Last week I looked at the new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft. It’s such a compelling collection of folk magic through the ages that I wanted to look a bit more in detail at a few of the magic books that were included in the exhibition, along with some of the art that belief in witchcraft inspired in pre-modern times.
The name John Dee conjures up images of a Tudor-era mage plumbing the mysteries of the occult and speaking with angels through his system of Enochian magic. This is how most people know Dr. Dee, and it is all I knew about him until I visited an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee sets the record straight on a misunderstood and often maligned Renaissance man. Far more than a mere occultist, Dee was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer, world traveler, and cryptographer. He was influential in two royal courts and was an early advocate for the colonization of the Americas.
Are your cows dying? Do your chickens no longer lay eggs? Are you suffering from gout, shingles, or a really bad case of the clap? Do you suspect a witch might have it in for you?
Never fear, for now you can piss your troubles away with the witch bottle! Put your urine and a few other knick knacks into a jug, and that troublesome witch will go curse someone else’s farm. Or better yet, die.
Witch bottles were one of the many articles of folk magic used in England in the early modern period. Like with all folk practices, the details varied widely while retaining some basic similarities. A victim of the witch, or a special witch hunter, would fill a bottle with the victim’s urine. Other articles might be added such as bent nails or pins, thorns, hair, fingernail clippings, and bits of naval fluff. The bottle was then carefully stoppered.