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.”
While 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: 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