witch bottles


witch bottles
   A common *counterspell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person's *urine (and sometimes also *hair and *fingernail clippings) in a bottle with *nails, *pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, 'will endanger the witches' life, for . . . they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all' (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671), 154-5; cited in Merrifield, 1987: 169). Blagrave's contemporaries Aubrey and Joseph Glanvil record instances of this causing the deaths of those responsible for a horse's bewitchment and for a woman's languishing illness (Aubrey, Miscellanies, 1696/1857: 140; Glanvil, Sadducismus Tri-umphatus (1681), part 2, 169-70). The theory was that the witch had created a magical link with her victim, which could be reversed via the victim's body-products; the witch would have to break the link to save herself, and the victim would recover.
   The recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:
   Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free. (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67)
   In London, 17th-century pottery jugs of the kind called 'greybeards' or 'bellarmines' have been found buried in ditches or streams, containing such things as bent nails and felt hearts stuck with pins; in Essex and Suffolk many others have been found, but under the hearths or thresholds of houses. Later, cheap glass bottles were used in the same way; one holding over 200 bent pins was found under the hearth of a Sussex cottage in the 1860s, as was common in the county. A friend of Charlotte Latham actually saw one being heated, to cure a girl of epilepsy supposedly caused by a witch (Latham, 1878: 25-6). An example dating from the early years of the 20th century was found in a shop at Padstow (Cornwall); urine was put in a cod-liver-oil bottle which had its cork pierced with eight pins and one needle, and was bricked up in a chimney. In Cambridgeshire, a three-sided iron bottle held hen's blood and feathers mingled with the usual human urine, salt, hair, and nail-clippings; also (for protection rather than cure) small bottles of greenish or blueish glass filled with coloured silk threads were displayed beside doors or windows, to divert the witch's power by confusing her gaze (Porter, 1969: 169, 180).
   According to the East London Advertiser on 1 August 1903, a barber in Bishop's Stortford (Essex) had recently been asked to save some hair-clippings from a customer's neck in order that someone who wanted revenge on the man could put them in a bottle and heat it until it burst at *midnight, to bring sickness on him (N&Q 9s:3 (1903), 187). This is no defensive counterspell, but an active magic attack, via the intended victim's hair; sometimes, witch bottles were similarly used (Porter, 1969: 179).
   ■ Merrifield, 1987: 163-83; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 416-17.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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