The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Witches’ Ointments

 

 

The famous witches’ or flying brooms are said to have been made from birch brush. The witches’ ointments were supposedly smeared onto the handle, which was then used as a dildo. The use of birch is interesting; in northern Eurasia, birch (Betula spp.) represents the shamanic world tree and is both culturally and biologically associated with the fly agaric mushroom. (Woodcut from Bock, Kreutterbuch, 1577)

 

 

One of the few depictions of a witch smearing herself with the flying ointment, after which she immediately flies out of the chimney. (Woodcut, early sixteenth century)

 

Other Names

 

Buhlsalbe, demon salve, flugsalbe, flying ointment, hexensalbe, hexenschmiere, oyntment, schlafsalbe, sleeping ointment, unguenta somnifera, unguenti sabbati, unguentum pharelis, unguentum populi

 

The famous “witches’ ointments,” that is, the substances alleged witches used to undertake their nocturnal “excursions,” were not an invention of the Inquisition, for they had already been mentioned in ancient texts (Luck 1962). The first mention of a “flying ointment” comes from Homer, the father of poetry: Hera smears herself with ambrosia in order to reach Zeus on Mount Ida by flying down from Mount Olympus and over Thrace’s snowcapped mountains,“over the highest peak, without ever touching the ground.” Zeus is profoundly amazed at how quickly she was able to make the journey without horse and wagon (Iliad 2.14.169 ff.). The most famous picaresque novel of late antiquity, the Metamorphosis (= The Golden Ass) of Apuleius (second century C.E.), includes a well-known reference to a witches’ ointment. The hero, Lucius, reports on the magical practices and witchcraft of the inhabitants of Thessalia, “the world-renowned home of magic” (Apuleius 2). According to his reports, the Thessalian witches knew how to bring mandrake manikins (cf. Mandragora officinarum) to life so that they could send them out and cause harm according to their wishes. They were also able to change their shapes and travel wherever they desired:

 

First Pamphile completely stripped herself; then she opened a chest and took out a number of small boxes. From one of these she removed the lid and scooped out some ointment, which she rubbed between her hands for a long time before smearing herself with it all over from head to foot. Then there was a long muttered address to the lamp during which she shook her arms with a fluttering motion. As they gently flapped up and down there appeared on them a soft fluff, then a growth of strong feathers; her nose hardened into a hooked beak, her feet contracted into talons—and Pamphile was an owl. (Apuleius 3.21)

 

Unfortunately, none of the ancient recipes has come down to us.

The medieval sources are silent on the topic. Only toward the end of the late Middle Ages was there speculation about witches’ ointments (Haage 1984), which were used variously to enable witches to fly or to transform them into animals (e.g., werewolves; cf. Leubscher 1950,Völker 1977). The Renaissance not only rekindled an interest in the ancient world but also witnessed a revival in which all sorts of narcotic ointments with clear classical roots began to be used again in folk medicine and surgery (cf. soporific sponge; Piomelli and Pollio 1994).

Dr. Johannes Hartlieb (ca. 1400–1468) was the personal physician of the Wittelsbach dukes, writers, and diplomats. He not only left us one of the earliest German herbals (written around 1440; Werneck and Franz 1980) but also published the most important medieval source on the vestiges of the pagan world. Because he was a devoted Christian, he depicted the magical practices presented in his book Das Buch aller verbotenen Künste [The Book of All Forbidden Arts] (1456, originally titled Das puoch aller verpoten kunst, ungelaubens und der zaubrey) as reprehensible and dangerous.

Hartlieb was the first physician to write down a recipe for a witches’ ointment, which can be found in chapter 32 of his book:

 

How the journey through the air occurs

In order to undertake such a journey, men and women, and in particular the fiends, use an ointment called Unguentum pharelis. It is made from seven herbs. Each of these herbs is picked exactly on the day to which it is assigned. Thus, they pick or dig up solsequium on Sunday, lunaria on Monday, verbena on Tuesday, mercurialis on Wednesday, barba jovis on Thursday, capillus veneris on Friday. From these they then prepare ointments by mixing in bird’s blood and animal lard. But I will not describe this in detail, so that none will be corrupted by it. When they then wish, they smear this onto benches or chairs, rakes, or pitchforks, and fly away (on these). This is nothing other than nigromantie [= “black divination”480] and is strictly forbidden. (Hartlieb 1989a, 45)

 

 

It is not possible to make a definite botanical identification of the herbs that were associated with the days of the week (and the planetary gods). However, some of the names can be identified with plants that were called by the same name in the late Middle Ages.

