Message in a bottle

Dr Brian Hoggard is an expert in the archaeology of British folk magic. This feature on the witch bottles of England first appeared in the spring 2016 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is benefit of SPAB membership, for details on becoming a member please see our website.

Witch-bottles first appear in the archaeological record in England in the first half of the 17th century. They were initially used as a specific counter-spell to undo harmful bewitching. For the first 100 years or so of their use a type of stoneware bottle colloquially known as a ‘bellarmine’ was used, glass bottles were used later on.

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Witch bottle found in Suffolk

Witch-bottles, like other apotropaic (evil-averting) objects, were deliberately concealed so it is only when buildings are demolished, repaired, or when archaeologists excavate building sites that they come to light.  This means that only very few get reported to a local heritage service.  The amount that can be found is also limited by how many buildings survive from any given period.

The earliest written description of witch-bottles is Joseph Blagrave’s 1671 Astrological Practice of Physick.  Describing a method of removing bewitchment:

‘Another way is 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 by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all…’
‘The reason. . .is because there is part of the vital spirit of the Witch in it, for such is the subttlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poysonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it. . .’

Blagrave is prescribing a method of turning the witches power back upon them using the sympathetic link between the witch and victim. It seems that the idea was that the bottle represented the witch’s bladder and, by inserting pins and the victim’s urine into the bottle and then heating it, this would cause intense pain to the witch, forcing them to lift whatever spell they had cast.

When the contents of witch-bottles are examined they almost always contain evidence of iron in the form of pins or nails. The next most common ingredient is hair with some bottles yielding large locks of it. Almost all of the bottles which have been tested for urine have tested positive.  Sometimes a small piece of fabric in the shape of a heart is found and pretty much anything prickly or unpleasant could be included. The early texts do not mention hair at all and they also do not mention deliberately bending the pins or nails before inserting them into the bottle – another difference from the texts.

The accounts only refer to burying the bottles if the heating was unsuccessful. All of the examples in my records were buried or concealed which suggests that the process of heating the bottles did not work well and that burying bottles was widespread and well known. It is my contention that this actually became the normal way to treat a witch-bottle.

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A bottle found beneath a parish boundary wall in Dorset. After analyses it was found to contain beef tallow and spring water, presumably this was a witch bottle to protect livestock.

Mapping early witch-bottles shows a distinct bias towards the south east of England and parts of the south coast. These bottles were imported in vast quantities full of beer and wine but the stoneware was so durable that they were reused many times, including as witch-bottles. Thus far I have not seen any examples of bellarmine witch-bottles further north than Leeds, yet the trade in stoneware vessels did reach this far. As we move beyond the 17th century glass witch-bottles in the shape of small phials, bottles and occasionally jars begin to be found in all parts of Britain. There are several examples from the USA and a few from Australia too.

Within the home slightly more than half were found either beneath the hearth stone or within the construct of an inglenook fireplace. The next most common location was beneath the floor and then beneath the threshold. From the middle of the 18th century onwards the locations and contents begin to diverge away from the original recipe and locations and there is increasing use of glass bottles.

Case Studies
In the grave of a young adult at All Saints Church, Loughton, Buckinghamshire a late 17th or early 18th century glass steeple bottle was discovered lying between the left humerous and upper chest. The bottle contained several copper pins and a number of pins were also stuck into the cork. The bottle contains liquid which may be urine, although no analysis has yet taken place on this substance. Based on currently available records for witch-bottles it seems that this is the only case of one being discovered in a coffin although several other bottles have been found buried in churchyards. Presumably the bottle was placed in the coffin as a kind of counter-witchcraft to perhaps help protect the body and soul in death or to exact revenge on the perpetrator of the witchcraft which was thought to have led to his death.

In Pershore, Worcestershire two small glass phials were discovered along with three childrens shoes and a collection of toys. The group was discovered behind the hearth.  In this instance the group of objects were dated to the mid-19th century. The phials contained wheat husks and possibly some resin from a pine tree. This is possibly residue connected with the production of pine beer which was once commonplace. The idea with this collection of objects appears to have been to bring together the shoes, two small bottles and toys to serve as a decoy for any bad influences that might want to attack the home via the chimney.

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Glass phials discovered in Pershore, Worcestershire, with three children;s shies and a collection of toys

Theoretical metaphysics!
Initially it seems that witch-bottles were a specific counter-spell designed to cause physical pain to the witch thereby giving the opportunity to barter for your own unbewitching. I already noted that, if the heating was not successful then the bottle would be buried which would lead to a slow death of the witch. Over 50% of witch-bottles are found by the hearth which suggests that the heat and also the location by the only portal which was permanently open to the sky was important. The amount of effort involved in creating a witch-bottle and then digging a large hole for it is quite significant and it’s my contention that as time went by the way people thought of witch-bottles changed to more of a spirit trap.  The idea being that negative energies entering the home via the chimney would be sniffing out the victim and locate them conveniently near the hearth (the hair and urine) and plunge into the bottle become impaled on the ghostly pins and nails which had been ritually killed (by being deliberately bent).

The more I explore the beliefs, practices and customs of the past the more certain I am that life was viewed through a complex web of beliefs regarding magic, folklore, the supernatural and religious forces. Unseen forces surrounded and permeated everything. Witch-bottles serve as a small window into that world.

For more information on apotropaic objects visit Brian Hoggard’s website.