From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Flying ointment, also known as witches' flying ointment, green ointment, magic salve and lycanthropic ointment, is a hallucinogenic ointment said to be used by witches in the Early Modern period (first described by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456).
The ointment contains a fatty base and various herbal extracts, usually including solanaceous herbs that contain the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. The herbs' essential oils are extracted when heated in the base. These oils are poisonous when ingested; when applied to the skin, the alkaloids are absorbed more slowly into the body. Typical ingredients in alleged recipes include hemlock (Conium spp.), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), wolfsbane (Aconitum spp.), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), usually in a base of animal fat.
It was said that witches were able to fly to the Sabbath on their brooms with help of the ointment. Likely the riding of the broom has a different origin.
Some sources (such as The Botany of Desire) have claimed that the ointment is absorbed best through mucous membranes, but henbane essential oil, for instance, blisters mucous membranes, so it is doubtful that it was applied to a stick that was inserted in the vagina. There is in fact only a single source that makes such an assertion, one that is not based on knowledge of the herbs themselves or on any historical evidence.
One possible key to how individuals dealt with the toxicity of the nightshades usually said to be part of flying ointments is through the antidotal reaction some of the solanaceous alkaloids have with the alkaloids of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy). This is discussed by Alexander Kuklin in his brief book, How Do Witches Fly? (DNA Press, 1999). This antagonism was utilized by the Eclectic movement of botanical medicine. For instance, King's American Dispensatory, an Eclectic materia medica, states in the entry on belladonna: "Belladonna and opium appear to exert antagonistic influences, especially as regards their action on the brain, the spinal cord, and heart; they have consequently been recommended and employed as antidotes to each other in cases of poisoning; this matter is now positively and satisfactorily settled; hence in all cases of poisoning by belladonna the great remedy is morphine, and its use may be guided by the degree of pupillary contraction it occasions."
The interaction between belladonna and poppy was made use of in the so-called "twilight sleep" that was provided for women during childbirth beginning in the Edwardian era. Twilight sleep was a mixture of scopolamine, a belladonna alkaloid, and morphine, a Papaver alkaloid, that was injected and which furnished a combination of painkilling and amnesia for a woman in labor.
We do not have any indication of the proportions of solanaceous herbs vs. poppy used in flying ointments, and in fact, most so-called historical recipes for flying ointment do not include poppy.
It is difficult to know exactly what sort of experience would be engendered by the interaction of the alkaloids of nightshades and poppy. Some have said that the alkaloids of henbane and belladonna created the sensation of flying or out-of-body experience, and that these account for the descriptions of witches flying that are met with in some documents of the Inquisition, but in all the descriptions of the use of these two plants that are available on line, not one describes any such sensation.Template:Citation needed On the contrary, the sensations are usually of heaviness.Template:Citation needed
Sources citing ointments
The use by witches of flying ointments was first described, according to known sources, by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456. It was also described by the Spanish theologist Alfonso Tostado in Super Genesis Commentaria (Venetia, 1507), whose commentary tended to accredit the thesis of the reality of the Witches' Sabbath.
Appearances in Fiction
- In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Margarita, after agreeing to act as hostess at Dr Woland's ball, uses the ointment to become a witch and fly to the estate where the event is being held.
- In Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat, two recipes by Johann Weyer, a 16th-century demonologist, are given in a footnote:
- 1-Water hemlock, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat's blood, deadly nightshade and oil.
- 2-Baby's fat, juice of cowbane, aconite, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade and soot.
- In the movie serial Warlock, the villain kills an unbaptised boy to get this "Flying Ointment".
- In Jodi Picoult's 'Salem Falls', a group of four girls practicing witchcraft ingest a flying ointment made of belladonna. It has disastrous results for the main character of the story.
- In the book Calling on Dragons (Book Three of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles), the witch Morwen uses a flying potion on a straw basket and a broomstick, not on herself. Both objects perform their duties as expected.
- In E. L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, two characters try to make a flying ointment.