What is a Witch's Ladder?

A Witch's Ladder
This witch's ladder includes sea glass, charms, and feathers. Item crafted by Ashley Grow, photo by Patti Wigington

A witch's ladder is one of those nifty things we sometimes hear about but rarely see. Its purpose is similar to that of a rosary - it's basically a tool for meditation and ritual, in which different colors are used as symbols for one's intent. It's also used as a counting tool, because in some spell workings there is a need to repeat the working a particular number of times. You can use the ladder to keep track of your count, running the feathers or beads along as you do so.

Traditionally, the witch's ladder is made with red, white and black yarn, and then nine different colored feathers or other items are woven in. You can find a number of different variations in metaphysical shops, or you can make your own. The witch's ladder shown in the photo was crafted by Ashley Grow of LeftHandedWhimsey, and includes sea glass, pheasant feathers, and charms.

History of the Witch's Ladder

Although many of us in the modern Pagan community use witch's ladders, they've actually been around for quite some time. Chris Wingfield of England: The Other Within, describes the discovery of a witch's ladder in Somerset during the Victorian era. This particular item was was donated in 1911 by Anna Tylor, the wife of anthropologist E.B. Tylor. It was accompanied by a note that read, in part, "An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of "stag's" (cock's) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours' cows - nothing was said about flying or climbing up.

There is a novel called "The Witch Ladder" by E. Tylee in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one's death."

An 1887 article in The Folk-Lore Journal detailed the object more specifically, according to Wingfield, and when Tylor presented it at a symposium that year, "two members of the audience stood up and told him that in their opinion, the object was a sewel , and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting." In other words, the Somerset ladder could have been used for this purpose, rather than for malevolent ones.

Tylor later backtracked and said he had "never found the necessary corroboration of the statement that such a thing was really used for magic."

In the 1893 novel Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven, author Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest and hagiographer, goes even further into the folklore of the witch's ladder, based on his fairly extensive research in Cornwall. He described the use of a witch's ladder made with brown wool and tied with thread, and the creator would, as they wove the wool and thread together with a selection of rooster feathers, add in the physical ailments of the intended recipient. Once the ladder was complete, it was thrown into a nearby pond, taking with it the aches and pains of the sick and ailing.

Making Your Own

Realistically speaking, it makes more sense to use yarn colors that have a significance to you and your working. Also, finding nine differently colored feathers can be tricky if you're looking for them out in the wild -- you can't just go plucking feathers from local endangered species -- and that means a trip to the craft store and some oddly tinted feathers. I'd recommend using either found feathers of any color, or something else entirely -- beads, buttons (see our discussion on the magical uses of buttons), bits of wood, shells, or other items you have around your home.

To make your basic witch's ladder, you'll need yarn or cord in three different colors, and nine items that are similar in property but in different colors (nine beads, nine shells, nine buttons, etc).

Cut the yarn so that you have three different pieces in a workable length - usually a yard or so is good. Although you can use the traditional red, white and black, there's no hard and fast rule that says you must. Tie the ends of the three pieces of yarn together in a knot. Begin braiding the yarn together, tying the feathers or beads into the yarn, and securing each in place with a sturdy knot. Some people like to chant or count as they braid and add the feathers. If you wish, you can say something like this variation on the traditional chant:

By knot of one, the spell's begun.
By knot of two, the magic comes true.
By knot of three, so it shall be.
By knot of four, this power is stored.
By knot of five, my will shall drive.
By knot of six, the spell I fix.
By knot of seven, the future I leaven.
By knot of eight, my will be fate.
By knot of nine, what is done is mine.

As the feathers are tied into knots, focus your intent and goal. As you tie the final and ninth knot, all your energy should be directed into the cords, the knots and the feathers. The energy is literally stored within the knots of the witch's ladder. When you've completed the string and added all nine feathers or beads, you can either knot the end and hang the ladder up, or you can tie the two ends together forming a circle.

If you'd like your ladder to be more like a rosary string, I'd highly recommend picking up a copy of Pagan Prayer Beads by John Michael Greer and Clare Vaughn.