Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.
There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house – by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.
Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did…”
-Eudora Welty’s Livvie
Over the holidays, two of my good friends moved into a new apartment. Down here, most people live in what we call “Shotgun” apartments. Essentially the apartment is four or five rooms straight in a line, with doors at each end of the house. If you stood at the front door and fired a shotgun, the bullet would go straight through the house. In New Orleans, one of the reasons that shotguns became so popular is that houses were taxed by their frontage feet. If your house was short in the front, but ran long in the back, you didn’t have to pay as many taxes. They were also economical housing for the immigrants who came to work in New Orleans. Many of whom were from Haiti, where they say the style originated. Over half of these shotguns are duplexes, which we call “Double Shotguns”. My friends moved into one half of a double shotgun.
While I love our picturesque shotgun houses, what caught my eye about my friend’s, is that their neighbors have a bottle tree.
Bottle trees are one of my favorite pieces of folk magic. Bottle trees supposedly catch the spirits that come out at night and hold them until the morning light can burn them up. Bottle trees like this come from the African traditions brought over by the slaves in the South and remain a fixture of Southern folk magic and culture. So many people love them that these days, they are also considered to be folk art, and many companies will simply manufacture them for you. I prefer my bottle trees like the rest of my magic, created and done by myself.
Of the bottle trees found in popular culture, Mama Odie from The Princess & The Frog has my favorite. (And whoever drew that movie knew more than a few things about magic and magical symbolism…take a look at the tarot cards used).
In Northern Europe, this same idea is expressed through witch balls.
Unlike the Bottle Tree, Witch Balls are usually hung inside, over windows. The strands of glass inside the Witch Ball are what captures the spirits and unlike the Bottle Tree, where the spirit is burned up by the light of day, a Witch Ball simply captures a spirit and never allows it to escape.
Both Bottle Trees and Witch Balls are made up of glass, which often seems to get overlooked as a magical tool. While glass is most often man-made (don’t forget about fulgurites and obsidian!), I see glass as being the combination of all of the elements, in the same manner as an athame is. It can also exist in more than one physical state, and is excellent for carrying a multitude of different musical vibrations. It is also one of oldest manufactured materials used by mankind. What better material for catching spirits?
The vibrations of the glass itself probably has more of an effect on the energy around it than their supposed spirit catching abilities. So whether or not you believe that Bottle Trees or Witch Balls are actually catching spirits or “haints”…the glass itself is probably affecting it’s immediate surroundings through its vibrations, keeping the energy of your yard or home just a little more charged than usual and that in and of itself is a pretty interesting phenomenon.
I have seen witch balls before but never the bottle trees. Though my late uncle who knew a little powwow on his German side had this arrangement in the yard of bottles pushed into the ground. I wonder if it was magic or just ornamentation? Up north we have those colored balls on stands as yard ornaments, but I doubt most people know what they mean, just that their grandma had one.
There are LOTS of bottle trees up North (Midwest AND New England)…
I’m originally from Ohio and was introduced to the idea of the bottle tree through an Appalachian viewpoint…I love that there are so many of them down here though.
I hang blue glass balls from the front porch roof by the front door. Seems to work for me.
WONDERFUL piece on bottle trees and witch balls!! The superstition originated over 3000 years ago in Arabian folk tales (remember Aladin and his bottled genie?) I have the whole story – history and all – on my bottle tree link at my non-profit http://www.felderrushing.net, and in my book on bottle trees. Well done!
Thanks! I was actually thinking about buying your book, it looks great! I’m glad I caught your eye.
by the way, I celebrate talk like a pirate day every sept 19 on my NPR-affiliate radio program … and have a black heart tattoo (when folks comment on it, I tell ’em “it’s me PIRATE heart”)
love your site
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I am looking for glass balls to hang on the branches of a tree. I have a few different sizes but cannot find anything like I have . They are a thicker heavier glass than the witch balls.