Symbolism of Containers

Kitchen Utensils c.1914-8 Leslie Hunter 1877-1931

Vessels or containers are as important for the space they contain as well as for any material they hold. Containers tend to be associated with women. As motifs running throughout a story they can also symbolise physical or emotional containment, either self-driven or imposed upon a character from outside.

The Promise and Intrigue of Containers

How to create optimal mystery? Promise something but don’t show it. This is why we wrap presents. It’s why artists show characters looking at something mysterious out of the frame. It’s why writers drip feed something gradually, slowly bringing a mysterious person or item into view, building up to the big reveal.

Containers are the symbolic embodiment of all that. An enclosed container holds something but we don’t know what. Not until we open it.

Across the history of storytelling, many narratives exist to teach less powerful people (including women) that if you find something locked away in a chest, you should just leave it there. The story of Adam and Eve is the stand-out example of this story, but we also have Pandora’s box. Bluebeard fairytales (and all their descendents) have the same message: If you know something is locked away LEAVE IT LOCKED AWAY. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see why these cautionary tales existed: To leave power in the hands of those who already had it.

CHARLES FOLKARD (1878 – 1963) The Chest Had Been Washed Up on the Shores of Ephesus, The Children’s Shakespeare book art (1911)

18th century children’s story Rosamund and the Purple Jar is anti-climactic precisely because the vessel holds something pretty, then disturbing, and ultimately contains nothing Rosamund wants. Her hopes are dashed. Victorian children were supposed to learn from this didactic story not to place too much hope on the unseen and the unknown. More generally, pretty appearances can disappoint by their lack of true substance.

In her short story “Prelude“, Katherine Mansfield makes use of containers as a motif throughout, liking young Kezia to her grandmother via a shared proximal placement of small containers.


If you think of ‘ark’, you’re probably thinking of Noah’s Ark, or possibly the Ark of the Covenant. An ark is a big container that holds very valuable objects. In this way, an ark symbolises a treasure chest. It might be massive (as in Noah’s) or it might be small (as in the ‘ark’ that Moses was found in, floating in the reeds). The commonality is that an ark’s contents are precious.

The Bag of Holding

The name of this trope comes from Dungeons and Dragons:

The Bag of Holding is a specific portable item which is Bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside. Much bigger. It may not look it, but that’s because it contains Hammer Space. Because the holding capacity of the bag comes from internal Hammer Space, a thoroughly-packed Bag of Holding will weigh no more than a full normal bag. Odds are, it will weigh no more than an empty normal bag.

Because of the sheer amount of goods you can store in one, trying to find something specific usually results in a Rummage Fail. Except, of course, in videogames where time itself will stop to let you go through your inventory in peace.

TV Tropes

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Domenico Remps (1620-1699), Cabinet of Curiosities, 17th century, painting, Italy, Florence, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure

The word ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a cabinet (and is still used to mean ‘room’ when we’re talking about Parliament buildings). Originally, a cabinet of curiosities was a big room in a rich person’s house containing all kinds of treasures — sort of like a private museum. The first cabinets of curiosities appeared in the 16th century. In fact, these rooms were precursors to museums. People who travelled were in the best position to set them up, e.g. merchants.

When cabinets became collections held in pieces of furniture (today’s usual meaning of ‘cabinet’), they were designed to be as interesting to look at as possible. They were highly ornamental, decorative and housed many disparate things. The idea was to represent the entire world in miniature. Interest came from the juxtaposition of many different objects.

Cabinets of curiosities were also show-off items, showing how rich you were, how cultured, how well-travelled.

Over the centuries, artifacts from these collections have proven invaluable to historians, naturalists and archeologists.

Charles Edward Wilson - The Miniature 1912
Charles Edward Wilson – The Miniature 1912


In fiction, cauldrons have a special association with magic. Some such cauldrons are inherently magical, having some special power or another (an obvious one being the power to produce an endless supply of something you’d make in a more normal pot). Others are just used for magic (especially when Alchemy Is Magic), but apart from that, are just ordinary pots. They’re often black, and the contents are often inexplicably green, but both those things are optional.

TV Tropes

Sometimes the cauldron is called a kettle. Cauldrons and kettles come in various shapes and sizes. Cauldrons can be terrible or wonderful, oftentimes both.