It seems that this recipe from Johannes Hartlieb is more an agent of sympathetic magic than a psychoactive substance (cf. Biedermann 1974). That is, unless there are psychoactive ferns that have not yet been identified.

It appears that in the entire history of the witch hunts, only once was an ointment actually found that was successfully able to produce the effects attributed to it. When, in the year 1545, the duke of Lothringen lay in bed critically ill, a married couple was arrested and charged with having bewitched the duke. Both “confessed” to witchcraft while being stretched on the rack. During a subsequent search of their house, a container of ointment was found that was examined by Andrés de Laguna (1499–1560), the personal physician to the pope (cf. Rothman 1972). He recognized in the ointment un cierto unguento verde como el del populeon (“a certain green unguent like the poplar ointment”; cf. Vries 1991). Laguna speculated that the ointment contained Cicuta (hemlock), Solanum (?), Hyoscyamus, and Mandragoraand tested it on the executioner’s wife. She fell into a kind of coma or deep sleep that lasted for three days and complained irritably when she was pulled from her sleep, which had been filled with sweet dreams and erotic adventures.

For some Inquisitors, such as Pedro Ciruelo, it was clear that the alleged witches did not really fly to the sabbat but rather had hallucinatory experiences because of the ointment (Dinzelbacher 1995, 209).483

From the beginning, those who speculated about the nature of the witches’ ointments—usually physicians of the early modern era (Vries 1991)—attributed the effects of the ointment to the presence of plants from the Nightshade Family (Evans 1978; Fühner 1919; Harner 1973; cf. also Duerr 1978).

Johannes Wier (1515–1588), the personal physician of Duke Wilhelm von Jülich, discussed witches’ ointments in his work (Weyer 1563) and cited a recipe for a witches’ ointment from the book De Subtilitate Rerum by Hieronimus Cardanus (= Girolamo Cardano):

 

Ointments, which are said to have the power and the effect that one is able to see wondrous things because of them. These are prepared from children’s fat, as they say, and celery juice, wolf’s plant, tormentill, solano (night-shade), and soot. However, they are considered to be asleep because they see such things. But the things they see that widen their eyes are most often houses of pleasure, green gardens of delight, splendid meals, many and various decorations, pretty clothes, handsome youths, kings, lords, yes everything that they are anxious about and long for, they also mean nothing more than to enjoy such leisure and pleasure and to be made happy. But they also see the devil, ravens, dungeons, wastelands, and the hangman’s or prosecutor’s bag of tricks. . . . For this reason, the more strong is the conclusion that they are imagining that they travel through many far and strange lands, therein experiencing many different things, and also that the ointments described are not evil. (in Hauschild et al. 1979, 37)

 

 

In pagan times, the yew (Taxus baccata) was a sacred tree. Today, it is feared as poisonous. However, its red berries can be eaten without harm. According to folk tradition, one should not sleep beneath a yew tree, lest this lead to insanity and hallucinations.

 

Wier also described an “oil” that he invented himself that allegedly induces the exact same effects as those attributed to the witches’ ointments. It consisted of:

 

 

This mixture was said to induce a long-lasting sleep with hallucinatory dreams. The English politician, philosopher, and author484 Francis Bacon (1561–1626) discussed the recipe of the Italian Cardano in his text The Oyntment That Witches Use. However, he misinterpreted the nature of the “soot,” replacing it with wheat flour. But soot almost certainly referred to grain smut (also known as grain soot) or even rye ergot (Claviceps purpurea). In addition, Bacon conjectured that the New World plants tobacco (cf. Nicotiana tabacum and Hyoscyamus spp.) and thorn apple (Datura stramonium) were suitable ingredients.

