In 16th and 17th century England, the making of so-called ‘witch bottles’ became an accepted method of countering evil spells.The victim of the spell would place personal metal effects, such as jewellery, cutlery or more mundane items such as pins and needles in a glass bottle filled with their own urine.
Paul Sieveking, Editor of the UK-based magazine of strange phenomena ‘Fortean Times’, recounted the following tale in an article on witch bottles published in UK newspaper The Sunday Telegraph in November 2000:
The use of witch bottles was recorded by Joseph Glanvill, Fellow of the Royal Society, well known for his account of ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’, a 17th century poltergeist. In Sadducismus Triumphatus – or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681), he relates that the Rev. William Brearly, Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, took lodgings in a Suffolk village. His landlady had suffered ill health for some time, being haunted by ‘a thing in the shape of a bird’.
The phenomenon was reported to an old itinerant wise man, who recommended that the woman’s husband should ‘take a bottle, and put his wife’s urine in it, together with pins and needles and nails, and cork them up, and set the bottle to the fire, but be sure the cork be fast in it, that it not fly out. The man followed the prescription and set the bottle to the fire ‘well corkt’. But the cork and contents blew out of the bottle.
On a second attempt: ‘The man did accordingly, and his wife began to mend sensibly and in a competent time was finely well recovered. But there came a woman from a town some miles off to their house with a lamentable outcry, that they had killed her husband… at last they understood by her that her husband was a wizard and had bewitched this man’s wife, and this counterpractise prescribed by the Old Man, which saved the man’s wife from languishment, was the death of that wizard that had bewitched her.’
The reference in the penultimate stanza of the lyrics to the wizard being ‘hoisted by his own petar’ is an expression contemporary to the period of witch bottles and literally meaning that he has been blown-up (hoisted into the air) by his own bomb. A petard was an explosive device for breaching defensive walls or gates, and the most prominent literary use of the expression appears in Act III scene (iv) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet says ‘For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petar’.
© Peter Ulrich 2005