According to witch mythology, an iron cauldron or kettle was used to prepare Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches in fact use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course.

In public imagination, the cauldron (your own cooking pot) was equally a tool you could use to kill a witch. By performing folk magic you could force a witch down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.

Haynes King – An Old Friend Failing 1880

The shape of the cauldron resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration.

Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation.

Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. Any cauldron with three legs has strong associations with divination.

Cauldrons are strongly associated with cannibals, e.g. ogres. A cauldron of burning oil means punishment is coming, e.g. in earlier, more disturbing versions of Sleeping Beauty.

But in Celtic tradition, the cauldron symbolises abundance, cornucopia, resuscitation and inexhaustible sustenance. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. For this meaning, we can look to a fairytale such as The Magic Porridge Pot (generally illustrated as a mini cauldron in picture books). The pot saves a community from famine but also wreaks havoc, in line with the good and evil duplicity of mythological cauldrons. Likewise in China, the cauldron is a receptacle for offerings. but also a container for torture and capital punishment.

Norse legend is a bit different. According to Nordic tradition, the roaring cauldron is the source of all rivers.

Parable of the Burning Pot, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1881
Ezekiel and the Boiling Pot Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,

The Chalice

A chalice is a cup or grail generally used in rituals. The Catholic church makes use of a highly decorated chalice in ceremony. Pagans used a much simpler one.

The chalice itself symbolises water. Like the cauldron, the chalice is associated with femininity because of its shape, and because of its use as a vessel (women were and still are considered vessels for carrying other humans). Women are also linked to water because women are linked to the moon — menstrually — and the moon influences tides. We all begin life in the womb in water. Like most associations, it’s a double-edged sword for women. Water, like women, is essential to life. (Women, eh? Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.)

The Holy Grail

As mentioned above, in mystical, pre-Christian times there was a magical cauldron of the Celtic Gods that never emptied and kept everyone satisfied, as mentioned above. This legend is the O.G. of mythology leading to the Holy Grail — the cup that Christ was meant to have drank from at the Last Supper, or maybe it was the container that caught his blood during his crucifixion… who knows?

This sacred vessel went missing (or never existed in the first place), so today ‘the Holy Grail’ means something unfindable but highly treasured. There’s a subcategory of King Arthur tales called Holy Grail Legends, which have kept the rumours alive.

According to Jung, the psychoanalyst, the grail is an emblem of the spirit and symbolises “the inner wholeness for which men have always been searching”. The Philosopher’s Stone, from alchemy, fulfils the same symbolic function — the search for something elusive within oneself.

Header painting is by Leslie Hunter: Kitchen Utensils, c.1914–18.

The Harlot’s Progress Archetypal Story

Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908

Literary scholars today write about The Harlot’s Progress. This is a narrative archetype — a type of story — which still gets written today, though in different form. In the 18th century the story of the ‘harlot’ who did immoral sex things for money then died would have been very familiar to anyone living in the West. The story was everywhere, in art, in literature, in newspapers, and in the way people talked about women.

Many of the following notes are from Chastity and Transgression in Women’s Writing 1792-1897: Interrupting the Harlot’s Progress by Roxanne Eberle, 2002.


The narrative of women punished for sex work goes back further than this, but “Harlot’s Progress” is a series of six paintings by William Hogarth, painted in 1731. He was riffing on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Hogarth did the engravings over following year. His paintings have been destroyed but the engravings still exist.

In the first plate, an old woman tells a young woman, Moll Hackabout, that she’s beautiful and that she might consider sex work.

Plate one of The Harlot’s Progress

In the second plate Moll has two lovers. She then becomes a mistress and finally a sex worker. She is arrested and sent to prison. Then, at age 23, Moll dies from a sexually transmitted disease. All six plates can be viewed at full size over at Wikipedia.


The narrative of the harlot who comes to grief can be seen across English literature of the 18th century, as well as in these famous images. This archetype is not only applied to women who become sex workers, but is used as a moralistic tale to control the sex lives of women across the board.

Although Moll’s story was a didactic tale (for women), it was also presented as erotica (for men).

Pretty much everyone in the 19th century was familiar with this story. Hogarth’s images were printed onto decorative items such as fan-mounts (the part of a fan that’s not the stick and handle) and onto household items such as cups and saucers. 

