The bottle tree

Posted by | October 21, 2010

Are your premises safe against haints, furies and other such ornery spirits? Have you painted your front door blue? Has the neighborhood seen a sudden upsurge of bottles dangling upside down in the trees?

She 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.
Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Glass ‘bottle trees’ originated in ninth century Kongo during a period when superstitious Central African people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside, but near, the home could capture roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine. One could then cork the bottles and throw them into the river to wash away the evil spirits.

Furthermore, the Kongo tree altar is a tradition of honoring deceased relatives with graveside memorials. The family will surround the grave with plates attached to sticks or trees. The plates are thought to resemble mushrooms, calling on a Kongo pun: matondo/tondo [the Kongo word for mushroom is similar to their word to love].

And so, trees and bottles eventually came together.

This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. Thomas Atwood, in History of the Island of Domi (1791), made particular note of the bottle tree as a protection of the home through an invocation of the dead. Atwood writes of the confidence of the blacks “in the power of the dead, of the sun and the moon—nay, even of sticks, stones and earth from graves hung in bottles in their gardens.”

blue bottle tree, from Alabama, One Big Front PorchWhile Europeans adapted the bottle tree idea into hollow glass spheres known as “witch balls,” the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the plantation regions of Southern states and from there migrated north and inland into Appalachia.

Traditionally the bottles are placed on the branches of a crepe myrtle tree. The image of the myrtle tree recurs in the Old Testament, aligned with the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, their diaspora and the promise of the redemption of their homeland.

Bottle tree colors can range from blue, to clear, to brown, but cobalt blue are always preferred: in the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition, the elemental blues of water and sky place the bottle tree at a crossroads between heaven and earth, and therefore between the living and the dead. The bottle tree interacts with the unknown powers of both creative and destructive spirits.

The bottles are placed upside down with the neck facing the trunk. Trees need not be thickly populated with bottles. Malevolent spirits, on the prowl during the night, enter the bottles where they become trapped by an ‘encircling charm.’ It is said that when the wind blows past the tree, you can hear the moans of the ensnared spirits whistling on the breeze. Come morning they are burnt up by the rising sun.

Today, the bottle tree has entered the realm of folk art. Companies now market bottle tree armatures meant to serve, once clothed with milk, wine, or milk of magnesia bottles, as colorful garden ornaments. The poor man’s stained glass window, you might say.

Sources: www.cullmantimes.com/features/local_story_171000245.html
www.lovelycitizen.com/story/1257420.html
Tradition and Innovation in African-American Yards, by Grey Gundaker, African Arts, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 58-96
Alabama, One Big Front Porch, by Kathryn Tucker Windham, NewSouth Books, 2007

blue+bottle+trees bottle+trees Hoodoo haints appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

12 Responses

  • wendyvee says:

    I stumbled upon your site and wanted to compliment you on some really great material.

    I have seen bottle trees several times in my life but this is the first time that I’ve read an explanation of them :)

  • [...] and not some gardener’s cheap idea of decoration.  Bottle trees (in America, at least) are leftover evidence of African tribal beliefs brought by slaves to the New World – although it is also noted that folk traditions from [...]

  • Sandy says:

    another reason to pop the cork on another bottle of wine!

  • Someone that lives down the road from me has one of those and thanks to you I now know what it is. I love history and your site is amazing!!

  • felder says:

    sorry, but glass bottles for repelling spirits were not first used by 9th century africans, they were widely used by mediterreanean (north africa) and arabic cultures for over 3000 years – remember aladdin and the genii in the lamp? predates Congo by a couple of millenia… pliease stop pushing this fanciful “slave/voodoo” myth about ancient bottle trees…

  • Stephanie says:

    I don’t think anyone is trying to “push” voodoo or slaves ritual myths , just to shed a little light on how the bottle tree arrived into the US. As humans we are fascinated by our connections to the past and because there isn’t much written material about bottle trees here in the states, only verbal memories and theories, it’s safe to say it’s a form of folk art and folklore. But in the US itself her history is deeply rooted in the south and amongst African Americans in particular. I don’t think you could argue that it was in fact African people who exercised the artistic creation of these sculptures and proudly displayed them around the perimeter of their home. Maybe some did engage in voodoo, just like there are some people who exercise witchcraft today but overall I think it was just a way to decorate with what you had available and also a distant connection that certain people had to their ancestors. Kinda like the feeling that a Christmas tree gives us. Makes us feel sentimental, makes us smile with all of the color and details but not many people can tell you how the Christmas tree came about. All we know is that we just plain like it.

  • bob harris says:

      i dont think slaves or arabs started the bottle tree; why is it people try to inject these groups into everything? Peleg started it after the land was divided.
      Look that up.

  • [...] Tabler, in Appalachian History, refers to the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition where the blue bottle tree is preferred. The belief is [...]

  • Jeremy says:

    I actually make bottle trees for sale at my local craft market and have always loved the story behind them. I linked your story on my site since I believe it is such a good and well written narrative on their history. Hope you don’t mind! Anyone interested can reach me at ironwoodcrafts.com

  • malena ray says:

    Have been lookin for this for so long. Something told me too do this at my home. Feelings of unrest and sleepless nights. Missing the love of Mother and Fear of MY Child.My Mother God Rest her soul has been gone for a year I know she is in Heaven still thinking she wants me too protect my family from from harm. Inside and out. thank you. Please send more information on my families history.

  • Bill says:

    I was interested in what the bottles in trees were suppose to mean/represent now I have an explanation. I just think they are cool regardless of their origin. My wife an I are going to start one in our outdoor area here in Missouri, I’m sure it will fit right in here.

  • […] Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. […]

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