Right across the British Isles ‘Witch Bottles’ have been uncovered dating back centuries. One of the most frequently practised forms of apotropaic (protective) magic, Witch bottles have been discovered buried deep within the foundations and walls of houses, stashed up chimneys and under floor boards and hearth stones. These bottles, traditionally fashioned from salt glazed stoneware have been found sealed and filled with all manner of objects from bent and rusty nails, pins, tangled thread, cloth and /or liquid (usually urine) as a form of sympathetic magic whereby the bottle, once hidden on the property, acts as a decoy, attracting all mal-intent aimed towards its creator and then tangling it up, destroying and even returning it to the sender.
Protective magic is old, sympathetic magic older still, and the more one reads the more one comes to appreciate that protective magic was probably the ‘bread and butter’ trade for the village cunning folk, hardly surprising when the belief in magic and the belief that magic could do real harm, even kill, was so prevalent. For that reason, if for no other, the extensive and wide-spread use of Witch Bottles deserves consideration, even by contemporary practitioners. I think it is always important to remember that whilst Witch Bottles may come across as lowly peasant magic to some, it isn’t just superstitious nonsense whereby one simply pee’s into a bottle…the reason they have known such wide usage and for so long is surely testament to their efficacy. As a practitioner of both folk and more contemporary ‘traditional’ craft I often find myself remembering a saying well-known in the British Isles “Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves”. This applies equally to our magical practise as it does our ability to manage the household finances. Whether one choses to work with folk magic or not these practises still deserve respect, ‘low magic’ or folk magic is practical and functional, the craft is operative…life influencing magic influencing life! There are many paths to power, the only thing that makes one ‘better’ than the other is our perception, or more frequently our ability to master them!
Anyway…I digress! Whilst witch bottles were / are more frequently used as a protective charm, they have also been used offensively. Bottles were created which represented the person who was deemed the source of the malevolence. The principle being that the bottle filled with the victims urine contained the magic of the sender and then, the bottle would be positioned close to the fire so it gradually grew warmer and warmer, a spoken charm may have been muttered or more frequently the operation was carried out in complete silence. As the contents boiled the bottle would eventually break or shatter thus returning all that nastiness back from whence it came often with a nasty sting attached, or as was often the case to cause such excruciating pain to the sender that they would relinquish and surrender….simple, but potent!
Information on specific examples of Witch bottles can be found in many Craft books and online. When researching these infamous charms you soon discover that whilst there are similarities, there doesn’t appear to be any hard and fast rules about the vessel, the contents or its mode of operation. I have listed some recommended resources below, and have no intention of turning this blog into a big academic discussion about historical examples. Being more ‘practical’ in my approach I want to show how I make Witch Bottles and perhaps offer some modern twists and then you can make up your own mind!
How one chooses to make a bottle is, like all aspects of the Craft, a personal thing. I think historically they were only fashioned if there was a need (i.e. if you suspected harm was coming your way or had already taken hold) but equally I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest they weren’t created proactively…just in case! The way I see it, you wouldn’t install a burglar alarm after you’ve been burgled (well….you might but it wouldn’t help!) so why wait for something to happen if you can avoid it?
However, while we’re on the subject I want to be clear on my stance when it comes to ‘protection magic’. It’s common these days, especially in the neo pagan circuit, for people to attribute every little misfortune, every little life hiccup on ‘Psychic attack’. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but sometimes life just sucks! Sometimes shit happens… most of the time it’s our own doing, not the workings of some evil wicked Witch hell bent on destroying us. So whilst I fully endorse people proactively warding their homes and placing a few little protective charms here or there, Witch Bottles and the like will not take away self-induced ‘Bad Luck’ or prevent misfortune caused by poor life choices.
That aside, the beauty of ‘every day’ magic is its simplicity, which, in my opinion, makes it twice as effective as it enables each practise to be adapted to the individual’s beliefs and particular style…this is what keeps the Craft organic, relevant and just as applicable today as it was centuries ago.
You will first need to obtain a suitable container, glassware or glazed stoneware are both acceptable, however I wouldn’t use plastic. You can choose a container as basic or as fancy as you wish. Sacred Earth (details below) sells traditional ‘Greybeard’ Witch Bottles which are fashioned from Earthenware which as well as being the traditional bladder shape also feature a small face near the neck, thereby emphasising the sympathetic link. You will also need to gather suitable ingredients for your bottle. Rusty and bent nails, old pins, rusty barbed wire, bits of glass, Blackthorns, Rose Thorns, tangled thread or bits of washed up fishing nets, brambles, Rowan and rosemary twigs and so on are all suitable. I’m sure many people will see the general theme encompassing these ingredients…they are all protective both magically and physically. Nails are sharp, Iron has a long attested use in protective magic, Barbed wire often contains iron and is used as physical fencing, Rowan is a tree which epitomises protection against magic, tangled thread and fishing nets trap or capture. Be mindful of what you are using and why, maintain a sense of purpose… this is what turns ‘superstition’ into real magic. You may like to speak a specific charm with each addition to your bottle, perhaps one of the protective psalms (Psalm 91 for example “Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence…” or Psalm 37 “But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away…”)
Once as much (or as little) as you think appropriate is inside the container you then fill the bottle with fluid. This is traditionally urine or water mixed with a little menstrual blood (only if you are female of course) with perhaps some hair and nail clippings thrown in for good measure. Some sources suggest there is a reason one should only include waste fluids (urine, sweat, menstrual blood, tears etc) in the protective Witch Bottle rather than ‘living fluids’ such as semen or blood. The suggestion is that with living links such as blood, whatever affects the Witch bottle will affect you rather than the sender of mal-intent. I’m not sure about this personally…I can see the idea behind it and I would be interested to hear from anyone who has also heard this and perhaps knows a little more about it.
Now the bottle is full, it can be stoppered with cork. At this point I usually seal it with wax as well. You could then etch or carve a face into the wax, like the more traditional witch bottles or…be creative and experiment. Magic should always be taken seriously but realise that nothing is holy writ!
All that’s left to do is place the bottle in its final resting place. I don’t have floor boards or a chimney to stash mine so I bury mine neck down (remember this is sympathetic magic!!) on our property by an entrance (not only are doors and windows the entry point but also liminal, they are neither in nor out). Again, you might like to recite a charm as the bottle is covered. If you live in an apartment for example, you may need to get a little innovative at this stage so long as it will remain undisturbed, the only restriction is your imagination). The hard part is remembering where you’ve hidden it in case you move home and need to dispose of it for example. However you also need to forget it’s there and let it get on with its job in peace.
Some Witch Bottle Resources
The Pattern Under The Plough by George Ewart Evans (Chaper 6)
Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson & Stephen Roud