Paracelsus was also said to be knowledgeable about witches’ ointments and other magical substances (cf. soporific spongePapaver somniferum). Johannes Praetorius (1630–1680) mentioned this in his book, which first appeared in 1668:

 

Paracelsus reported that the witches made their witches’ ointments from the flesh of young, newborn children. They cooked them like a mush, together with herbs that cause sleep, such as poppy, nightshades, chicory, hemlock, and such. When the witches then smeared themselves with the ointment and uttered the following words: up and out, and off to nowhere, then in his opinion they believed that they could travel away through the fire walls, the windows, and through other small holes with the help of the devil. (Praetorius 1979, 40)

 

Hoffmann (1660–1742), a chemist from Halle (Germany), placed the yew (Taxus baccata L.),485 which is considered to be poisonous, alongside the nightshades and opium as ingredients in “sleeping ointments.” The Germanic peoples regarded the yew as a magical tree, and it was one of the rune names (eihwaz). It is entirely possible that the yew does have psychoactive properties (cf. kinnikinnick). During a witchcraft trial in 1758, a witches’ ointment was said to contain the following ingredients: “mandrake root, henbane seeds, nightshade berries, opium juice” (Grünther 1992, 24). That this document lists other ingredients than the fat of a child is a complete exception to the standard recipes that were presented at witch trials.

Speculative recipes continued to appear in the literature of the nineteenth century. In one of his tales of witches, Ludwig Bechstein (1801–1860), the Romantic compiler of fairy tales, mentions the ointment of a weather witch that consisted of marsh violet (Pinguicula vulgaris L.), bewitching herb (possibly Conyza sp.), agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria L.), black horehound (Ballota nigra L.), and devil’s bit scabious (Scabiosa succisa L. [syn. Succisa pratensisMoench]); the mixture was rubbed onto the arms (Bechstein 1985, 255).

The idea that the fly agaric mushroom (see Amanita muscaria) might have been an ingredient in witches’ ointments is a twentieth-century notion. Another recent assumption is that the witches’ ointments were applied vaginally or rectally using a “witches’ broom,” a kind of dildo.

It was only toward the close of the nineteenth century that several brave individuals actually began to prepare and try the recipes that had been passed down. One of these was the esoteric scholar Carl Kiesewetter (1854–1895). After a number of seemingly successful experiments, he appears to have died as a result of a careless overdose. The spectacular and often cited report of Wilhelm Mrsich is probably more a literary product than an actual human pharmacological experiment, for he intentionally divulged no recipes (Mrsich 1978).

The only self-experiment that appears to have been authentic (using Portas’s recipe) seems to have been that of the German folklorist Will-Erich Peukert (1895–1969):

 

We had wild dreams. At first, horribly distorted faces danced before my eyes. Then I suddenly had the feeling [that] I was flying through the air for miles. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by deep dives. In the closing phase, there was an image of an orgiastic party with grotesque sensual excesses. (Peukert 1960)

 

The experiences of Siegbert Ferkel, cited in Marzell’s book (1964, 48*), also appear to be authentic. Hanscarl Leuner undertook a self-experiment but did not experience any effects (Leuner 1981, 67*). Most of the authors who have published works on witches’ ointments in recent years (e.g., Duerr, Grünther, Hansen, Harner, Kuhlen, vom Scheidt, Vries, Yilmaz) have been unable to report on any personal experiences. In contrast, the historian Walter Ulreich tried a homemade ointment of belladonna, poppy, hem-lock, “other herbs,” and pig fat; he too, however, did not meet with any success. The ride to the Blocksberg (a famous witches’ gathering place) did not occur (“On the Belladonna,” in People in Motion, Summer 1996, 66 f.).

 

 

Ingredients in the So-called Witches’ Ointments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Romans called the white water lily (Nymphaea alba) Hercules’ club. It was regarded as an anaphrodisiac in late antiquity, while in the early modern era it was considered to be an ingredient in witches’ ointments. Whether it has psychoactive effects like its Mexican and Egyptian relatives is unknown. It is conceivable that the plant could produce synergistic effects when combined with other substances.

 

 

The black hellebore or Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) has been associated with black magic and the preparation of witches’ ointments since the Middle Ages.

