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Pronounced /ˌæpəʊtrəʊˈpeɪɪk/Help with pronunciation

February 2 is a Christian festival day that has a number of names, one of them Candlemas. It got that name because on that day in medieval times people brought candles to church to have them blessed by the priest. This was thought to give the candles the power to ward off evil spirits — in the language of religion and folklore, they became apotropaic.

The word is classical Greek, apotrepein, to turn away or avert. Like other civilisations, Greeks and Romans had many rituals that were designed to ward off evil. Throughout history, grotesque masks and faces, such as the Medusa heads of classical Greece or the grotesque figures on medieval churches, frightened witches and demons away; incantations and gestures kept the devil at a safe distance; amulets preserved their wearers from malignant spirits; holly and rowan trees and their woods were effective against evil; symbols such as the all-seeing eye were put on wineglasses, houses, boats or tombs. All were apotropaic.

Although the house is humble, with no fancy architectural details, he noticed a few things that dated it to the late 17th or early 18th century. These included an “apotropaic symbol”, carved on the inglenook and intended to keep witches from coming down the chimney.

Sunday Times, 13 Mar. 2011.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Feb. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 February 2014.