Witch Bottles, Hellfire, and the “True Believer”

This was originally posted on From The Forests of Arduinna, my substack newsletter. Get essays like this in your inbox by signing up for free.

It was a Saturday. I was making lasagna, occasionally glancing through the kitchen window at the man I love as he dug a massive hole for a tree he was transplanting. I was just about to put it in the oven, when he came upstairs and said, “hey, look at this.”

I almost dropped the lasagna on the floor.

“Uh—” I stuttered, suddenly panicked, with one of those really urgent feelings I’ve come to recognise as something from elsewhere.1

“I found it in the garden. It’s really, really old.”

I think the way I spoke to him was the closest I’ve ever come to sounding like a rude demanding jerk. “Can I have that?”

I don’t even think I spoke those words as a question.

“Yes, it’s for you. As soon as I saw it I knew you should have it.”

“Thanks,” I said, really curtly, and then proceeded to say “oh fuck” to myself several times while he showered.

Only a hundred or so years after the printing press was developed, a book was published that became a must-have for the new class of well-off artisans and land owners who eventually became the bourgeoisie in Europe. Next to printed editions of the Bible, the book you were most likely to find displayed proudly on a shelf was The Great Albert.

The Great Albert, or more specifically Liber Secretorum Alberti Magni virtutibus herbarum, lapidum and animalium quorumdam, was a compilation of magical texts attributed to Albertus Magnus2, a 13th century monk who produced a large body of alchemical and esoteric works. The Great Albert (or Grand Albert, or Große Albert, etc.) was basically a household reference text for magic, for folk cures, and especially for prayers and charms against certain maladies with either magical or natural origins.

The book was originally in Latin, and then translated first into German, then later French, then English. I first learned of the book’s existence two years ago3 when one was put in my hands.

The person who owned it didn’t know what it was. He collected antique things in general with the hope of making a fortune off of something valuable, though most of what he had accumulated was probably just trash.

This book wasn’t trash though.

The version he had was in Latin and was dated from the mid 1600’s, bound in goatskin and scrawled with notes throughout. The markings reduced its value, but he was nevertheless in possession of a book worth several thousand euros, excepting that he didn’t know it yet.

My Latin is awful. I took two years of it in high school, just enough to understand the roots of most romance-language words and to also understand I’m really bad at declensions. Regardless, I knew enough to translate the title page, and then tell him what he had. After a quick internet search for pricing, he promptly took the book out of my hands and returned it to a locked chest.

Books like The Great Albert became a kind of home reference guide for many households before the Enlightenment cleared all that away. But actually, that’s not the correct narrative, because such books were actually part of the scientific curiosity that eventually solidified into secular reason and the scientific method.4

These books were popular not just for their esoteric delvings but for their practical advice, including especially how to deal with malefica, that is, witchcraft. Charms and incantations steeped in Christian language, often written as prayers, could cure and protect against any ailment thought to come from the devil or those who consorted with them. And while such a worldview might seem bizarre to my more rational readers, our current theories on virus transmission and infectious diseases stem from a belief that invisible things only viewable through certain mechanics cause illness. This isn’t all that different. It’s just that we’re pretty sure we’re right now and that they were wrong then.

The house my partner was born in, in which he still lives, is quite old. It’s not certain exactly how old, because it’s not exactly certain which version of the house was the original.

It’s located in the Ardennes, in a valley with several streams running through it. Centuries ago—and up until the late 1900’s, there was a mill here along one of those streams, which belonged originally to the lord who held title to this land.

At some point in the 17th century, or at late as the middle of the 18th century, a century or two after the end of feudalism here, the lord converted old houses into servants quarters. One of those quarters was also the washing house. A brook ran past it (it’s been diverted slightly now to just across the street), and it had a deep well, and was also just next to a natural spring—thus making it the perfect place for a washing house (two sources of clean water, one source of strong current).

