Weird Witch Bottles, Historic Efforts to Ward Off Evil Spells and Witchcraft
Witch bottles (known also as ‘spell bottles’) are apotropaic devices (things believed to have the power to avert evil influences). These objects are believed to protect their owners from the negative effects of witchcraft. The belief in evil and malevolent forces went hand in hand with the efforts to counter these threats. In Early Modern Europe and North America, the centuries old belief in the powers of witchcraft was very real.
Over time, people devised various ways of protecting themselves against witches, most notably through witch hunts. Witch bottles were also a way of protecting oneself against witches, and they become popular during the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, the available evidence suggests that usage of this device was popular in England and North America, but not in other parts of Europe.
Choosing a Witch Bottle
Normally, glass bottles with lids would be used to make the witch bottles. Another common type of bottle used to make these apotropaic devices was a stoneware container known as bellarmine jugs (known also as bartmann jugs).
These vessels may have been named after Robert Cardinal Bellarmino, a Catholic Inquisitor who played an important role in the Counter-Reformation. The bottles can be easily identified as they are customarily adorned with the figure of a bearded man. It has been suggested that due to the depiction of this fearsome Inquisitor on such vessels, the bellarmine jugs were often used to make witch bottles.
Bartmann Jug, 1525-50, Germany, Cologne (Victoria and Albert Museum) (CC BY-2.0 UK)
Contents of the Bottle
The bottles, however, were not as important as their contents. Based on witch bottles that have been discovered, it has been reported that the contents of witch bottles usually varied from one bottle to another. It has been suggested that this is likely due to the fact that the contents of a witch bottle were determined based on the kind of spell its creator thought had been cast on him / her. It has been established that one of the most common components of witch bottles is human urine.
People believed that by preparing a potion through boiling, they would be able to turn a witch’s spell back at her. Thus, a person with bladder / urinary problem would boil his / her own urine, as it was believed that not only would a spell be cast back on the witch, but that person’s problems would cause her suffering as well. Additionally, pins and nails were occasionally thrown into the urine to cause more pain to the witch.
A Bellarmine jug, a type of vessel commonly used to make witch bottles. (Public Domain)
There are a variety of objects that have been found inside witch bottles. The contents of a 17th century witch bottle unearthed in Greenwich, London, in 2004 is found to have included “human urine, brimstone, 12 iron nails, eight brass pins, hair, possible navel fluff, a piece of heart-shaped leather pierced by a bent nail, and 10 fingernail clippings.” Further analysis of the urine is said to have revealed that it had come from a smoker, as “cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine” was found in it, whilst the nail clippings, which appeared to be “quite manicured”, suggests that it had belonged to someone of “some social standing”.
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Early 19th-century witch bottle from Lincolnshire, England. (CC BY 2.0)
Witch bottles were not only created to punish witches who casted evil spells on a person, but were also used to prevent spells from harming a person in the first place. These are said to have been normally buried upside down beneath hearths or doorways.
One example of such a protective witch bottle is a 17th century green glass vessel that was unearthed in Newark in 2014. Alternatively, they could also be carried around as amulets. Such protective witch bottles would typically contain sharp, rusty items, such as nails, pins and razor blades, as these are believed to be able to deflect evil spells and bad luck. Other ingredients, taken from websites showing how to make the bottles today, include salt, red wine, red string / ribbon, various herbs, and, of course, human urine.
Many people put great efforts into protecting themselves from the evil spells and curses of witches, and witch bottles provided one of the less violent means for personal defense.
Featured image: From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artifact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury. Photo source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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