Witchcraft Herbal Lore and Flying Ointments

Some of the earliest records that make reference to the use of substances to affect the mental and physical condition have been about Witches and Witchcraft.

The practitioners of this craft, most often women, were frequently consulted by individuals who desired a potion or charm that would ward off evil, attract love or heal an illness.

Their knowledge of the uses and misuses of plants was renown and many modern writers acknowledge that it is these individuals who developed and retained through history, the herbal lore which has been extensively employed by modern medicine and pharmaceutical companies.

Often we are unaware of the history of the drugs we take so much for granted in our lives. A brief review of the origins of drugs such as Aspirin and Digitalis demonstrates that these drugs have plant origins and were in use long before modern medicine discovered and isolated them.

Foxglove for instance, (also known as Fairyglove and Witchesglove), was the source of Digitalis, the drug which has saved the lives of many people suffering heart conditions. Digitalis was discovered by Dr. William Withering, in his book, An Account of Foxglove and its Uses, (1785), he acknowledges his debt to Witchcraft herbal lore in leading him to the use of Foxglove for assisting those with Heart conditions.

Tradition has it that Witches would often go out on nights of a full moon to collect strange plants. Rather than being an obscure magical ritual, the collecting of plants at night-time and when the moon is full has a basis in plant biology. Many of the plants employed by Witches have their highest active drug content at these times. If one were to remove some of the more obscure magical aspects of Witchcraft, a deep understanding of Herbal Lore, Medicine and Psychology is revealed.

Our society, modern medicine and the multimillion pound pharmaceutical industry, owe much to the traditions of Witchcraft and the knowledge passed through the centuries by these practitioners of an ancient and persecuted art.

Unguentum Sabbati

Nights of the full Moon are associated with Witches and as indicated above it was often at these times when plants were collected. The full Moon has special significance for Witches and at certain times of the year it coincides with the "Witches Sabbath", when Witches are said to gather to worship their god or goddess. During these meetings it is reported that ritual ointments, made principally of plant substances, were and are employed to promote particular experiences.

Another common theme in Witchcraft folklore is Witches flying on broomsticks to go about their nocturnal deeds. In a number of texts there are frequent references to Witches flying and meeting the incarnation of their particular Goddess/God. While some may argue that these accounts were extracted by the cruel tortures of their persecutors, for instance the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). There are some that appear to reflect what many Witches believe they have actually experienced.

A number of written accounts are available which speak of the use of Ointments or Unguents to enable a Witch to fly. They include; The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abremelin the Mage, (1458), by Abraham the Jew, and De Miraculis Rerum Naturalium, (1560) by Giovanni Battista Porta, (both these texts are in the British Library however access to them is restricted). In the account of Abraham the Jew, he is provided an unguent by a young Witch that after rubbing on the principal pulses of the feet and hands, created a sensation of flying. Porta's account has a section which is entitled Laiarum Unguenta, "Witches Unguents", in this he describes the recipe of flying ointments.

An investigation of these accounts and the ceremonial ointments used by Witches at their Sabbaths, reveal a number of plants which have extreme physical and psychological effects when taken internally or rubbed on the skin. Many of them are extremely poisonous and the reports of their use by rubbing into specific areas of the body or all over, demonstrates a recognition of the lethal properties of these plants if taken internally.

The use of plants to promote a sense of flying, "out of body experience" and the ability to convene with the Spiritual World, is a recurrent theme in many ancient religious practices. The Shamans of America and priests and priestesses of religions throughout the world share the Witches use of specific plants to extend the normal boundaries of human experience.

While there are a number of recipes for Flying ointments, there are many difficulties in identifying the plants exactly. There was no universal plant classification system during these times, many plants share common names or are confused with others, finally the chances of mistranslating from these ancient texts are high.

Despite these problems a number of plants were known to be associated with Witches and even the common names of some plants provide a clue to their uses. Certain plants occur regularly in recipes of Flying Ointments and Witches Sabbath ointments. These include:
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)
Monkshood (Aconitum Napellus)
Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger)

Others that appear include:
Thornapple (Datura stramonium).
Poplar
Foxglove
Poppy
Cinquefoil
Smallage
Woody Nightshade
Hemlock and Water Hemlock
Parsley
Wild Celery (Apium graveolens).

At times there is mention of more exotic elements, for instance the fat of human babies and bats blood. These are most likely sensationalist reports or there to "spice" up the magical aspect of the recipe. However the use of a fat, probably from an animal, was employed to provide an oily base for the crushed plants, enable its application on the skin and as a medium to prevent the rapid evaporation of the volatile plant alkaloids.

Despite many Witches being aware of Mushrooms and Fungi that promote altered states, they have not been mentioned in any of the texts on Flying/Sabbath ointments. (A discussion on the range of hallucinogenic fungi is provided later).

