Friday, August 04, 2006

Old Bottle Witchery

In reading through a recent issue of Discover Maine, I ran across a great article by Marilyn Ricker Bolduc on page 55, titled "Tales from Lebanon's Past: Secret spells, strange weather, and ghost trains."

One of the most interesting things mentioned in the article is a story about an old custom brought up by the discovery of an old corked bottle...
One day my brother was out hiking. He was poking around with a stick when he hit something hard in the ground. He dug it up and found it was an old bottle.
My brother shook the bottle and something clanged inside. He pulled out the partial cork that was stuck in the top of the bottle. He turned the bottle upside down and out fell a penny. He was surprised. He rubbed the penny so he could read the date on it. The date was 1903, and he knew he had quite a find.

The bottle was buried in an opening in a stone wall. He thought this was strange, but he put it in his backpack and finished his hike. He went to our father's house later that day where my uncle happened to be visiting, too. My brother told the story about the bottle and penny. My uncle said that he heard a story many years ago. He said that folks years ago believed that you could put a curse on someone by putting a penny from that year into a bottle. You would then bury the bottle under a path that was used by the person you wanted to put a curse on.

This story sent a chill through my brother. He wondered if the curse could possibly work. Who could be devilish enough to try it? In this case, nobody will probably ever know.
That would put a chill down my spine, too. Ill will, aged and corked up. It's like something out of a John Bellairs book.

Ironically, a "good luck penny in a bottle" is a widespread novelty gift, and has been manufactured since at least 1945 by the souvenir industry. This usually involves a miniature bottle that looks as though there is no way the penny could have been put into it by natural means. The "penny in a bottle" theme is also the basis of a common sleight-of-hand magic trick.

I can't weed out much in the way of information online about coins in bottles as a custom in New England. As a positive use, I did find that supposedly "It used to be common practice to put a silver coin into a bottle of milk to keep it from souring, or into a bottle of water to purify it. The ancient Greeks & Romans used to put silver into their urns and in the Middle Ages royalty, eating with silver utensils, were less susceptible of succumbing to the ravages of the plague." [Source]

Moving back over the curse side of things, in the realm of property cursing, "one item that is common is the use of what is sometimes (especially outside the hoodoo community) referred to as a 'Witches' Bottle.'" In this case, the bottle was filled with a certain number of pins or nails and various other materials, and then the person effecting the spell is told to "bury the bottle where the victim will walk over it," a form of what they call "foot track magic." [Source]

For more on Witch Bottles, see this site. It seems like this type of spell or hex originated many, many years ago, far outside of New England. Catherine Yronwode says "I believe that direct foot-track magic is the oldest form of laying down tricks, and the most African." [Source] Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sang a song about this type of curse, called "Stones in my Passway," quoted in full on Yronwode's page linked above:
I got stones in my passway and my road seems dark at night
I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite
It's not hard to imagine how this same feeling of doom could fall easily on a man walking along a cold lonely pathway in the barren Maine countryside.

1 comment:

downeast misanthrope said...

Anytime we have to dig into the earth around the old farmhouse we bought, we find bottles.

Asking the previous owner about it, he chuckled and explained. Turns out they were deposited by the husband who lived there with his wife for decades. She did not like him drinking, so he would put his liquor into these little bottles, sneak around the barn out of sight, drink up, and then bury the evidence.

It never fails to bring a smile to our face when we find yet another buried bottle; when we find an especially large one we like to think he was entertaining friends...