25 February 2007

Witch Bottles: Then and Now

Another witch bottle was recently found in England. It's an interesting little bit of history and I decided to delve into it to find out more, especially since, if the comments on witchvox are any indication, not many modern pagans and witches understand the rich history or meaning of these old bottles. It turns out that many of the 200 or so witch bottles that have been found, and found their way into museums, came from a part of England called Anglia. Witch bottle usage was prevalent throughout Europe but especially high in Elizabethan England and the people of Anglia long held onto their beliefs about the evil witches can create. Oftentimes, of course, there was probably no witch around to stir up trouble. But many things that most people today would chalk up to human error or simple bad luck were considered the work of a witch. So, the common folk would make a witch bottle that would, ideally, solve their problems. (As an aside, I must admit I find it highly amusing that the steps folks took to deflect witchcraft were themselves just as magical as anything we'd call witchcraft.) The earlier more traditional bottles were usually quite small, about 3 inches tall, and were made of glass, often green or blue. Later bottles, that could be as tall as 9 inches, were made of brown or grey stoneware and often had scary bearded faces on them. For this reason some of this type of bottle was called Greybeard's. Others of this kind were called Bellarmine bottles after a particularly evil Inquisitor by the name of Robert Bellarmine. He was a great persecutor of Protestants and thus became identified by many as a devilish individual. The first of the Bellarmine bottles was found in the Netherlands but the practice spread all over Europe.

The theory behind witch bottles was that, if someone felt that someone else was working magic against them the evil spell could be tricked by the bottle into "thinking" it had found it's target (especially if it had a face on it) and so become trapped inside it with its contents. The bottle would have broken or bent pins and needles and some personal items/fluids from the individual seeking help: so as to confuse the spells intent. There was usually a hair or two and, of course, urine. Of all the bottles found so far all of those that were intact were found to have urine inside. It's gross for sure, but has a pretty rich magical history, especially in African and Italian magical systems. In fact, almost every culture on the planet had folk magic that included some magical use of urine, as well as other bodily fluids and parts. After being filled with these various items the bottle would be sealed and ideally hidden inside the walls or underneath homes. The idea with the usage of the witch bottle is that as long as they stayed intact and undisturbed they will continue to be effective. That idea makes the history types who open them up for analysis seem like they're doing something they shouldn't. But after hundreds of years I guess it's safe to say that the person who made the bottle might not need the help anymore.

Nowadays, of course, witch bottles made by neo-pagans are usually very different from their historical cousins. They might have anything from herbs (often rosemary), flowers and seeds to gemstones, minerals, feathers and glitter. And while they may often still contain bent pins, needles, hair and nail clippings, the urine is gone and is replaced by red wine. I don't know who made that decision but I guess neo-pagans can be forgiven for giving up peeing in a bottle. I can't help but wonder, though, what kind of magic is being missed without the urine. At least the hair and nail clippings haven't been completely forgotten. And instead of being buried inside or under homes they are nowadays buried in back yards, thrown in lakes or kept on windowsills and altars and reused. It's quite amazing to think how far they've come and how their usage has evolved.

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