Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

March 26, 2011

History and Magic of Flying Ointment

Filed under: magic — paragardener @ 7:02 pm

In the ancient world, people strongly believed in magic and using magic against someone was naturally treated as a real offense, just like physical assault or murder. In the West, the witchcraft scares of ancient Rome apparently claimed thousands of lives when witches took the blame for various plagues. Then, Christianity became the religion of empire and it reformed some of Rome’s out-of-control practices. By the time of Charlemange, belief in supernaturally powerful witches was officially outlawed.

So when the Church resumed executing witches around 1320, it was most un-Christian of them. Some “witches” were just unpopular people who became scapegoats when times were hard. Others really practised magic. The Benandanti were a network of “witches,” male and female, who lived in northern Italy in the 15- and 1600’s. Women would leave their bodies to attend parties and talk to spirits about the coming year, while men went to battle with evil out-of-body witches who were always out to ruin the crops. Their method of traveling out-of-body is unknown. The Benandanti stressed that they were Christians opposed to evil witches, but that story did not save many from the fires. Heresy was a sufficient offense.

There are a fair number of accounts of witches and others flying with the aid of an ointment or unguent. It is a matter of scholarly debate as to whether some medieval magicians secretly flew under the influence of ancient plant-based magics, or if flying ointment was merely a tale told to appease torturers.

Abramelin the Mage gives an account of his own flying experience in his 1458 hit, “The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage.” First Book of Holy Magic, Chapter VI:

At Lintz I worked with a young woman, who one evening invited me to go with her, assuring me that without any risk she would conduct me to a place where I greatly desired to find myself. I allowed myself to be persuaded by her promises. She then gave unto me an unguent, with which I rubbed the principal pulses of my feet and hands; the which she did also; and at first it appeared to me that I was flying in the air in the place which I wished, and which I had in no way mentioned to her.
I pass over in silence and out of respect, that which I saw, which was admirable, and appearing to myself to have remained there a long while, I felt as if I were just awakening from a profound sleep, and I had great pain in my head and deep melancholy. I turned round and saw that she was seated at my side. She began to recount to me what she had seen, but that which I had seen was entirely different. I was, however, much astonished, because it appeared to me as if I had been really and corporeally in the place, and there in reality to have seen that which had happened.

Well, where did you go, Abramelin? I guess you took that secret to the grave. In 1487, the Malleus Malleficarum would be published, a guide to witches and witch-hunting. The Inquisition quickly abandoned it as embarassingly superstitious, with its insistence that some witches literally, bodily flew through the air to their baby-eating orgiastic feasts. All over Europe, the secular courts ate it up!

I’m ignoring the idea of witches physically swinging about and forming Quidditch leagues; however, flight as described by Abramelin is well within the realm of human experience. You don’t need to buy into the idea of out-of-body-experiences as a supernatural phenomenon, either. The experience of out-of-body flight is real, as reported by certain people falling asleep, near death, or performing progressive body relaxation exercises. Can an ointment produce the same type of experience? How about the ointments actually described by confessing witches and recorded by “witch experts”? As I’m going to start giving recipes here, let me tell you that I am not recommending anyone try flying ointments, and certainly not before doing a lot more research into their make-up, side effects, risks, contraindications and proper use.

The very first recipe for a flying ointment was in a book of “forbidden arts, sorcery and heresy” penned by German physician Johannes Hartlieb in 1456. If you can read medieval German, give it a whirl (only a few passages have been translated into English). Hartlieb writes:

For such travels both men and women, namely the witches, use an ointment called “unguentum pharelis”. They make it from seven plants and pick each plant on the day belonging to that plant. So on Sunday they pick Solsequium, on Monday Lunaria, on Tuesday Verbena, on Wednesday Mercurialis, on Thursday Barbam Iovis, on Friday Capillos veneris. From that they make ointment by adding to it blood of birds and fat from animals whose names I will not write so that no one is angered by it. Then, when they want, they spread it on benches or chairs, rakes or ofengabeln (big oven forks) and fly on them. This is a real Nigramancia and is strictly forbidden.

What the Hell plants is Hartlieb talking about!? Googling solsequiem yielded cryptic references to heliotropes, marigolds and sunflowers. One herbalist on an internet forum complained, “My heart invariably sinks when I see Solsequium given as a synonym because it was applied to so many different plants, all of which have to be waded through to get to the authentic answer.” It is possible that solsequium is a physically inert ingredient, used only to magically invoke the power of the Sun.

