Protection Against Witches: How Ornaments Used To Ward Off Evil Spirits
Witch balls, colorful glass orbs, were commonplace in 17th and 18th century England. Source: (tripadvisor)
It's mostly reserved for quiet nights following horror movie marathons these days, but most people in 17th- and 18th-century England and the United States truly believed that evil spirits, witches, spells, and sorcery were everyday threats. Just as one would arm themselves against an intruder or inoculate themselves against a disease (you know, if that were an option back then), people looked to magical objects to serve as protection against witches. One of the more common lines of defense was the witch ball or witch bottle. Let's learn about these weird and mystical devices to see how important they were to people living a few centuries ago.
Witch bottles, like witch balls, were powerful talisman against evil spells. Source: (ancient-origins.net)
What are Witch Balls and Witch Bottles?
Both witch balls and witch bottles were used as tools for the defense against the dark arts. The witch ball was a hollow glass sphere that closely resembles the traditional Christmas ornaments we see during the holidays. Witch bottles were similar, but instead of being glass orbs, they were clay jugs or containers.
Accused witches were tested by water. A true witch would float, just like the witch balls. Source: (pinterest.com)
Floating Balls and Sinking Witches
One of the key properties of a witch ball was that it could float on top of the water. There was a strong connection between the ability to float and witches in the 17th century. In those days, if a person was accused of being a witch, a surefire way to find out was to bind their arms and legs and toss them into a river or lake. If they floated, so the accusers thought, it was because they were so evil that the water rejected them and their attempt at baptism by water. A floating witch was pulled from the water and hanged. If the accused failed to float and sank to the bottom, then they were innocent of the crime of being a witch. Dead but innocent.
There was even a witch ball hanging at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during the first half of the twentieth century. Source: (innerlives.org)
Hanging a Witch Ball
While it was important that a witch ball could float, it wasn't used in water. Instead, a witch ball or two were hung in a window of a home. Dangling in the sunlight, the witch ball, according to legend, had the power to cleanse the evil from the home. In the same vein, a witch who was executed on the gallows was typically left hanging so that they could cleanse the entire village of the evil sorcery. A witch bottle could be stored in an out-of-the-way spot in the house or buried to keep it safe. The power of the witch bottle only lasted as long as the bottle was unbroken, so it wasn't something to display on the mantle where unruly children could accidentally condemn you.
Three witches in a graveyard, c1790s. A man passing by is assailed by demons. Artist Unknown. Source: (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Shiny and Reflective
In addition to their ability to float, glass witch balls were shiny and reflective. As everyone knew, witches abhorred seeing their own reflection, so they avoided mirrors and other reflective surfaces. As such, a witch ball hung in a window would frighten a witch away. The witch ball could also bounce sunlight off its shiny surface. Much like the Care Bear Stare, the unexpected bouncing sunbeams served to scare away evil.
The scent of rosemary could carry away an evil spirit. Source: (walmart.ca)
Filled with Anti-Evil Materials
Witch balls and witch bottles were hollow with openings on top, so items could be placed inside the balls and bottles to ramp up their powers. Both holy water and salt were used because witches hated those two items, but they could also be filled with herbs such as rosemary, red wine, and pins. According to legends, the evil spirit would drown in the wine, become impaled on the pin, and be carried away on the scent of the rosemary.
Witch balls could thwart a personal attack by using the target's blood, hair, and fingernail clippings. Source: (etsy.com)
A Personalized Witch Ball
Occasionally, a particularly self-involved person came to believe that they were the specific target of witches' spells and evil spirits. To protect themselves, the person could create a highly personalized witch ball. In it, they put parts of their own body: urine samples, fingernail clippings, strands of hair, or even menstrual blood. These items increased the potency of the witch ball and let the witch know that the person was prepared to put up a fight. Later, the witch balls and bottles were stuffed with small items that had significant meaning to the individual, such as feathers, herbs, colorful stones, ashes, or charms.
Did witch balls morph into Christmas ornaments? Source: (amazon.com)
Witch Balls and Christmas Ornaments
Witch balls, particularly ones made of colored glass, look a lot like the round, glass ornaments that we traditionally hang on Christmas trees. This has led many people to postulate that the origin of Christmas ornaments lies with witch balls, suggesting that the ornaments were used on the Christmas tree to banish the jealousy and evil thoughts that visitors to the home might bring upon seeing the presents beneath the tree. Other historians point to the ornaments' first appearance in Germany in 1847 as proof that there is no connection between Christmas ornaments and witch balls. If you really need one, The Nightmare Before Christmas is available year-round.