Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

May 9, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Witch bottles

The folklore of England is filled with odd spells and strange objects. My personal favorite are the so-called witch bottles.

Witch bottles date to at least the 17th century and were used until the early 20th. Folklore recipes and stories tell us the bottles were filled with various "magical" substances and buried under thresholds to keep witches away from the house.

They could also lift curses. If someone was sick and you suspected a curse, you'd make a witch bottle and hold it over the fire. The witch would feel the flames until he or she ended the curse. If the witch was able to tough it out long enough, the bottle would burst and the witch won.

Another variant on the witch bottle theme was to use them to capture witches. The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford has a witch bottle with the witch supposedly still inside! Reminds me a bit of the Cajun tradition of hanging bottles from trees near the house to catch wandering spirits.

I know of only one that's been found with the contents intact. It was reported in the July/August 2009 issue of British Archaeology. A 17th century bellarmine jar like the one pictured here in this Wikimedia Commons photo was found upside down in a pit by workmen in Greenwich. It was still corked and a chemist investigated the contents. These included: human urine, 12 iron nails, a bent nail through a bit of leather, 8 brass pins, hair, a bit of fluff the investigator thinks came from a belly button (!), and ten fingernail shavings from a man who had recently had a manicure.

The fingernail shavings, hair, and naval fluff probably came from the person the bottle was supposed to protect, since folklore spells usually required a personal possession or a bit of the body to work.

I have an idea for a witch bottle story fluttering around in the back of my head. I'll have to write it someday!


  1. You've already done your research - write the story!

  2. Love this! I'd never heard of witch bottles. Very intriguing and definitely story-worthy.

  3. This is great story material! I had never heard of witch bottles before. Have fun with it.

  4. Now this is interesting. I can use this in a developing story idea. I'm sure both of us will come up with totally unique versions.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

  5. Got for it, Nancy! There's more than one way to bottle a witch!

  6. If the bottle was found upside down, then my guess is that it wasn't protecting someone, but cursing them or repelling them. The iron nails and brass pins also suggest that it may have been a curse, but the bent nail through the leather is interesting as that is a protective charm. I wonder if the nails and pins were used to draw illness out of someone, and then buried upside down so that the illness couldn't find its way back to that person. Fascinating to think about :-D
    Have a happy day,

  7. Roxanne: interesting insights, thanks! Iron was generally bad for witches, so it may have been protective rather than a curse. Witch bottles were generally used to ward off a witch, thereby protecting the victim.

  8. Wonderful story! A definite slope away from my usual reads and I am so glad for it.

    Kitchen Benchtops

  9. I`m a writer myself and came here looking for information to back up the legend of 'A witch in a bottle'. I've been thinking of doing a sort of series but with a modern day twist.