This is where the laundry was done. My partner’s mother is the descendant of the village washing-woman, who was allowed to live in the building as payment for her work. Eventually, the lord fell to ruin, but several generations of washing women continued to live in the house, which became theirs.

My partner’s mother was born in this house, lived here her entire life (including still—when my partner took over the house he built a large apartment for her on the first floor, roughly where the very original living quarters were). So, the house has an unbroken matrilineal line of washing women (his mother’s profession for quite some time as well) extending back several centuries.

And one of those women, sometime in the last few centuries, buried a small corked apothecary bottle with some hair in it.

They’re called witch bottles, one of the many prescribed remedies in the popular grimoires of Europe to deal with malefica. In the English speaking world they are mostly assumed to be an Anglo thing5 (albeit usually made with German ceramic jugs, considered the ideal conveyance for the spell), and there’s currently an archeological project to collect, open, and catalogue their contents.6

A witch bottle, for those of you new to all this, involves what’s called apotropaic magic—bascially, anything meant to ward off, deflect, or redirect bad luck or evil influence. “Knocking on wood” is this sort of magic, as is one of the two versions of finger crossings.7 Talismans against the evil eye (including flying penises)8 were also this kind of magic, as well as gargoyles on churches.

A witch bottle functions in a slightly different way from most such wards, because it is meant to act as a decoy. The basics of creating one are pretty simple9: you put hair, fingernails, or other easily gotten bits of your own body (these are the easiest gotten, don’t bother with others), along with a piece of iron. Then you piss in it (most traditional) or add other things, cork it, and then bury it either in your garden or in the foundation of your house.

The bottle acts as a decoy, or a magical sink. Once it is in place, general or specific ill-will directed at you by the majority of ill-wishers cannot find its target, as there is something redirecting it or “absorbing” it. Of course, a skilled magician or a very vindictive witch would be able to compensate for this, but most people who just hate you aren’t really skilled at those things. 10

I did nothing with the bottle my partner had found in the garden for the first night. I was tired and distracted, and anyway wasn’t fully certain it was such a bottle. It had the obvious elements of one, but you learn very quickly not to rush off on any magical whim until you’ve had time to think about other things instead. And I still wasn’t fully certain the next day, and so I kept it in a neutral place and promptly got distracted.

I remember a weird dream that night, just before sleeping. Someone was telling me I was dying. They weren’t very urgent about it, more like they were just off-handedly mentioning it. My response was just as neutral, a bit of a “oh, yeah, of course. But I’ll be alive tomorrow, so it won’t be tonight.”

The person, who was my grandfather, just shrugged, and that was the end of the dream.

The next morning, I woke up incredibly groggy and disoriented. My partner was already awake, so I stumbled into the kitchen where he looked even much more serious than he normally does Monday mornings.

“Do you smell the smoke?” he asked. And that was when I understood why I was so groggy.

Before we had gone to sleep, he had decided to put a final coat of wood varnish on an oak table, and then disposed of the rag in a way this obsessively meticulous man never had before. It was placed in a plastic bag in a storage room amongst other plastic bags.

Varnish rags heat when they dry. If they dry too quickly and are touching any flammable surface, they will ignite. Which is what this rag did. It then burned through the other plastic bags while we slept, filling the house with a thick black smoke which took days to finally dissipate.

There were two particularly odd things about that night. Neither the smoke nor carbon monoxide alarms triggered. We tested them both that morning and they were working. Also, the fire had burned most of the night, but not all of it. It hadn’t spread, despite the fact that there were even more flammable items touching those bags.

If you’re esoterically minded, you probably already guess what I did next. For the rest of you, I cleared out the bottle (the cork mostly rotted away, it was no longer sealed anyway). I burned what was inside, mostly for extra confirmation that the dirty clump inside it was hair (it was, according to the smell as it burned). The rest of what I did is guessable, but the details are for me.

Something else happened around this time, by the way. My partner came down with what in German is called Höllenfeuer—hellfire. Höllenfeuer is shingles, albeit a specific variant of it.

