Halloween science: Breaking down witches’ flying ointments one ingredient at a time

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With Halloween-time upon us, its witches and broomsticks and three-legged cauldrons aplenty. Shop windows. Library displays. Department store floors. You name it. There’s no escaping the straw-haired, crooked-nosed, green-skinned crones that are common symbols of October 31.

One thing that’s readily accepted is that witches fly. It’s one of the things they do. But a long-standing question remains pertinent. Do they actually lift off from the ground?

Historically, scholars attributed the ability to fly with specific ointments — not cauldron-cooked brews or enchanted broomsticks. Generations of learned men speculated on the ingredients involved in the concoctions. During the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus offered one of the first descriptions of flying ointments in the written record. According to the De vegetabilibus libri VII (ca. 1260),

“Qui autem in nigromanticis student,tradunt characterem iusquiami pictum debere esse in homine, quando faciunt daemonum invocationes.” (Those who study black magic teach that an image of henbane must be painted on a man when they want to invoke the demon.)

This use of henbane represents one of the first written indications that certain plants are responsible for witches being able to fly. Soone, others built on the foundation Albertus Magnus set in place.

Albertus Magnus.

In 1267, Theodoric of Cervia wrote in Chirurgia that the desired flying mixture consisted of henbane, mandrake, hemlock, lettuce, opium, ivy, climbing ivy, lapathum, juice of unripe mulberry, and spurge flax. The resultant ointment was to be soaked into a sponge and inhaled. That’s a considerable upgrade compared to Magnus’ instructions to use some henbane and do some chanting.

Reported recipes shifted soon after to include different ingredients. Suddenly, a dark human element was injected into the discourse. In 1428, accused with Matteuccia di Francesco was reported to have said that witches’ flying ointments consisted of bat blood, vulture fat, and the bloodof a newborn baby. Eight years later, Johannes Nider wrote in the Formicarius that boiled, unbaptized babies were the central ingredient.

In addition to the profane, witches flying ointments called for a host of powerful and often poisonous plants. This quote from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum reflects the wide spectrum of phytochemicals that eventually came to be associated with magical flying crones:

“The ointment that witches use is reported to be made of the fat of children digged out of their graves; of the juices of smallage, wolf-bane, and cinque-foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat. But I suppose that the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it; which are henbane, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, tobacco, opium, saffron, poplar-leaves, &c.”

While short on mixing instructions, Bacon’s recipe is a veritable checklist of ingredients that various witch-watchers attributed to flying potions. A close look at the ingredients provides some clues as to whether witches really did fly.

Smallage.

Smallage, also known as wild celery, is technically Apium graveolens var. Graveolens. The plant is identified by its furrowed stalk with wedge-shaped leaves. It has a coarse, earthy taste, and a distinctive smell. It was sometimes burned in incense along with henbane, hemlock, and coriander. Its seeds were said to have sedative effects.

As mild as the effects of smallage were thought to be, Wolf’s bane’s properties were brutal and deadly. Aconitum napellus is found throughout western and central Europe. Its leaves are rounded and divided into 5-7 segments. Its purple flowers, shaped like a helmet, is where it gets its other name, monkshood. Wolf’s bane was a poison used to kill carnivores such as, wolves and panthers, in the 18th century. Hunters put it into raw meat to bait animals.

Wolf’s bane or Monkshood.

Wolf’s bane’s footprints could be seen throughout ancient history. In ancient Greece, it was thought to have been one of the first poisons ever created. Romans used it to poison enemies. It even makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In ancient Chinese culture, wolfsbane was used to poison arrows. (SOURCE: https://sites.evergreen.edu/plantchemeco/wolfsbane-fictious-plant-contains-very-real-dangers/)

Wolf’s bane contains substantial amounts of the highly toxic aconitine and related alkaloids, especially in their roots and tubers. Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and cardiotoxin that causes persistent depolarization of neuronal sodium channels in tetrodotoxin-sensitive tissues. The influx of sodium through these channels and the delay in their repolarization increases their excitability and may lead to diarrhea, convulsions, ventricular arrhythmia and death. (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aconitum) Aconite can even be dangerous when the flowers are touched and if gardening with Wolf’s bane, it is recommended that one wear gloves. Though deadly, aconitine is used to relieve aches and pains, a practice in Chinese medicine, and to soothe fevers.

