Monday, 2 November 2015


This article was originally published in SPIN 71 - Summer 2015.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were times of great change and social upheaval.  The major belief system of Christianity was being “reformed” from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, new ways of thinking were being introduced with the enlightenment, logic and science were emerging as the preferred world-view, and the industrial revolution was kicking off.  Although there is plenty of evidence that witches and witchcraft have been feared throughout the past, during this period that fear took on a manic form which some of us refer to as “the burning times”.

Life at this time was pretty grim.  There were huge inequalities in society.  Even if you had wealth, maintaining it was a constant gamble.  Insurance was embryonic in form.  Existence was chaotic and unpredictable.

This is as it has always been, and still is admittedly, but prior to the Reformation, the Church (albeit at the price of social control) at least provided a rudimentary welfare system and an accessible path to divinity in the form of saints.  Saints are very much for the people, often being fallible, frail and fully human.  The route to official (Vatican) recognition of saints was much quicker than today so many saints would have been remembered in life by those still living. (Footnote 1)

Into this mix, a prevailing belief emerged of the world being in the grip of diabolic forces.  The devil and his works were apparent everywhere.  The world was not a pleasant place, God was remote and the saints were no longer available: supernatural threats abound coupled with a lack of celestial assistance.  Add to this the many people around who were believed to be witches, who had entered pacts with the devil and were able to cause misfortune through malevolent sorcery – sometimes without even realising it! (Footnote 2)

Thus, when Roman Catholicism was supplanted by Protestantism, it left a spiritual vacuum with which to deal with the realities of life (which for most people was short and cruel, cheap even).
That gap created a market which would be filled by purveyors of protection magic because people naturally seek stability, security and control ...

To be clear, prior to the middle of the twentieth century, there are two groups of people to whom we, in historical hindsight, might apply the term “witch” but which it is useful to think of as distinct groups:
  • Practitioners of folk magic and herb-craft  – who have always existed at all times and in all places – but who would not have thought of themselves as witches but rather as Christians
  • Those accused of being witches (of whom there may be some overlap with the first group)

Those who belonged to the first group would be more akin to what anthropologists refer to as “witch doctors” – not doctors using witchcraft to heal, but rather doctors who treat patients who have been attacked by witchcraft.  This is positive protection magic into which was often incorporated Christian symbolism and references.

One of the forms of protection offered was the “witch bottle”.  Most often recovered from East Anglia, Essex and Suffolk, they are known throughout Scotland and a couple have been found in Orkney and are on display in the Orkney Museum.  

These bottles are labelled as “spirit bottles” in Orkney Museum but they are of the characteristic shape and colour.  The one numbered “15” was found under the floor of a house at Digro on the island of Rousay.

Witch bottles are usually small and round, about 10 cms high, often of blue or green glass, but larger bottles were also used which were about 20 cms tall.  These larger bottles are more famous and are known as “Greybeards” or “Bellarmines”; they were made in Germany of glazed stoneware decorated with bearded faces.  In popular tradition they are associated with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), a fierce opponent of Protestantism in the Low Countries and northern Germany and these bottles may originally have represented an attempt by Protestants to ridicule him.

Inside the bottles were placed:
  • Hair, nail pairings and urine from the victim(s) – human or animal
  • Iron nails, thorns, sharp glass, bent pins, stick of wood
  • Felt or material, perhaps in the shape of a heart, and often pierced with pins – possibly cut from the clothing of the victim

It is the urine of the victim that was the most important ingredient, sometimes the only one.  Joseph Blagrave of Reading in “Astrological Practice of Physick” (1671) gives a recipe:
“Another way is to stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life: for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if at all, and the more if the moon be in Scorpio in Square or Opposition to his Significator, when its done.”

Blagrave explains that the witch will be tormented through the medium of the victim’s urine because the witch, in carrying out baleful magic, will necessarily create a sympathetic link with the victim through which they can be counter-attacked.  Often the identity of the witch was unknown, so the sole means of identifying them was through the sympathetic link provided by the victim’s urine, hair and nails.

The “Bellarmines” may have been chosen because of their general anthropomorphic qualities and it seems to have been believed that the bottle itself came to represent the witch via image magic.  Attracted to the link with the victim, the witch would become trapped within the bottle so, once the witch bottle had been made and its contents sealed inside, it would be buried outside a property, under the hearth or threshold, or plastered into the walls.  Sometimes the bottle was inverted before final deposition.  At this point the counter-magic would start to work!

