For Good and Evil: Witch Bottles as Countermagical Devices Through History
In 16th and 17th century Europe, witchcraft was deemed a serious threat and court records attest to the terror evoked by suspected sorcery. Judges gave serious consideration to the danger posed by witches and warlocks and many were hanged for it. One case, found at the Old Bailey in London, records a man testifying that his wife has been subject to the ill machinations of a local witch. The judge, understanding the severity of the man’s dilemma, gives him clear advice to visit an apothecary and create a witch bottle to turn the curse back on the witch that cast it. Magic was a genuine source of fear and trepidation and witch bottles were seen as one of the best means of defense.
Witch bottles are stoneware containers that contained a wide variety of materials believed to have specific effects if properly prepared. In particular, they were used as both counter-magical devices for those already suffering from a witch’s curse and as prophylactic to protect the maker from negative or evil elements. The earliest known written mention of a witch bottle comes from a book of witchcraft written in England in 1680. However, bottles have been found dating as far back as the early 1500s.
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The tradition is believed to have started in Germany around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Bottled spells are believed to have traveled to the New World with English immigrants. Researchers have noted that witch bottles tended to proliferate during times of intense social anxiety, for example during the witch hunts of the 17th century. Witches were widely blamed whenever ill health or misfortune struck a person. Witch bottles were not only meant to heal the afflicted but also to send the curse back to the casting wizard and hopefully kill him or her.
A variety of herbs and other floral ingredients that British cunning folk used in preparing potions and other healing concoctions. (CC0)
When created for counter-magical purposes, a witch bottle often contained nails, pins, herbs, and samples of the afflicted, such as urine or hair. In the Old Bailey case mentioned above, the apothecary advised the man to prepare a potion of his wife’s urine, nail clippings, and hair, combining the materials in a pot of water and boiling it. Boiling was a key part of counter-magical efforts, as it was believed to help reverse the curse. Another key ingredient, if you could get it, was sulfur. “If you think about where sulfur came from in those days, it spewed out of volcanic fumaroles from the underworld. It would have been the ideal thing to [kill] your witch, if you wished to” said Brian Hoggard, an independent expert on British witchcraft who helped researchers understand a sealed witch bottle found in London in 2004.
Early 19th-century witch bottle from Lincolnshire, England (CC BY 2.0)
After preparing the potion and sealing the bottle, the final aspect of the spell involved burning or burying it. In the 1680 book of witchcraft the author, Joseph Glanvill, relates how a woman was languishing due to a spirit set on her by an unknown assailant. She prepared a brew of pins, needles, and nails (to impale the demon) and her own urine (to drown the demon). After seeing that the bottle was well corked, her husband set it in the fire. However, the spirit resisted capture. It shoved the cork out and “gave a report like a Pistol, and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.”
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The couple was then advised to prepare another witch bottle in the same manner, only this time bury it in the earth. It is said that the woman began to recover almost instantly. Some days later, they learned that a man from another village had died at the same time, presumably the wizard who had set the evil spirit upon the wife.
The Witch of Endor (Public Domain)
Witch bottles were also used as preemptive measures against evil acts. A common spell for a protection witch bottle involved pins and needles (to impale the curse), red wine (to drown the curse) and rosemary (to send the curse on its way). While preparing the bottle, one would chant:
Pins, needles, rosemary, wine;
In this witch’s bottle of mine.
Guard against harm and enmity;
This is my will, so mote it be!
This bottle would then be buried in the furthest corner of the preparer’s property. “The whole rationale for these bottles was sympathetic magic – so you put something intimate to the bewitched person in the bottle and then you put in bent pins and other unpleasant objects which are going to poison and cause great pain to the witch,” said Owen Davies, a witchcraft expert at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK.
Witch bottles could also be used to invite good fortune. A common love spell called for a handful of dried and crushed flower petals (preferably from flowers given by a lover), rosemary and lavender (for love and strength), and rosewater. The cork would then be sealed with red or pink wax and set in a place where it would not be seen or disturbed.
Discovering a witch bottle. (hampshirearchaeology.wordpress.com)
Top image: Witch bottles. Source: (hampshirearchaeology.wordpress.com)
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