The virus that causes chicken pox hides in the nervous system and lays dormant there for most of your life (if you’re lucky, your entire life). However, during moments of extreme stress or with a compromised immune system, it re-emerges and attacks a specific nerve (where ever it had been lying dormant).

Höllenfeuer is shingles in the sciatic nerve. Imagine if you will the worse sciatica of your life. And then add with it the sensation that your leg is being alternatively sawed off and boiled. And then add a terrifying rash. That’s Höllenfeuer.

He’s on the mend, by the way, and the long time off of work is doing him well. Which is the other point here, because the two incidents that occurred (the fire and the hellfire) can just as easily be ascribed to the stress of work as it can to an ancient glass bottle he found buried deep in the earth.

When you start to “do” magic, by which I mean when you accept at least tentatively the esoteric framework of magic as a potential explanation for things, there’s a moment where it’s possible to go completely mad.

In fact, the Chinese have a name for it. It’s zou huo ru mo, or “qigong deviation,” a term that describes a psychological disorder that seems to occur in the beginning stages of some martial arts training. Basically, something goes wrong, and instead of learning to channel certain energies, they overtake you. You become delusional, obsessive, paranoid, suffer from megalomania, and experience strange sensations that have no external cause.

Generally, it’s thought to occur when something goes wrong with the early training, when there is some interruption or lack of guidance. And it’s curable, but usually involves the person staying away from such practices for awhile so they can reset. In the West, however, though the condition is acknowledged it’s usually attributed to schizophrenia or other mental conditions that were ‘triggered’ during the training.

When someone just starts to practice magic, or even to read about magic, and then certain “supernatural” 11 things start to happen, or like Jung they experience ‘synchronicity’ (apparent repetition, as if the world around you is suddenly orchestrated), this moment can be either humbling-and-liberating or terrifyingly destabilizing. The former experience is what saves you. The latter is what makes you a complete madman, at least for a little while.

In the people I know where this “deviation” has happened for more than a day or two (I think it actually happens to everyone for a brief moment but passes when you regain yourself), the experience becomes one of manic certainty. Spirits and gods and magics are everywhere and in everything and now that you see it you hold the key to the universe. And then you keep believing this, and at best exhaust yourself after awhile or at worst never recover and wreak havoc on your own and others’ lives.

Another way of putting this is that you suddenly find a framework that changes your world, and you lose yourself to it. Because this “deviation” isn’t really all that different from the “true believer” syndrome you see in Christian conversions, or even what happens when someone gets “woke” or “red-pilled.” Suddenly, Jesus or Judith Butler or Alex Jones has shown you the man behind the curtain, the truth beneath the rose, the glory beyond the cross, and you have finally found your one purpose in life.

From what I have read about people who experienced qigong deviation, the common problem appears to be the same as what happens in the Western versions. Specifically, some center of the self is displaced. Put another way, their will or agency is diminished, replaced by a sense of externality that overwhelms them. Everything becomes grand narrative, and in the Western versions (where dualism is the core foundation of even secular frameworks), demons or the Illuminati or the patriarchy or Jews or white supremacy or infidels or heterocentricity are actively trying to destroy you. Fortunately, you’ve just found the key to stop them, and all you need to do is elicit others into your cosmic crusade.

Of course, many people—the majority, I’d argue—encounter these frameworks and don’t lose themselves to them. They regain some sense of themselves quickly and see the framework as just a framework. A useful one, a meaningful one, perhaps a liberating one. But only one framework.

That’s how I could stare at the bottle in my partner’s hand, have all those subsequent incidents occur, know all this history about the use of witch bottles, get confirmation from my partner’s mother that her elders were interested in such things, test the contents, and all of that, yet still hold in my head the very likely possibility it was just a discarded bottle and the fire and hellfire were just effects of my partner’s work stress.