The reproduction of Flying ointment recipes and their application has promoted similar experiences of flying, out of body experience and meeting fantastic gods and demons. Dr Erich Peuhart, of the University of Gottingen, Germany conducted experiments on himself and a colleague to investigate the effects of Flying ointments, his subsequent report was similar to the accounts provided by Witches, and included flying through the air, landing on a mountain top, orgiastic rites and the appearance of monsters and demons.

A more recent experiment was conducted on the night of the 30th April, the Walpurgis Sabbath, 1992, by an individual known to this writer, who we will call Richard, it was described as follows; The unguent was rubbed on the pulse points of the hands and feet, after five minutes, a great feeling of tiredness and coldness overcame me and I lay down, my breathing slowed and I began to feel a bit panicky that I would die, however I convinced myself that if I did go into respiratory collapse or heart failure the instructions I had left with a friend who was attending me would enable him to provide artificial respiration and call an ambulance. My understanding of time became impossible so I could not decide how long my experiences lasted. Eventually I stopped being fearful and my mind seemed to be becoming detached from its normal state, there was still a feeling of coldness then I seemed to be floating upwards. I found myself soaring above the rooftops of London and my body was no longer human it had become amorphous like a giant squid, with its tentacles streaming behind it. With a little concentration I could change my body into virtually any shape I so desired. I seemed to be heading West and eventually came to a hillside, there I met a number of other people who informed me that the meeting place was not on this world but in the stars. I immediately shot into the sky towards a very bright star, I was not alone and as I flew towards the star many others were with me, our bodies seemed to melt into each other and I remember intense sensations of pleasure running up and down my body, which at the same time was not my body but everyone's, it's difficult to describe. Eventually I came to an enormous hall and walked upon its cold floor towards a flight of steps, either side of the hall were enormous pillars that stretched up so high I could not see a ceiling. As I came to the top of the steps I saw a hooded figure of a woman, she looked at me though her face was hidden by the hood. I suddenly felt an incredible sensation of power emanating from the woman and I became very frightened. The woman began to remove her hood and through fear I averted my gaze, a voice in my head told me to look up, I did and the face of the woman shone so brightly it hurt, not just my eyes but my whole body. I then remember a sensation of falling and cannot remember anything else.

The report of the friend who attended Richard made notes, these notes were as follows:

  1. 10:55 pm. Pulse 75 beats per minute, Blood pressure 110/70, Temperature 34 degrees C
  2. The unguent was applied to the hands and feet at 11pm.
  3. Pulse at 11:02 was 85 beats per minute.
  4. 11:10, Richard is getting very drowsy, incoherent and reports feeling cold. Pulse 92
  5. 11:20, He has fallen sleep, pulse is 95 beats per minute and strong, Breathing is regular and slow.
  6. 11:30, pulse 97, he feels clammy. Temp 38 degrees C
  7. 12:00, Breathing is slow, long and regular, pulse 102.

The accounts from 12 AM until 9 AM were of a gradual reduction in pulse rate to normal until Richard awoke and immediately wrote down his experiences. Apart from an intense feeling of thirst and a headache no negative effects could be discerned straight after or for a month following the experiment. The attendant who monitored Richard said, that apart from being petrified that Richard would die on him when the pulse just seemed to be rising and rising the first hour, nothing untoward happened.

Many of these experiments have been conducted by medically trained individuals, current practitioners of Witchcraft and a number of people seeking interesting and novel experiences. It is uncertain if the similarities of their experiences are a feature of the plant substances used or their expectancies before they used the drug. Richard choosing a known Witches Sabbath date to conduct the experiment perhaps set up in his own unconscious mind a potential script of what he would experience.

The ready availability of many of the plants containing the active constituents of Flying Ointments, are a potential danger to individuals who have a desire to experiment on themselves. Given the lethal properties of these plants and the inability to ascertain dose, it is an activity left to the experienced, trained or foolish. It should be noted the internal administration of most of these plants is extremely dangerous, this point being reflected in their use externally by Witches.

Belladonna

Belladonna, (Atropa Belladonna), or commonly known as deadly nightshade is relatively rare in the UK. In Britain it is usually found in chalky soils, shaded areas and waste ground or old ruins.

It is extremely poisonous and has been employed for many centuries for beneficial and less beneficial purposes. According to folklore it is a plant that belongs to the Devil, who tends it. being diverted from this duty only on the night of the Walpurgis night Witches Sabbath.

The name Belladonna, "Beautiful Lady", is thought to derive from its use by Italian ladies, to dilate the pupil of the eye to make them more attractive. The generic name, "Atropa", is derived from the Greek, Atropos, one of the fates that held the shears to cut the thread of human life.

The properties of Belladonna depend on the presence of Hyoseyamine and Atropine, the root is the principle source of preparing tinctures, however, the whole plant including the berries contain these alkaloids.

