Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bottle Trees--A southern tradition


Bottle trees are a product of southern black culture with roots in the animistic spiritualism and totemism of several African tribal cultures. 

  Glassblowing and bottle making existed as far back as the ninth century in Mica, and the practice of hanging found objects from trees or huts as talismans to ward off evil spirits also existed.  The bottle tree was a Kongo-derived tradition that conveyed deep religious symbolism.


The bottle tree was once common throughout the rural Southeast.  The artifacts were made by stripping the foliage from a living tree, with upward-pointing branches left intact.  Bottles were then dropped over those branch ends.  Cedars were a preferred species, because cedars were common, resisted decay and were well-shaped with all branches pointing upward.


Folk custom dictated that spirits would enter the bottle because of the bright colors and become trapped.  When the wind blew and shook the tree, the spirits could be heard moaning inside the bottles.   

In some cases, paint was poured into the bottles before hanging them on the trees.  This was done  to help trap spirits.

Today bottle trees are scarce.  Those that exist in northeast Mississippi, for example, are produced by rural whites as often as blacks.  Like the hex signs of Pennsylvania Dutch barns, they are a vestige of the past, produced more for works of art than for protection from the supernatural.  They can be beautiful and even the worst examples are still curiosities.

(look closely--it's there)

Southern authors, notable Eudora Welty, have commented on bottle trees, perhaps because the trees have a primal fascination.  Sunlight on and through colored glass has charmed people for centuries.  The bottle tree can be considered the poor person's stained glass window.

(verbiage copied from a sign at the visitor's center in Plains, Ga)

And when I go back into a house with a garden I think I will start one of my own.  

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