Written accounts of witchcraft, witch trials, cunning folk, and folk magic were largely recorded by the Church, with all the prejudices associated with a highly biased account. Given these practices were handed down generation to generation through oral histories as a form of intangible heritage, a one-sided narrative has traditionally developed as our record. Luckily for researchers, instructions for creating witch bottles were written down, and the most common dark magic finds are written curses secreted in walls. Stepping away from the ‘official’ texts to these scraps and personal finds can help us learn from another perspective about these practices, offering a fascinating look at the fears—and sometimes wrathful vengeances—secreted away in hearths and walls by our ancestors.
The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) in November 2019, ‘Witch Bottles & Worn Shoes: Home Protection Folklore Practices’.
The advent of the printing press and the resulting mass sharing of frightening tales regarding witchcraft raised awareness and fears of witches and the harm they could inflict.
This led to the popularisation of counter-witchcraft folklore—such as home protection practices. Clearly the period of the witch trials, which varies in different countries but broadly occured between the 16th and 18th centuries, also had an impact on people feeling a dire need for personal spiritual protection.
People believed it was possible for dark forces to travel through the landscape and attack them in their homes. These forces could be emanations from a witch in the form of a spell, a witch’s familiar pestering their property, an actual witch flying in spirit—or a combination of all these together. Additional sources of danger could also be lurking ghosts, fairies, and demons. The nighttime landscape was full of dangers, and a home is only as secure as its most vulnerable portals.
But the main fear our ancestors warded against—and the one that still captures our imaginations most today—are witches.
Witches were believed to be able to pass through the slightest of gaps, even keyholes. The front door was particularly vulnerable to intrusion, both from regular thieves and enemies, but also from witches and evil spirits. As a consequence, much of folk magic practice was concerned with thresholds and openings.
We know from the archives that some concealed objects were the results of anti-witchcraft rituals conducted by people known as cunning-folk, or wise women and wise men. For centuries these individuals offered magical services to their local communities for myriad purposes. Above all, cunning folk were the formidable foe of witches and their spells.
What we tend to see in historical studies is a concentration on witch trial records, where official beliefs about witchcraft are imposed upon accused and accusers. This produces a distorted account of supposed witchcraft, often based on false accusations in the first place.
Which is all quite fascinating to read about—but while the witch trials may teach us a lot, they are not necessarily the best place to look for information about what ordinary people thought about witchcraft.
Over the course of this research into home protection folklore, I began to wonder why the charms and practices used in the fight against witchcraft looked so much like witchcraft itself—and why these practices seemed to be used without fear in violently paranoid and toxic times.
This is where we start to divide these practices between witches and cunning-folk—which is complicated a bit by the fact that cunning folk were themselves sometimes accused of witchcraft. The line between protection and threat was a fine one to tread—especially when a cunning person who couldn’t fix the community’s problems could be accused and turned from protector into sinister agent.
The term ‘cunning-folk’ was just one of several terms used in England to describe practitioners of magic who healed the sick and the bewitched, who told fortunes, identified thieves, induced love, and sundry tasks for their local community.
However, both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities made little distinction between good and bad magic. Both were sinful, and many benign practices were denounced as heretical pagan worship. And this is where it gets confusing from our modern-day perspective, cunning-folk were often called upon to help people ward off witches, when the very practice of this pagan warding was itself considered witchcraft.
The most iconic of counter-witchcraft objects that we have today are witch bottles. These objects look quite sinister, but contrary to their name, these bottles were not made by witches, but rather to ward off witches. They were made by people who believed that they were victims of witchcraft.
Of the apotropaic objects I’ve studied, the witch-bottle is considered the most powerful. One reason for this is these bottles were not general preventative measures, but rather created to fight against a current bewitching attack from a specific witch.
Other than their potency as folk magic objects, another aspect that makes witch-bottles so alluring to researchers, is that unlike other home protection rituals performed, instructions for creating witch-bottles and what to do with them were actually written down, not just handed down through oral histories, so we don’t need guesswork to learn of their preparation and purpose, we have firsthand accounts.
