Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle

There is an old Irish tale passed down through the generations about a clairvoyant and healer who carried a magic bottle.  Biddy Early (Bridget Ellen “Biddy” Early, 1798-1872) became known as a witch when she foretold the murder of a Limerick landlord she was employed by as a servant.  When her premonition proved true, she gained a reputation as a witch. 

She was born in Kilbarron, Co Clare, Ireland where over the years she healed thousands of people who came to her for help.  She used her magic bottle to gaze upon to determine what healing method to prescribe.  She was always in possession of her magic bottle so much so that she was even buried with her little blue magic bottle when she passed away.   There are many versions of how Biddy attained the magic bottle, the most popular being that it was a gift from her dead son, Tom, who won a hurling match with some very unathletic faeries. She never took financial payment for her services, but instead accepted offerings of food and alcohol.   

She was accused of witchcraft in 1865 and stood trial at Ennis Court, but was never convicted because witnesses refused to give up any evidence against her.

The Witch Bottle has been found in many cultures and was used as a protective charm against witchcraft, spells, evil spirits and magical attacks.  Our Irish ancestors transported this custom to America where a handful of bottles have been discovered in archaeological excavations.  The bottles were mainly found buried under the fireplace, floor and some were found hidden inside the walls.  In 1976, a witch bottle was unearthed in Pennsylvania and by Archaeologist Marshall Becker.  Known as the Essington Witch Bottle, the artifact dates back to the 17th century and was found buried upside down next to a house.  Magic bottles were very popular during the 17th century and continued into the early 20th century.  In Tennessee, the Hermitage plantation revealed four medicine bottles found underneath the floors of slave habitats.

In Appalachian folk magic, witch bottles are mostly buried at doorsteps, displayed on window sills, and hidden in the walls, chimneys or attics.  Unlike the popular bottle trees in Appalachian history, witch bottles often contained sharp objects like nails, pins, needles or broken glass.  To add to the anti-witch brew, urine is added to the ingredients to complete the conjure recipe.  Witch bottles were also a device used to capture those elusive haints by using the bottle to produce a whistling sound by blowing over the bottle opening.  The spirit is lured into the bottle which is then sealed and thrown into the river.  Legend says that the bottle will float to the Red Sea where the spirit will remain for eternity.

Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory—her Visions and beliefs in the west of Ireland (1920) helped to create the legend of Biddy Early. (National Library of Ireland)

There are certain methods in caring for your magical bottle.  If you intend to bury the bottle, it must be placed in the earth upside down.  If you display your bottle in the window sill, it must be carefully placed where it receives the morning sun each day.

Witch bottle filled with nails discovered near Williamsburg, Virginia in 2016.

The basic recipe for witch bottles is to place your urine, nails, and hair into the bottle.  If the bottle is for everyone that lives in the household, beet juice is added and each member of the family has to spit in the bottle.  The bottle is then placed near a property line so that the bottle is far from the household.  Another method is to place nine items each of nails, pins and needles into the bottle.  A red string tied into a knot is also placed inside the bottle to trap the spirits and curses that must trail along the string to become trapped.  There are some prescriptions where additional items are added to the recipe such as dirt from your cow pasture, kitchen herbs and flowers .  Once the bottle is ready, it is then sealed tight with red clay or wax.  The bottle is then placed in the fireplace or firepit to allow it to heat up so the clay dries.  As this is happening, you recite the full chapter of Psalms 59. 

Tins cans and syrup bottles have also been used to conjure up spells and charms.  Most of the time these objects were used because it was what was on hand at the time. Syrup jars were filled with syrup, sugar and four tablespoons of water as you recite a prayer. This spell was used to candy-coat bad situations or feuding families.  The syrup bottle was then capped and shaken while still reciting your prayer.  This method would be done every day until the situation resolves or improves. 

Display of Witch Bottles – Photo courtesy of the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

A remedy to bring back a lover was to fill a tin can with a red onion that has been engraved with a cross symbol.  A small amount of your urine would be placed on the cross symbol along with a small piece of garment from your lover’s dirty laundry along with a photograph of the person.  The onion is placed in the tin in an upright position.  Then equal parts whiskey and vinegar are poured over it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  A lid was then placed over your tin can and situated under your bed on the side your lover sleeps.  For nine days, a pinch of salt is tossed into the tin call while saying the lover’s name out loud to call them home.

The Witch Bottle is believed to be active as long as the bottle remains hidden and unbroken. 

Today, modern herbalists and healers continue to make anti-witch bottles with a variety of objects.  Some are made with mason jars, jugs, small glass vials to wear as an amulet, and decorative wine bottles.  Stories and legends like these are shared throughout the generations and over time rituals are added to and changed slightly with each generation.  Never the less, these family traditions give us unique variations surrounding Appalachian folk magic and its practice. 

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Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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3 thoughts on “Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle”

    1. Hi Lisa! Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. We have updated the photo and the article to include a website link to guide readers to learn more information about Lady Gregory! Unmasked History is dedicated to delivering true and accurate history articles and love feedback from our readers!

  1. Hi Hope,
    I wonder if you can tell me what the significance of the number nine is, with respect to the nails, pins, needles in the jar.
    Thank you,

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