Some thoughts on flying ointments

The Scullery Maid and The Witch of Forest Grove inspired me to post about flying ointments.  Being a plant head, how could I help being interested in what might comprise a flying ointment? And being a former academic, how could I not research it into the ground? I have extensive notes to include in the belladonna chapter of my book on this topic, but for now, I want to just bring up a couple of points.

One is the oft-repeated idea that witches used their broomsticks as flying ointment applicators to their “mucous membranes,” better known as vaginas (which kind of leaves out all the male witches). It doesn’t matter if you identify those brooms as cooking sticks, distaffs, or some other penis substitute (and if you don’t think they’re penis substitutes, take a look at the pictures in The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe, of which more at another time). First, if flying ointments existed as such, and if they contained plants that can cause death in us apes–stuff like poison hemlock, monkshood, belladonna, even poppy–as well as less lethal plants like henbane–then I would think that any witch worth their salt would want to control the dosage. I ask you: how do you control the dosage of something you rub into your vagina? How do you decide “That’s enough now; I want off the Night Ride?” Pretty hard to wipe stuff out of one’s vagina. Much easier, if you are going to be rubbing ointment on yourself, to do it on unbroken skin. I know what you’re saying: “Armpits! Armpits!” Maybe, but I think that Sarah’s mention of the soles of the feet as a possible application point for modern flying ointments is a good possibility for historical use. The soles of the feet are especially sensitive to drawing in essential oils, although I am not sure how sensitive they are to alkaloids. Most likely country folk would have much tougher soles than most, but since a lot of what we know about witchcraft comes from the Early Modern period and the time of the rise of towns, well, maybe all those witches weren’t running around barefoot. Maybe they actually wore shoes or clogs.

But let’s leave the shoe issue aside, because there are other questions. One thing I have noticed from my wanderings in writngs about plant lore is how very many names of plants that are dangerous or repulsive or just plain weird are associated with witches. Case in point: witch’s butter, a slime mold jelly fungus. Yes, it’s yellow, but that’s where the resemblance to butter ends. It’s also gross, which seems to be precisely the reason–together with its falseness as a butter–that it’s called witch’s butter. It’s like the word “bastard” in plant names (“bastard toadflax” – i.e., NOT toadflax).

Now, what if these ingredients like poison hemlock and wolfsbane came from the very same tendency in a society to ascribe badness to witches as the witch’s butter thing? What if people simply named what were some of the most poisonous plants (and disgusting and evil–don’t forget the rendered baby fat) they knew of as ingredients in these alleged ointments? If you were being grilled–let’s just put the torture thing aside too for now and just call it pressured–if you were being pressured about the ingredients of a flying ointment by your inquisitors, what would you name as being in it? Just like us Jews were always confessing to poking the Host with our knives and turning Christian babies into matzohs, I suspect that witches also described flying ointment in the terms they understood their inquisitors to use: full of nasty, poisonous, gross stuff.

So there’s that issue–“evil witches must use the worst plants in their stuff” hypothesis.

Of course, we could look at it from the perspective of chemisty. Some alkaloids are antagonists. This was discussed (or rather, mentioned over three pages) in the otherwise incredibly lousy book How Do Witches Fly? A practical approach to nocturnal flights: the author wonders whether flying ointments worked by the antagonistic relationship between tropane-containing plants like belladonna vs. opiates or between tropane-containing plants and aconites. That’s not an idea he came up with himself; those alkaloids have historically been paired in medicine. I’ll discuss this in more detail in my belladonna chapter.

But for now, I’d like to put forward the idea that flying ointments might not have existed as such at all. I think people who went on night flights or who, as described in Carlo Ginzburg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, joined together with others to guide the dead or to ride with the Good Lady might have been using ointments they already had for other purposes, if they used anything at all.

I do think that modern flying ointments or oils or tinctures or teas can have a purpose for us now, although I like what Claude Lecouteux has to say about them historically in his Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages: that flying ointments were the tools of folks who were not professional magic workers, and that the latter would be able to reach trance states involved in night flying without the help of alkaloids. That makes a lot of sense to me. Practice makes perfect in all things.

