The history of spell jars
Spell bottles, or witch bottles, have been around for hundreds of years. In Appalachian culture, where my own heritage lies, they were often used to ward away evil or to “trap” evil spirits. People would keep them on windowsills and entry ways, bury them at the edge of properties, hide them in chimneys and sometimes even the foundation of houses. Folk magic is all about utility, so anything on hand might be used to make a “witch bottle”, such a mason jar, a tin can or old medicine bottles. They would usually contain sharp objects, like nails and pins, hair from the members of the household, kitchen herbs and generally speaking, some sort of bodily fluid. Urine is the most popular, but spit, semen and blood were not unheard of.
The tradition of using urine and bodily fluids (and witch bottles for that matter) was the influence of freed slaves who passed through the Appalachian mountains and brought with them African hoodoo traditions. Appalachian folk magic is a combination of folk healing traditions settlers brought from Ireland, Scotland and England, Protestantism, African Hoodoo and the herbal knowledge of local Native tribes, especially the Cherokee.
Most Appalachian people, my family included, are staunchly protestant Christian and would never consider these traditions “witchcraft.” My great grandma Lola was what you would call a “hill witch.” She was a sought-after wise woman, healer, midwife, was known to have “supernatural abilities” to heal wounds, levitate tables, and summon spirits. She was also the good Christian daughter of a traveling minister. She was so naturally insightful and intelligent, she helped him write his sermons when she was only 8 years old–especially impressive because the illiteracy rate in Appalachia was staggering at that time. I could (and will in future posts) go on and on about what an incredible woman my great grandma was and how lucky I was to know her (she lived to be 98!) But the point is really that practitioners of “folk magic” did not consider their practices to be spiritually at odds with their religion. Such practices were, in that day, simply a part of life, just what you did. Miss Lola would not have taken kindly to being called a witch!
One of the most interesting things to me about folk magic are these contradictions. Of course, are they really contradictions? Growing up as an Evangelical, I was taught that pretty everything out of the mainstream was “evil” or “demonic”–ouija boards, spells, herbalism, even yoga. Now that I practice eclectic witchcraft in the tradition of my Appalachian relatives and ancestors, it’s ironic to me that what I/ our society now calls “witchcraft” was very much part of their normal Christian lives. The only difference was that they used the recitation of bible verses to “cast their spells.” In many ways, I love this, because it shows how these practices not only are rooted in such a beautiful, rich, sacred history, but also something deeply human. I do not believe “witchcraft” is something that is at odds with any particular religious tradition. The practice of folk magic is universal, and has endured since the beginning of time.
Why you should make a spell jar
I believe it is a very human desire to seek out a tangible and ritualistic way of dealing with desires and anxieties.
The spell jar becomes a symbolic way for a person to concentrate on their intentions, resolve emotional and mental conflict, and find a sense of release. A spell jar can hold limitless intention–it could be a desire to manifest prosperity, to protect against negativity coming from an external force, to protect and bless a property, to express gratitude to the universe, on and on. Science tells us that rituals are an important part of the human cognitive process that resolves discrepancies between our “current state” and “future state.” Humans are goal directed, and thus create rituals that help us align with those goals and an ideal future state.
Spell jars have evolved quite a bit. (No, you don’t have to pee in them.) I love spell jars because they are easy, accessible, self-contained and wonderfully customizable. They make up the majority of my ritual practice.
One misconception is that spells or rituals always revolve around the elimination of something negative, or the attempt to manifest something you lack (money, love, success, etc.) This absolutely does NOT have to be the case! The other night, I felt compelled to make one just because I had connected with myself spiritually in a while, and also because I was just feeling really good. I wanted to take a moment to express gratitude and also to embrace my own right to happiness. I was having a moment where I felt energetic and creative, and I wanted to put into the universe the intention to continue manifesting that feeling. I filled my spell jar with things that represented success, passion, joy and energy: a penny, basil leaves, geranium oil, cinnamon, hyssop, orange rose petals. I added a little of my own hair, and also wrote down an affirmation onto a piece of paper. That’s it!
How to make a spell jar
Find a container. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but I like jars with flat lids so I can burn my candle on top.
Fill it with things that are meaningful or relevant to the intention of your jar.
Here are some ideas for symbolic items you can put in your spell jar and their associated meanings. These are all common items you probably already have at home/ in your backyard.
Basil – prosperity, wealth
Penny/ coins – money, wealth, stability, luck
Burdock – health, virility
Jasmine – love, sensuality, gentleness, luxury, peace
Pine – persistence, moderation, health, strength
Calendula (merigold) psychic awareness, protection
Carrot – fertility, lust, sex
Chicory – removing obstacles, breaking curses, opening up psychic abilities
Knotted or tangled string – protection, clearing bad energy (in Appalachia the knot was meant to “trap” the spirit)
Bay leaf – strength and wisdom
Dandelion – wish granting, divination, spirituality
Sage – cleansing, banishing
Ginger – passion, success, personal power
Bodily fluids (your own) – seals yourself to the spell
Sugar/ syrups – “sweetens” the spell
Cinnamon – warmth, passion, love, success, prosperity
Garlic – protection, healing, banishment
Grain/ rice – abundance, gratitude
Hibiscus – lust, love
Pepper – exorcism, protection, banishment
Egg shells – protection and banishing (finely crushed egg shells are called cascarilla in hoodoo traditions)
Lemon – purification, friendship
Rose – love
Shells, rocks, natural materials gathered from significant places
Paper with an intention/ prayer/ spell/ wish/ banishment written on it
Seal your jar. Traditionally, spell jars are sealed with wax. I like to melt a candle on top and let it completely burn down over the bottle (you will want to use something beneath that will catch the wax, like a small bowl or plate.) Sometimes I will carve a symbol or write words onto the candle. I always stay with the bottle until the candle is completely burned down. I do this for two reasons: 1) energetically, I think it’s better to be present when your candle is burning 2) you should never leave a candle unattended and if you are burning it over a bottle with a cork top, it can catch on fire. WATCH YOUR BOTTLE/ CANDLE. If you don’t want to burn a candle on top of it, you can just seal it by pouring wax over the top.
Decide what you will do with your jar. This might depend on the nature of your intention. If it’s a property protection spell, bury it on your property either at the corners or near the entryway. If it’s a gratitude/ positive affirmation, I will often put somewhere I can see it, like my altar or on a windowsill. If it’s about banishment, clearing negativity or putting an intention “out there”, it’s best to bury it off your property. Traditionally, spell jars are buried upside down, but you do you.
You can and should make your own spell jar ritual. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing it your own way. Oftentimes it seems people are overly concerned with the “right” or “wrong” way to do things. “Magic” comes from you and your intentions. If you truly feel meaning and power behind what you’re doing, that’s all that matters. This idea that some third party is out there “auditing” your performance of a ritual or spell to decide whether it will “work” is rooted in religiosity, not spirituality. Your spell jar ritual should be like a warm bath or a long walk–a moment in your day that’s just between you and the universe.
Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Appalachian folk magic, I cannot recommend the writings of Byron Ballard enough. The “Village Witch of Asheville,” she has done amazing amounts of research to keep the folk magic traditions of Appalachia alive. I had the opportunity to attend two of her workshops at HexFest last year in New Orleans, and she’s been an incredible inspiration for my own practice and connecting with my heritage. Also, she’s hilarious. I’ve linked one of her books down below.
Inspired ideas for your spell jar experience
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