The Magical Bottle: Protection in Folk Magic

Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel, The Loney, 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.

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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!…/dublins-weird-witch-bottle/

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 the 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.

David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.

One response to “The Magical Bottle: Protection in Folk Magic”

  1. What an excellent, and fascinating, article about witch bottles. I had heard of them but wasn’t fully aware of their purpose. It’s quite obvious, by the rituals people (mainly women) carried out to ward off evil during those bleak times, the impact it had on their daily, and personal, lives and the fear it instilled in them, to go to such lengths.

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