Having been poisoned by a plant material, a story of ape stupidity I will take to my grave, my own personal approach to flying ointments has been based more on scent, and that is coming out of a different tradition altogether–Kabbalah. The Zohar states that scent is the only thing in the material plane that can feed the soul. The implication is that scent is not quite of this plane. And that is why it can attract the notice of angels (i.e., spirits) to people on Earth–these spiritual beings can feed upon it and are drawn down to it. If scent can nurture the soul and attract spirits, then it should be able to aid trance without even breaking a sweat. This is why I created a flying oil based on night-blooming flowers.  So I think that plant substances can have an important place in witch work. I don’t, though, think that powerful and dangerous alkaloids are a necessity for that work or that they even necessarily played any historical role in witchcraft.

I think the determination that historical witches MUST have used flying ointments cobbled together from plants containing dangerous alkaloids comes out of an excessive faith in science. There MUST be a scientific explanation for depictions of witches flying to the sabbat. Either everyone was mad, or they were rubbing alkaloids on their vaginas. There can be no other explanation. Some material thing must be responsible for their experience–or for how they were pictured in their society.

I can understand how the average person can be so convinced of the validity of the materailist perspective that they can be certain there is no other way to explain magic. But we as witches? Surely we can see other possibilities. Just as we reject the silly Randi’s year-in-year-out insistence that someone dammit perform some magic for him so he can pay them a million dollars act big and call them frauds in public, so we can reject the necessity of flying ointments based on powerful and dangerous alkaloids.

The other thing is who’s in charge of our history? People who tell stories about witches or witches themselves? This is not to reject scholarship. I love it and use it all the time and have to say I have gotten more from the scholarship on witchcraft written by outsiders than the majority of the stuff written by practitioners of magic. But the flying ointment question makes me think of a story I heard years ago about some gangster movie, maybe “The Godfather.” Seems some real mafia guys saw it and concluded that they needed to have some kind of ritual when they accepted someone into their circle, just like in the movie. They adopted the ritual they’d seen depicted and eventually came to believe it was in fact an ancient Sicilian ritual that they had always used. Are we now inventing the necessity–the historical veracity–for a flying ointment composed of powerful and dangerous alkaloids?

Let’s not be like that. Let’s create our own culture instead of being handed it by others.

15 comments to Some thoughts on flying ointments

  • Eh, armpits would be a really great place to apply oinments, provided the flyer is not a devoted armpit shaver, because there’s really no way to shear off pit hair without nicking the skin even slightly (at least not that I’ve found, so I don’t bother at this point.) And you learn what you’ve done the next time you apply that fancy-pants natural deodorant and wince a couple times. But I digress… (and am still cackling about the mucous membranes MUST be the vagina rationale.)

    For the sake of argument, if I was a country simpler who made drawer sachets that repelled moths, and also made nice-smelling balms, just to ensure my customers smelled better in a time of limited bathing, you can bet your bippy I’d have told an interrogator it was ‘blooms of bat barf’ or ‘fronds of Devil’s stinky britches’, just to give him what the hell he wanted so I’d be sent to the gallows sooner and be put out of my misery.

    This post covers soooo much territory. I’m quite fond of the “Witches used the most horrible ingredients imaginable” line of logic, because it really makes the country simplers and cunning folk, et al, look evil and ugly enough to be worthy of some sort of persecution. Old Mabel on the outskirts of town makes ointments, therefore she must have soured the milk in my cow, yada yada yada.

    Something else really vital here (and I am biased, being a perfumery geek) is that idea from Zohar that aromatics are what attract spirits down to our level. It makes me think of YVHV’s demands of the incense as a “sweet savor” in the Old Testament, which it is offered up as in temples, churches, etc, even now. Because witching is working with spirits as well, if that is a specific area one is prompted to pursue and develop.

    (Btw, man, all this time I thought the babies were made into communion wafers for the Black Mass, what’s this about matzohs? Cripes…)

  • I’ve always been aware of such psychotropic substances, but have honestly never considered using them. Maybe for us more.. delicate?… witches (the ones who get a good buzz going from sage smudging or a few sips of ceremonial wine), I’d be afraid of the outcome. I grow many of the plants used (the seeds coming from you, actually) but have never used them for anything other than their magical properties. Maybe it’s time to grow bolder.

