Catching and Binding Spirits

Rowan and Red Thread crosses

“Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey, come ye and come ye, come ye that may! Around and around, throughout and about, the good come in and the ill keep out.”

~ Doreen Valiente (based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

t2here are many ways to catch a spirit and many different styles of traps to do it with. What is a spirit trap? It is a device used to trick a spirit into ensnaring itself much like a mouse trap baited with cheese or peanut butter. The idea behind a basic spirit trap is fascination. The trap is meant to distract the spirit from its mischievous or malevolent purpose by tempting them with something they cannot resist.

In the folklore of many cultures, it is believed spirits cannot resist or are compelled to follow a thread from one end to the other with some believing that spirits have to travel in a straight line. This belief results in spirit traps intricately woven with colourful thread such as the ojos de dios or “God’s eyes” of Central America, the elaborate ghost and demon traps of Tibet incorporating ram skulls, the cross charms of Rowan and red thread from Scotland, the spirit traps mimicking spider webs used by hunters in some regions of Africa, and even the dream catchers of North America (before they became items to sell to tourists). The most common colours used are red, blue, and yellow as they each have a very long history of being used for protection across cultural boundaries. The creation of them can be a highly meditative and spiritual act with the intent being protection and blessing –especially when they are made for children. A main rule of such spirit traps is there must be no knots in the thread. These traps are hung on the roof of a house, in trees, or over the bed. The spirit is extracted from the thread by burning it, putting it in a place where the sun’s rays will touch it to symbolically burn away the spirit, or by carefully removing the thread and placing it in a well-sealed bottle, jar, or box which is then either burned, buried, or hidden somewhere safe.

Ghost Protection CharmSome spirit traps are made from hollowed out wood, usually two matching pieces that are placed together (or a box), sealed with wax or resin, and then bound with string or a leather cord like the shamans’ spirit trap of Burma/Myanmar. The bottle trees or “haint” trees of the American South were originally spirit traps based on the belief that the spirit, much like a wasp, could not resist going into the bottle but would not be able to come out again. Blue bottles are the most commonly used which makes sense as blue has been a powerful colour of protection for millennia. Some people place items in the bottles to lure spirits – binding herbs, string or thorns for them to become entangled in, or seeds for them to get distracted counting (in folklore witches and spirits are compelled to count seeds, beans, or grains when laid before them). Bottle spirit traps are believed to have their origins from slaves who came from Northern Africa and the Middle East where blue is a prevalent sacred colour. Bottle trees or bottle spirit traps can be found in Europe as well.

Tsimshian soul catcher, 1879

Tsimshian soul catcher, 1879

Some Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest once used carved hollow bones called “soul catchers” to trap spirits by sucking them into the bone and then sealing the two ends with moss or lichen. These, however, were mainly used to trap human souls stolen by supernatural spirits so they could be returned to their owners in healing ceremonies. The medicine man or woman would blow the soul into the ailing person’s mouth to put it back in their body. Some were made of wood, but bone seems to have been much more common. I am quite enamoured with the idea of using a hollow bone due to a similar tool found in Scotland, but there it is used for cursing by pouring the blood of a sacrificed animal through it (not really the same, but cool).

Another spirit trap is the well known witch bottle of Europe which is used as a decoy and a spiritual alarm system on top of catching spirits. A witch bottle is first filled with the decoy which can be a combination of hair, nail clippings, blood, saliva, or urine. This fools a spirit into thinking it has found its target (you). Then nails and/or bent pins are added to bind the spirit and keep it in the bottle. Lastly, broken glass or broken mirror pieces are added for protection, to reflect away the evil intent. Then the bottle is corked, sealed, and buried under the front step of one’s house. If you live in an apartment it can be hidden in a wall or a forgotten cupboard, or buried in the soil of a potted plant. It is better for the witch bottle to be outside though to keep the spirit from crossing your threshold. If the bottle breaks, it means it has worked, and caught a spirit with the intent of harming the maker. It should then be burned, the ashes buried or released into running water, and then replaced with a new one. Witch bottles were not originally made by witches, but were used by ordinary people to protect from a witch’s magical attack. The spirit caught is often a witch’s familiar.

If you are using a spirit trap not just for protection but to capture a specific spirit or soul, the trap must be consecrated to that purpose and used in a ritual with that intent. If your intent is bind and keep a spirit it must be transferred from the trap to a spirit vessel. If it is a thread trap the thread must carefully be unwoven and placed into a jar, bottle, box, poppet, stone, or skull. If it is inside a bottle, bone, or wood trap it can be sucked out of the trap and blown into the intended spirit vessel. Once in a vessel, a ritual is performed to consecrate the vessel to bind the spirit to it (a basic, customizable consecration ritual for objects is a must have in your magician’s bag of tricks). The spirit vessel can then be well sealed with wax and bound with more thread or covered in sigils or symbols of binding and protection.

Once, I turned an entire hallway into one big spirit trap. It was the entry to my apartment with every doorway coming off of it. I put a mirror on each end along with protective amulets and woven spirit traps above each door. I knew it was time to empty the trap when the talismans or the pictures on the walls fell. Or if the trapped spirits decided to slam someone around in the hallway. The same oak picture frame fell and was broken half a dozen times due to this and scared my friends. I learned if you’re going to turn a hallway or a mudroom into a spirit trap, don’t hang anything of value in the space and clean it more regularly than you think you need to.