Lunaria may refer to the ornamental plant genus of the same name, consisting of annual and perrenial “honesty” flowers. The seed pods are said to resemble silver dollars or full moons.

Verbena, aka vervaine, is a plant rich in legend. Lately it is used on The Vampire Diaries television series as vampire kyptonite. One of its historical uses was, in fact, to deflect black magic. It is also used to stimulate lactation, induce abortions and calm anxiety. A few sources on the internet cite verbena as a dream-enhancer.

purple flowers

vervaine photo by Kurt Stueber

Mercurialis identifies the Mercury plant, of which 8 to 10 species are native to Europe. Some types can be mashed up to release an emollient jelly, not unlike aloe (nice if you’re rubbing a rake against sensitive parts!). Mercury, of course, is the god who flies. Odin, whose day is Wednesday, had a knack for travelling from world to world.

Barbam Iovis is now known as Anthyllis barba-jovis, or Jupiter’s Beard, or Silver Bush. It is a silvery Mediterranean bush, now a protected species in the wild, though still available to gardeners. Apparently, little is known about its toxicity or medical value. Jupiter is the Roman analogue of Thor, the thunder god of Thursday.

Finally, on Freya’s Day, Capillos veneris is collected. This is probably Adiantum capillus-veneris, or black maidenhair fern (sometimes, Venus-hair fern). All in all, Hartlieb’s recipe seems like a mystical exercise in linking days of the week, Pagan gods, and plants. A few of the plants are unknowns, a few almost definitely inert, and only verbena seems a likely psychoactive agent. But where is the seventh, Saturnian plant for Saturday?

The next two recipes come from scholar Giovan Battista Della Porta in his 1558 book “De Miraculis Rerum Naturalium” (Book II, Chapter XXVI):

By boiling human child fat in a copper vessel, they get rid of its water, thickening what is left after boiling and remains last. Then they store it, and afterwards boil it again before use:
A)with this, they mix celery, aconite, poplar leaves and soot.
B)or, Sium, acorus, cinquefoil, the blood of a bat, nightshade (Solanum) and oil.
Then they smear all the parts of the body, first rubbing them to make them ruddy and warm and to rarify whatever had been condensed because of cold. When the flesh is relaxed and the pores opened up, they add the fat (or the oil that is substituted for it).

Celery is used to treat pain and psoriasis. Aconite is also known as wolf’s bane and monk’s hood, and is chiefly a poison. In low doses it might act as a local anaesthetic and induce sweating. All in all, recipe A does not sound like it would generate a flying experience, except in the most imaginative individuals.

Recipe B might be getting us someplace interesting. Sium probably means Sium sisarum, the water parsnip, a root vegetable which has faded into obscurity.

Acorus is calamus or sweet flag. The root of this grass has multiple medicinal purposes, though it cannot be sold for human consumption at this time due to extremely high doses causing cancer in rats. Notably, at the proper dose, calamus root is a stimulant and mild psychedelic. Overdoses cause profuse vomiting.

some reeds

sweet-flag photo by J.F. Gaffard

There are many species of cinquefoil, and I have no idea what Porta had in mind. The blood of a bat is common in these recipes, and is clearly present in hopes of harnessing the bat’s night-flying ability.

Solanum, or nightshade, is a group of plants of which belladonna is the most famous. Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is the member of the Solanaceae family with the most commanding reputation. Belladonna was used as a poison in assassinations and military tactics. In low doses, Italian and Spanish ladies took belladonna to dilate their eyes and make them appear more interested in their dates (one of the side effects of this strong dilation is photophobia, extreme sensitivity to light). Inbetween a cosmetic dose and a fatal one, people will experience a variety of unpleasant side effects as well as all-encompassing, realistic hallucinations. Some writers claim that belladonna was dissolved in fat and rubbed on the skin in order to reduce its potential toxicity (and the chance of dying!). Belladonna or a close nightshade relative could definitely create an active flying ointment. The active ingredients are hyoscyamine and scopolamine, strong anti-cholinergic drugs.

belladonna flowers opening

belladonna photo by H Zell

Reginald Scot wrote “The Discoverie Of Witchcraft” in 1584. The book skeptically debunked witch-hunter myths and proposed other explanations. For instance, voluntarily confessed witches might be suffering from “melancholia” and not have a clear grasp on reality. The book also includes the first writings about stage magic, as examples of how you could be fooled and shouldn’t take things at face value. (The spiritual grandfather of Penn and Teller?) From book 10, chapter 8:

[take]… the fat of yoong children, and seeth it with water in a brasen vessell, reserving the thickest of that which remaineth boiled in the bottome, which they laie up and keep, untill occasion serveth to use it. They put hereunto eleoselinum, aconitum, frondes populeas, and soote.
Another receipt to the same purpose: Sium, acarum vulgare, pentaphyllon, the bloud of a flitter-mouse, solanum somniferium, & oleum.

