I recently received an email regarding a topic we discussed on the podcast a while back:
“Cory, on one episode you mention 4 thieves vinegar and was wondering if you had the recipe. I totally want to make some! I heard what items go into it, but don’t know the proportions.”
I was surprised that I actually haven’t done a post on this yet, as it is such a fundamental formula, and so easy to make. So today I thought I’d put up some information on this particular recipe.
Let’s start with the history. The legend is that sometime during the plague years of the 16th and 17th centuries, a story went about that four spice merchants had discovered a secret formula which made them immune to the plague and which they’d rub on their bodies before robbing corpses ravaged by the disease. That formula was eventually revealed to be a strong red wine vinegar with a number of different spices—reputedly one for each thief—most notably a lot of garlic. Vinegar and garlic have some strong antiseptic properties, so it’s not hard to imagine that in a time before Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms in 1675 any application of anti-microbial formula would help prevent a communicable disease.
Of course, the history provided is the stuff of legend, and may or may not have a basis in fact. The earliest English reference to the Four Thieves and their famous concoction appears in 1825, in the publication Pharmacologia, where it is referred to as Four Thieves Vinegar or Marseilles Vinegar, after the French region where some legends claim the Thieves operated. A 1939 article published in Pennsylvania History by Mulford Stough notes that the formula was used in Philadelphia during the outbreak of a plague during the 1790’s. Stough blames the outbreak on the huge influx of immigrants from Santo Domingo (basically the Haitian Revolution concurrent with that time period sent a large number of Dominicans and Haitians fleeing to America, through major centers like New Orleans and Philadelphia). While there’s no explicit link between the use of the vinegar formula to battle the disease and the immigrants themselves, I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of speculation here and say that there is a connection. Whether the European formula entered the immigrants’ magical systems here, or whether the arrival of the immigrants (who may already have been using the formula magically) spurred its resurgence, I cannot say.
What I can say is that the potion did enter into the folk magical practices of America, and has continued to remain popular. It’s also a flexible formula, one that has been adapted and changed many times over the years, depending on the need of the practitioner. Here I’d like to give you my own personal recipe and method for making it and tell you a bit about how I use it, then look at some variations from other recipes and magical folk.
Cory’s Four Thieves Vinegar (please feel free to copy, use, distribute, etc. with attribution)
- One pint mason jar, filled to just about 3/4 full with good cider vinegar
- One head of garlic, peeled of skins (around 8-12 cloves)
- One large handful of red chili flakes (probably about 2 tbsp, though I don’t measure that way when I make this stuff)
- One large handful of black mustard seeds (again, around 2 tbsp, and if you can’t find black mustard, brown will be fine, though you might want to toast them to release their oils and blacken them a bit)
- One handful of salt (not quite as much, maybe 1.5 tbsp)–kosher or sea salt are best
- Optional ingredients include: a sprig of rue (I usually include), black peppercorns (small handful of these), rosemary, other types of chilies such as habanero or jalapeno, guinea pepper grains, galangal root, ginger root, etc. You only need a little bit of any of these to boost the overall strength of the mix.
Put your ingredients into your mason jar, making sure it doesn’t overflow. Cap and seal, then shake vigorously for 30-60 seconds. Put it a cool, dark place or a refrigerator. Shake daily for 2 weeks, then keep stored in a dark pantry or a fridge.
If you want to time your vinegar production magically, set it up to begin when the moon is waxing and finish when the moon is full if you intend to use it for protection. Go from full to new moon if you want to use it to banish someone/thing. If you can make it while the moon is “in Aries,” “in Leo,” or “in Sagittarius” that might boost its power, too.
The ways I use FTV tend to be protective and for uncrossing work. A little can be added to a bath to help knock off any evil eyes or general bad luck. During spring cleaning, I usually add a little urine (in a separate bucket, please!) and red brick dust to a wash that I use on the front door and porch steps of my home to repel any harm sent my way. One of my favorite ways to use FTV is to mix it with some olive oil and put it on a salad as a sort of spring tonic to clear out any lingering malevolence that might have accrued in my body. Adding a tablespoon of it to a glass of water and drinking every morning is another good way to go (I’ll admit that I did this for a while but eventually let it slide and now just use the salad dressing method instead).