Atropine has been used in ophthalmology for the dilation of the pupil and was used as an antidote to opium.

It was also used to lessen pain and inflammation. It has anti spasmodic activity and was used for asthma and whooping cough.

It increases the rate of the heart by approximately 20-40 beats per minute.

In poisonous doses it causes paralysis and excitement and delirium.

Woody Nightshade (solamum Dulcamara)

Bittersweet.

A very common plant in the U.K. growing in hedgerows and shaded areas which has frequently been confused with Deadly Nightshade.

Its active constituent is Solamine which acts narcotically, in large doses it causes paralysis. It slows the heart and respiration, reduces temperature and causes vertigo and delirium, eventually convulsions and death.

Woody Nightshade was used widely for a number of ailments including rheumatism, fever, inflammation and jaundice.

It was believed to guard against the evil eye and has been revered for thousands of years — a necklace of the berries was found in Tutenkahmun's tomb.

Aconite (Aconitum Napellus) Monkshood

Aconite is a plant which was introduced to England long ago. Reports of it are included in manuscripts of the tenth century downwards. it is found growing wild in western counties of England and South Wales and was popular as a flowering garden plant.

The poisonous properties of aconite have been used to coat arrowheads for use on humans and animals.

Its medical uses was mainly restricted for the alleviation of muscular and rheumatic pain. Applied externally to the affected area.

A number of alkaloids have been identified within aconite but the group which is believed responsible for its medical and poisonous activity are the Aconitines.

Aconite is extremely poisonous and the symptoms of poisoning begin with numbness in the mouth, crawling sensations on the skin, vomiting, stomach pains, labored breathing, irregular and weak pulse, giddiness and staggering, eventual cardiac arrest or asphyxiation. The mind remains clear.

In cases of poisoning artificial respiration and stimulants are indicated.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Hemlock is a common plant in the U.K. found in meadows, banks and hedge banks.

It has some similarities to Parsley but is distinguished by blood red markings/spots on its stem and root.

All parts of the plant contain a very strong poisonous alkaloid called conium.

Conium (produced by extraction of the juice of hemlock) is a narcotic, sedative and antispasmodic. Its medical use in the past was to treat coughing, epilepsy or any over activity of the muscles.

In poisonous doses it produces loss of sensation, complete paralysis of striated muscle, loss of speech, the respiration slows and eventually stops. Death results from asphyxiation. During this process the mind remains clear and unaffected.

The most famous account of the use of Hemlock is the poisoning of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates.

Conium is a highly volatile plant alkaloid and loses its potency rapidly. Heat destroys it.

In cases of poisoning artificial respiration and the use of stimulants are indicated.

The possible inclusion of Hemlock or Water Hemlock which shares similar paralyzing properties could.

Thornapple (Datura Stramonium) Solanaceae

Relatively uncommon in England, but common in America Thornapple is strongly narcotic and doses lead to dilation of the pupils, giddiness, delirium and mania.

The active constituents are the same as Belladonna, i.e. hyoseyamine and atropine, but in smaller concentrations and its medical uses are the same as Belladonna. Its effects on coughing and respiratory conditions being slightly stronger.

Henbane (Hyosyamus niger) Solanaceae

It is relatively common in the UK. growing in shaded areas and has a long history of use and mythology. In Greek legend the dead in Hades were crowned with Henbane as they wandered beside the Styx.

The plant was used in magic and diabolism for its power of causing delirium and hallucinations. In poisonous doses poor vision, dizziness, sleepiness is followed by delirium and convulsions.

The active constituents are Hyoseyamine, Atropine and Hyoseine. Similar to Belladonna in its medicinal uses, however the added presence of Hyoscine gives it the properties of reducing secretions and relax spasm of involuntary muscles. It has been employed in hysteria, pain and rheumatism.

Henbanes sedative action does not give rise as much rise to the delirium associated more with high concentrates of Atropine. It was also used extensively in insane asylums for treating mania and delirium tremens.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpured) Serophularcacere

Common in England growing best in sunlight this plant has extremely powerful action on the heart. Digitalis containing a number of glucosides, three of which are cardiac stimulants; digitoxin, digitalin and digitalun. The other glucoside is digitonin, a cardiac depressant.

Digitalis has been used from early times for its properties on the heart and circulation. Its first action is to increase blood pressure due to contraction of the heart and arteries. The pulse slows and regulation of an irregular pulse.

In toxic doses it causes disturbances of the senses, blurs the visual field. Low dose poisoning leads to slow and irregular pulse. Higher concentrations of poisoning leads to rapid heart beat and arrest.

Tradition has it that Foxglove is a plant of women and of the Goddess Diana

This investigation into the early records of drug use is taking a lot of time and more information will be provided as my researches continue.

I strongly urge people not to experiment with any of the plants mentioned, as they are extremely poisonous.

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