonial burial grounds, but its history and association with graves and protection of the dead extends back hundreds and hundreds of years, and likely pre-dates Christianity. While many hexfoils in/on graves were probably meant as protection, it is also likely that some later examples were not… This apotropaic symbol has a long and exciting history which I am overjoyed to be working on in the North American context, and I cannot wait to show you all what else I’ve written about it in the book! Get excited, there is a case study and it’s very cool, if I do say so myself.
If you have any questions and or information about hexfoils you’ve seen on graves or ossuaries, leave me a comment or send me an email! I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading!
Areta. 2018. A Protection Symbol for the Home: The Six-Petal Rosette on the Crossbeams of Galicia. Forgotten Galicia: Remnants of the Past found in Lviv, Galicia & the former Austrian Empire. Electronic resource: https://forgottengalicia.com/a-protection-symbol-for-the-home-the-six-petal-rosette-on-the-crossbeams-of-galicia/. Accessed on March 4, 2019.
British Museum. 2019. Tombstone of Gaius Saufeius. British Museum, Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory. Registration number: 1873,0521.1. Available online at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=894339&partId=1&searchText=roman+lincoln&page=23
Champion, Matthew. 2015. Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches. Ebury Press: London, UK.
Figueras, P. 1983. Decorated Jewish Ossuaries. Brill: Leiden.
Goodenough, Erwin R. 1957. The Study of Man: Pagan Symbols in Jewish Antiquity. Commentary, Jan 1957. Available online: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-study-of-man-pagan-symbols-in-jewish-antiquity/, accessed March 4, 2019.
Ludwig, Allan I. 1966. Graven Images. Westeyan University, United States of America.