“No witch bottles have yet been found in Australia……but that does not mean the ritual was not practised there.”
Owen Davies in Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain.
An English witch bottle. The face on the neck of the bottle is reputedly based on Saint Roberto Bellarmino, 1541 – 1621, a Jesuit Cardinal, and one of the interrogators of Galileo at the Inquisition.
Buried under the hearth or front doorstep of an old Australian cottage a quite bizarre object may be awaiting discovery. If one of these is ever found we will know for certain that people in Australia believed that witches were at work in their community.
The object to which I refer is commonly described as a witch bottle. There is really no other way to categorise it. Its purpose was to bring pain and suffering to a witch. And, as a sidebar to that objective, it could also identify the witch.
The work of the Tasmanian Magic Research Project has produced ample evidence of the use of magic there in the 19th century. But the issue of whether magic was used elsewhere in Australia has not yet been conclusively demonstrated. Nor do we have evidence that Australians at that time believed in witches.
Witch bottles were widely used in England and have also been found in America. Many local and regional museums in southern England in particular display witch bottles found in their area. This was long before the raft of legislation and social welfare was developed by government and community organisations during the 20th century to protect individuals from life’s many hazards.
In the 19th century, people were very much alone and without any protection from those hazards. Magic offered a form of DIY safeguard that individuals could use to ensure the safety of themselves and their families. Magic offered consolation and hope when none was available elsewhere. Those who practiced magic took power into their own hands
Life offered many dangers in the 19th century. People had large families and fully expected that some of their children would not survive to adulthood. Families lost children to illnesses that today’s local GP can cure quite easily. Without antibiotics, a splinter or a toothache could result in fatal infection.
It was widely believed that afflictions in our world were caused by evil beings from the invisible underworld that swirled and intersected with the world around us. These beings slipped into our world and sought to do the Devil’s bidding by causing harm to humans. Such creatures worked in association with witches who were thought to live all around us. Their malice was believed responsible for illnesses and accidents of all kinds. Identifying the witch in a local community could be done by crafting a witch bottle.
At a time when levels of literacy were very low, many centuries passed without a single written word about the placement in buildings of shoes, garments, domestic artifacts or cats. But the witch bottle comes complete: this object has an explanation of its purpose and a description of the process of manufacture. There are also numerous eyewitness accounts of events that surrounded the use of witch bottles.
Witch bottles from a site in Duck Street, Abbots Ann, 3 km from Andover, Hampshire.
Surviving recipes for making a witch bottle tell us what they contained. Joseph Blagrave of Reading (1610 – c.1682), an astrologer and herbalist, described the process in his Astrological Practice of Physick in 1671.
“…stop the urine of the Patient close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle it will endanger the witch’s life, for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all, and the more if the Moon be in Scorpio…”
Above left, nail clippings from the Greenwich witch bottle. Above right, An X-ray of the bottle. The intact cork can be seen as well as clusters of spikes, nails and a hank of hair. The bottle was carefully investigated by Dr. Alan Massey – the first witch bottle to be properly analysed. Complex chemical studies included recording a proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum, and then gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis of organic acids and inorganic analysis by the British Geological Survey.
There was thought to be a “sympathetic” link between the urine in the witch bottle and the content of the nearby witch’s bladder. A witch bottle filled with the prescribed contents and buried beneath the hearth would be made functional by lighting the fire. The person complaining of severe pain in the abdomen could thus be identified as the witch.
Nothing that can be positively identified as a 19th-century witch bottle has yet been found in Australia. Witch bottles continued to be made in England until quite late in the 19th century. There is thus a possibility that they were being made here until 1900 or a little later.
An Australian witch bottle is very unlikely to be one of the stoneware Bellarmines commonly used for English witch bottles. It may be of salt-glazed stoneware or glass.
Anyone finding a suspected witch bottle should refrain from opening it, although a rattling noise when the bottle is shaken would be tempting. Preserving the bottle intact would enable chemical analysis of any liquid inside and perhaps make it possible to declare that the first Australian witch bottle has been found. Finds that are a serious possibility as witch bottles should be handled by experts and the contents carefully examined and, if possible, analysed.
Pins in the Greenwich bottle were bent, presumably to turn the magic back against the witch.
Dr. Alan Massey is well known as an expert on witch bottles. Formerly of Loughborough University, Leicestershire, he is now retired but continues to make his experience available to witch bottle researchers. He reported that the urine in the Greenwich bottle had been passed by a smoker (probably of a clay pipe). Acting on a hunch, Massey tested a black solid in the urine and showed it to be iron sulphide.
“It is virtually certain,” he says, that sulphur in the jar had reacted with the iron nails. In other words, the bottle contained brimstone, recalling the passage in Revelations when “the beast” and “the false prophet” were “cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.”
The contents of the bottle included 12 iron nails, eight brass pins (one very severely corroded), quantities of hair, a piece of leather pierced by a bent nail, which “might just be described as heart-like” (paralleling cloth hearts found in other witch bottles), 10 fingernail parings (not from a manual worker, but a person “of some social standing”) and what could be navel fluff.
Reports of possible Australian witch bottle finds can be made to me at 14 Henty Street, Invermay, Tasmania 7248, by phone to 0455 173 456 or email to evansthebook(AT)gmail.com
A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset: Owen Davies, 1999
Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History: Owen Davies, 2003
Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: Ronald Hutton (ed), 2016
Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches: Matthew Champion, 2015
The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic: Ralph Merrifield, 1987
Papers by Ian Evans available for download from https://independent.academia.edu/IanEvans20
A sample of the contents of the Greenwich witch bottle, London.
© Ian Evans 2018