Does evil exist in the world? Is there really a devil that competes with God for control of the human mind? Are there unseen evil spirits that wreak havoc on the affairs of human beings? There is no simple answer to any of these questions or one that will satisfy all of us. All of the world’s major religions wrestle with the subject of evil, even Buddhists who believe that evil exists only in a person’s mind and can be overcome with practice.
Many ancient cultures believed a sneeze was evidence of an evil spirit being expelled. Thus arose the practice of saying, “God bless you” to protect the sneezer from the re-entry of the evil spirit. “Evil spirit” is variously interchangeable with bogey, ghoul, devil fiend or demon, itself defined as an agent of harm, distress or ruin. Ample folklore exists in the history of Scotland and Ireland about the presence of bad fairies that could spirit away babies in the night and turn milk sour, for example. Their curses were feared, and any deals made with a bad fairy were speculative, at best, because bad fairies are dodgy creatures.
Whether evil spirits exist or not, cultures and religions throughout time have adopted interesting ways and means to ward them off, prayer being the most time-honored practice. Carrying bells around or wearing amulets of gemstones, coins or inscribed religious symbols are others. Protective powers are ascribed to numerous herbs such as angelica, caraway, fennel, marjoram and garlic, particularly useful when warding off vampires. Planting foxglove in the garden was also thought to protect one’s home.
Bottle trees are another way native cultures developed to ward off invisible evil spirits. Most commonly the practice is believed to have originated in the ninth century Kongo region in Central Africa. It was thought the little demons could be captured at night in a bottle and would melt away in the morning sun. Then the bottles could be corked and thrown into a river to be washed away, according to the Appalachian History website. Slaves imported the practice to North America where they were widespread features on Southern plantations. Eventually, the bottle trees made their way into Appalachia, we are told.
The Southern writer Eudora Welty captured the myth of the bottle tree in a short story entitled “Livvie”: “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.”
Today they are largely seen as interesting garden art, as they are in the unique landscaping at the home of LaTrelle and Hoyt Oliver in Oxford. “I was fascinated by the idea when I saw my first one years ago at a flower and garden show in Atlanta,” says LaTrelle. “As I understand it, there could be two explanations for a bottle tree: one is that the bottle tree filters out bad spirits, but also you might consider it to be a friendship tree when people bring you bottles to remind you of them.” There are not a few cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles on Mrs. Oliver’s tree, she says.
Among purists, cobalt blue is, indeed, the most desired color on a bottle tree. Interestingly, the word “cobalt” derives from the German word “Kobald” used to define the evil spirits that haunted miners down below and caused all sorts of tragic accidents. In the South, bottles were most often hung on the branches of a crepe myrtle tree, but many-limbed cedar tree trunks are an excellent alternative.
Over at Chimney Park, host to “Twilights at Chimney Park” on Sunday from 5-7:30 p.m., you’ll find two bottle trees decorated with an array of multi-colored bottles and lights that will be lit that evening in the park’s magical evening displays. The cedar trunks were found on site. Evil spirits are prohibited at Chimney Park, but bad fairies sometimes known as aimless vandals sometimes wreak a little havoc on the carefully collected colorful bottles that consequently can’t be left in place year round.
At the time of the two seasonal events held at the park each year, including “Fairy Houses at Chimney Park” in May, the word goes out for donations of colored wine bottles: blue, of course; red, yellow, emerald green, pale blue, turquoise. “Drink responsibly” follows, of course. There’s a saying that “life is too short to drink bad wine,” but sometimes, the hunt for the perfect bottle color requires just that.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.