Four Thieves Vinegar is one of the classic staples of Southern European Pagan Spells with many uses. Hearsay has it that the original recipe was developed by four thieves during one of the plague pandemics that occurred in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The story goes that they concocted a blend of herbs in vinegar to provide effective protection for themselves as they robbed the houses and bodies of plague victims. Eventually they were caught and bartered the formula for either a quick death, or a pardon, depending on the version of the tale you hear.
This story has a basis in the fact that vinegar was one of the few disinfectant agents available to people of the time in which the story is set. Historically it was used, combined with honey, as a cough medicine in Old Kingdome Egypt. It was also used as an antiseptic cleaner in Babylon around 5000 BCE. Tests in 1960 by Spanish medical technicians using normal strength vinegar (5% acetic acid) against a number of different bacteria showed it had bactericidal activity effects against all of the organisms in the test. Anecdotally, I spoke to a Biomedical researcher from a local hospital the other month and they were impressed that I wiped down kitchen surfaces with white pickling vinegar (6% acetic acid) as well as drenching our dishcloth in it. Apparently even mild changes in acidity can kill many types of harmful bacteria, although 6% is as strong a solution as you should really go, and after 10% it starts dissolving skin(!).
By adding herbs to vinegar you can extract their active properties, including the antiseptic ones, increasing the practical antiseptic properties of the mixture. This is also true in the case of magickal uses of herbs macerated in vinegar, or combined with it. One of the most effective ways of removing or keeping negative influences from a home is to put half an onion, cut side down on a saucer and half fill the saucer with vinegar. From my experience the best onion to use is the red onion, due to its symbology of vitality and connections with Mars, although some exorcist practitioners use white ones because of the higher sulphur content and the connotation of white with purity.
In the case of Four Thieves vinegar, what sort of vinegar you use, and the herbs you add are both important. Historically vinegar is a by-product of the wine or beer making industry by fermentation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria first naturally, then developed into an industrial process during the 18th Century. The history of cider vinegar is a little more nebulous. Lots of advertisements and health claims cite Hypocrites as using it but, if you check his writings, there are mentions of potions using vinegar, vinegar as a topical treatment, and as one of the components in a health drink. But the word used is “Oxos” literally meaning “Sour wine” as does vinegar, derived from the Middle English “Vin” = wine + “Egre” or “Aigre” = sour. There is little written information suggesting the Ancient Greeks even had a term for “Apple Cider Vinegar”, let alone used it.
An educated guess is that Cider vinegar originated in Northern Europe which had plenty of apples, a tradition of making Cider – ‘Hard Cider’ for those of you reading this in the US – with the consequent creation of the vinegar if the acetic acid bacteria soured the mash. The symbolism of vinegar made from apples is potent for Pagans who follow one of the European Pagan systems such as Norse, or Celtic. The Norse Goddess Idunn (Iđunn) is the keeper of the apples of eternal youth which is why the Norse Deities never age, and the Celtic Goddess Brigid has an apple orchard in the Otherworld from which bees would bring magick nectar back to their hives on the Earth plane. Thus making Four Thieves Vinegar with cider vinegar would have an extra connection to followers of these spiritual paths.
Selection of the herbs is also important in making the vinegar, which ones you use depends on the reason you are making the vinegar. One traditional mix is to add a handful of Rosemary [Sun/Fire], Lavender [Mercury/Air], Wormwood [Mars/Fire], Rue [Mars/Fire], Sage [Jupiter/Air], and Mint [Mercury/Air], to a gallon of cider vinegar [Venus/water]. Traditionally having shaken it, you then place the tightly closed container, usually a bottle or jar, in a pan of water on the stove or fire and heat until the water begins to boil. This is done once a day for four days, unless you are using a particular sacred number as part of the empowerment ritual- then use that number of times instead.
As you may imagine this can be a recipe for a messy and potentially dangerous explosion. A far better technique from the health and safety point of view is to put the unsealed container in a slow cooker of hot, but not boiling water. Ideally the liquid should be right to the top of the container it is in so that as it warms there is no air to expand and catastrophically burst it. After the vinegar and herb mixture gets reasonably hot then you seal it with a cap, lid or cork, then shake it concentrating on its’ intended use, then put it on your altar to cool. When the container cools the contraction will cause it to seal tightly, no air will get in and you can safely repeat the procedure the number of times necessary using either the traditional or slow cooker way. Shaking the container while warm is, in my experience, the best way to empower the vinegar and herbs with your intent as the atomic bonds have more energy to manipulate.
Once the procedure is finished the container is opened, the herbs strained out, the Four Thieves Vinegar is ready to use. In the case of the recipe described above, one way to ‘remove’ someone who is causing you aggravation or harm is to write the name of the person on a piece of paper and put it in a bottle. Add any witness items such as hair, fingernail cuttings, or a photograph, then fill the bottle with the Four Thieves Vinegar and throw it into a river. For a slightly more environmentally friendly approach add it to a dumpster where the contents are definitely going a long way away. In the latter case cover the bottle in thick layer of paper mache to both prevent it being broken, and disguise it.
Another technique is to take the paper with the name of the aggravating person on it, and personal items, soak them in Four Thieves vinegar and allow them to dry. Place them all in a fireproof container and burn them to ashes. A hand held propane burner used for weed removal, paint stripping, or in the kitchen for putting a nice crust on the crčme caramel, does a great job –focusing the tip of the blue part of the flame on hard to burn items reduces most to ash quickly. Then mix the ash with a little castor oil to form a paste and paint or smear this on a black candle working from the wick to the base. Place any leftover paste around the base of the candle. Light this ideally on a Tuesday or Saturday on the waning (getting smaller) Moon phase, but if your need is great do this regardless of the day or phase of the Moon. As it burns concentrate on the person and the situation they caused fading and getting smaller and smaller into the distance as the candle reduces.
In the next article we will look at the best herbs to use in the vinegar, and some of the other uses it can be put to. Until then look at the information in this article carefully and see what you can learn from it to begin to make your own variations on this useful spellcraft tool.