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The Mystery of the Witch Bottles

Ever since human beings have come to believe in magical forces and evil curses, there have been efforts made to try and combat these forces. As many have cowered in the shadows there have been others who have tried to find ways to stave off these powers and ward them off, and for every magical spell and ritual there is there seems to be some contradictory protection against it. One very strange variety of these protective charms and spells is a variety of bizarre items that were kept within small containers, utilizing a hodgepodge of ingredients in order to combat the dark forces that the people of the time felt threatened by.

One type of very curious item that was once used as protection against black magic and negative spiritual forces are what are referred to as “Witch Bottles.” Having origins spanning back into the 16th and 17th centuries, they were originally glazed stoneware jugs called Bartmann jugs, later moving on to glassware, which were all filled with a particular recipe of ingredients depending on the desired outcome. The bottles were typically prepared by a witch, apothecary, or folk healer, who would gather rosemary and other herbs, needles, nails and pins, and red wine, which they would put into the bottle and cast a ritual over it. Witch bottles could have other ingredients as well, depending on the intended purpose, and these could include sulphur, strips of leather, cloth cut into certain shapes, sand, stones, knotted threads, feathers, shells, flowers, salt, vinegar, oil, coins, ashes, thorns, menstrual blood, and pieces of glass, wood, and bone. It was believed that the bottles lured in and entrapped negative energy and evil spirits, with the pins and needles ensnaring these forces, after which they would be drowned by the wine and banished by the rosemary, herbs, and other ingredients.

Witch bottle and contents

If the witch bottle was used to ward of the effects of a spell, then various things from the offending mage were added as well, such as nail clippings, hairs, and even urine, which was said to nullify the curse or spell or even cast it back at the one who had conjured it up. The finished bottle was then placed within the walls or in doorways of a home, or buried in the yard, where they would supposedly ward off evil magic and spells, or even ensconce these forces within them or reflect them back to the caster. One Owen Davies, a witchcraft expert at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK, has said of this aspect of the mysterious witch bottles:

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.

At the time these items were becoming popular the persecution of witches was in full effect, and it was not uncommon at all for judges and courts to recommend that the victims of these crimes visit an apothecary to craft a witch bottle for themselves. It was seen as a perfectly reasonable response to witchcraft, and they became a go-to apotropaic devices, that is, items created for the purpose of staving off negative magic. While they originally began in Germany, the popularity of the witch bottles would spread to other areas and make their way across the sea to North America as well, and they saw an expansion of their usage as well, spreading to other containers such as cups or tiny glass vials to be carried on the magically afflicted’s person as a sort of amulet against evil. These bottles were thought to be potent and active as long as their seals remained intact, but in some forms of the witch bottles they were actively destroyed, thrown into a fire to explode and send a barrage of negative energy towards the witch that was plaguing them.

Witch bottles

Considering that these bottles were hidden within homes or buried on properties, they have been popping up from time to time well into modern days, and many structures have been found to contain witch bottles left there long ago. On such bottle uncovered in Greenwich, London was found in 2004, and contained “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.” Considering that the seal was found to still be intact, it is considered to be one of the most pristine witch bottles ever found. One archeologist who examined this bottle said that it was:

The discovery of something so apparently bizarre, indicating a clear belief in witchcraft and forces that have nothing at all to do with conventional, approved religion, remind us that early modern England did not belong to the same world we now inhabit.

To this day witch bottles are routinely found buried under the fireplace, under the floor, and plastered inside walls, and it seems that this was a very widespread belief, especially in Germany and England, although there have been those found in the United States as well, such as the so-called “Essington witch bottle” unearthed by archeologists on Great Tinicum Island in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. It seems that witch bottles will be turning up for some time, and indeed in modern times people are still making them for various purposes. They are a very strange little historical oddity that casts light on how people of the past viewed black magic and witchcraft, and how it impacted the way they lived, making them important pieces of historical lore at the very least, whether they have ever had magical powers or not.