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“Witch” Bottles Are Washing Up On The Gulf Coast – Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Open Them

It's not clear where these strange objects are coming from, but their contents recall a fascinating history.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A photo of a green corked bottle being held up by the neck buy a man's hand. The bottle has been positioned against the Sun, which reveals some unknown liquid and what appear to be herbs inside.

Witch bottles are an old piece of magical lore but they have started washing up along the Gulf Coast.

Image courtesy of Jace Tunnell, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

Something weird is washing up along the Gulf Coast. Numerous sealed bottles with unusual contents have been found on beaches in Texas. But while your mind may jump to romantic ideas about messages in a bottle, what’s appearing in this instance is far more sinister and most certainly should not be opened. 

Witch bottles, as these strange discoveries are called, have a long history. They are examples of an old form of home-based folk magic intended to ward off or undo enchantments and bewitchment. However, this fact has nothing to do with the warnings against opening them, even though doing so is said to break the spell’s effects. No, the reason why you probably don’t want to open these bottles is far more mundane – they could be physically dangerous. 

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Historically, these protective talismans contained an assortment of objects, such as iron pins, needles, rusty nails, human hair, and, above all else, urine. This latter ingredient was usually provided by the person seeking protection. 

Witch bottles were a big hit in the 16th and 17th centuries. To understand their appeal, you have to appreciate something of the Early Modern world view. In a world believed to be governed by supernatural forces, witches were a real concern for many people. Any run of bad luck, sudden illness, or misadventure could have been seen as the result of malicious witchcraft, and so people needed a way to protect themselves and to fight back.

Unfortunately, religious orthodoxy did not always have much to offer in this context. Church officials may either dismiss a person’s claims as simple superstition or recommend they pray to God for intervention – which could be hit and miss, to say the least. But folk traditions offered individuals a chance for agency in their own affairs. They could fight back against the mysterious forces that bedeviled them.

This is why witch bottles were so popular. If a person had been struck by a supposed witch, they could use this method as a counter-charm in the hope it would not only protect the victim but also cause suffering to the witch. 

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Across the UK, hundreds of examples have been recovered from buildings where they have been buried or hidden in the walls. But the bottles appearing along the Gulf Coast are far more modern and may be coming from the Caribbean and South America, according to the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.  

“I’ve found around eight of these bottles and never opened one. I have five of them on my fence in the backyard since my wife won’t let me bring them inside,” Jace Tunnell, HRI Director of Community Engagement at the Harte Research Institute, reportedly told McClatchy News.

“I don’t believe they are coming from the U.S., although I can’t be 100 percent sure since there is never any writing or indication of where they come from. However, we do find items washing up from all over the world due to the ocean currents, and sometimes I find these bottles in debris that contains distinct yellow vinegar bottles that originate from Haiti.”

So far, the majority of bottles discovered by Tunnell contain sticks and herbs, rather than the more dangerous poking objects in historical examples. 

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These items may feel like a throwback to a superstitious past, but it is worth noting that witch bottles are still being sold by magic purveyors and new age websites today. A quick Google search for “witch bottles” will give you a vast array of options you can buy, some of which are diabolically expensive. And to think, peeing in a bottle used to be a cheap way to deal with your problems.


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