Legend of the Bottle Tree

by M-Berens
modern and old fashioned bottle trees

A modern bottle tree with a photo taken in Mississippi in the 1930s.

Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If you believe that haints, or spirits or other ghostly apparitions come out at night then you may need to build a bottle tree for protection.

Some experts such as Yale art history professor emeritus Robert Farris Thompson traced bottle tree history back to the Bakongo people in Africa who, in the 9th century, decorated their yards with glass bottles to weaken and capture evil spirits.

Felder Rushing who recently wrote a book about bottle trees and their history insists that legends of capturing spirits in bottles coincided with the invention of hollow glass bottles in Ancient Egypt as early as 1600 BC.

What is known is that the bottle tree legends were brought to America by African slaves who set up their own bottle trees outside their homes and even on the graves of loved ones in the southern states where they lived. Many empty glass bottles were inserted on branches of trees because it was believed that sunlight dancing across the colorful glass attracted evil spirits. The spirits would fly into the bottle where they became trapped for eternity. Some legends also say that that spirits trapped at night would burn up in the bottle when the sun’s rays burned through the glass. If you have ever heard the sound if wind blowing across the open neck of a bottle, especially at night, it’s not farfetched to believe that the eerie moaning sounds could indeed be a trapped spirit.

Although bottle trees can be made with all colors of glass, the original ones tended to be created solely with blue bottles in shades from cobalt to the blue-green color known as “haint blue”  Incidentally, haint blue’s believed propensity to repel spirits is also why so many porch ceilings and door and window frames in homes in the southern United States today are still painted in shades of blue.

Today, bottle trees have become  more common as garden centers sell them as decorative ornaments but there are still plenty of people who subscribe to the legends – better to be safe than sorry  when night time brings the sprites out to glide.

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