The roundness of the bottle itself was believed to be symbolic of the witch’s bladder and it is through this organ that the witch was rendered particularly vulnerable.  John Aubrey (1696) describes how a witch bottle was made to protect a bewitched horse, reporting that subsequently the “party suspected to be the witch ... could not make water, of which he died”. 

Glanvil (1681) recounts how a witch bottle was not buried but rather placed upon a fire and heated – a faster and more dangerous method whereby the witch would survive if the cork flew out during heating and the bottle remained intact!  This practice, of course, would leave completely different archaeological evidence to a buried bottle – if any at all.  

Historical documents also include descriptions of how the “witch”, or their husband or wife, would appear in person and ask for the magic to be stopped, or to make accusations that the magic was harming them. What is interesting about one of the “spirit” bottles on display in the Orkney Museum was where it was found.  The house at Digro on the island of Rousay was where James Leanard lived in the nineteenth century.  Rousay was the only place in Orkney where the clearances took place, reputedly by General Sir Frederick William Traill Burroughs, the major landowner who lived at Trumland House.  Burroughs caused bitter resentment amongst his tenants by raising rents and evicting them and, when the Napier Royal Commission visited Orkney in 1883, two of his crofters submitted evidence – one of them being James Leanard, who was subsequently evicted for doing so!  Could this particular spirit / witch bottle have been placed as a defence against “the Little General” with the reputation of being “the worst of the nineteenth century lairds in Orkney”?

Why make a witch-bottle?

The fear of “ill-wishing” was and still can be quite disabling for some people, to the extent of being a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Measures to counter it are still alive today and have their uses for the magical practitioner, usually in the form of curse lifting and reversals.  A witch-bottle can be a useful addition to our psychic armoury, especially today when we can draw parallels between our rapidly changing society and that of the seventeenth century.  Our society also has huge inequalities, with the maintenance of wealth (for those who have it) being a constant gamble (leading some to take insane risks), “changes” to welfare provision, and life continuing to be precarious and random for very many people.  And people, including myself and my “clients”, still seek stability, security and control over an unpredictable and chaotic world ...

Whether a witch-bottle fits into your personal morality is of course your decision.  This is, after all, not purely protective magic but defensive counter-magic.  It’s up a notch from “An it harm none”.  Make your own choices in this, bearing in mind the magical repercussions – a valuable lesson from all of this is the generation of sympathetic links: and I will certainly be contemplating how often I might inadvertently create them!

For myself, I feel the need to craft and maintain protective measures not against individuals but against corporations and organisations, some of whom don’t seem to appreciate my inclination to being a square peg and some of whom are definitely malevolent in intent (in my opinion).

How to make a witch-bottle (a.k.a. witchy insurance policy):

Take a bottle, dark glass, and rounded if possible.  Any size.  If it has anthropomorphic features even better.  Add something from yourself, urine is ideal (see below).  And some bent pins, iron is good.  Some white table salt (good occult stand-by ingredient).  Seal the bottle with a cork or original top, then bury or hide it. 

I like to put it at a boundary (liminal place) rather than inside the house but if you don’t have a garden then inside a window box or plant pot would do.  Some of the historical documents suggest that the magic runs out when the liquid does so you may need to keep it “topped up”!  Do all this at the appropriate moon phase (waning or dark) and check the astrology if that is something you’d usually do.  Saturday might be an appropriate day to Work (although I am of the opinion that if you need to do something, then you should just get on and do it).  Probably then an idea not to talk about it at all but just let it get on with its thing.

If someone or something does subsequently pop by and ask you to stop doing what you’re doing to them, it might be polite to invite them to “agree to terms” over a cuppa tea ...

As to the choice of something from yourself:  Urine is sterile at the point it comes out of your body and with its associations with bodily waste it’s something you don’t want any more and is ideal for these purposes.  It doesn’t smell as bad as poo and isn’t as messy to get in the bottle (or so I would imagine).  Ear-wax and bogeys – do you really make enough of these to go in a bottle?!  Blood is a possibility, but do exercise safety precautions when obtaining it such as using sterile equipment and not doing yourself any injury that requires a visit to A&E, although like semen and saliva it’s probably too much of a “life essence”; I suspect that using menstrual blood would be viable (if you still produce it).  Alternatively you could use your tears if you can collect enough – I like this concept for environmental and social protection workings as tears would be highly charged.


