Witch bottles, or ‘Bellarmines’, are a protective folk charm found mostly in England and the United States, and have been documented since the 16th century.
They were primarily used by non-witches rather than witches, to protect against ‘maleficium’, or offensive magic. They could also be used as curses.
A so-called ‘witch bottle’ was found with a cat’s skull in a pit during the WHS excavations at 25/27 Battersea Square in 1972 (WHS site code BAT II). This example used a salt-glazed stoneware Bartmann jug or bottle (also known as a Bellarmine jug/bottle) conveniently decorated with a medallion bearing the date 1669. As it was found in several pieces we do not know whether it was buried complete or was already smashed. The pit may have been under the floor or by the foundations of the house. Click here.
The rare witch bottle which was found on the Isle of Purbeck is thought to have protected cows from distemper. It is rather a strange case, as it contains no human vestiges. It was found buried below a wall on the parish boundary between two villages in 2005.
Dated 1830 this “witch bottle” was discovered in 2004 and buried in old foundations in the Lincolnshire village of Navenby. Discovered by accident during building work, the artefact initially sat unrecognised in a cupboard. Jo Butler, the house’s owner, described what they found. She said: “The builder was breaking up foundations with a pick and he came across the bottle.
“We saw it contained metal bits and this kind of strap but had never heard of witch bottles and put it under the stairs.”
Protecting hearth and home from such malignant forces took various forms, including putting shoes beneath the floorboards and walling up cats.
Witch bottles, often made from stoneware, were most common in the 1600’s, at the height of the witchcraft scares.
The Navenby example, however, has been dated at 1830, a time when such beliefs were thought to have been dying out.
“This late date is really incredible,” said Finds Liason Officer Mr Daubney. “Such traditions do tend to linger in more rural areas like Lincolnshire and Norfolk but this is very rare.”
This 17th century bottle, was found by a team of archeologists digging up the old Tipping Street car park in Stafford in 2009. The glazed “Bellarmine jar” was found on the site of the former Turk’s Head pub. The jar stands at around 6 inches high, and has a grotesque gargoyle design on the outside, designed to scare off witches. It is thought that the design was meant to represent Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the Roman Catholic leaders of the counter-reformation, who may have been seen as a bogeyman in protestant England and Germany.
Witch bottles were typically made from earthenware, stoneware, or glass jugs or bottles. The bottle’s contents varied, but typically contained a mix of
- Nail clippings
- Human urine
- Sharp things: nails, pins, thorns, glass, etc.
This salt-glazed jar was discovered 1.5 metres below ground by archaeologists from The Maritime Trust, a Greenwich-based charity that preserves historic sailing vessels. When it was shaken, the bottle splashed and rattled, and an X-ray showed pins and nails stuck in the neck, suggesting that it had been buried upside down. Further computed tomography scans showed it to be half-filled with liquid, which later analysis showed to be human urine. The bottle also contained bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather “heart”, fingernail clippings, navel fluff and hair. The presence of iron sulphide in the mixture also suggests that sulphur or brimstone had been added. “Prior to this point, all we really knew about what was in witch bottles was what we read from documents from the 17th century,” says Brian Hoggard, an independent expert on British witchcraft who helped analyse the bottle. These texts suggest “recipes” for filling a witch bottle, but don’t tell us what actually went into them.
Many which have been found, concur that the bottle would then be buried, sometimes upside-down. It would either be hidden, typically under the fireplace, or buried at the farthest corner of the property.
For protection, the idea is that the ‘taglocks’ (the nails, hair, urine, blood etc.) represent the person being protected. Any curses, harmful magic or spirits will be drawn to that bottle, rather than the person in need of protection. The baneful magic or spirit will then be trapped in the bottle by the sharp things.
It is also important that the taglocks are made of ‘dead’ material rather than ‘live’ material that is still connected to the person, such as blood or sexual fluids. If it contains ‘live’ material, the curse can supposedly still attack you from within the bottle, due to this connection.
For cursing, you would put the same items (or as many as possible) into a bottle and bury it on the target’s property – the idea being that the sharp things attack that person.
Additionally, a witch bottle could be created to break a curse. The victim would urinate into a bottle, sometimes adding sharp objects to harm the witch who cursed them, and throw it into a fire. When the bottle exploded, the curse would be broken and the witch would be weakened or harmed. (As a word of warning, there are better ways to break curses than risking being hurt by glass shards.)
If you choose to make a witch bottle, it is important that you are responsible. Do not bury items that are not biodegradable, especially as witch bottles contain sharp things! Instead, you could bury the bottle in a planter.
Sources and further reading
- ‘Saducismus Triumphatus: or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions’, John Granville
- “Witch bottles and magical jugs”, Ralph Merrifield***
- “Folk Life and Traditions”, E.F. Coote Lake
- “Some further notes of Suffolk folklore”, Nigel Harvey
- Special Episode: Witch Bottles, New World Witchery (podcast)***
- “Unearthing White Magic: Witch Bottles in the Archeological Record”
- “Weird witch bottles, historic effects to ward off evil spells and witchcraft“
- Londons magical history uncorked