A Peck O’ Trouble: The Archaeology of Witch Bottles

Archaeologists are now systematically recording stoneware bellarmine (or Bartmann) jugs found buried beneath the thresholds or under the hearthstones of 16th – 17th century buildings. The phenomenon of witch bottles is now understood to be just one example of a whole suite of practices known as, ‘ritual house protection’ which includes concealed objects. Furthermore, documentary evidence for the creation of witch bottles – contemporary with their use – exists. In most cases, the bottles had been re-purposed as magical objects whereby they had been filled with the urine, hair and nail clippings of the individual who was convinced that they had been afflicted by maleficium. Through the belief in ‘sympathetic’ magic, the bottle was then transformed to represent the bladder of the witch. Other ingredients were added, dependent upon the desires of the client or upon consultation with a cunning man or woman. There appears to be two main practices regarding their use when used to counteract witchcraft. The first practice was to ‘activate’ its contents via heating on a fire as part of a rite or ritual act; this was believed to harm the witch – as a ‘psychic link’ was believed to have existed between victim and aggressor. If that failed (or as an alternative to that rite), it was considered efficacious to bury or conceal the bottle so that the object acted either as a ‘spirit trap’ for malign forces or as a spiritual decoy, re-directing the unwanted attentions of the witch or other supernatural threats. However, these were not the exclusive uses of the witch bottle and there are a number of variations regarding practice and belief whereby they may have been used to concoct cures; as a component of a love potion; or for the ‘transference’ of a malady or illness.

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