The Witch's Library - Your Source for Pagan Information

History

The history of witch bottles goes back hundreds of years. The origins of this tradition have been dated to the 1500’s. They were most actively used for a couple of hundred years. This is the same time when the Witch-hunts were going on. After this period, the tradition slowly waned. The last historical witch bottle was found in a cabin built in mid 19th century, in Pershore, Worcestershire (UK).

The actual bottle of a traditional witch bottle during the 16th and 17th century was a German stone bottle called “bartmann” or “bellermine” bottle. Similar bottles of stone material were manufactured in Holland and Belgium. The technique wasn’t mastered in England before the 1660’s and bartmann bottle manufacturing was rare in Britain.

History
The bottle got its name from a cardinal called Bellarmino only after the witch bottle tradition had already begun. These bottles had a round belly and they were decorated with a facial image of a grim looking bearded man and a medallion of stylised floral or natural imagery.

Even though these bottles were being manufactured actively in Germany long before the time of Bellarmino – who was against the Reformation – these bottles were given their familiar name as a satirical comment on the Cardinal. His bearded figure resembled the typical bearded man depicted on these bottles.1 Later on, the bearded image was taken to represent the Devil, which suited well for witch bottles, after all — witches were considered as people allied with the Devil.

Glass bottles were also used, but according to my sources, they were never as popular as witch bottles as were the bartmann ones.

Old Witch-bottles contained things like bent iron nails, human hair (head hair and pubic hair) and urine. Urine as an important ingredient of a Witch-bottle has been long known in folk traditions, but actual findings with the bottle still containing urine have been rare. However, all of the Witch-bottles found in England which was tested for urine did prove positive. Other traditional items contained in witch bottles include small bones, thorns, needles, pieces of wood and in some cases heart-shaped pieces of cloth.

The bottles were most often found buried under the fireplace. Other sites include under the floor, buried in the ground there, and plastered inside walls. The fireplace is, from a magical point of view, a security risk as it has a straight connection with the open skies above. It was believed that the curse of a Witch or even a Witch herself in a shape-shifted form could get into a house through the fireplace. Another security risk was the doorway, as doors are opened and closed several times throughout the day. In addition to the fireplace, the bottles were often hidden near the doorway.


1 Oxoniana , vol. i. p. 232, tells how the bottle got its name: ‘One of the Fellows of Exeter (College), when Dr Prideaux was rector, sent his servitor, after nine o’clock at night, with a large bottle to fetch some ale from the alehouse. When he was coming home with it under his gown the proctor met him, and asked him what he did out so late, and what he had under his gown? The man answered that his master had sent him to the stationers to borrow Bellarmine, which book he had under his arm; and so he went home. Whence a bottle with a big belly is called a Bellarmine to this day, 1667.’

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