A witch bottle is a Charm used in folk Magic to protect against evil spirits and magical attack, and to counteract spells cast by witches. Witch bottles were prevalent in Elizabethan England, especially in East Anglia, where superstitions and beliefs in witches were strong, although their use has continued into modern times.
The witch bottle was a little flask about three inches high and made of green or blue glass. Some were larger and rounder, about five to nine inches in height; these were known as Greybeards or Bellarmines. The Bellarmines were named after a fearsome Catholic inquisitor who persecuted Protestants and was called a Demon by his victims. The Greybeards and Bellarmines were made of brown or gray stoneware, glazed with Salt and embossed with bearded faces. Both the salt and severe face were believed to scare off evil.
The witch bottle was prepared magically by a witch or Cunning Man or woman, who placed into it the victim’s urIne, Hair and Nails, or red thread from Spirit – Traps. When the bottle was buried beneath the house hearth or threshold, the spell was nullified and the witch supposedly suffered great discomfort. Sometimes the bottles were thrown into a fire; when they exploded, the spell was broken or the witch was supposedly killed. If urine was used as a counter-charm, then the witch became unable to urinate; thus, she was exposed for her maleficia. Witch bottles were especially used to nullify the Evil Eye.
Witch bottles were hung in chimneys as charms to prevent witches from flying down and entering a house. They were also hung near doors and windows and plastered into walls above door lintels to protect the threshold. Commercial buildings, rail lines, bridges and other structures were often given witch bottles as a general prophylactic against evil and disaster.
Joseph Glanvil described the making of a witch bottle in his book Sadducimus Triumphatus—or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681). According to Glanvil, the wife of William Brearly, a priest and fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, became ill when the couple took lodgings in Suffolk County. She was haunted by an apparition in the shape of a bird. A cunning man prescribed a witch bottle containing her urine and pins, needles and nails. The bottle was to be corked and set by the fire. The evil was removed, and the Wizard who bewitched her allegedly died.
England’s great cunning man James Murrell was famous for his witch bottles. Some were made of Iron. According to lore, the local blacksmith had great difficulty in forging the first iron bottle for Murrell, who had to say a prayer in order for the fire to draw. Another story holds that a boy was made to drink beer from this first bottle without knowing what it was. When he learned it was a witch bottle, he went home in dread and died.
As Murrell often instructed his clients to heat his witch bottles in the fire, the blacksmith wisely made a tiny hole in the top of the iron ones so that steam could escape and the bottles would not lethally explode. The hissing steam made Murrell think that the spirits of the witches he was battling were escaping.
A witch bottle cure from Murrell follows along the lines of this story from the 1850s:
A young woman discovered an old Gypsy in a barn drinking beer left by the harvesters. She ordered the old woman out and was cursed by her. Almost immediately, the girl began having fits and acting alternately like a CAt and a dog.
Her family consulted Murrell, who prepared a witch bottle containing the girls’ urine and blood, herbs and pins. The bottle was heated in a fire in a darkened room with locked doors. The family was instructed to remain silent or the counter-spell would not work. Soon footsteps sounded outside the door, then furious knocking. A woman’s voice said, “For God’s sake, stop. You’re killing me.” Instantly the witch bottle exploded, and the voice faded away. The girl recovered. In the morning, the Gypsy’s badly burned body was discovered in the road three miles away.
- Maple, Eric. The Dark World of Witches. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1962.
- Pennick, Nigel. Secrets of East Anglican Magic. London: Robert Hale, 1995.