Scot witnessed a woman rub the ointment on herself and pass into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, she spoke “manie vaine and doting words, affirming that she had passed over both seas and mountaines; delivering to us manie untrue and false reports: we earnestlie denied them, she impudentlie affirmed them.”

Aconitum/aconite has been discussed. “Frondes populeas” are poplar leaf buds, perhaps symbolic of transformation. Eleoselinum may mean parsley, which, oddly enough, can raise superstitious fears in some. Or, eleoselinum could be celery popping up again. Although he claims a different source, Scot is basically repeating Porta’s recipes.

Why always the fat of young children? Certainly, malovelent, Satanic witches were said to eat babies, so baby fat fits the Malleus Maleficarum style of witch mythology. I have thought of a second possibility. A latter-day Irish witch named Biddy Early carried the soul of her dead son Tom in a bottle around her neck. She could tap Tom’s power to ward off evictions, according to legend. Perhaps witches saved fat from the stillborn in order to salvage some magical power from fruitless pregnancies.

One last recipe deserves attention. Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (1612) the character Hecate is made to stuff the mouth and nostrils of an unbaptised child before boiling him for his fat. She recounts the materials as she uses them:

“The magickal herbs are down his throat;
His mouth cramm’d full,
His ears and nostrils stuff’d;
I thrust in eleoselinum lately,
Aconitum, frondes populeas and soot.
Then sium, acorum vulgare too,
Pentaphyllon, the blood of the flitter-mouse,
Solanum somnificum et oleum.”

Here Porta’s first and second recipe are jammed together to make something longer and more full of dubious ingredients. The real culprit was William Shakespeare, who wrote a very long child-boiling scene into Macbeth about 1605 using the same ingredients and process.

By the way, if you haven’t picked up on it, pentaphyllon is cinquefoil and flitter-mice are bats!

I think Hartlieb’s recipe deserves another look. He mentions seven plants on seven days, but details only six. We know the missing plant was classified as Saturnian, indicating a plant adept at growing in crevices and odd spots. The entire family of nightshades is traditionally counted as Saturnian. Did Hartlieb censor belladonna the same way he censored baby fat?

To sum up: vervaine/verbena, calamus/acorus/sweet flag, and particularly belladonna can be identified as the “active” ingredients of flying ointment, carried into the body through skin in a fat-based carrier. Some ingredients are of symbolic importance (bloud of a flitter-mouse). Others, like celery and soot, might bepresent to further activate some ingredients or to counteract their toxic effects.

Many credible witnesses saw the use of the ointment or tried it themselves. And, some of the recipes should actually create the effects they recorded. I see no room for doubting that some Europeans used flying ointment in an “underground” capacity… the alternative theory would be that flying ointment recipes and tales were made up for self-aggrandizement or to get out of torture, including reports such as skeptical Scot’s. What are the
odds of a torture victim spontaneously inventing a plausible flying ointment? Could you have done it, educated future person?

In my digging I repeatedly went back to Sarah Penicka’s well-researched article “Caveat Anoynter! : A study of flying ointments and their plants.” Penicka writes: “It does seem entirely possible that pre-Christian religious practices could have utilised the hallucinogenic properties of these plants. However, for the argument that they remained in use throughout the middle ages to be valid, one would have to maintain, following scholars such as Margaret Murray, that there was a continuous witch-cult which preserved pagan practice from the ancient past. This is a theory which most scholars are long past upholding.”

Too bad for most scholars. To turn Penicka’s logic around, we have strong evidence of the use of hallucinogenic plants in medieval Europe. Therefore, there must have been “a continuous witch-cult which preserved pagan practice from the ancient past”!

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1 Comment »

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    Comment by Lekisha Shackford — October 21, 2011 @ 9:30 pm


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