These descriptions were written in pamphlets and books from the 17th century and later. Like the other items used in protection folklore, witch-bottles were intentionally concealed so that it’s only when buildings are demolished, repaired, or when archaeologists excavate building sites that they come to light.
Not everyone who finds a witch-bottle gets excited and contacts their local museum.
Just as with the case of hidden shoes, the likely finders of witch-bottles are the builders who quite often just throw them away, because they don’t know what they are. However a witch-bottle isn’t a shoe. Sometimes the opposite is true, and builders know exactly what they are, and they’re destroyed for superstitious reasons.
Due to these problems of ambivalence on one hand, and superstition on the other, it is estimated that only very few witch-bottles get reported to local museums or archaeology units.
The number of witch-bottles found is also limited by how many buildings survive from any given period. So the number of examples that can be studied are likely to be only a tiny proportion of the total number that were concealed.
Until the mid-19th century, the most popular form of witch-bottle was the type of German stoneware which became popularly known as ‘bellarmines’.
The bellarmine bottle’s appearance, with the face of a wild bearded man on the neck and the large, round belly, would most certainly have made people gravitate towards choosing them for magical purposes. The nickname ‘bellarmines’, appears to have evolved around tales of Cardinal Bellarmine.
Cardinal Bellarmine was hostile to Protestants in the volumes on heresy he wrote in the 16th century. It appears that some comparison between the mean face on the bottles and the perceived nature of the Cardinal was the satire here.
The highly durable nature of stoneware meant that these bottles could be reused many times and had a very long life. The long useful life of the bottles means that its manufacture date might not correspond with its date of burial.
Some of these stoneware bottles also bear patterns with spoked wheel forms, resembling the apotropaic daisy wheel symbol in some ways that people would carve on doors, lintels, and mantelpieces, which may have been another reason for people using them.
Historian Ralph Merrifield cites four key early modern text for a study of witch-bottles, which all contain references to the practice of creating counter-witchcraft bottles:
— Joseph Blagrave’s Astrological Practice of Physick (1671)
— Joseph Glanvil’s Sadducismus Triumphatus (1681)
— Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684)
— Cotton Mather’s Late Memorable Providences (1691)
The reference in Blagrave’s 1671 work appears in a section on ‘experimental Rules, whereby to afflict the Witch, causing the evil to return back upon them’.
He describes the practice as follows:
Another way is to 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 witches 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 in Square or Opposition to his Significator, when its done.
Blagrave is prescribing a method of turning the witch’s power back upon them using the supposed sympathetic link between witch and victim. The idea was that the bottle represented the witch’s bladder and that inserting pins and the victim’s urine into the bottle would cause intense pain in that region of the witch’s body, forcing the witch to lift whatever spell it was believed they had placed on the victim. A witch-bottle is essentially a supernatural UTI.
The instructions to “keep the urine always warm” meant to keep it over a fire. Of course, when suspending nails, pins, and urine in a container under pressure over a fire, what could possibly go wrong?
There is an early 19th century example of boiling of a witch-bottle in this way with terrible results.
In 1804, the cunning man John Hepworth of Bradford took his witch-bottle-making one step further, he experimented with a different kind of witch-bottle made of iron—the thinking being that iron is a notable material to use against fairies and other nefarious sorts, so a witch-bottle made of iron would surely do the trick. He boiled this iron witch-bottle over a fire, which then exploded, killing his client.
Using the more standard container type, it is more likely that the cork or bung would have simply exploded outwards, showering its contents in whichever direction the bottle was pointing—which, while gross, is vastly preferable.
Hepworth’s experiments are the only notes on record for using iron for witch-bottles—and given the disastrous results, this is a good thing.
It’s important to note that the bottles described in 17th century instruction texts would not generally have been concealed in buildings; if the boiling of the witch-bottle was successful, it is likely then that the bottle would have just been thrown away.
All the examples of witch-bottles found for study have been recovered from being buried, and so have had a different treatment to the ones mentioned in the historical texts.
The accounts only refer to the bottles being buried or concealed if heating them had been deemed unsuccessful.
