Sometimes it can take me some traction to get going but that process is not helped by my forgetting, and then losing blog posts!
I promised over a year ago to blog about Four Thieves Vinegar, an absolutely fabulous vinegar infusion primarily used in Hoodoo. Though I am not a practitioner of such I comfort my sensibilities with the thought that infusing vinegar with herbs and spices is not only a culinary norm but something that has existed for centuries in Europe as a medicinal cure. All of the possible ingredients of four thieves vinegar are well known for their culinary, medicinal and magical properties and the legend of the four thieves blend and meld with this to reveal a preparation famed for its curative and protective properties.
Legend and History the Four Thieves
There are various versions of the legend of the four thieves but a common thread remains throughout, and that is of plague. This is my variation of the tale…
Once upon a time, a town found itself in the grip of a terrible plague. It respected no one; the rich and the poor, the old and the young, all were at the mercy of this terrible illness that the town doctor seemed incapable of curing.
As the plague progressed the townsfolk realized that a gang of thieves were operating in the disease-ridden streets. Not only were these thieves profiting from the dead and the dying but their crime spree was unaffected by the plague itself. The officials placed a bounty on the heads of this gang of thieves, making it very clear that the thieves were to be captured alive.
The townsfolk hunted high and low until eventually the four thieves were caught and brought to the town officials who gave them an ultimatum; share the secret of how to protect yourself from the plague or be hanged.
Given the choice the thieves readily shared their secret, each revealing a herb or spice which they had steeped in cider vinegar with cloves of garlic. The townsfolk quickly prepared the tonic and as the plague abated the four thieves were released. Neither they nor the spoils they acquired were ever seen again.
It is possible that the first tellings of the legend of the four thieves were associated with the various outbreaks of plague which swept through Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries however the use of infused vinegar to protect against illness predates these events. The 1825 Pharmacologia makes reference to Cardinal Wolsey carrying a sponge soaked in vinegar infused with ‘ various spices’ to protect him from contracting illnesses whilst traveling through the country, which places a referenced usage of infused vinegar in the 15th century.
Marseilles Vinegar, an earlier French name for the cure, was certainly associated with the legend of the thieves, however, there is some dispute as to whether the name ‘Four Thieves’ represents a genuine historical event or is a corruption of the name Forthave. Richard Forthave is sometimes cited as the man who first created the recipe. Supporters of this theory suggest that ‘Four Thieves’ is a corruption of his surname.
Marseilles vs Four Thieves
Marseilles Vinegar is a complex preparation, containing many ingredients and there are any number of variations of recipes out there. The Kitchen Doctor offers a good selection of examples so I will skip over that here.
Modern four thieves vinegar recipes contain significantly fewer ingredients, with the focus being on the number of thieves in the legend. There are only usually four ingredients in addition to garlic and cider vinegar though some recipes count the garlic as one ingredient. This means that the recipe is extremely versatile. You can pick ingredients based on their magical and/or medicinal properties or use whatever you have in your kitchen in a pinch.
What ingredients you use will give your four thieves vinegar an individual twist both in terms of flavor, potency, and usage.
Preparing Four Thieves Vinegar
To make a modern variation of Four Thieves Vinegar you will need –
- Organic Cider Vinegar
- A Jar (if you wish to infuse and bottle separately)
- Bottle (you can reuse the vinegar bottle)
- Four others from the following
I haven’t given specific quantities in this list, use your judgment as to how much vinegar you want in relation to how big a bottle you’ll be using. A general rule of thumb when using dried ingredients is you should use a lower quantity than if you were using fresh; for example a cup of fresh to a teaspoon of dried. Remember that the more of something you use the more intense the scent/flavor but the aim is not to pack everything out but leave room for the liquid to move.
The process for making the infused vinegar can be can be as complex or as straightforward as you prefer.
After gathering your ingredients, and using a method you prefer, charge the ingredients with intent. I tend to do this as part of the process of preparing them and again at the point of adding them to the vinegar.
If reusing the vinegar bottle decant a good half of the vinegar into another container which you can seal, you may need to top up the vinegar as it rests and infuses. Otherwise start filling your chosen bottle/jar with your ingredients, starting with any dried or powdered items. Once you’ve added all the ingredients add the vinegar. Replace the lid and give everything a good shake.
Then you need to leave this to infuse for between 3 and 6 weeks, keeping it out of direct sunlight. Try to remember to shake it daily to keep everything moving (I leave it in the tea/coffee cupboard so I don’t forget) but don’t loose sleep over it. On a ‘regular basis’ will work too.
After infusion it is ready to use. It’s up to you if you strain off the herbs and spices or not. If you do decide to leave it remember not to swallow any floaty bits should you decide to take it internally. The first time I made this I didn’t strain it off so I was continually dodging eye of newt (mustard seeds). Not only that I found it got more pokey as time went on. Great magically but yuck! If you want to strain it a coffee filter or muslin cloth is the way to go.