 

 

Witches preparing an ointment to apply to a young novice (illustration from the magazine Jugend [Youth], 1926)

 

 

In the Middle Ages, vervain (Verbena officinalis L.) was a renowned magical plant that was used for magical protection and as an aphrodisiac. In the early modern era, it was thought to be one of the ingredients in witches’ ointments. Vervain has no known psychoactive effects. The magical plant that classical texts refer to as heira botane (“sacred plant”) has not yet been botanically identified. (Woodcut from Brunfels, Contrafayt Kreuterbuch, 1532)

 

“Tonight I rode far on my staff, and I now know things I did not know before.”

 

FÓSTBROEDHARA SAGA (LATE THIRTEENTH CENTURY)

 

“She [the witch] knows no greater delight than mixing the body of God [= the host] into her filthy salves, to stuff it into her sexual organs and to season the rotten carrion of a defiled corpse with it.”

 

STANISLAW PRZYBYSZEWKI THE SYNAGOGUE OF SATAN (2002, 30)

 

The pharmacognosy of witches’ ointments is far from understood and represents a worthwhile area for human pharmacological research. Future researchers, however, must be willing to conduct self-experiments. Experimental research is also needed to determine whether the active constituents contained in the ingredients are actually able to be absorbed through the skin (cf. Grünther 1992, Waldvogel 1979).

The notion of hallucinogenic witches’ ointments has produced a rich trove of prose literature. Here are just a few stories and novels of particular interest: Bechstein 1986; Delaney 1994; Görres 1948; Meyrink 1984, 179–186*; and Tieck 1988.

“In order to investigate the so-called witches’ ointments, we must remind ourselves of the actual meaning of the natural sciences as an expansion of human consciousness, as a deepened insight into the nature of reality, into the unity of all living creatures, and the integration of humans in the bio-universe. When seen in this manner, the insights of the natural sciences into the microcosm and the macrocosm of objective reality, together with our subjective perceptions and our own mystical experience, could open the door to the spiritual world.”

 

PATRICIA OCHSNER

 

ÜBER HEXENKULT, FLUGSALBEN AND HEXENKRÄUTER [ON THE WITCHES’ CULT, FLYING OINTMENTS, AND WITCHES’ HERBS]

 

(1997)

 

“Faces floated toward me from the darkness, first blurry and then taking on form. . . . I floated upward at great speed. It became light and through a pink veil I hazily recognized that I was floating over the city. The figures that had already oppressed me in my room accompanied me on this flight through the clouds. More and more of them joined me, and every minute lasted an eternity. The next morning, as the first light came into my room, I thought I had awakened to a new life.”

 

SIEGBERT FERKEL, ON AN EXPERIENCE WITH A WITCHES’ OINTMENT

 

IN ZAUBERPFLANZEN— HEXENTRÄNKE [SPELL PLANTS— WITCHES’ DRINKS]

 

(MARZELL 1964, 48*)

 

Literature

 

Apuleius. 1998. The golden ass or metamorphoses. Translation, notes, preface by E. J. Kenney. London: Penguin.

 

Barnett, Bernard. 1965. Witchcraft, psychopathology and hallucinations. British Journal of Psychiatry 3:439–45.

 

Bechstein, Ludwig. 1986. Hexengeschichten. Frankfurt/M.: Insel.

 

Biedermann, Hans. 1974. Hexen—Auf den Spuren eines Phänomens. Graz: Verlag für Sammler.

 

Caro Baroja, Julio. 1967. Die Hexen und ihre Welt. Intro. by Will-Erich Peuckert. Stuttgart: Klett.

 

Daxelmüller, Christoph. 1996. Aberglaube, Hexenzauber, Höllenängste. Munich: dtv.

 

Delany, Daniel. 1994. Der Hexentrank. Munich: Ehrenwirth.

 

Dinzelbacher, Peter. 1995. Heilige oder Hexen? Zurich: Artemis und Winkler.

 

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Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deike English. 1981. Hexen, Hebammen und Krankenschwestern. Munich: Frauenoffensive.

 

Evans, Arthur. 1978. Witchcraft and the gay counterculture. Boston: Fag Rag Books.

 

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———. 1990. Hexensabbat. Berlin: Wagenbach.

 

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———. 1989b. Das Buch aller verbotenen Künste. Ed., trans. Frank Fürbeth. Frankfurt/M.: Insel.

 

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