    I’d lovelovelove to hear the story how someone as experienced and skilled in botany managed to poison themselves. I’m sure we all have some scars from our gardens, but your hints were oh so very enticing!

    Oh, as a side note — and I’m sure you can correct me on this — but I was under them impression that when plants were giving the folk title of Bastard (as in Bastard toadflax) it was because they were *like* the true plant, often confused for the true plant, or cunningly referred to as the true plant by wise Witches wanting to throw someone off the path. Just a thought.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Yep, you are right about the similar appearance but that the plant is not what it looks like, IOW, “is not,” no?

      I’m taking the stupid ape story to my grave. Re being a delicate witch, just growing these babies is more for a sensitive person to be approached by the spirit of the plant, IMO. It just takes time and the individual’s attention to the plant. Anyway, that has been my experience.

  • Very interesting post. It’s nice to see a man’s perspective who also happens to be a magical practitioner. As a woman, I sometimes take the brooms as dildos thing for granted… lol Definitely some great food for thought. Really looking forward to your book!

  • petoskystone

    great post! your way of describing gives me a much-needed smile this day!

  • I personally think the whole broom vagina things came from the testimony of 14th century Irish witch Alice Kettle – “I greased a staffe, upon which I ambled and gallopped thorough thicke and thin“. It’s pretty much the only reference I could find to this practice when I did my podcast episode on flying ointments – besides a poem that came later which I think was inspired by the same testimony.

    Your theory that ointments were for the non-practitioners really perked my ears up. Most of the stories of ointments from the middle ages are of a mysterious women letting scientific men test their ointments – for a fee I’m sure. I can see otherworldly beings and travel to the otherworld with no aids whatsoever and no difficulty doing so, but many others spend so much time just trying to get across the barrier. The issue I think is that there is no barrier – there’s a path to step upon and you either see it or don’t. Flying ointments and other such substances can help one to see it – but does it a witch or shaman make? I don’t think so. Perhaps psychoactives are more like “play shaman for a day” type substances… Hmmm, something for me to think on.

    Great post Harry!

  • Nothing in my post described flying ointments, but did describe the use of poisons and the poison path (via krauter). My use of them is spirit-directed, not “ooh shiny”, or mythologically derived. My reasoning is “I have to. It’s part of the deal.” Not “that’s what witches do” – I’ve never been much for that kind of thinking. It’s what I do, and I’d be quite preturbed if someone picked up my practice in the belief that it’s “anciente” and started mucking about in it. And also I’d laugh when they got alcohol poisoning, but still.

    I see nothing wrong with deriving a valid practice from folklore. That’s what we’re all doing, right? It’s no more or less silly than believing Rosa spp. can promote love and holy union just because some books say so… except for that whole “heart failure, coma and death” risk with the alkaloid-bearers.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Scylla, I was not accusing you of anything. I read your post and thought it was a good example of a modern approach to the question of dangerous alkaloids: a person interacting directly with a plant spirit. I think that’s perfectly legitimate, and I said so here in this post: “I do think that modern flying ointments or oils or tinctures or teas can have a purpose for us now.” I was perhaps being too lax with the term “flying.” I am not morally opposed to people wanting to ingest a plant containing dangerous alkaloids, but I don’t think that has historically been part of witchcraft. I do get contact from people on a regular basis who believe that flying ointments and/or the ingestion in some form of plants with dangerous alkaloids was a part of witchcraft historically and who feel that either witches are therefore mandated to engage these plants or that it is too bad we are in a fallen state where no one does that anymore. I don’t think such practice actually existed–I think that’s the outsiders’ view–and I don’t think it has to be resuscitated now.

      I feel great inspiration from the folklore of plants and witchcraft, and that’s why I brought up the scholarship of witchcraft. There is lots to mine there–IMO, way more than in 95% of books written by practitioners. But I think the goodies to be found there are to be interpreted by people practicing now and that that interpretation happens through practice. This seems to be exactly in accord with what you said about deriving a valid practice from folklore. I don’t think you meant copying.