Since all the examples that we can now analyse today are buried or concealed bottles, this suggests that the process of heating the bottles did not work very well—spoiler alert—and the secondary practice of burying bottles was widespread and well known.
Contents of Witch Bottles
One aspect not mentioned in the 17th-century texts about witch-bottles—but for which there is ample evidence from the bottles themselves—is the process of bending the pins or nails that were put in them.
Alan Massey has demonstrated that in virtually all cases where pins or nails have been found in bottles they have been deliberately bent prior to inclusion in the bottle.
It seems that this was done to ritually ‘kill’ the pins, activating a ghost pin which would be effective against spiritual enemies who came into contact with the bottle.
The idea of deliberately ‘killing’ the pins and nails hinges on the perception of an invisible supernatural or spirit world which included the dead, magical forces, and perhaps divine forces. This ritual killing of objects has been seen in many cultures since prehistory.
Dr Massey has also noted chips to the neck or rim of several of the bottles which he believes may be evidence of the bottles being deliberately damaged for a similar reason.
Some of the unusual items also found within the witch-bottles include written charms, small bones, frog skin, seaweed, stones, masses of lead, insects, and in one case small lizards.
Hearth Witch Bottles
Half of all bellarmine bottles were found either beneath the hearth stone or within the construct of an inglenook fireplace. The idea appears to be that the spell or evil intent sent by the witch would seek out its intended victim and try to enter the home. It would smell its victim, then plunge down the chimney to attack—only to discover it had been fooled and was now trapped inside the belly of a tiny, urine-filled jug, and skewered by the ghosts of dead pins, nails, and thorns.
In this way, the bottle acted as a spirit trap, similar to the way in which concealed shoes may have worked, but with much more powerful consequences.
The most famous bellarmine finding was in 2004 in Greenwich of a 17th-century witch-bottle. Workmen found a bellarmine jug buried 5 feet underground. Miraculously, the jug was still sealed; and when it was shaken it splashed and rattled.
The Greenwich Maritime Trust called in Dr Massey to study it, because among other things, he is a retired chemist, and he was delighted with what they had discovered: it was the first complete and still-sealed 17th century witch-bottle ever to be found.
They x-rayed the bottle to see what inside:
They found pins and nails stuck in the neck of the jug, which is consistent with the jug being buried upside down—the common mode of burial—and that it was half full with liquid.
It was clear this was a witch-bottle. Until then, the best example was a glass bottle buried in 1720 in Surrey, but it had been opened years before it could be examined. For the Greenwich bottle, they now had their first opportunity for a complete analysis.
The liquid was drawn through the cork with a long-needled syringe, chemical analysis revealed that the liquid was unequivocally human urine. Furthermore, the urine contained a metabolite of nicotine: which means the urine 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 was virtually certain that the sulphur in the jug had reacted with the iron in the nails.
In other words, to add to the lured lure of this bottle, it was found to contain actual brimstone.
Scientists then removed the cork, which disintegrated, and the rest of the contents, which consisted of: 12 iron nails, eight brass pins, quantities of hair, a piece of leather pierced by a bent nail, which could be described as heart-shaped, in keeping with common shapes for cloth interments in witch-bottles, 10 fingernail pairings—which were found to be not from a manual labourer, but a person of some social standing—and what could be navel fluff.
There were also no less than 18 hair lice found floating in the urine, and given the small amount of hair placed in the bottle, it was concluded that the person must have been quite infested indeed.
Evidence of Darkness
So, alongside all these examples of protection magic, you might wonder what provoked it? Was there also evidence of actual witchcraft, or at least nefarious deeds? Well, a few examples of that have been found as well.
Over the course of Hoggard’s research into magical home protection, many odd objects were discovered. Some were innocent-looking things, like time capsules, and some not-so-innocent things—such as hidden swords and a crossbow recovered from inside walls, and in one case a child’s preserved arm.
But in addition to these rather obscure finds, there were also those items which clearly point to dark magic. Of the dark items found, most were written curses.
Perhaps one of the most eerie examples is a 17th century curse scratched into a lead tablet which was discovered in a cupboard in 1892 at Wilton Place, Dymock in Gloucestershire, known as the Dymock curse.