Newspaper articles about real women were influenced by this dominant narrative. “Fallen women”, “harlots” and “prostitutes” were presented to the hegemonic public as immoral and dangerous to society.


Harlot’s Progress stories are linear — typically a form which serves masculine desire, in both the rhetorical and sexual sense of the word. (Feminine stories — those for and about women — more often tend to be circular in shape.)

  • Heroines in Harlot’s Progress stories are presented as Good characters who deserve the best possible fate. However, until she is claimed by a man, all of her virtues remain suspect. (The man who claims her recognises her intrinsic goodness.)
  • This ideal heroine follows a set path towards marriage and domesticity. Her quest is always the same: for the protective security of a publicly established virtuous reputation. [DESIRE]
  • The Harlot’s Progress narrative starts with either seduction or sexual violence. This will show the audience how vulnerable she is.
  • If she doesn’t have a father, she will need to find a father figure before she can secure a husband. [MENTOR]
  • Before achieving marriage, the heroine navigates her way through hoards of scary men in landscapes fraught with sexual transgression. [STORYWORLD]
  • In these spaces, female modesty is presented as fragile. [WEAKNESS]
  • If she succumbs to sexual impulses she will sabotage her chance at marriage and instead become a “fallen woman”. [MORAL DILEMMA]
  • But the reader is constantly encouraged to worry that she will be a victim of male violence.
  • The BIG STRUGGLE scene will include a situation in which the heroine has to evade predatory men and not be turned on by the threat of their violence.
  • She must avoid venturing off the path (seen also in the Grimm versions of Little Red Riding Hood, heavily influenced by the Harlot’s Progress narrative in the versions they collected). If she ventures off the path, she will run the risk of falling into a much more dangerous story.
  • The story usually ends with death. [NEW SITUATION]

Evelina by Frances Burney (1778) is considered the perfect example of The Harlot’s Progress narrative.


Some critics (e.g. Margaret Homans) have argued that linear narratives tend to correlate with static narratives. By static, we mean narratives which deliberately invoke stasis. However, critics such as Roxanne Eberle have argued that (proto-) feminists made use of familiar linear narratives in order to do feminist things with them. Linear stories are perfectly adequate in allowing for much experimentation. (E.g. A story can still be linear and not kill the heroine off at the end.)

The heroines of these books were rewarded with good husbands, financial resources and a domestic form of power. (Nancy Armstrong calls this specific form of power ‘the power of domestic surveillance’ in her book Desire and Domestic Fiction.) 

Ultimately, these scripts serve the middle-class by presenting us with an ideal of the public male entrepreneur and his private angel in the house.

Importantly, these weren’t the only books being written in this era. At the turn of the 19th century the very construct of the British woman was much debated. The world was at war and Britain was grappling with social upheaval — there were massive changes going on in their rural, agrarian and feudal class system. How important were women in all this? Many people were talking about it.

‘Conservatives’ wanted to keep women virtuous and in the domestic/private sphere. ‘Radicals’ wanted to educate women well and enter the public sphere.

So alongside these archetypal Harlot’s Progress narratives we now saw the rise of the sexually transgressive but articulate heroine in fiction. Proto-feminist works (e.g. by Mary Wollstonecraft) starred heroines who had been ‘robbed’ of their chastity by men uninterested in marriage. Some heroines robbed of chastity critiqued the social system rather than succumbed to self-abasement. Proto-feminist writers found the Harlot’s Progress useful because it contained a paradox: It was very well-known by audiences, so provided a framework for variation. (Much as the mythic structure functions in popular storytelling today.) These porto-feminist variations on The Harlot’s Progress was also linear in shape, but also discursive (jumping from subject to subject, probably back and forth through time).

Progressive women were interested in Harlot’s Progress stories because they offer an extreme example of the duality of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ (morality) that enlightened women were dealing with in their own lives. Conservatives believed that unchaste women were dangerous and therefore dangerous members of society. Radical women writers challenged this belief by asking people to locate morality in the mind, separate from what a woman did with her body, or what others did to her body. (Occasionally these writers even dealt with matters of the heart.)


