Sticking pins into an animal's heart is a symbolic aggressive action, much used in counterspells throughout England. If farm animals were dying and witchcraft was suspected, one should cut out a heart, stick it with pins, nails, or thorns, and boil or roast it, or hang it in the chimney. This should be done just before midnight, in complete silence, with doors and windows barred; some accounts add that a verse from the Bible was read, but do not say which. The ritual would cause intense pain to the witch, who could only get relief by lifting her own spell. Witchcraft against humans could be similarly broken by the use of a hen's, pigeon's, hare's, or toad's heart; these were also used aggressively in love magic, to force a reluctant lover into marriage, or to take revenge on an unfaithful one. In North Yorkshire, the heart was sometimes buried in a churchyard, not burnt (Blakeborough, 1898: 151). There are detailed accounts from 19th-century Yorkshire and Durham (Henderson, 1879: 181–8, summarized in Opie and Tatem 1989: 195–6; also Brockie, 1886: 11–15, 26–8); one instance was recorded in London about 1902 (Lovett, 1925: 67). Some pigs' hearts stuck with pins, found in the chimneys of old Somerset cottages, were given to Taunton Museum (Elworthy, 1895: 53–5).
There have been modern instances of the procedure, which is fairly widely known from books and the media. Sheep's hearts pierced with thorns were found nailed to church walls in several Norfolk villages in the winter of 1963/4, together with human images and magic symbols (Valiente, 1973: 193–4); a ‘cow's heart impaled with nails’ was sent through the post during a campaign of magical harassment in Lewes (Sussex) in 1997 (Fortean Times 102 (Sept. 1997), 38–41).