The other day this object stopped me in my tracks. It hollered at me from its display case, and demanded that I drop everything to come over and take a closer look.
Forgive the photography. They didn’t have the lights on in the display cabinet and, even without a flash, I still got a lot of background reflection on the glass.
At first I though it was a rather jolly-looking bottle with its pretty flower and its funny face, but then I read what it really was, and realised that it was anything but jolly. This, my friends, is a witch bottle that was created in about 1650, which, to put it in its context, is about forty years before the Salem Witch Trials got underway.
Back then, in the darker days of the seventeenth century, life was hard, superstition was rife and folk were given to blaming the supernatural whenever they suffered a mishap. Their cow stopped milking. Someone must have used an ungodly incantation to dry up her milk. Their husband seemed to have taken a fancy to the strumpet down the street. Well, there was no question: she'd fed him a love potion. Their horse threw a shoe, and went lame. It was all down to their neighbour having invoked the Evil Eye against them. And so it went on. Everyday misfortunes weren’t just a matter of rotten luck; they’d been brought on by witches and spells and black magic.
And that’s where the witch bottle came in. It was an ordinary person’s self-help remedy, a talisman, that would guard against the witch’s spells. This bottle was filled with 12 bent iron nails, 7 bent bronze pins, some nail-clippings (8 in all), some locks of dark brown hair and about 250 millilitres of human urine. The idea had been to make the bottle very personal to the person seeking its protection, who was most probably a woman, hence the use of her hair, nail clippings and urine.
The bottle was then sealed with the melted wax of a black candle and concealed somewhere, where there would be no danger of it being disturbed. Usually this would be at an entry point to the owner's house. Perhaps she’d have it plastered into the daub and wattle of the wall above the door lintel, or buried in the ground beneath the hearthstone of her fireplace (remember that because the chimney was open to the heavens, it was also a potential entry point for evil spirits).
The theory was that if a witch cast a spell it would be absorbed by the witch bottle, and reflected back at her. The bent pins and iron nails inside the bottle took the game to another level. In addition to sending all her own evil back to the witch, these would add a further torture to punish her for her sorcery. The theory was that they would cast a spell on her bladder, making it impossible, or, at the very least, excruciatingly painful, for her to urinate. By this means it was popularly believed that many an evil-doer got their comeuppance and met with an untimely end.
This particular bottle was unearthed during an excavation in Church Street, Greenwich in 2006. What was exceptional about it was that the bottle and its contents were intact, so they took them off for detailed laboratory analysis. The first thing they noticed was that the nail clippings had come from carefully manicured nails. From this it would seem to follow that the owner of the bottle was a person of sufficient social standing to have had both the leisure time and the equipment to tend to her nails. Her hair was dark, and infested with head lice, which would have been endemic across all social classes at the time, and from her urine they could tell that she had been a smoker.
An image popped into my head of a buxom brunette sitting on a high-backed wooden settle, filing her finger nails with an elegant manicuring stick, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, whilst a long, thin clay pipe smoked on a pipe-stand on the table in front of her. Occasionally she would scratch her head and look nervously out of the window, as she reached for her pipe. Inhaling deeply and then blowing long plumes of aromatic smoke into the air she would anxiously scan the horizon outside before returning the pipe to its stand and her attention, once again, to her manicure.
What was she afraid of? Did she worry that someone would seduce her husband, or corrupt her children, or poison her livestock? Or was she newly arrived from mainland Europe, where she feared for the kinsfolk she had left behind? Perhaps they were languishing in the depths of some squalid dungeon at the Inquisitor General’s mercy.
For a moment I glimpsed a world of fear and confusion and suspicion, in which it would have been easy to feel helpless. How very different it all seemed from our world, where we start each social exchange in the expectation that the people we meet will be benign, and minded to cooperate with us in the course of our daily grind.
For a moment I felt a surge of compassion for the frightened lady who had nothing more than a witch bottle to hold her nightmares at bay.
If you’d like to see the bottle it’s on display as part of the permanent exhibition in the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which you can find beside the Old Royal Naval College.