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A Brief History of Witch Bottles

prachett_witchThe “witch bottle*” is a counter-magical device dating to the 17th century. (We have an early description of a witch bottle from Suffolk, England, 1681.) Jane Sibley, Ph.D., (specialist in Norse folklore and runes and traditional Norse practitioner) has described these historical artifacts as similar to a reactive or protective amulet.

*It is known that research is slanted toward white, colonialist and Western evidence of witch bottles. In Afro-Caribbean, Afrocentric, and indigenous American cultures, curse bottles and other uses of apotropaic amulets were already established in spiritual and religious ceremony.

[As one example see: A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti]

Witch bottles were sealed with a good watertight lid and contained a number of curious items, including sharp objects such as pins, bent nails, broken mirror shards, plus any of the following: knotted threads (often red), ashes, salt, hair, vinegar, botanicals, dirt, sundry other items, and human urine. The sharp objects in the bottle are intended to shred the malicious intent. The vinegar and ashes are supposed to disempower the ill will. Vinegar is a solvent. Knotted threads bind it up. Sounds grounds it, neutralizing the negativity. The botanicals could be any sort of magical herbs or plants, opposing a broad range of ill. If the hair is human, it probably seems the same purpose as the urine.

This bottle was intended to protect a person from malicifica (malicious or ill-intentioned magic) directed at him/her. The containers were often made of glass or pottery. (Bellarmine jugs were popular in England, although made previously before in Germany.)

This magical practice crossed the Atlantic to colonial America. Evidence for the practice was found in excavations at Governor Printz State Park in Essington, Pennsylvania. This American example probably dates to the 18th century–the bottle was manufactured around 1740 and may have been buried about 1748. A description of the “Essington witch bottle” is below:

This squat piece of glasswork with a bright gold patina over its dark olive color had been buried upside down in a small hole. Two objects were deposited under the shoulder of the bottle: a piece of a long thin bone from some medium-sized bird, possibly a partridge, and a redware rim sherd from a small black-glazed bowl. The bottle contained six round-headed pins and had been stoppered tightly with a whittled wooden plug.
—Marshall J. Becker, An American Witch Bottle, “Uncanny Archaeology,” Archaeology Magazine Archive, 2009.

Here is a description from 19th century PA Dutch healing magic:

Another Remedy to be applied when anyone is sick, which has effected many a cure where doctors could not help. –Let the sick person, without having conversed with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight, and put it immediately in some box or chest. lock it and stop up the keyhole; the key must be carried one of the pockets for three days, as nobody dare have it except the person who puts the bottle with water in the chest or box.
–John George Hoffman, Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend, 1820, pp. 10-11

[http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/halloween/witch_bottle.html]

[another paraphrased “Witch Bottle” website]

addition: really, really wonderful examination of Witch Bottles at Pilgrim’s Way: https://pilgrimswaywitchcraft.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/the-witch-bottle/

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Of Oak and Ash “Witch Bottles” in the 21st century

Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether
Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether

One thought on “A Brief History of Witch Bottles

  1. Some witch’s bottles were thrown into a fire and when they exploded, the spell was broken or the witch supposedly killed.

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