Museum object to be on display in Bristol

Museum object to be on display in Bristol

The Museum was visited last week by some lovely people from Bristol Museum. They were here to collect a Museum object which has gone out on loan to take part in their exhibition: Death the human experience which runs until March 2016.

The object on loan is Museum object number 14.  The online catalogue describes it as a witch bottle or Bellarmine jar and comes with the following information:

Original text by Cecil Williamson: 'An example of the famous bellarmine type jars and bottles much beloved by witches for use as spirit houses and hexing bottles. This one was found built into the wall of a bombed-out house in Plymouth in the Sutton Harbour area. The bottle was wax-sealed and the items within had been set in a dry hide, that is no liquid within the bottle. The items extracted can be seen in the glass covered box alongside. From the evidence to hand everything indicates that whereas the bottle is of considerable age, its filling and its concealment would have taken place between 1895 and 1912. None the less it is a good example of a west country witchcraft used for retribution magic most likely from an aggrieved employee against his or her employer or master if an apprentice.' 

Although Cecil Williamson interprets the bottle as a curse, in fact it is far more likely to have been protection magic. These bottles are first mentioned in written records in the 17th century, when they were used specifically when someone believed they had been bewitched, to turn the curse back on the witch. For example, in his Astrological Practice of Physick published in 1671, Joseph Blagrave writes, “Another way [to treat someone bewitched] 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 witch’s life, for I have found that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all.” 

Later they were often used for general protection, rather than to retaliate against a specific curse. Cornwall Record Office has an interesting document from the 18th century, written by a wise woman or cunning man, which describes how to make a witch bottle, explaining that then “no enemy will have power over you.” 

Information from German visitors to the museum: The original name of these bottles was not Bellarmine but Bartmann - 'Man with a Beard' in German - and they were made at a pottery in Frechen near Cologne. Wooden Witch Boxes were also used. 

One found in London had been built into a fireplace in place of a brick in the 18th century, and contained bones from a sheep or goat, a pig and a goose. (Source: 'Tracks Through Time', Museum of London Archaeology, 2009.) 

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