Witch bottles are often discussed in my circle however I was recently asked for some advice so I thought it time to publish this post on Witch bottles.
Witch bottles are familiar in concept to many pagans, representing a “bottled spell” with the tradition originating as far back as the 1500’s in British folklore. Most often they are found hidden in the fabric of buildings, in liminal locations such as under doorsteps and stairs and in chimneys. They form part of the hidden assemblage, also including shoes and dedicated cats, which are an example of witchcraft prevention in action.
Bottles are most often found unsealed, due to their age and the depredations of time. This means that some of the contents missing, particularly liquid components such as urine. Although testing often shows that urine was at one time present it can provide little information.
An exception was a sealed bottle was found in Greenwich, London in 2004. Investigations using x-rays providing information on not only the contents of the bottle but its creator and their lifestyle as a result of tests run on the liquid portion of the bottles content.
Witch Bottles in the Archaeological Record
A common form of bottle found is the “bartmann” or “bellermine” bottle. A stone bottle from Holland and Belgium, the bottle bears the stylized and satirical image of Cardinal Bellarmino, an anti-Protestant cardinal. His bearded image was later associated with the Devil which is appropriate given the purpose of the bottles. Glass bottles are also found in evidence, as are glass philes. Statistically about 130 of 200 of the UK witch-bottles are bellarmines.
The contents of witch bottles range from bent iron nails, human hair (including pubic hair) and urine. 95% of the bottles retaining their contents contained iron pins and nails whilst human hair represented the second most common element. About 25% of those bottles tested proved positive to traces of urine but in most cases the urine has leaked out so it could be that statistics are much higher. Other items include small bones, thorns, needles, pieces of wood and shaped pieces of cloth.
Witch bottles are often found buried under a central hearth or fireplace, under the floor and plastered in to walls near doorways. As points of entry and exit for the living fireplaces and doors can be seen as points of entry for evil and malicious spirits as well. Other points of entry, such as windows, often receive similar protection.
Witch bottles are not the only form of hidden charm found in these locations. Well worn hobnail boots are also found. Like witch bottles that represent a form of sympathetic magic, diverting the malicious energies of the Witch away from the family towards an object representing them. This explains why such personal items such as urine and pubic hairs are used, however there is a secondary magic function to these items.
The witch bottle also represents the bladder of the Witch, with the urine representing the contents and the sharp objects the pain that the creator of the bottle wished to inflict. As well as getting their own back, and forcing the Witch to lift the curse, the intention was that the person who developed symptoms of pain and discomfort would be identified as the Witch and brought to justice.
The spell was intended to work in either capacity until such time as the bottle was broken.
For more information on the archaeological witch bottle and other hidden assemblages in England Apotropaios is a good reference. Academic.eau contains a number of articles including this look at American Witch bottles by M.C Manning M.C. Manning and Lynne S. Gordon presents an interesting article looking at both the history of witch bottles both in terms of the archaeology and evolution of modern paganism.
Modern Witch Bottles
In modern use the principle of a witch-bottle has changed little either in structure or intended purpose. Most modern witch-bottles aim to trap negative energies or spirits before they reach the household, and in some cases convent negative energy into positive energy before returning it to the Earth. It is unusual that a modern bottle is constructed with the intent to return the negative energy to the sender in any negative form, as this is contra to many neo-pagan beliefs, however that is dependent on the gnosis of the creator.
The modern focus is to trap energies and dispel them. Iron nails and iron rich (or black) semi precious stones act to ground energies whilst eggs are used to contain and purify energies (orphic link).
Urine is often replaced as vinegar to replicate its acidic qualities whilst herbs focused on spiritual and psychic protection are also included along side black or red thread/string to bind the energy and possibly the caster.
The modern witch-bottle also has other uses. The basic structure can be adapted to many other magical purposes such as attracting financial gain, positive energies etc becoming true “spells in a bottle”. A bottle can work indefinitely or a set period of time, recharged should the creator wish it so. The creator can charge each element or charge the bottle as a whole. Bottles can be created to be hidden or placed on display.
What’s in a Bottle?
Determine the Goal and Purpose
You need to decide what your Witch Bottle is going to do before you can even start picking out the components you want to use. If you want it to protect your house you will need to make sure you have something representing everyone in the bottle where as if you want to trap energies you want to include thread.
You also need to think about whether or not you will hide it or have it on display. If it’s the former have a place picked out and prepared in advance so you set the spell working as soon as possible. If you want to have it visible you will want to choose a visually pleasing bottle or things to decorate it with.