Importantly, novels were not written for the labouring-poor classes. Books were expensive and largely read by richer people who had no idea what real sex work looked like. 

Real world sex work of this era looked very little like the archetypal fictional version. Most English sex workers were poor urban women who moved in and out of sex work as a way to supplement their families’ incomes. These women were not necessarily stigmatised within their own communities. This depended on their class. Norms within the sex work/labouring-poor culture of England at the time were distinct  from the norms of the dominant culture. Any type of sex outside marriage was frowned upon. Let’s just say sex work didn’t receive especial scorn.

Sex work wasn’t pathologised and regulated until the 1880s. It was at this point that English sex workers started to become stigmatised even within their own communities. 



I have just described 18th and 19th novels which starred heroines whose virtue alone could overcome sexual aggression, transforming male desire into middle-class love. But is this idea really dead?

When a police officer speaks to the public about a violent rape that took place in a public park, he’ll all-too-often tell women to stay away from parks. He’ll tell women not to get drunk if we don’t want to get raped. The problem with these broad service public announcements is this: Individual women may indeed avoid rapes in parks by restricting their own movements. But women are still far more likely to endure abuse in their own homes. And if individual women were able to avoid parks, predators would move on to another victim. Perpetrators are still not held to full account.


Sex trafficking (and other kinds of human trafficking) remain a significant international problem. However, many sex workers today have chosen their profession and resent the enduring idea that they must be stuck in that job because of desperation, substance abuse or morally bad choices.


  • When a story contains the rape/abuse of a woman or marginalised identity, is this presented as punishment for sexual transgression?
  • Outside specific realms of erotica, is this punishment meted out in such a way that a voyeuristic audience would enjoy it? Would a misogynistic audience enjoy it?
  • When reading/watching stories about LGBTQ characters, do these characters die? If so, what is the narrative purpose?
  • Are woman characters given their own shortcomings and moral flaws? If not, the story may be leaning on the trope of The Strong Female Character. The problem with Strong Female Characters is that they don’t get their own arcs. Characters with no arc can never be the true stars of any story.
Norman Rockwell for Saturday Evening Post Magazine – May 29, 1943

Header painting: Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908. Stanhope’s portrayal of a prostitute in her lodging, who is suddenly overcome with remorse for her situation, reproduces the theme of the guilt-ridden prostitute that was prevalent in literature and paintings of the 1850s and 1860s, especially among the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.

Symbolism of the Veil

The Entombment c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827

A veil symbolises a separation. The separation might be:

  1. between two states of being (e.g. married and unmarried)
  2. between physical objects
  3. between concepts

Veils are typically made from diaphanous material. At first glance the nature of the separation appears flimsy. Importantly, the separation is two-directional.

Veil as both ‘revealing’ and ‘hiding’

The word ‘revelation’ comes from Latin revelatio, which means to draw back the veil. Hidden knowledge is often said to be ‘veiled’. These two functions highlight what is easy to miss about the symbolism of the veil: It means two quite different things at once. Symbols are commonly ‘multivalent’, meaning they have multiple applications, interpretations, meanings and values.

Let’s take the example of a nun. Crucially, a nun who ‘takes the veil’ to become a Bride of Christ is removing herself from the world, but she is also removing the world from herself.

Perhaps this same symbolism holds in marriages between flesh-and-blood people, though the veil as marriage symbol does differ somewhat. These days the veil is often simply a wedding accoutrement, but across cultures, marriage veils traditionally symbolise patriarchal claims on women as wives.

In a crystal clear example of misogyny, the Greek word for veil is ‘hymen’. Historically, the lifting of the bride’s veil at a wedding symbolises the tearing of the hymen on her wedding night. (The hymen does not in fact ‘tear’ but ‘stretches’ and makes for terrible proof of virginity, in turn a terrible concept.)

Veils Around The World

The veil is thought to protect (as an apotropaic item of clothing). Therefore, somehow penetrating or lifting a veil happens in many kinds of initiation around the world and across history, not just in marriage.

In Islam, the Qu’ran says women should be addressed from behind a veil, hence the existence of the hijab, which is how the symbolism has been put into practice. Because veils are seen as bi-directional, defenders of the hijab say that it offers women freedom (from objectification) as well as protection.