Quick Fix Method
If 3-6 weeks is a bit slow going for you, and it was for me getting photos ready for this post, there is a quicker method.
Once you’ve identified your herbs and prepared to them measure out your cider vinegar into a small pan. We’re going to apply heat and boil the vinegar so add a little more than is necessary to account for any reduction.
Bring the cider vinegar and crushed/minced garlic to the boils, stirring in a clockwise direction. At all times avoid inhaling the steam, it’s potent stuff.
Add each ingredient, in turn, stirring well, and allow the liquid to return to boiling in between each addition. I like to say a little charm/chant appropriate to my focus to give me even spacing between ingredients.
After searching for a nursery rhythm about thieves and only turning up Taffy was a Welshman, which is wildly inappropriate given the number of Wales friends I have, so I decided to get creative and write my own rhythm. In the process of my search Google kicked out Over the Hills and Far Away, a favorite of mine from the Sharpe movies and thus I was inspired. To hear the arrangement by John Tams follow this link.
Death come here and meet your bane
Miscreants from here remain
For ill intent you all will pay
Over the hills and far away.
O’re the hills and on your way
Evil spirits keep at bay
This will send you far away
Over the hills and on your way.
What’s cast against this house shall fail
With this mix we’ll all be hale
Plague and illness can not stay
(Go) Over the hills and far away.
O’re the hills and on your way
Spells against me led astray
Only good things here may stay
So over the hills and on your way.
Sung to Over the Hills and Far Away
Once the last ingredient is in and has returned to the boil turn off the heat and allow the liquid to cool then bottle the liquid and gubbins and allow it to sit for four days, shaking daily. Bythe fifth day it will be ready either to strain and rebottle or to use as is.
Regardless of which method you decide to use always make sure to shake your bottle well before use to wake everything up.
Uses of Four Thieves Vinegar
I describe Four Thieves Vinegar as my go to preparation because it is a good example of witchcraft having the ability to both heal and harm. If I’m feeling drained, either energetically or just under the weather, I’ll take a shot in hot water/coffee. If someone in the house is having a bout of nightmares/terrors I’ll anoint them or the bed with it. I will deal with someone who is “getting in my way” with a drop or two of this and they will clear right out, and it makes an uncomfortable addition to Witchbottles.
The most common use for Four Thieves Vinegar is as a form of personal protection, be that medicinal or magical. It is quite often used to anoint the person and can be added to water to be used to wash the body. Cider vinegar, in of itself, is often suggested as a base for homemade cleaning products and as many of the ingredients also have cleansing properties (magical and mundane) this means that Four Thieves Vinegar has a similar application. Just as it can be used to cleanse the body it can be used to cleanse objects as well. I have used this preparation in the cleansing of my ritual space and items (particularly those I have purchased from secondary sources). This is because another of its uses is to break connections between people (and objects) as well as end relationships.
Banishing is another major use of Four Thieves Vinegar. Most often it is used to banish unwanted influences and energies however it can be used to banish people as well. Many sites will recommend putting a few drops of this vinegar in the path of the unwanted individual, or scattered across their doorway in order to get them out of your life. You can also use it to protect your own doorway from unwanted energies/visitors by using it to wash down the door, step and sills of your main door to the house, working equally as well against unwanted spirits and entities in the same or other contexts.
Four Thieves Vinegar also comes in handy as a component for spells, particularly those aimed at breaking the work of others and turning it back upon them. You can use it as you would any other liquid spell component in your practice. One thing I particularly like to do is add it as a liquid portion to Witchbottles. Vinegar is often suggested as an alternative component to urine as a method of turning aside negative intentions and it can be added with the intent to return harm to the attacking witch. This can even be extended to a form of hexing in itself. One of the original ways the Witchbottle was employed was to identify a witch through sympathetic magic. The Witchbottle, representing the bladder of the witch, was placed in boiling water with the intention being that through sympathetic magic the target would be afflicted by bladder problems and thus identified. It wouldn’t hurt to have that burn a bit more than usual.
On a personal note, I’ve used both versions of my Four Thieves Vinegar in a couple of different ways to varying effect. Initially, it was made in order to cleanse my altar and house as part of an experiment and I found it incredibly effective. A few drops added to water made everything clean in all senses, and the scent is nice and spicy.
A few weeks later, when we had an outbreak of nightmares in the house, I went around and anointed all the kids beds with the neat preparation. Boy did that work. Not only did the nightmares dry up but that first night I experienced what my daughter later described as her nightmare. I went on to anoint my own bed, the doors and windows and renew a couple of household wards and everything finally settled down.
I also decided to try the preparation in its medicinal guise. Not being a medical professional I can’t recommend anyone follow my lead and try this but I’ve learned a couple of things. Firstly, because I left my ingredients in and it has been slowly maturing I need to add it to something with a pretty strong flavor if I want to drink it. Hot water and herbal tea would not cut it. On the plus side I also learned that I have a strong stomach. With this new batch I will make sure I strained it off this time and I will monitor it more closely than I did the last in terms of taste over time.