Also think about the timing of the bottles creation. The phase of moon, the day of the week and even the hour of the day all have an impact on the bottle you are creating and should ideally complement its purpose.
The Elements and Materials
Consider the type of ingredients of you intend to include when you are choosing your container, as well as the purpose of the bottle. You need to be able to fit the items through the neck of the bottle, and importantly be able to seal it. Whilst you can break and bend items there will be some things that you will be unable to do this with.
Bodily Fluids/Personal Objects – Bodily fluids represent the creator of the witch-bottle, or the people you wish to protect. In the traditional sense it is the sympathetic element that deflects negative influences away from the owners of those fluids. Blood (including menstrual), sexual fluids, urine and spit are all fluids that can be considered. Urine can also represent a harming element. As the bottles was sometimes used to represent the bladder of the Witch the sympathetic meaning is different and intent and visualisation becomes important. You need to be clear what the fluid represents, and most critically *who*.
If urine, blood and other secretions are a bit icky toenails, hair and spit will work just as well as sympathetic elements.
Mirrors and Glass – Broken glass confuses negative energies, trapping it within the bottle, causing the sender to be cut in return, whilst broken mirrors reflect the negative energy.
Nails, Thorns, Pins – These elements captures the negative energy, injures the sender and can be used to redirect the energy into the ground.
Wax – Use wax to seal the witch-bottle. Traditionally black wax is used though you can adapt this should you wish. It is also possible to carve signs and sigils into the wax but it is important that you create these before hand and are careful not to cause the wax seal to break. If the seal becomes damaged it is important to remove the wax and begin again.
Eggs – Eggs can be seen as absorbing the negative energies before causing them to be reborn into the Cosmos as cleansed positive energies. It is best that the egg is placed in the bottle unbroken.
Numerology – You can use the number of items within the bottle to influence / reflect the purpose of the spell. For example the number 7 is associated with protection whilst the number 9 (or 3 times 3) is associated with the Goddess.
Sea Salt – Sea Salt is both cleansing and grounding and a useful element regardless of the purpose of the witch-bottle.
Thread – Black thread is used in witch-bottles as another binding element. Tangle the thread loosely before adding it to the bottle to entrap the negative energy, and bind the sender from causing harm.
Wine/Apple Vinegar – These are used as an alternative to urine.
Herbs and Essential Oils– Herb lore is another popular neo-pagan discipline. There are many herbs with both medicinal and magical associations which may be appropriate to your purpose. As there is much cross over with essential oils and resins you can also include these elements.
Crystals – Crystals are plentiful and diverse in their uses. There will be many that are appropriate to your purpose and the difficulty will be narrowing the field rather than finding an appropriate. Size will be your limiting factor.
Decorations – More appropriate for witch-bottles intended for display. Glass paint pens/paints, shells, beads, ribbons etc can be added to the exterior of the bottle to beautify it and can be counted outside of the count of the spell elements. You can design a sigil specific to the purpose of the bottle, or you can use symbols from astrology or those associated with a particular deity.
Deity/Entity – if you have decided to invoke a particular deity or entity you could include items associated with that deity.
Sand – Colored sand can be used as a decorative element, useful in hiding other elements from sight if you are planning a bottle for display. Use color correspondences to link the color of the sand with the purpose of the bottle.
Making the Bottle
Once you have gathered your components one important decision is the process of charging the spell. Do you wish to charge each component individually or once the bottle on a whole has been completed. This is a decision up to the individual as both methods are used when making a spell bottle. Just be aware of your decision when designing your ritual. Cleansing and charging through visualization and chanting are common ways to prepare witch-bottle components either prior to or as part of your ritual.
Witch-bottles are usually constructed in two stages, the adding of solid elements followed by liquid elements. If you are using large quantities of something like sand or salt you can add these first, or in stages adding other items within the sand out of sight should you so wish. If you are including something like an egg add it towards the end of the bottle as part of the “liquid” elements. Bodily fluids are always counted as liquid.
Once the bottle is assembled seal it with wax and place it in its designated location. This can be as part of the ritual or immediately after it.
As ever I am being deliberately vague about the ritual process you might use to create a witch bottle. Given the versatility of the bottle itself the ritual is equally versatile and you should write it according to your own needs and traditions. It occurs to me that I should ruminate on and blog about broad ritual construction in the future to help anyone looking to write their own ritual or spell but as it feels like a whole post in itself I might have to keep you all hanging a little longer. Certainly its going on to the roundtuit list.