Brides often wear veils, and perhaps again once widowed. The veil is a crucial part of the attire of the 19th century Black Widow. Ironically, these veils afforded the opposite of ‘protection’ — they were actively harmful to health:

Called a “weeping veil,” this shroud was made of a crimped silk fabric called crape, and wearing it allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862. Unfortunately, due to the dyes and chemicals used to the process the fabric, these veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.


When did Western women give up the tradition of wearing a mourning veil?

…by the 1890s, mourning conventions had shifted. Many fashion magazines and etiquette manuals were now urging readers to wear just a light net veil, or stick with the crape veil but let it hang down one’s back. Sales of mourning crape plummeted.


We still see the custom of mourning veils. In Muslim tradition, woman mourners are asked to wear a scarf or veil to funerals.

In Buddhism, the concept of Maya (translated as “pretense” or “deceit”) functions as a symbolic veil which separates pure reality from the illusory nature of the world we live in. I suspect the symbolism of the mask also comes into play here and is equally bi-directional — the separation clearly works both ways.

The following is from an anthropologist studying the Pentecostal and supernatural beliefs in Papua New Guinea. Importantly, many people in this part of the world mix supernatural beliefs with beliefs introduced by Christianity, hence talk of witches:

First, Christian piety manifests as “light” or “shine” in the body and person of the devout. Pious Christians, those who especially exhibit the presence of the Holy Spirit, are so bright they are like “mirrors”: they reflect back the invasive gaze of the witch. Second, and similarly, people discuss the blood of Christ as offering protection from witches. While often used as a metaphor, where the blood of Christ symbolizes redemption from sin, it is often described by my informants in quite material and bodily terms as a veiling shroud that prevents witches from seeing inside a person. Rather than the interior of bodies, the witches will instead see only the blood of Christ. One might say that the blood of Christ on the exterior of the body is actually the interior of the Christian body being made exterior, a body being turned inside-out. All of these ideas evoke powerful Melanesian constructs linking power and persuasion to what can and cannot be seen, how people make themselves visible to one another, and how that visibility implicates people in moral relationships to each other.

Becoming Witches

In other words, symbolic veils help to make someone immune from the powers of persuasion, whether that persuasion comes from witches, or capitalism, or wherever. When I think of a veil, I conjure the image of a wedding veil, made of diaphanous material. But in this part of the world, the Blood of Christ functions as a veil.

Therefore, when considering the concept of a veil, the Papua New Guinean example reminds us that veils come in various forms, in their case, the blood of Christ. As a Westerner, I personally find this idea of blood as veil a difficult concept. This difficulty demonstrates how significantly our own cultures mould us when it comes to the ‘universal’ interpretation of symbols (not so universal after all).

The Hag of Beara

The Hag of Beara (Irish: An Chailleach Bhéara, also known as The White Nun of Beara, or The Old Woman of Dingle) is a mythic Irish Goddess (a Cailleach or a divine hag, crone, or creator deity; literally “veiled one” (caille translates as “hood”, the implications that the woman is a nun) associated with the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, who was thought to bring winter. She is best known as the narrator of the medieval Irish poem “The Lament of the Hag of Beara”, in which she bitterly laments the passing of her youth and her decrepit old age.


Cailleach means three things in Gaelic, unrelated until you know the mythology:

  1. Hag
  2. Nun
  3. Veil

Like many violent, ugly, cannibalistic hags from folklore, the Hag of Beara is unhappy because she hasn’t had any children. She must also live forever because she doesn’t have children to carry on the family line.

Why the veil, given what we know about how veils function symbolically? It’s popularly believed that she wore a veil to make herself mysterious. But does that go far enough?

The guy in the video below uses the analogy used by Joseph Campbell, the snake shedding its skin. One standout feature of this particular Irish hag is that if a man dares to kiss her, he experiences the privilege of a rebirth. So the veil in relation to this particular hag might emphasise the fact that there is a barrier between two quite different states of being.

Veils and Katherine Mansfield

Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, about a young woman who imagines a life in which she is about to become a Bride of Christ instead of a flesh-and-blood earthly bride. Many of Mansfield’s short stories lamented the disappearance of freedom and autonomy which came with subsuming oneself inside a relationship, especially as experienced by women. For me, the veil in this story exists symbolically as a division between the main character’s fantasy life and her real one.