In fact, that’s the only way to do magic. You have to hold multiple frameworks in your head, otherwise you’ll miss things. This is not all that different from what the people who lived here before Christianity swept through did, invoking multiple gods—including foreign gods—in order to make sure they were dealing correctly with all potential influences. This is what Catholic bishops, monks, and even a few popes did.12 It’s also what the early “men of science” did.

It’s also the only way to not be driven to ideological madness. I’m a Marxist, yes. But I’m also a Pagan. And often an anarchist. And sometimes a Classic Liberal. And also sometimes more like an European conservative than I’d rather explain to most people.13 Often, I can understand why Republicans and Right Libertarians have the views they do. And craziest of all, I’m mostly not even political at all.

The ability to hold several frameworks in one’s head and then shift through them to see how they might apply to a situation isn’t some supernatural or superhuman trait. It’s the core requisite of sanity. People who cannot shift through them, or wield one over and over again no matter the situation, are a lot like a person who keeps ringing a doorbell long after it’s obvious nobody is home. Yes, the doorbell works. But it only really works under certain conditions and at certain times.

This is how most of the gender and race theory in the American left went from something potentially liberating to something absolutely fucking insane. They are incomplete frameworks (there is no such thing as a complete framework), useful for some things but completely useless for others. Worse, the more they get used for things they cannot accurately describe, the more fragile the framework gets and the more unstable the person wielding it becomes.

Especially though, they displace the will and agency of the individual in the same way that estoeric “deviations” do. Everything is grand narrative, externality, and fundamentalist dualities (white vs. black, woman vs. man, trans vs. cis) with the true believer holding the key to solving it all…if only they can convert the entire world.

The only way to deal with this problem is the same remedy for qigong deviation and other such problems: step back from such frameworks completely, and to let yourself reset. Perhaps you might later come back to critical race theory, or intersectional feminism, or whatever the framework that destabilized you was. If so, you’d be returning with a new perspective, one that helps you maintain your agency and make such frameworks potentially more useful. Or maybe you’d realise they were never useful at all.

Either way, you’ll regain yourself, and that’s a deep and powerful magic itself.

1 The best way I can describe this feeling is that’s a bit like vertigo, but you’re not dizzy. Or, like there’s something really big standing right behind you but there’s obviously nothing there.

2 This is a good summary of the historical Albertus

3 Occultists are worse than hipsters when it comes to such things (“I was reading the Grand Albert way before it was cool”) so I’ve just lost cred with most of them. Whatever, dudes.

4 Francis Bacon was an occultist who presided on witch trial hearings. He’s also the founder of the “Scientific Method.” Isaac Newton wrote treatises on angels. He’s also the founder of modern physics. Such crossovers were not unusual, but rather the norm.

5 Which is pretty much just how the English see everything, especially magic.

6 This is an idiotic idea.

7 Crossing your fingers for luck for yourself or someone else is the dominant one. Crossing fingers when you lie (the apoptropaic version) is the Germanic tradition. The two melded in modern times, but the latter is more often practiced by children, who tend to carry on older pagan traditions and songs and pass them on to each other on playgrounds without any adult transmission. See this link for a start on the wild research into this, then follow the white rabbit.

8 My now-public essay, “The Vampiric Gaze,” extensively discusses the evil eye and its relationship to ressentiment, including social justice or “woke” ressentiment.

9 There are specific methods that make them more effective, according to your goal. For instance, burying it according to the moon phase and astrological hour can add specific extra traits to the bottle. Also, asking spirits or gods (most Europeans would have asked their one-god) for additional help is quite recommended.

10 And anyway, hate is a really messy and unfocused emotion. This is the meaning of vengeance being a dish best served cold. It isn’t for the element of suprise, but because you are usually too emotional to retaliate well immediately after the offense.

11 This is the wrong word for this, but to explain why would require another essay.

12 Pope Honorarius, for example, the likely author of a grimoire bearing his name. For a more indepth discussion of catholicism and occultism in Europe, see this long academic study.

13 They’re all still to the left of Biden.

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