Witch Bottle

witch bottle

witch bottle

OVER THE LAST few days this Witch Bottle will have been crossing some of your house thresholds. So I thought it time to introduce her, and tell you why her crossing your threshold might have been quite a horrifying thought had you been living centuries ago. She is painted with oils on burr walnut wood and the idea is based on an old English folk magic, evidence of which has come to light in the rebuilding and renovating of old buildings in recent years. The practice of making witch bottles dates back at least to the 15th century and is a form of apotropaic charm (i.e. one that wards off evil).


If someone believed that they were the victim of a witch’s spell, they would take an old pot-bellied bottle, often made of blue or green glass, or a stoneware container known as a Bellarmine (named after the rather dreadful bearded face that decorated the side of these bottles, which reminded folk of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine who was a persecutor of protestants and labeled a demon), and fill it with various curious ingredients…

Bellarmine

Bellarmine


First the worried spell victim would drop in some bent iron nails or pins, then some of their own hair, and lastly their urine. Sometimes other items like thorns or pieces of wood, nail clippings, stones, bones, ash, menstrual blood, oil or coins were added to this. Then the bottle would be corked and buried in a significant place. Many witch bottles have been discovered underneath the hearth stone, hidden in walls or at the threshold of the house.


The idea behind this was that if a witch was sending her spirit to harm you, she would most likely try to enter your home through a doorway, chimney, or other entranceway. If there was a concoction made from your own bodily fluids in her way, she would turn her attentions on that, presuming it was you and get herself caught on the bent iron nails. It is thought that in the case of bellarmines, the frightening face on the side of the bottle would further ward off evil.

witch bottle with contents

witch bottle with contents


So if there appeared in the nearby vicinity someone with a dreadful sudden affliction or who experienced terrible pain whilst urinating, then it was likely to be the witch!

pin

pin


Archaeologists have found only four bottles still completely intact with evidence of urine and hair and all sorts of other delights within. In fact, these witch bottles were often thought to explode on the death of the witch, so perhaps these are cases where the charm did not work.

If you are interested in learning more about strange popular superstitions, dried cats, old shoes and other Things Hidden In Walls, there are some excellent articles here at Apotropaios, where you are invited to send details of any odd things found hidden in your walls and under doorsills.

witch bottle sketch

witch bottle sketch

My witch is currently hiding here under my etsy doorsill, waiting to tell you her tale.

— Rima Staines

Published by Rima Staines on her blog.

Rima Staines is an artist using paint, wood, word, music, animation, clock-making, puppetry and story to attempt to build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that. She lives on Dartmoor. Her website, The Hermitage, is an absolute must visit.

Rima Staines is co-author with Sylvia Linsteadt of Witch-Bottle, a short story, a novel in progress, from the perspective of a witch trapped in the bottle, published in Dark Mountain 4. Beautifully written, a delight to read, I look forward to reading the novel.

Dark Mountain is an anthology of essays, prose, poetry and art.

No 2 Top Story in The Digital Mission Daily (Saturday 21 December 2013).

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One Response to “Witch Bottle”

  1. kevinrcarter Says:

    The painting at the top of the post is strange. I remember visiting a museum in Cornwall when I was very young that claimed to have many items of witchcraft. It was scary at the time, but when I revisited a couple of years ago, it was anything but.

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