Carr-Gomm, P & Heygate, R (2009) The Book of English Magic, The Overlook Press, New York
Merrifield, R (1987) The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, B T Batsford Ltd, London

Footnote 1 - Personally, I can see similarities between the veneration of saints and ancestral worship / propitiation and can even fit saints into an eclectic Pagan theology with a little nudging and shifting!
Footnote 2 - Anthropologists advise that, around most of the world, this is still what is meant by “witch”, the term is used differently to how we Pagans use it.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Pictish Charm-Stones

This article was published in SPIN 68 Summer 2014

One of my favourite pastimes in Orkney is beachcombing; I search for things which appeal to me because they are attractive or unusual or because they may be useful.  I usually waddle home with pockets bulging with sandy treasures!

A while ago I attended a fieldtrip with Orkney Archaeology Society to look for flints at the Pool of Cletts (a beach on South Ronaldsay – one of the linked south isles).  Flint does not occur naturally in Orkney, so any used in prehistory would either have been imported or must have been washed up on the various beaches.  We were instructed in flint identification by a geologist and our aim was to  investigate whether there might have been sufficient flint being washed up to explain the quantities of flint found in excavation (because if there wasn’t, it was a possible indicator that the flint would have had to have been imported, and hence traded, in prehistory).

I didn’t find any flint!  What I found were some iridescent shells, a lump of red sandstone in the shape of a romantic heart, and lots of lucky stones with natural holes in them.  Everyone else, without exception, found flint.  I stood smiling to excuse my eccentric collection ... the geologist even took pity on me and let me have some of his flint as a consolation prize ... it was one of my more Moomintroll moments.

As a fully paid up Pagan, my home is full of crystals and rocks all quietly buzzing away ... they bring me luck and keep me safe and look pretty.   These beliefs are old beliefs and I’m sure my magpie-tendencies would have been recognised by our ancestors because I have noted that white quartzite stones turn up at all manner of prehistoric sites – there seems to have been an almost archetypal attraction for them, most famously perhaps on the facade at Newgrange, Ireland. 

The class of artefact called charm-stones, or cold-stones, are especially interesting.  Charm-stones are found in northern Scotland and the northern islands, and date from the first millennium AD, (commonly referred to as the Pictish period which lies between when the Iron Age finishes c.300AD and the Viking period begins c.800AD).  They are made from quartzite pebbles about 20mm by 55mm in size.  About 20 examples are known and several have been found in Orkney, particularly from the site of Buckquoy in Birsay (and on display in the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Broad Street, Kirkwall).  All known charm-stones have been painted with simple designs using a pigment which now presents as dark brown in colour.  The motifs include dots, wavy lines, small circles, pentacles, crescents, and triangles; hence, they are also known simply as “painted pebbles”.

It is generally believed that these charm-stones had a magical nature.  Perhaps they were lucky sling-stones or stones used for healing?  There is a long and rich tradition of curing-stones that could be used to heal and such beliefs are documented throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the medieval period.  This tradition has subsequently been immortalised in folklore and even referenced as being practiced within living memory.  In Orkney, several of my “indigenous” friends tell me they used to collect “lucky” white quartz stones from the beach when they were bairns. 

These are the Pictish Charm-Stones on display in the Orkney Museum

Often the curative qualities of the stones are associated with early Christian saints.  For example St Columba was said to have cured King Bridei of Pictland with a white stone pebble in 565AD.  There are also the Curing-Stones of St Fillan (Perthshire) and St Molio (Arran), and the “Blessed Stones” of the Isle of Bute.   The treatment was made effective either through the stone(s) being carried or more often by the stone(s) being placed or boiled in water or milk and the resultant liquid being used to treat the patient or drunk as a potion.

Although the pigment used to decorate these stones has not been accurately analysed, it is possible that the dye used would have been a natural one such as haematite.  I have experimented with making my own copies using powdered haematite mixed with a natural fixative (the latter in the form of beaten egg).  The results are quite true to the original and the pigment has stayed on the stones even after several years.  Powdered haematite can be purchased from art shops – although you’ll probably have to order it in as it mainly has a specialist use in icon painting today.
My own copies of Pictish Charm-Stones
I’m going to carry on placing my faith in lucky stones, because they seem to have worked so far in my life and it is a fine tradition with an impeccable lineage.  And I refuse to curb my inner Moomintroll which insists on taking a childish delight in wild things found at random.  At Iona earlier this year, I sought and brought back several lovely examples of Iona marble, a natural serpentine mixed with quartz which makes a very attractive white and green stone, often polished by the sea.  You have to walk right to the south of Iona to find it, as it only washes up on Columba’s Bay, so the journey becomes a bit of a pilgrimage as this is an ancient pathway and a bit treacherous in places.  It is said that if you carry a piece of Iona marble you will never drown ... I gifted a piece to one of my more cynical friends who assured me that the magic was working as he had had several baths since and hadn’t drowned once!