Cinquefoil

Different species of cinquefoil are used in traditional medicines. The plants appear similar to strawberries, but differ in usually having dry, inedible fruit (hence the name “barren strawberry” for some species). Common tormentil (P. erecta) has been used as an herbal remedy for inflammation and gastrointestinal disorders. Research continues to determine its safety and usefulness as an alternative medicine for such disorders as ulcerative colitis. (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potentilla)

Henbane was the plant that appeared at the beginning with Albertus Magnus’ description of its ritual use. Henbane contains chemicals, such as hyoscyamine and scopolamine, that are thought to relax the muscles lining the digestive tract. The plant is also said to relieve muscle tremors and have a calming effect. (SOURCE: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-82/henbane)

Henbane (CREDIT: James St. John).

Henbane was historically used in combination with other plants, such as mandrake, (properties in “magic brews”. Its psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight. It was originally used in continental Europe, Asia, and the Arab world, though it did spread to England in the Middle Ages. (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger)

Albertus Magnus, in his work De Vegtabilibusm, reported that necromancers used henbane to invoke the souls of the dead as well as demons. Henbane was already being demonized as early as the Late Middle Ages when it became inseparably associated with witchcraft and malefic practices.

Poison hemlock.

Meanwhile, hemlock or poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a highly poisonous biennial herbaceous flowering plant in the carrot family Apiaceae. It is native to Europe and North Africa (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conium_maculatum). Hemlock was once used for executions, perhaps most notably in Ancient Greece, where hemlock was provided to the philosopher Socrates when he was condemned to death. The genus Conium is also sometimes referred to as poison parsley, spotted hemlock, or spotted corobane. The Cicuta genus is known as water hemlock. The plant also goes by names such as cowbane or poison parsnip and is also highly toxic, and several of the Oenanthe species, known as water dropworts, are also poisonous. (SOURCE: https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-hemlock.htm)

The name mandrake should be familar to modern readers. It’s long and fascinating history as one of the central plants associated with magic and witchcraft has been cited in popular works of fantasy Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth to Harry Potter. Medicinally, mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids and the shape of their roots often resembles human figures, they have been associated with a variety of superstitious practices throughout history. They have long been used in magic rituals, today also in contemporary pagan traditions such as Wicca and Odinism.

Mandrake.

In sufficient quantities, mandrake has been known to induce a state of unconsciousness. The plant was used as an anaesthetic for surgery in ancient times. Juice from the finely grated root was applied externally to relieve rheumatic pains. Mandrake was also used as a psychoactive drug, ingested to treat melancholy, convulsions, and mania. Taken in excessive quantities, it was believed to excite delirium and madness. Mandrake root was often made into amulets which were believed to bring good fortune. Superstition surrounded the root. People who pull up this root were said to be condemned to hell, and the mandrake root would scream and cry as it was pulled from the ground, killing anyone who heard it.

Opium’s sedative effects are well known to modern day readers so there’s no need to go into it.

While there was a time when people actually believed that witches flew, whether it was on their own or with the devil’s aid, attitudes have changed through the years. The shifts in thought had everything to do with the interpretation of witches’ flying ointment recipes through scientific lenses, albeit small ones. Modernity also lent a degree of analysis that moved past the theological/diabolical.

Today, four explanations explain the phenomenon of flying witches. The first indicates that they really could fly and that witches sabbats were real. The second explanation looks at the ingredients of flying ointments and concludes that all of the phytochemical, psychoactive drugs resulted in an altered mind state and that the so-called witches had simply experienced dreams or hallucinations. In other words, they were high and only imagined they flew. (Something many of us can sympathize with.) A third explanation is a derivative of the previous one and says that the witches experienced their illusions as subjective reality during a ritual. In that case, the existence of witches covens were real, but not diabolic in nature. Finally, the last explanation is also the most cutting. Maybe, it’s all BS. (Boring!)

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE CREDIT: Creative Commons

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