The Weird History Of Witch Bottles

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, March 22, 2014
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“Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” —Louis Brandeis, concurring, Whitney v. California

In A Nutshell

Witchcraft was thought to be a rampant practice in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout England and America, but fortunately, those that didn’t necessarily practice it weren’t entirely powerless against it. Witch bottles were designed to combat evil spells, either turning them back on the caster or protecting someone against being targeted by one in the first place. They were a very personal thing, and often contained human tissues and bodily secretions.

The Whole Bushel

For centuries, belief in the powers of witchcraft was a very real and very frightening thing. Those who didn’t necessarily practice witchcraft but thought themselves a victim of it weren’t absolutely powerless, though: Enter the witch bottle.

Witch bottles have been found in both England and the United States, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. On their own, they’re pretty strange things that might have had archaeologists scratching their heads if not for records specifying just what they were and what they were used for.

Witchcraft wasn’t just a fringe belief, it was a real, honest-to-goodness threat. Court records from the Old Bailey in London record advice given to a man who thought his wife had garnered the not-so-pleasant attention of a witch. According to an apothecary, the remedy for her affliction was to make an anti-witchcraft potion. The ingredients? Her urine, some nail clippings, and some of her hair, combined and boiled.

Boiling was a traditional method of preparing a potion that would turn a witch’s spell back at her, a belief that was carried from England to America. Even in the colonies, witchcraft was such as serious problem there was a variety of anti-witchcraft legislation that was drawn up as official guidelines as to what to do when there was suspected witchcraft. So it’s not strange that the everyman would be taking such precautions.

Witch bottles found in Pennsylvania are similarly constructed to ones that have been found in England, dating to about the same time period. One, buried upside-down near the foundation of a house, was filled with bird bones, a shard of pottery, and six pins. (Six is a number traditionally associated with the ability to combat the effects of witchcraft, often seen in the traditional hex signs.)

More bottles have been uncovered in England, and their contents seem to vary—most likely based on what kind of spell the creator thought had been cast on them. Urine was a common component, as those who had bladder or urinary trouble often thought that boiling their own urine, bottling it and burying the bottle would transfer the problems to the caster. Throwing in the pins and nails was done to curse the witch even further, as it was thought that it would cause even greater grief.

Other bottles have contained things like brimstone (sulfur), pins, nails, and even belly button lint. In some bottles, the pins are just put in loose, but in others, they’re carefully arranged in felt or cloth hearts. The inclusion of sulfur was thought to be particularly damning to the witch, and was reserved for those that the afflicted wanted not just gone, but dead.

Some of the contents of witch bottles can be difficult to determine, because years of sitting in urine can degrade many items. Some of the bottles found have been pottery or stoneware, more rarely glass.

In addition to returning spells back onto their caster, witch bottles were also often buried near foundations for houses as they were being constructed to ward off potentially cast bad spells. Typically placed beneath hearths and in doorways, they were always buried upside-down. Others were carried as amulets meant to ward off disease and illness.

Show Me The Proof

Archaeology: An American Witch Bottle
NewScientist: London’s magical history uncorked from ‘witch bottle’
NBC News: 17th century urine-filled ‘witch bottle’ found