In writing my next novel, “The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy,” I have been exploring many of the superstitions and beliefs of 18th Century England. In doing so, I have looked at fairies, the Cerne Giant, and witchcraft. One of the plot devices I have incorporated into the story line is that of a “Witch Bottle.”
What is a Witch Bottle, you may ask? How could it be a weapon in a mystery book? The purpose of a witch bottle is to trap the evil spirits operating in a household. A traditional witch bottle was made of blue or green glass and was about 3-4 inches high.
Bellarmine jugs, named after Robert Bellarmine, an ardent Catholic Inquisitor, who earned his reputation in the prosecution of Protestants and the burning of Giordano Bruno at the stake. Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. For claiming that the Sun was one of many stars and there was likely other inhabitable worlds containing intelligent beings, Bruno was burned alive for the crime of heresy in 1600.
Bellarmine jugs, some 9 inches in height, were made of brown or gray stoneware. They were embossed with faces of bearded men to scare off the evil spirits.
The victim’s urine, hair, nail clippings or red thread (sprite traps) were included in the bottle. Sometimes iron nails or pins were included. The bottle was traditionally buried beneath the house’s hearth or at the farthest corner of the property. Some say that the witch bottle wards off the spirit, keeping the witch from entering the house. Others believe the bottle capture evil and impale the dark spirit on the pins and nails and drowned by the liquid (urine, holy water, wine, sea water, etc.).
The Dorset Echo carried a story of an unusual bottle buried under a wall near Langton Matravers. Dated October 27, 2005, the article says, “Experts believe that the rare find is a ‘witch bottle’ used to fend off evil spirits, which were thought to cause horned cattle distemper. The bottle’s contents was dark brown syrup and is one of only four bottles discovered in the UK with liquid still inside. Since then, a series of tests has revealed the liquid contained 30 different components including a salt solution – known as holy water at the time – covered with a layer of decayed animal fat.”
Once the objects were in the jar, the vessel was placed near a fire to boil. Sometimes the witch’s bottle was thrown in the fire. When it exploded, the spell upon the person or upon the household was broken. The witch would be killed.