Real Witchcraft and Folk Magic in Colonial Times

Updated on May 29, 2018
kittythedreamer profile image

Holding a complete fascination with the folkloric witch, Kitty has studied the history and folklore of witchcraft since she was a child.

Women who knew herbs and plants in order to heal were often accused of witchcraft in Colonial times.
Women who knew herbs and plants in order to heal were often accused of witchcraft in Colonial times. | Source

Did Witchcraft Really Exist in Colonial Times?

We have all heard the stories of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Many of us brush this period in United States history off to silly superstition and socioeconomic turmoil, then there are others who believe the witch hunt hysteria stemmed from actual practices of witchcraft in the colonial United States. In fact, witchcraft has been practiced in the United States as long as there have been people living on its lands. Let me explain further...

First, let us define witchcraft in the simplest light. Witchcraft is the practice of using magic; the use of spells and incantations, and the invocation of spirits. If we strip away the idea of witchcraft being purely devil worship, we can see that the United States Colonials brought their superstitious practices with them from places like England, Wales, Scotland, etc. And while the settlers might not have thought of their superstitious practices as witchcraft, at its simplest definition these practices could absolutely be considered "magic", "spells" and/or "incantations".

To take it a step further, "magic" could literally be found in almost every region of the Colonial United States in one form or another. You had only to take a closer look and find folk practices from the Natives, from the African slaves, as well as from the settlers themselves.

An accused witch during Colonial times on a "dunking stool". Did she really practice witchcraft or was she just a victim?
An accused witch during Colonial times on a "dunking stool". Did she really practice witchcraft or was she just a victim? | Source
A bottle tree in modern times in Washington state.
A bottle tree in modern times in Washington state. | Source

Bottle Trees in the South

It is said that the African slaves brought with them the practice of decorating trees with multi-colored glass bottles. This custom was adopted by the people who spanned out from the southern colonies to Appalachia. This is why you will still see bottle trees prevalently in the Appalachian region of the U.S. to this day. Traditionally, bottle trees were used to "trap" evil spirits and essentially protect a household from these spirits' malevolence. The idea is that the evil spirits would be drawn to the beauty of the glass bottles, go inside, and then be trapped until someone let them out...if they ever did.

Crepe myrtle trees are one of the traditional trees used in this folk magic practice. This particular kind of tree was used in the South and in Appalachia because of its certain powers or "protective" qualities. If we look at the folklore surrounding the crepe myrtle tree, we find that it is connected to cultures from all over the world including ancient Greece, the Congo, and other places in Europe and beyond.

Blue is the traditional color of bottle used in the South, but many people used bottles of varying colors to create the bottle tree. Does this practice date back to Colonial times? Yes it does, and in fact it goes back even further than that according to folklorists. You can even make your own bottle tree today.

A rendering of Tituba (the slave) who fed the afflicted girls the witch cake recommended by Mary Sibley.
A rendering of Tituba (the slave) who fed the afflicted girls the witch cake recommended by Mary Sibley. | Source

Witch Cakes

The practice of making a "witch cake" is clearly evident in Colonial U.S. history, and comes to us from the time of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. When a couple young girls were thought to be "tormented" by local witches in Salem, MA, a couple women thought it would be a good idea to make a "witch cake" in order to determine the witches' names. (What is ironic in this is that these women were using a form of witchcraft in order to find the "witches" in the town).

In order to make a witch cake, one must bake a cake made of rye and the urine of the afflicted person(s) involved and then feed it to the victims' dog. The dog is then thought to either attack or search out the victim's tormentor or the supposed "witch". Some accounts say that the just the act of the dog eating the cake would reveal the witch in that she would begin screaming or be hurt by the consumption of the witch cake. The practice of making a witch cake most likely originates from England, as it was Mary Sibley who knew how to make the witch cake and informed the slave in the girls' household how to make and use one. Although Mary Sibley would attest to making witch cakes as a folk practice from England, the community's church officials looked at it as just another form of witchcraft and preached against it.

Today I find no account of witch cakes still being made, as the witch hysteria has long since died with the Colonial times (at least for the most part); however, you can make a decadent red velvet cake topped with a fondant witch's hat if you prefer. It will taste a lot better and be a lot less creepy!

A traditional witch ball hangs from the rafters.
A traditional witch ball hangs from the rafters. | Source

Witch Balls

Witch Balls were brought to the Colonial United States by the English settlers most likely in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. These are hollow glass spheres with thin fibers strung on the inside that are hung or placed in a window of a home to protect it from evil. Traditionally witch balls are gold, blue, or green and are hung in an Eastern window to ward off the evil eye, witches, and/or evil spirits or curses.

The way the witch ball worked was that the witch or evil spirit would become attracted to the beauty of the ball or of its own reflection and then be trapped inside by the glass strings. Some said that the reflection was enough to send the evil spirit or witch running, never to bother the family or household again.