Spirit traps hanging from a hazel treeThis practice is often a last ditch effort to get rid of a troublesome spirit for which banishing did not work or for a spirit that is too powerful to handle and too nasty to leave running free. If it is a malignant spirit it is usually buried by running water or a crossroad where it won’t be disturbed. If the spirit vessel is to be buried, it should only ever be done with a container that won’t decay easily or quickly. Glass and ceramic are best, then metal. Wood is not a good idea. If the vessel decays or is destroyed or broken, the spirit is set free. Sometimes bound spirits are kept safe by the magician who trapped it, who don’t trust nature or other people and want to keep a close eye on it. If you are going to keep a particularly nasty spirit I recommend some seriously potent sigils and a ring of salt around the vessel wherever you store it. There have been many instances of family and students going through a dead magician’s house and finding bound boxes and bottles sealed with wax and string – never open them! They should be left as they are and given to another magician to look after or to properly dispose of it they have the knowledge and skill to do so.

Rowan berries, rowan cross, bird foot, and blackthornsAs with most magical practices, trapping and binding spirits is neither good nor evil. It is dependent upon the intent of the magician. They can be used as a preventive measure, as protection, or for healing in the case of PNW medicine men. It can also be dark magic used to bind spirits to steal their collective power to add to one’s own. Other times a dark sorcerer will use this magic to steal and bind the souls of their human enemies to both steal their power and stop the enemies from working against them. There are a very large number of folk tales all over the world where a hero defeats an evil sorcerer or spirit and sets free all the souls they have trapped over years, decades, centuries, or even millennia. If this theme sounds familiar it is because this has carried forward today into horror movies and fantasy TV shows.

Any time you desire to bind a spirit make sure it is the right decision over banishing as if it ever manages to get free you are the first person the evil spirit will attack afterward. Good intent is not enough for this to work. You have to have knowledge, skill, and experience behind it to be certain it is done properly. If you cannot see spirits or tell they are in your traps, it is also unlikely to work. Always think carefully before trapping and binding a spirit and, if you yourself are not an advanced practitioner, it is recommended to have one present when doing so in case anything goes wrong.

If you are new to this, I recommended starting with a witch bottle, rowan cross, or a god’s eye style spirit trap as they can simply be burned. As you burn the thread or the trap, you can ask your familiar spirits or a deity to carry the spirit away back to where it belongs. I also like to burn a purification incense afterward like pine or frankincense resins mixed with cedar or juniper tips. As a maker of rowan crosses and god’s eyes I’ve found they simply and mysteriously start to fall apart when they’ve been overburdened trapping spirits. If your protective trap falls down or breaks, it is time to burn it and make a new one. I recommend checking your traps every dark moon. If they are full, it is the perfect time to get rid of the spirits.

Text and images © 2015 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • I am really enjoying these new posts and I feel that I am learning a lot! I’ve been practicing (what I consider) folk and low magic for years now but I am constantly learning new things here.

    One question: When making a god’s eye is there a specific wood you would recommend for the cross? I’m not in an area that has Rowan naturally growing but there is an abundance of Maple, Oak, Pines, Birch, and other such woods. I would prefer to use something local.

    • Sarah says:

      Any wood with protective properties would be ideal. Oak is perfect and I’d pick that above others. Pine and firs would be a good choice too. I’ve used hawthorn and blackthorn, but I know they are rare in North America.

  • NatE says:

    Great post, informative as always. I never thought of the dream catcher as a spirit trap. But it makes perfect sense. If they can catch bad dreams then why not a spirit? This would explain why I like making them for my family and friends 🙂 Thanks again.

  • Sue Quarto says:

    Just a wonderful blog – they are always so informative and love the fact that you provide links so one can further their study.

    Most excellent – thank you Sue

  • Mona says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Is it Rowan and Rowan berries in most of these pictures?

    • Sarah says:

      To the Norse and Celts, Rowan was THE tree for working with spirits and to protect from them – whether they be fairies, ghosts, nature spirits, or powerful supernatural entities. In North America it is often called Mountain Ash. I have made woven cross spirit traps from blackthorn, hawthorn, oak, and even bones as well.

  • Heather Herthasdottir says:

    Long time lurker finally commenting. I remember making God’s eyes at my childhood daycare and I find it amusing that I was practicing folk magic at a place that would not be open to such things. Also, I love your work!

  • MadGastronomer says:

    You talk about burning a witch bottle and scattering the ashes, but there’s not much in the witch bottles I’m familiar with, or the ones you describe here, that leaves any ashes. Do you mean the ashes of the wood you burn it on? And what to do with the glass and metal?

    • Sarah says:

      I’ve done it before. You smash it and burn it in a fire. Take the ashes and any remnants of glass or metal and bury it. You really want to burn up any personal concerns like urine, nail clippings, or hair. There are a lot of not so good superstitions on what can happen if another witch, spirit, or even animal gets a hold of them. You are also burning up the spirit trapped in it and sending it back to its realm. Many pagan cultures in Europe believed to burn something was to send it to the otherworld; it’s one of the reasons Vikings burned their dead and many cultures smashed and burned votive offerings.

      • MadGastronomer says:

        I’m familiar with the tradition of burning to cleanse and the law of contagion. I just wanted to know what, specifically, was being disposed of. Thank you for the answer.

  • Curious Novice says:

    Question: It says no knots in the thread, but if you want to use more than one color of yarn, you have to tie them together, yes? Does that not count?

    Question 2: How do you know if a Dreamcatcher or God’s Eye has caught anything?

    I’m still new with all of this, so I wanted some clarification.