Witch Bottles

Witch bottles. Faculty AD LIB.

One of the popular amulets against evil forces in the 17th and 18th centuries was the so-called “witch’ bottles”. The bottle was filled with the urine of a patient (in whose illness the witch was suspected), cuttings of his hair and nails were added, the resulting mixture was seasoned with nails, corked, and buried under a threshold or fireplace. With such a bottle, any attempt to cast a jinx on the inhabitants of the house would cause the witch unimaginable torment.

The contents of the bottle varied according to local superstitions or the personal preferences of its maker. The bottle found in a Suffolk cottage in 1860 contained 200 pins. In the early 20th century, a fish oil bottle was found immured in a chimney stack in a store in Padstow, Cornwall. The contents of the bottle were even more unpleasant than rancid oil: inside was perfectly preserved human urine, and the cork was pierced with nine pins.

During construction works in 2009 in London’s Greenwich district, a truly unique 17th-century ceramic vessel was found. At first glance, it can be taken for a jug of wine, but the builders did not want to uncork it and passed it on to laboratory analysis. And they did the right thing because the find turned out to be a real “witch bottle”.

Its shape was not accidental either. Similar ceramic jugs were made in the Rhineland region of Germany. Each jug was decorated with an imprint of a bearded face, which symbolized wealth and prosperity. In the second half of the 16th century, the mass export of Rhenish pottery to England began. Innkeepers kept English ale in solid German jugs. Over time, the increased demand for Rhenish pottery led to a decline in quality as the potters could not cope with all the orders. The image of a bearded man became increasingly stylized and, therefore, somewhat creepy.

In England, this type of pottery was dubbed “Bellarmine” in honor of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, an ardent opponent of Protestantism. During a fierce debate, King James the First of England called him “the Antichrist.” The nickname stuck first to the cardinal and then, by association, to the jugs. And since the jugs really were so satanic, it was decided to use them on the principle of “fight fire with fire.” Most 17th-century witch bottles are Bellarmine jugs.

The contents of the Greenwich bottle were somewhat unusual. In addition to the main ingredient, i.e. urine, the jug contained human hair, nail clippings, and nine bent nails, one of which had a heart-shaped piece of leather threaded onto it. All of this was laced with sulfur, also known as a powerful antidote to witchcraft. Of particular interest to the researchers were the nail clippings. They still had traces of manicure and looked nothing like the rough nails of a simple laborer. Consequently, their owner was at least a man of average wealth, but even such people were prone to superstition.

Glass rolling pins.

English sailors used to give their wives and girlfriends glass rolling pins. These rolling pins, made of multi-coloured glass and with sentimental inscriptions, were not used to roll out dough but were kept as a talisman. A cracked rolling pin presaged shipwreck and impending disaster. For the most part, the pots were hollow, with a cork at one end. They could hold tea or rum, but superstitious sailors filled them with salt to ward off the evil eye. Other glass containers hid the dried “shirt”, i.e. the watery shell of the fruit. According to beliefs, it kept the sailor from death out at sea.