I used to supervise a biobank that stored both research samples and samples from clinical trials. The collection included everything from extracted DNA and RNA, to all manner of liquid components derived from humans, to chunks of human tissue. The freezer farm housing this stuff consisted of liquid nitrogen tanks and freezers set to -80oC / -112oF. To prevent mishap, the freezer farm was on a 24 / 7 monitor. I was woken up by the alarm in the middle of the night too many times to count — once, after having left that job. In retrospect, this was probably good training for search and rescue.
The point of the biobank was to facilitate biomarker research by preserving the samples in a pristine state, doing everything in our power to prevent damage and decay. As I work toward certification as a human remains detection K9 team with Zackie-O the introverted Plott hound, the flip side of that coin now occupies bandwidth in my life. We play a game of advanced level hide-and-seek with human-derived materials in various states of decomposition. For some of this stuff, I really don’t need Zackie-O’s keen nose to find it.
While biomarker research and cadaver dog training are two uses for materials formerly belonging to humans, English folk from the mid- to late-seventeenth century found yet another use: an antidote to witchcraft.
The image shown at the start of this post is a bellarmine, a German stoneware jug decorated with a bearded mask. The particular jug shown was found during low tide, buried in the river-mud along the Thames. Elsewhere in London, similar “greybeard” jugs have also been buried in open ground. Bellarmine witch-bottles of the seventeenth century have been found in greatest abundance in the eastern counties of England, especially in Suffolk. Witch-bottles in this region are frequently buried under buildings, normally beneath the threshold or hearth, the traditional places for protective charms.
All examples of these witch-bottles, whether buried upside down or rightside up, contain similar items. The contents imply malevolent magic: felt material cut in the shape of a heart and pierced numerous times with pins; sharp items like bent iron nails, brass pins, wire, thorns, and broken glass; and last but not least, human-derived material like hair, nail-clippings, and urine.
Contemporaneous writings explain that the jugs were devised as a counter-measure to witchcraft. To throw back the evil spell on the witch who cast it, the jugs needed to be filled with human materials from the person suffering under the spell. It was believed that because the witch had developed a magical link of sympathy with the victim, part of the vital spirit of the witch was present in the urine, etc. of the victim. This followed logically because “such is the subtlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poysonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it” [Blagrave 1671; cited in The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic by Ralph Merrifield].
By filling the jugs with the victim’s biomatter and an assortment of nasty, sharp things, the person who cast the spell could be attacked. The form of the attack came as — wait for it — a fatal inability to urinate. From an account published in 1696, “…the party suspected to be the witch, fell ill, that he could not make water, of which he died” [from Mr. Merrifield’s book, cited above].
These witch-bottles are a wonderful example of sympathetic magic, where objects or actions that resemble or are symbolically associated with a person or event are used to influence the person or event. The logic and simplicity of this approach to manipulate one’s world held great appeal, and evidence was recently unearthed that the practice of using witch-bottles extended across the ocean, and at least into the American Civil War era.
In 2016, a witch-bottle was recovered during highway construction in Virginia at an old Civil War fortification east of Williamsburg. Lacking access to a bellarmine, the maker resorted to filling a jade blue bottle manufactured in eastern Pennsylvania with nails and burying it next to a hearth or fire pit.
In contrast to the seventeenth century literature cited by Merrifield, The Washington Post article claims the urine, hair or fingernail clippings in a witch-bottle were intended to lure witches or malevolent spirits to the bottle, where they would be trapped by the nails or pins.
This difference leads me to think that witch-bottles manufactured in the US operate differently than those created in the UK. If you are employing a witch-bottle during the current political season, remember to consult your users’s manual to determine whether to expect fatal bladder blockage or a trapped evil entity. Note that just like biomarker research, disposal of the evil entity or any biohazardous materials must be performed and documented in accordance with OSHA and regulatory requirements, including but not limited to 21 CFR Part 11 [Electronic Records; Electronic Signatures] and Part 58 [Good Laboratory Practice for Nonclinical Laboratory Studies]. Thank you for your cooperation.
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By Ethan Doyle White – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82567113
A Bellarmine used as a witch bottle on display in the Guildhall, City of London.
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