Mansfield was no doubt interested in the symbolism that could be eked out of a veil. In “A Dill Pickle“, about a woman who meets an old beau and finds him even more insufferable than he was six years ago, Mansfield concludes with:

She had buttoned her collar again and drawn down her veil.

This is an excellent example of multivalent veil symbolism. Sure, Vera is closing herself off to the possibility of marriage with this man. But I think there’s more going on. Throughout their meeting in the cafe, Vera has been careful to subdue her appetite. She hesitates before accepting sustenance, as expected of a lady. But this is a thin disguise. The ‘beast’ in Vera is clawing to get out. In the end, she must leave the cafe before it reveals itself, busting her cover as a society lady, living covertly in genteel poverty. The ‘thinness’ of the veil is what’s emphasised here.

Header image: The Entombment c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827

Symbolism of Black and The Night

Across the globe, black has negative connotations. This is probably because night-time is black, and historically night-time is the scariest, most dangerous time for humans. Our eyes have evolved for daylight. That’s why I’m combining ‘night’ and ‘black’ when delving into symbolism.

Black is not technically a colour, rather an absence of colour. Artists are often advised against using black out of the tube. Instead we are to mix a dark hue from other colours. More interesting blacks are achieved if they are red black or blue black, say. This is debatable advice.

Black Tree 1903 Joan Gonz?lez 1868-1908 Presented by Mme Roberta Gonzalez-Richard, the artist’s niece 1972

Other associations with darkness and black:

  • evil and general badness
  • mourning and funerals (especially in the West)
  • anything taboo
  • depression (e.g. Black Dog)
  • witchcraft (e.g. black cats, black cloaks, cauldrons)
  • goths
  • secrets/cloaking/mystery

There are cultural variations on black. For example:

  • In Japan, black is one of the four important colours. Black indicates wisdom, maturity and high accomplishment, hence black belts in martial arts. In Japan black is also the opposite of the colour purple, associated with the armoury of samurai, and in ancient times geisha used black to colour their teeth.
  • The Cathars were a dualist medieval religious sect of Southern France. Like Japan, the Cathars also used black to mean perfection and purity. (Today purity is most often symbolised using white.)
  • Though black is generally considered bad, black cats are lucky in the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. Black contains layers of flipped symbolism.

Associations With Night-time

  • In English we say night ‘falls’ but actually it rises, emerging first in the valleys. 
  • Fading rays are known as ‘sun suckers’
  • Eventide is an archaic term — Irish people have a saying that bushes and men look alike. Italians say hounds look like wolves.
  • Night feels palpable, like some sort of dark mist. The Old Testament talks about darkness that befell Pharoah’s Egypt. 
  • Night Vapours: Noxious fumes are widely thought to descend from the sky. “Night fogges” and “noysom vapours
  • Shakespeare — “the daylight sick”. “Make haste, the vaporous night approaches.”
  • Noctivagator was a Latin term used to refer to people who walked around at night causing trouble in the Middle Ages. It was later replaced by nightwalker in England in around 1500. 
  • Linkboys were orphans and urchins, paid to carry lights for pedestrians. They were not well trusted, sometimes leading customers straight to pick-pockets.

Ancient Times Of Day

Before the industrial era nightfall was known as ‘shutting in’. Watchdogs have been let out by nightfall, so it is time to lock yourself in for the night.

  • Gloaming (twilight, dusk)
  • Cock-shut/cockshut — twilight
  • Crow-time — evening
  • Daylight’s gate — The period of the evening when daylight fades; twilight. From the early 17th century.
  • Owl-leet — perhaps Lancashire dialect for ‘owl light’, when owls come out
Barney Sheppard Sings in the Gloaming ?circa 1889-90 Phil May 1864-1903

Darkness and Fear

All humans seem to fear the dark, probably an instinctive thing after many generations of learning to fear things which emerge in the dark. But not all cultures fear dark equally. Fear levels depend on the cultural narratives around night-time.

We don’t just fear the dark because we can’t see through it. We fear it because we can’t be recognised as ourselves. This is especially scary for children, who fear their parents may not recognise them in the darkness. In ancient stories, the coal man who covers children’s faces with coal is a terrifying bogeyman.