It reads: ‘Make this person to Banish away from this place and country amen, to my desire amen’, with the name Sarah Ellis written backwards along the top.
On the lead tablet there are also a variety of sigils alongside the curse which all relate to the moon. Which makes this tablet not only a written curse, but also a magical object combining sources of supernatural power, in this case astrological images, and other shapes meant to be demonic magic symbols, alongside the amen from Christian prayer.
The Dymock curse is held at the Gloucester Folk Museum, where they tell of a local legend that there was an actual Sarah Ellis, who was so affected by the curse that she took her own life and was buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart.
To add to the validity of this story, there is indeed an Ellis’ Cross on the boundary of the parishes of Dymock and Oxenhall about two and a half miles from Wilton Place where this curse was found.
Gatherley Moor Curse
There was a similar curse found on Gatherley Moor, Yorkshire. This one was found on top of a pile of stones and reads:
‘I did make this that the James Phillip, John Phillip, and Aitkin Phillip and all The Issue of them shall Come to utter Beggery and nothing joy or prosper with them in Richmondshire’.
This curse is also engraved onto a lead tablet. There is a small cross after the text and some large symbols which are to represent the Spirit of the Moon and of the Spirit of the Spirits of the Moon.
And for good measure, on the reverse of this tablet, is the complete table of the moon.
Throughout legends and folklore, we can find references like this to the moon – sometimes as a bringer of warnings or as a source of punishment for not being a good Christian. However, in pagan culture, they revered the sun and the moon. They followed their journeys and knew their meanderings through the night sky.
For most of us today, knowledge of the heavens has been left to astronomers, but the people of the past lived close to the sun, and the moon, and the earth. They lived their whole lives by their rhythms. They wouldn’t need to consult an almanac to know the path of the moon, it was memorised and inscribed in their every routine.
And for that reason, moonlore would’ve been top of mind for practitioners of folk magic looking to bolster the power of a curse.
Mabe Cornwall Slate Curse
In 2008, an Atlantic storm blowing in from the sea dislodged a slate from a granite barn in the parish of Mabe, Cornwall. On close examination they found some words had been etched onto the surface. It reads:
May he who steals
My round stones
Make early dry bones
No one is certain what is referred to by the round stones. The author of the paper studying this slate suggests that it could relate to the work of a mason, a magical Kenning stone—or possibly testicles.
However it seems that might be a one-time crime, rather than a recurring problem.
Hereford City Museums have a good collection of charms and curses. One 19th century curse was found in East Street, Hereford. It consists of a crudely made doll, with the body made of wood with arms and legs of cotton material. Within the skirt area of the dress was found a curse written in black ink on paper.
The curse reads:
‘Mary Ann Ward, I act this spell upon you from my whole heart wishing you to never rest, nor eat, nor sleep, the rester part of your life. I hope your flesh will waste away and I hope you will never spend another penny I ought to have.
Wishing this from my whole heart.’
Alfred Taylor House Curses
In Alfred Taylor House, Worcester, dating from the year 1500, some interesting objects were discovered.
Behind the early 20th century fireplace, among the brick rubble in the damaged ancient stone of the original fireplace was found an old wooden doll. This doll was assumed to be early 20th century and put there when the fireplace was updated.
Its face is square, described to be like the old wood Betsy dolls of the Victorian era and is masked in plaster. Its foot is peg-like and etched with a pattern of claws. Its black chest is faintly marked with a drawing of a goat’s head.
On the back is a light patch where paper has covered it.
On this patch, written in faded ink are the words ‘help me to—’ …
but the rest of this sentence has faded from exposure.
The current whereabouts of this doll are unknown, but it certainly sounds like it was involved in some nefarious activity.
The Church Inn, Manchester
At the Church Inn pub, Church Lane, Manchester, workmen discovered that there was a bricked up alcove in the cellar. When they removed the wall they discovered a small bag containing three carved wooden naked female figures.
The pub dates from the early 17th century and the figures were deemed stylistically similar to 16th to 17th century country carvings. While it was not possible to say with absolute certainty, it appears that these items were bricked up in the cellar when the pub was first built.
