The witch bottle is something well-known and well used within English witchcraft. There have been examples found in the area of the USA known as New England but the knowledge and use of them was originally brought to these parts by the English settlers.
Witch bottles seemed to be at there most prominent use during the early modern period (1500’s -1800’s) of English history but we still use them today.
One of the earliest descriptions of a witch bottle appears in 1681 in Joseph Glanvills “Seducismis Triumphatus” or “Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions”. He wrote:
“For an old Man that Travelled up and down the Country, and had some acquaintance at that house, calling in and asking the Man of the house how he did and his Wife; He told him that himself was well, but his Wife had been a long time in a languishing condition, and that she was haunted with a thing in the shape of a Bird that would flurr [sic] near to her face, and that she could not enjoy her natural rest well. The Old Man bid him and his Wife be of good courage. It was but a dead Spright, he said, and he would put him in a course to rid his Wife of this languishment and trouble, He therefore advised him to take a Bottle, and put his Wives Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up and set the Bottle to the Fire well corkt, which when it had felt a while the heat of the Fire began to move and joggle a little, but he for sureness took the Fire shovel, and held it hard upon the Cork, And as he thought, he felt something one while on this side, another while on that, shove the Fire shovel off, which he still quickly put on Again, but at last at one shoving the Cork bounced out, and the Urine, Pins, Nails and Needles all flew up, and gave a report like a Pistol, and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.
Not long after, the Old Man came to the house again, and inquired of the Man of the house how his Wife did. Who answered, as ill as ever, if not worse. He askt him if he had followed his direction. Yes, says he, and told him the event as is above said. Ha, quoth he, it seems it was too nimble for you. But now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure. Take your Wive’s Urine as before, and Cork, it in a Bottle with Nails, Pins and Needles, and bury it in the Earth; and that will do the feat. The Man did accordingly. And his Wife began to mend sensibly and in a competent time was finely well recovered; But there came a Woman from a Town some miles off to their house, with a lamentable Out-cry, that they had killed her Husband. They askt her what she meant and thought her distracted, telling her they knew neither her nor her Husband. Yes, saith she, you have killed my Husband, he told me so on his Death-bed. But at last they understood by her, that her Husband was a Wizard, and had bewitched this Mans Wife and that this Counter-practice prescribed by the Old Man, which saved the Mans Wife from languishment, was the death of that Wizard that had bewitched her.”
The traditional witch bottle was made from a ceramic bottle called colloquially a “Greybeard” but its true name being a Bartmann Jar, later to become known as a Bellarmine Jar after a fearsome Catholic inquisitor named Robert Bellarmine who worked tirelessly at quashing the ideas of the English religious reformers. These jars were made exclusively at a pottery in Frechen near Cologne and had the decoration of a bearded man on them; Bartmann means in German “man with a beard” and this bearded face was intended to frighten away evil and therefore protect.
Their purpose was threefold. The first was as to counteract, return and expose harmful magic and spells cast by witches. The second was as a prevention and protection from evil spirits and magical attacks on people or homes. The third was as a curse upon a person.
Bartmann or Bellarmine Jar
Another popular bottle to use was the club-shaped green glass bottle. These were particularly useful for concealing in the sides of river-banks, marshy ground and muddy ground. These bottles could be pushed into the damp earth easily and would remain upright, as this was a necessary requirement of some bottle magics.
Club Witch Bottle
To prepare a witch bottle, it was necessary to put into the bottle something of the cursed victim; such as their urine, hair and nail clippings, even menstrual blood could be added if the victim was a woman. To this was added bent nails and pins and sometimes pieces of leather with pins inserted into it. The use of the bent pins and nails was based upon sympathetic magic; the bent pins would cause so much discomfort to the witch that she would be compelled to reveal herself to end the suffering and therefore to end the ill-wishing or harmful magic to bring her suffering to that end. The bottle was then buried under the threshold to the house or under at the hearth.
The idea of burying it under the hearth was to keep the urine warm and thereby causing the urine of the witch to stop flowing, causing agonies and even death. Joseph Blagrave in 1671 published his Astrological Practice of Physick and in it he published this account of the witch bottle and the hearth:
“Another way is to stop the urine of the patient, close up in a bottle and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life, for I have found that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all”.
Occasionally, the bottle was put directly into the fire; as the bottle got hotter and hotter the agonies of the maleficent witch intensified until the bottle exploded under the heat, finally resulting in the death of the witch and again, the end to any harmful spells.
To prepare the second type of witch bottle, the one for prevention and protection, was made in a very similar way using much the same ingredients but it also contains red threads, thorns, wine or vinegar and herbs of protection. The idea behind this type of witch bottle is that the nails, hair etc. of the person it is protecting, acts as a decoy for the magic and spells of the witch and so the spell is drawn to the bottle and once inside, it is trapped in the threads, impaled on the thorns, drowned by the liquid and sent away by the protective herbs; thereby it can do no harm to its intended victim.
In the south East of the UK, these bottles are known as Cambridgeshire Witch Bottles. They are made of either blue or green glass and are 3-4 inches in height and contain the ingredients as described above. They are sealed and the placed into a recess in the lintel above the door front door frame and then this is plastered over to conceal it and keep it safe. The thread, thorns and herb containing bottles can and are placed or hung by the front door in full view and are made to look decorative so as not to attract unwanted questions.
Decorative Witch Bottle for Protection
In October 2005, it was reported that a Witch Bottle had been found buried upside down on some land owned by the National Trust. The bottle still contained some thick brown liquid and thirty different components including a salt solution and animal fat. It appeared to have been buried in the 18th century as a charm against cattle disease.
The third type of Witch Bottle is the one created for the purpose of cursing. One of these was found in 1854 when a pond was being cleaned out in Somerset. It was an old pickle jar that had three roughly human images that had pins stuck into them inside the jar. Each figure had a name scratched into it and on the chest of each one was scratched the sigil for Saturn, there was also a flat piece of lead; the planetary metal of Saturn and it was inscribed with magical symbols. Each of the three people named on the images were threatened with “sudden destruction, legal and moral”. The three people named and represented within the bottle were identified as still living within the local area and they were two policemen and the wife of one of these policemen. One of the policemen had been ill for some time but once the bottle had been found and opened, he began to recover, as the spell was now broken – witch bottles are not meant to be found or moved, let alone opened, as this destroys their power.
It is very common for cursing witch bottles to be found in graveyards, especially at points where paths cross but one witch bottle found in a graveyard in 1900 at Monkleigh in Exeter was believed to achieve the goal of transferring the power of a witch to a dead person within that churchyard for reasons unknown.
Other popular ingredients for witch bottles are stones, feathers, bones shells, vinegar, coins and ashes each according to the intent of the bottle and the preference of the person making it.