Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Message in a bottle

Ever heard of a witch bottle?

Witch bottles are magical items that are a type of apotropaic magic -- spells meant to ward off evil (the word comes from the Greek αποτρέπειν, meaning "to turn away from").  The idea has been around for a long time; if someone tries to use an evil enchantment on you, you can respond with a defensive spell of your own, and it might even rebound on the person who was trying to hex you.  One of the first written accounts of a witch bottle is in seventeenth century English clergyman Joseph Glanvill's book Saducismus Triumphatus, or Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, wherein we hear about a man whose wife was sick and who kept getting visited by the apparition of a bird that would flutter in her face, because apparently that was a thing in seventeenth-century England.  The man was given advice by an "old man who traveled up and down the country," who said the cure was to have the sick woman pee in a bottle, then add some pins and needles, then cork it up tight and put it in the fire.

Which, I have to admit, is at least a creative solution.

The first time it didn't work because the heat made the air in the bottle expand and blew out the cork, which must resulted in a situation that was unpleasant to clean up.  But they tried a second time, and it worked -- and had an interesting result:

Not long after, the Old Man came to the house again, and inquired of the Man of the house how his Wife did.  Who answered, as ill as ever, if not worse, and still plagu'd by birds.  He askt him if he had followed his direction.  Yes, says he, and told him the event as is above said.  Ha, quoth he, it seems it [the spirit which was troubling them] was too nimble for you.  But now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure.  Take your Wive’s Urine as before, and Cork, it in a Bottle with Nails, Pins and Needles, and bury it in the Earth; and that will do the feat.  The Man did accordingly.  And his Wife began to mend sensibly and in a competent time was finely well recovered; But there came a Woman from a Town some miles off to their house, with a lamentable Out-cry, that they had killed her Husband.  They askt her what she meant and thought her distracted, telling her they knew neither her nor her Husband.  Yes, saith she, you have killed my Husband, he told me so on his Death-bed.  But at last they understood by her, that her Husband was a Wizard, and had bewitched this Mans Wife and that this Counter-practice prescribed by the Old Man, which saved the Mans Wife from languishment, was the death of that Wizard that had bewitched her.

Apparently other things that people sometimes put in witch bottles were hair, blood, fingernail clippings, red thread, written charms, feathers, dried herbs and flowers, and money.

The reason this comes up is that apparently there are still people who believe in this, because there's a beach in southern Texas where a guy keeps finding what appear to be modern witch bottles.  He's found eight of them thus far, all filled with odd items -- sticks and leaves seem to be the most common.

Jace Tunnell, Director of Community Engagement at the Harte Research Institute, has spent years scouring the beaches of South Padre Island for anything odd that's washed up, and starting about six years ago, he began finding sealed bottles that evidently had been out there adrift for a long time, given the fact that some of them had barnacles on them.  After studying the currents, he believes they may have come from as far away as the islands of the Caribbean, or perhaps even West Africa.

"I don't open the bottles," Tunnell said.  "In fact, my wife won't even let me bring them into the house.  The theory is that if you open it you can let the spell out, whatever the reason the person had put the spell in there.  They're counter-magical devices, created to draw in and trap harmful intentions directed at their owners, so it's best to leave them sealed."

The fact that some of them could contain piss and rusty needles is another good reason to leave the tops on.

Predictably, I don't think there's any other particularly good reason to be concerned about them.  You have to wonder, though, how these superstitions get started, and (especially) how they persist despite the fact that they don't work (notwithstanding accounts like the one from the estimable Mr. Glanvill).  I wonder if it's because sometimes the "cursed" person does get better after the counter-curse, and to the credulous this is sufficient proof, even though it is an established scientific principle that the plural of "anecdote" isn't "data."

Although you have to wonder about the sanity of the first person who came up with the idea of peeing in a bottle full of pins.

In any case, if you find a sealed bottle washed up on the beach, it's probably best just to deposit it in the nearest trash can and not worry about it.  Unless it contains money, in which case open that sucker right up.  Call me greedy, but I'd risk being plagu'd by birds if the price was right.


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