Apotropaic (αποτρόπαιος, Greek: turning away, averting) are actions or in a broader sense also objects which exorcize demons or ward against evil. These actions or objects are based on occultism; rituals which survived from pagan times and became popular belief, often culturally enhanced and incorporated into religion. They are being performed even today mostly without any knowledge of their origins. The use of certain objects that are supposed to provide clearly defined protective functions partly results from the object itself. A stone that has a hole carved out by natural processes, for instance, is used to protect a cattle barn from evil spirits – it is considered a magic object. Evil spells are fended off by counterspells. Medieval belief systems, in general are deeply rooted in apotropaic rituals: Pictures of saints, icons and relics were used because of the magic qualities they were thought to possess. One example is the medieval custom churches architecture having the part facing west (i.e., the side that was turned away from the sun and life itself) decorated with representations of grotesque faces of the devil and other demons.

The faces attached to walls, gates or gables of houses and other parts of the buildings are known as “Neidköpfe” (envy heads) or “Wächterköpfe” (guardian heads). The petrified face is used as something that stares and guards against evil influences. I am not interested here in heads that were a fashionable attachment on facades at the time of art deco; my interest is about objects we happen to stumble across, and which belong to a different time and age. The builder-owner never thoughtlessly threw away these objets trouvés. Did he feel respect for the face? Respect for the stone which looked at him? The ostensible power of the visage was used for other purposes – it was integrated into the structure so that the building was protected from now on.

The Swabian dialect has the term “Neidkopf.” The origin, Old High German “nid”, means hatred, wrath or envy. “Neidköpfe” were often attached to columns and other parts of buildings that faced west, since this direction was thought to be favoured by demons. According to popular belief the Neidkopf was supposed to ward off disaster and evil spirits. Hence it is an apotropaic object. Apotropaic acts are of special importance in connection with death, since they establish a point of contact with the supernatural world in our day-to-day life.