Deinos melas means ‘scary black’ and describes the ghost of one of Odysseus’ sailors.

Also, cultures change across time. Modern cultures fear dark less than earlier cultures — in this modern era there is no true darkness in populated areas anyway.

People weren’t really afraid of the dark until the END of the middle ages. Before then the dark was considered a peaceful time. Then we got vampires, werewolves, witches and all sorts of horrible night creatures and people actually believed these things existed, outside a few analytic mindsets. A great number of people sat on the fence, agnostic about the existence of such things. Others were absolutely terrified by their own supernatural beliefs, sometimes to the detriment of others:

On a winter night in 1725, a drunken man stumbled into a London well, only to die from his injuries after a neighbour ignored his creeds for help, fearing instead a demon.

At Day’s Close: Night in times past by A. Roger Ekirch

Since people were so scared of the night, this was excellent for pickpockets and thieves, who were able to utilise that and almost always used the cover of darkness to commit their crimes. It even became a separate crime. Housebreakers worked in the daytime, burglars by night between 1660 and 1800.


The inverse of dark is of course, light.

Light in earlier eras was expensive. Rich folk in the middle ages moved from tallow (which burns smokily, depending on the mix) to beeswax when they could afford it. Beeswax has a pleasant aroma and burns cleanly. In America where there are plenty of pine forests, candlewood was used. Some cultures made use of a particularly oily bird. It gets quite grim, actually. Apparently thieves in the sixteenth century sometimes used the fingers of babies, mostly to scare people they burgled into complete submission. The ‘hand of glory’ was a candle made from the severed hand of a hanged convict. It was turned into a candle using tallow also made from a hanged corpse. Once lit, it was supposed to render the members of the household unconscious. (If this actually worked, I don’t know how it didn’t render the thieves unconscious as well.)

Carrying a candle at night was thought to be a bit wasteful (as was burning a candle during the day ‘burning daylight’) because a moving candle uses more fuel unnecessarily. This meant that people made their way to bed in the dark and more than people are these days, were very familiar with the layout of their homes. They would know how many steps were on the staircase for instance. They might clap in a new environment to gauge the size of the room. In other words, even sighted people used some techniques nowadays really only understood by visually impaired people. 

Compared to today, neighbours were very neighbourly, helping each other at night. But more so than today, they were very wary of strangers and would not venture outside to help someone they didn’t know. 

Like clothes, even lights were regulated according to social rank. Rich people were allowed to carry more lights at night than peasants. 

Without electric light, pre-industrial people were able to distinguish between different levels of darkness. For example there was pit-murk (a black gloom) and a different shade of darkness with a full-moon out. Lowry, darkling, pitch dark (in reference to the tarry resin of pine trees.” Blind nights. 


Curtains weren’t a thing until the 18th century. When people first got them, neighbours assumed the worst regarding what was going on behind them. At that time everyone knew everyone else’s business. That’s not to say people hadn’t wanted privacy. The reason privacy became paramount then and not at any earlier time is because that’s when people started to accumulate personal possessions of their own. The words ‘privacy’ and ‘private’ didn’t exist in English until the 1400s. But by the time of Shakespeare these words were known and used by everyone. 

Devil’s Work

In earlier eras across Europe, there were laws about what jobs were allowed to be done at night. Basically, working at night was considered very suspicious because night was for the devil’s work. People were even beaten to death for working after dark. However, you were allowed to work if it was in service to a noble family. You were also allowed to work if you were preparing for a carnival or fair. Depending on the culture, exemptions were made for overnight working. In Sweden and Amsterdam for instance workers were allowed to make beer overnight because beer was very important. 

Although work was generally not allowed at night, ‘day-labour’ really did mean from dawn until dusk, until modern labour laws came in. Just as well for the superstitions, I suppose, or the working class would never have been afforded sleep.

According to some belief systems, prayer, piety and church attendance can protect you from sin (darkness) because your body emulates light. Take the following from a Pentecostal churchgoer in Papua New Guinea:

When witches confess, they say things like: “When we encounter people who follow Jesus, when we would like to get close to them, there is a light! A strong light! It reflects against our vision, and we can’t get close to them.”

Becoming Witches

See Also

Header painting: Past and Present, No. 2 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863