If you want to use it for banishing someone, you can break a bottle of it on their property (much like War Water) or stick their name paper in a jar of the vinegar—maybe with an extra handful of red pepper flakes to really heat up the spell. Or, and this is probably going to blow your mind, give it to them to eat. But wait! you say. I’ve been eating it all along and it’s protecting me. What’s going on here? This is one of those weird circumstances where intention seems to play a part. If you serve it to them with the desire to get them to leave you alone, that seems to be enough. Of course, if you’ve timed the production to make the vinegar essentially banishing anyway—in which case I hope you’re not eating it—then intention may or may not really be what’s causing the results.
Okay, so now for the variations. Of course, there are lots of folks who follow the older French recipe and use red wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. I just use the latter because it’s more typically American and thus something I have a stronger connection to, but feel free to use either version. Other variations include one from author Ray T. Malbrough’s Charms, Spells, & Formulas in which he says: “To a gallon of strong cider vinegar add a handful of the following: rosemary, wormwood, lavender, rue, sage, and mint. Add 1 ounce of powdered camphor gum.” He goes on to recommend shaking and heating the mix for four days before finally straining it and bottling it, and that would definitely speed up the process. I would say, however, that ingesting this version might not be a good idea with the camphor gum in it (camphor is poisonous if swallowed). Malbrough recommends the vinegar as a cursing agent, one that can be used to cross someone’s luck or break up their home.
Cat Yronwode speaks of its uses, saying “Four Thieves Vinegar is used for protection, because it contains garlic, and also to cause confusion and discord among enemies, because it is sour” (p. 203). Jim Haskins mentions it as “bad vinegar” in his book Voodoo & Hoodoo, and talks of it being used to curse and break up homes.
Draja Mickaharic gives a recipe in his book, A Century of Spells:
“To make the original Four Thieves Vinegar, peel a number of cloves of garlic. Place the garlic in a clean glass bottle. When the bottle is full of peeled garlic cloves, wine vinegar is poured over the garlic until the bottle is full. The bottle can then be capped and placed in the refrigerator, root cellar, or spring house for a week or so. The vinegar should be used a little at a time, with new wine vinegar being added as some is drawn out. It will last a year or so before a new batch needs to be made” (p. 130-31).
Mickaharic also says that “Purists use a red Bordeaux wine, and wait for it to turn to vinegar before using it…Apple cider vinegar is not the ‘real thing’ but it works just as well in magic and better for some healing work,” which is basically how I feel about the topic. He recommends it as a spring tonic and calls it a great salad dressing, too!
Northwoods witch Sarah Lawless says that her FTV uses “the old school recipe which is more a tonic than a crossing blend – onion, garlic, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, peppercorns, bay leaves, and red wine with red wine vinegar” (Thanks Sarah!).
One of the more unusual recipes I’ve found for this mixture is from Dorothy Morrison’s Utterly Wicked, which lists the recipe as including Adam & Eve Root (a type of endangered orchid found in the eastern U.S.), John the Conqueror root, black pepper, and vetivert. This is a recipe I also would probably never eat, as the High John root comes from the Ipomoea genus which has demonstrated toxicity. However, this recipe is very unique as it does not contain most of the key ingredients found in other blends: garlic, red pepper, rosemary, etc. About the only ingredients it has in common with other recipes are black pepper and, well, vinegar. I’ve not tested the efficacy of this version, so if anyone out there has, I’d love to know what you think of it!
Four Thieves Vinegar continues to be popular among occultists and witches, but it’s got a broader appeal, as well. One of the best sites I found while researching this article was Secret of the Thieves, a website which tells the history of FTV and offeres a wide range of products based on the recipe such as toothpaste, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, soap, and even dental floss!
So if you’re looking for a good, widely-used folk-magical formula, I recommend making this rather simple one yourself. It’s easy, has protective and cursing applications, and keeps for a long time. If you have other variants, I’d love to hear those, and if you find new applications for the vinegar, please let me know those as well!
Thanks for reading!