In the bag with the figures, they also found a pile of vegetable matter and a dried cat.
It would appear that some kind of ritual was being enacted, using roots or other plant matter, a sacrificial cat, and these naked figures.
The pub’s direct proximity to the church graveyard suggests a possible ritual connection with the buried dead that lie just the other side of the cellar wall. The fact that these objects were bricked up strongly suggests a secret activity of some kind was taking place down in that cellar.
The 20th Century
While there is plenty of evidence for the continued popularity of astrologers, fortune-tellers, and all sorts of occult practitioners throughout the 20th century, for the most part people began to lose their fear of witches. And without witches, there became less need for cunning-folk.
Claims have been made that the last of the cunning-folk passed their magical knowledge to Wiccans and other modern ‘witches’, thereby maintaining a continuous link with the magical as well as the herbal traditions of the past. And fundamentally, there is little intrinsic difference between an aspiring conjuror today learning practical invocations from internet grimoires and a 19th century cunning-man who gained his knowledge from second-hand books. Modernity and cunning-folk are not incompatible concepts.
Some modern witches feel no need to claim to be part of a continuous, indigenous tradition at all. They celebrate the ideas and practices of popular magic, but seek to define themselves in new ways.
Perhaps the most prolific of these new definitions is that of ‘hedge witch’, which gained popularity following the publication of Rae Beth’s book of the same name. The term has now caught on in both the UK and in the U.S.
Like cunning-folk, hedge witches are solitary practitioners and similarly practise herbalism, divination, and simple spells and rituals using everyday objects rather than the grand accoutrements of ceremonial magic.
It’s the dawn of a new day for people who choose to practice home protection rituals—without the fears of Church persecution or the trappings of embedded beliefs, we now have the space to create our own rituals that make us feel safe.
And just as people today can define the space that they call ‘home’ in myriad ways, so too can we reinvent the ways in which we all can keep those home spaces safe; whether that’s through modern alarm systems, family dogs—or burying bottles of urine under our fireplace.
Sources and further reading…
Davies, Owen; Houlbrook, Ceri; ‘Concealed and Revealed: Magic and Mystery in the Home’, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford) 2018. Book.
– Popular Magick: Cunning Folk in English History, (London: Hambledon Continuum) 2003. Book.
Davies, Owen, ‘The Material Culture of Post-Medieval Domestic Magic in Europe: Evidence, Comparisons, and Interpretations’, Boschung, Dietrich; Bremmer, Jan N. (editors), The Materiality of Magic, (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink) 2015. Book.
Eastop, Dinah, ‘Outside In: Making Sense of the Deliberate Concealment of Garments Within Buildings’, Textile, Volume 4, Issue 3, p238-25. 2006. Journal.
Gazin-Schwartz, Amy, ‘Archaeology and Folklore of Material Culture, Ritual, and Everyday Life’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology’, Volume 5, Issue 4, p263-280. 2001. Journal.
Hoggard, Brian, ‘Witch Bottles: Their contents, Contexts, and Uses’, Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcerty, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, A Feeling for Magic, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers Limited) 2015. Book. p284-327
– Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft, (New York: Berghahn Books) 2019. Book.
Hutton, Ronald (editor), Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcerty, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, A Feeling for Magic, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers Limited) 2015. Book.
Pennick, Nigel, Skulls, Cats, and Witch Bottles: The Ancient Practice of House Protection, (Cambridge: Nigel Pennick Editions) 1986. Book.
Swann, June, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings’, Costume, Number 30, p56-69. 1996. Journal.
– ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings’, Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcerty, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, A Feeling for Magic, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers Limited) 2015. Book. p364-402
Watkins, Carl (2004), ‘’Folklore’ and ‘popular religion’ in Britain during the middle ages’, Folklore, Volume 115, Issue 2, 2004, p140-150. Journal. DOI: 10.1080/0015587042000231246
Wingfield, Chris, ‘A case re-opened: the science and folklore of a ‘Witch’s Ladder’, Journal of Material Culture, Volume 15, Number 3, p302-322. 2010. Journal.