      I will remove the link to your blog in the opening line. I’d also like to add that I did not intend any criticism of what the Scullery Maid or the Witch of Forest Grove wrote either. I referred to them and to your blog post as posts that got me thinking about flying ointments.

      • I think I came across a bit differently in my comment than I intended to. I did not interpret any criticism, and I’m sorry if I came across terse. I’ll have to chock it up to lack of sleep – vacations are seldom restful for me and without decent sleep my thoughts slow to a really, really, thin trickle.

        What I’m trying to raise as a point is whether or not the lack of historical backing is important – historical info can be dead wrong and twice as dumb (see: the folk medicinal uses of kerosene). Where to we draw the line, can a line be drawn/ should a line be drawn… all that sort of stuff that I’m apparently way too fatigued to express properly. 😉

        • Alchemist in Charge

          I’ve certainly had the experience of needing a vacation from my vacation, so I can empathize with that kind of tiredness.

          I don’t think there has to be any historical backing for any present magical practice, but it seems to me that most people involved in witchcraft do believe that flying ointments were used as a means of getting to the sabbat in history and this then leads to various decisions in terms of what to do about that issue now. I think they might never have been used and/or not in the form(s) that come down to us. I hope to say more about this in the belladonna chapter, if I ever get there.

  • petoskystone

    i adore histories…so many great stories! no gospel, just stories. they give me to wonder, how much of it happened & how much, what is written, is more along the lines of ‘based on a real event’. as regards the topic of flying ointments, in the histories i have read, the implication is this is what (northern european) witches do…stand around cauldrons & brew mind-blowing mixes. the questions i end up with is: if this was anywhere close to as common as written, then where are the tales of accidental poisoning? how is it that children or curious teens never got into stuff? if using brooms to apply such ointments, wouldn’t the wood eventually absorb enough to give a person a contact high? decent stories still, even if they don’t seem very practical. great post, btw, harry.

  • Excellent post!

    I am reading through Witchcraft Medicine right now (a truly fascinating book, I will have to re-read it as the book has so much knowledge I can’t sink it all in!) and I got to the little blurb about flying ointments. It says “All recipes that are known were written by early scientists, often clerics or doctors. The ointments (Unguentum populeum) were not forbidden; they were officially used for the treatment of pain, as a numbing wound dressing, as an executioner’s salve [etc.]…” (Witchcraft Medicine, 51, Storl).

    After reading this I felt that it made a lot of sense since, according to what I have read, the poisonous plants do create a very numbing effect. I think the true witching herbs for “flight” were sacred herbs such as Mugwort and Tobacco and the like. Heck Henbane was originally used to calm storms; how did it go from that to flying? It causes sleep. I just don’t see the connection.

    On the other hand does not one ingest certain plants and herbs to know their spirit? I believe Sarah had a post about this a while ago stating that to learn about the spirit of an animal one need eat of it or wear it or what have you (total summary! WOOT!). But, as Sarah said, maybe that is the “shaman for a day” method.

    Great post!

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Thanks! I think a more thorough-going way to come to know a plant spirit is to grow the plant itself, especially, if possible, from seed. That way you get to see the plant at various stages in its life. I also see this activity–growing a plant–as devotional to the plant spirit. Yes, there are plants that grow without our help at all, but many that are associated with magic actually seem to grow primarily around people and to get something from that proximity–often cultivation, although my idea is that they get something spiritual or non-material as well. I also see growing a plant as akin to the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the name for how the divine contracted to make room for the universe as an independent existence. There is something very caring and selfless about that.

      The other thing is that being around and tending a growing plant every day, basically in a posture of helping and listening, being attentive, is in my experience a way to let the plant spirit know that you wish contact and that you are ready to learn. I see this posture as completely different from consuming plant parts.

  • My wife has been making flying ointments for several years now and does alot with herbal medicines. The flying ointment that she makes is from a very old recipe and she usually has the people that purchase it to apply it at the temples for the best effect. She also recommends starting out with just a tiny bit and seeing how that affect them and then using more till they get to the results they are wanting. But never should you operate cars or anything along those lines while using it.

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