Bewitched by witchcraft.
Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a powerful belief in witches and their ability to cause illness by casting a spell. But the evil spells could be fended off by trapping them in a "witch bottle," which if properly prepared, could even reflect the spell and torment the witch until the spell was removed, allowing the victim to recover. More than two hundred witch bottles that had either been buried in the ground or hidden inside walls have been found, but the only one that was completely sealed was the one discovered at the London construction site.
After x-rays revealed that the bottle was half-filled with liquid and contained a variety of pins and nails, it was carefully opened and found to contain human urine, hair, fingernail clippings, brass pins and a dozen iron nails, one of which pierced a small leather heart. The liquid was handed over to Alan Massey, a retired chemist from the University of Loughborough, U.K., who determined it to be of human origin. More specifically, it was the urine of a smoker, as evidenced by the presence of cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine. Historians suggest that the shape of the bottle represented the witch's bladder and the nails and bent pins immersed in urine would somehow cause the witch to suffer pain every time he or she passed urine. The only option for the witch was to remove the spell. As far as the leather heart pierced by the iron nail goes, we can only assume that it was to cause heartache for the witch. The hair, nail clippings and pieces of what may have been belly button fluff were perhaps placed in the bottle to identify the person or persons who were to be protected or cured. The bearded face etched into the bottle was probably there with the hope of scaring off evil.
Such superstitions were understandable at a time when there was little understanding of disease and when physicians did not have much to offer in terms of effective remedies. But even today, the internet offers numerous formulas for witch bottles promising to protect against entities, spirits, demons and negative energies. They even throw in some scientific terms: "After charging, the bottle becomes an energetic trap for any force that intends to cause you harm. It is aligned to your energy field through the use of your own DNA." What is to be put into the bottle? Rusty nails, broken glass and dead bugs along with menstrual blood or semen, which I guess provide the DNA. Users are instructed to urinate in the bottle to "provide a link for the energy to flow into the jar and remain" and to add three pinches of salt and a handful of earth while "feeling its connection to the planet and its ability to transform waste into fertility." After the bottle is sealed with drippings from a black candle it is buried. Should it be disturbed "the negativity will not be released because it has already been neutralized by the salt and the handful of earth."
Granted, not many people today are likely to be making use of witch bottles; that's because we're too smart these days to believe in witches' spells. But there's still plenty of witchcraft available for purchase. How about a belief that illness stems from a disruption of the body's "energy field," despite the fact that there is not one iota of evidence that any such energy field exists? Yet, you can buy an Electro Physiological Feedback Xrroid machine or a QuWave harmonizer, or just a simple hologram-equipped "energy bracelet" to realign or repair the body's non-existent energy field that has been disrupted by exposure to the damaging effects of modern life such as electromagnetic radiation, genetically modified foods and, of course, "chemicals." These devices have as much chance of affecting our health as a witch bottle. The belief in nonsense does not change, it is just bottled differently.
Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at chemicallyspeaking.com.