It is interesting to note that glass-blowing businesses are said to make a witch ball as the first glass-blown item when opening a business — this is good luck. Also, witch balls are associated to the glass gazing balls one might see in a person's garden or yard, and they are also thought to be connected to the red spheres used in fishermen's nets. Were all of these originally used to ward off evil? Again, this seems to be a harmless folk magic practice that could however be considered a form of "white" witchcraft.

This is the typical "witch ball" that most people think of when they hear the term; however, there's another kind of witch ball according to Appalachian folklore. Witches used a mixture of herbs, hair, urine, and adhesive in order to form witch balls that they were said to throw or shoot at an unsuspecting victim. The effect of the witch ball was always some sort of curse, as the witch was seeking revenge on the intended victim.

Witch Bottles complete with ingredients...perhaps used during Colonial times?
Witch Bottles complete with ingredients...perhaps used during Colonial times? | Source
A real witch bottle on display at The Witch House in Salem, MA.
A real witch bottle on display at The Witch House in Salem, MA. | Source

Witch Bottles

Another form of "white" witchcraft that stems from England, witch bottles were also used in Colonial times to ward off evil witches (you may find these witch bottles to be of similar use to the witch ball described above.) Witch bottles were glass bottles filled with specific ingredients used to trap a witch that might be tormenting a particular victim. They were usually buried on the victim's property to distract the witch from the victim him/herself and inevitably trap and/or kill the witch.

Some of the ingredients used inside of the witch's bottle included but weren't limited to: nails, pins, red wine, dirt, sand, hair or urine of the victim (to entice the witch), feathers, stones, etc. The nails, pins, and red wine specifically were used to trap the witch while the other ingredients were used to entice the witch to the bottle itself. The witch bottle was usually buried on the victim's property, sometimes it was said to have been thrown at the witch him/herself or buried on the accused witch's property. Other accounts state that witch bottles were thrown into a stream or river.

There is actual archaeological evidence that witch bottles were indeed used in the Colonial United States. The Essington Witch Bottle was found by archaeologists in Essington, PA in 1976, proving that "white" witchcraft was a real system used in Colonial times and therefore denotes that "evil" witchcraft was thought to be alive and well during those times. This particular witch bottle was buried upside down close to the foundation of an old home, indicating that this witch bottle was used to ward off a witch's malady towards the original home's owner.

Real "Magical" Tools Used in Colonial Times

Herbal Concoctions
Objects
Protective Items
Witch cakes
Witch bottles
Iron Horseshoes
Unguents
Poppets
Bottle Trees
Witch balls
Dowsing sticks/rods
Witch windows
A colonial witch being helped by an attendant.
A colonial witch being helped by an attendant. | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Kitty Fields

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

      Kitty Fields 

      3 years ago from Summerland

      aesta1 - I've yet to visit Salem but really want to in the future!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I don't think I have ever seen a bottle tree. I visited Salem with my friends to explore more about witchcraft and found it interesting.

    • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

      Kitty Fields 

      3 years ago from Summerland

      sgbrown - Yay...glad you enjoyed it!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      3 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      This was very interesting! I learned about things I never knew existed here. Witch bottles and witch balls, I never heard of them before. I really enjoyed your hub, thank you!

    • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

      Kitty Fields 

      3 years ago from Summerland

      Yes, thank you Larry!

    • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

      Kitty Fields 

      3 years ago from Summerland

      Kildare05 - My husband's family had ancestors on the Mayflower too! Super intriguing...thanks for reading.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Very rich topic. From The Crucible to the Blair Witch, witches in history are an always engaging topic.

    • profile image

      Kildare05 

      3 years ago

      I found out a couple years ago through my aunts genealogical research that we are daughters of the Mayflower which was great! Not so great was that one of our ancestors, a young girl, was a main accuser of the Salem witch trials. It saddens me to know something like that is a part of our history. I can assure you our family is much more open minded now! Great hub Kitty. As always :)

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      3 years ago

      What a fun and interesting read. True that the phrase 'Witchcraft' may not have been what people used to describe what they were doing back then since it had such stigma attached; but it was still magic, and the practice of magic pre-dates history no matter what people called it. I find the Cunning Folk magic particularly interesting myself.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      That does not sound conceited at all, Kitty. I think many things, like knowledge of the magical arts, witchcraft, the world of the fae, etc. are inherent in you and me. I believe some things you write just come from a deep part of knowing within you.

    • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

      Kitty Fields 

      3 years ago from Summerland

      Jackie - I would love to visit Salem for the historical value alone!

      Phyllis - I did do some research on it, yes. However, a lot of what I wrote about are things I have learned through years of study...I don't mean for that to sound conceited. LOL. I find that if I sit and research every hub and then write about it...it sometimes becomes more of what someone else has written than my own thoughts...does that make sense? Thanks again! Always nice hearing from you.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Kitty. I love reading about superstitions, witchcraft, and other such things of colonial times. Your article is very interesting and well written. Looks like you did some heavy research on this. Thanks for writing it, I enjoyed reading.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Very interesting; I went to Salem years ago and saw what a mess that was all about. Great article!

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