The heART of Ritual

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Witch Bottles and Irish Folk-Magic Protection


17th century witch bottle excavated in Bow Lane, Dublin

I recently read Andrew Michael Hurley's novel, The Loney, which is a tale of folk-magic and superstition, as well as a dark coming of age story. One of the pivotal moments in the book is when a 'witch-bottle' is found and the ominous repercussions that ensue. In case you don't know what a witch-bottle is, a very basic summary is a vessel, usually a glass bottle or small pottery urn, which contains pieces of hair, nails, urine, blood, and other objects considered able to deflect a curse or evil magic. The bottle would then be sealed and buried, or concealed beneath the floor of a house. There are also instances where witch bottles have been found hidden within the brickwork of chimneys. The purpose of the bottle was to repel magic attacks, and its power was believed to work by drawing the dark intent towards the bottle instead of the victim. In this way, a household and its occupants might be protected. However, if the bottle was broken or unsealed then its power would diminish leaving the person and household open to the nefarious intent of dark magic spells again. I was reminded of an example of an Irish witch bottle which can be viewed at Ireland's National Museum. The bottle is believed to date from the early 1600's, so this tradition seems to have a long history here in Ireland. Thankfully, nobody has opened the bottle yet! There are many other examples of witch bottles being found beneath old houses and it is believed that this tradition spread to America from European immigrants. Oddly enough, considering this pattern, no witch bottles have been found yet in Australia. That said, it is only by the destruction of houses that we will discover them. You may be thinking that bottles in Irish folklore also tend to be associated with fairies and other forms of magic, and you would be right. I'm sure readers are familiar with Biddy Early and her 'blue bottle' which was said to contain a secret mixture given to her by the fairies in which she could divine illnesses and cures, see future events, as well as allowing her to communicate with the fair folk. Another famous Irish example of a magic bottle is this folk tale, 'Bottle, bottle, do your duty', which turns up in various counties. The basic outline of the tale is that a man either trades a cow for, or is given, a magic bottle by the fairies. The bottle can give a person all that their hearts desire but the man is eventually tricked into giving the bottle away. He later receives another bottle which reverses the luck, and he manages to switch this second bottle for the first. There are a few variations of this story, it must be said. An unusual type of exorcism is recorded in this story from Dublin, in which the spirit of a dead man is captured in a bottle by a priest. The Irish folklore archives have literally hundreds of accounts of magic potions and fairy charms associated with bottles. Irish cunning folk used potions to heal, curse, and create love and fertility spells.

Like witch bottles, which are primarily a defensive or protective form of magic, Irish fishing traditions record tying a small bottle of holy water, or well water, to the boat in order to keep the crew safe. Associated with this type of protection magic is the custom of burying horse skulls, cats, and shoes within the foundations of houses. Dr. Ian Evans, whose Tasmanian folk magic project I linked to earlier in the post, has speculated that this type of magical tradition may have been a secret ritual practice which goes as far back as Roman times. Brian Hoggard has postulated that the purpose of these charms is both to ward against evil as well as bestow fertility upon the household in some instances. Brian's latest book on this subject might be of interest to some readers. Considering the widespread custom of burying objects in secret, there are obviously a variety of reasons why this was done. Although we can categorise the magic as protective, it is interesting to wonder about all of the incidents and reasons each individual and household felt they had for engaging in this practice. No doubt some of the accounts would make incredible stories in their own right. (C.) David Halpin.