Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya
There were many recipes used by medieval witches for making flying ointments. These ointments were smeared on broomsticks and on the bodies of the witches, and were used to help them fly to their Sabbaths. The main ingredients used were very poisonous and hallucinogenic herbs, so it seems likely that the users of these ointments hallucinated that they were flying.
The herbs and their juices were mixed together in a base of animal fat, though some recipes use the fat of children that have been dug up from graves, and horror movies and stories often substitute the fat of a human baby to make it really sinister and horrific. We cannot be sure about what the witches really did in the days of old but we do know what plants they used for “magical” purposes, so let us take a look at 10 of the herbs used to make flying ointments.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is in the very large nightshade family, or Solanaceae, as they are known to botanists. It is very aptly named because this plant can cause death if consumed. Also known as naughty man’s cherries, it has sweet-tasting black berries that look very tempting but just two to five berries can kill an adult. This is because of the very toxic tropane alkaloids the deadly nightshade contains. Atropine, which is one of these poisons, dilates the pupils of the eye, and in very small quantities has been used by opticians. It was once used by Italian women to make themselves more beautiful, and Bella donna means “Beautiful lady.”
The deadly nightshade is one of the poisonous herbs most frequently included in flying ointment recipes. It has rather beautiful purplish bell-shaped flowers but it is very much a “Femme fatale” because it is a plant we can look at in admiration but had better not touch.
Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is another really dangerous plant that the witches once used in their flying ointments. It even looks and smells toxic. Hemlock has purplish spots and blotches on its tall stems and a most unpleasant odor if the leaves are lightly crushed. Also known as poison parsley and Devil’s porridge, it is a member of the Apiaceae or parsley family, which group of plants has many edible species, but the hemlock most definitely does not come into that category. In fact, long ago, it was used to execute prisoners in Ancient Greece. The philosopher Socrates was killed this way, after he had been found guilty of corrupting the young men of Athens.
Hemlock grows on river banks, in grassy places, along roadsides, and on waste ground. It is found throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia but has been introduced and naturalized in North America and in Australia.
Sweet Flag or Calamus
The sweet flag or calamus (Acorus calamus) is not a poisonous plant but its root has stimulant and hallucinogenic properties if consumed in sufficient quantities. Besides being used as an ingredient in the flying ointments of witches, it gets a mention in the Bible (Exodus 30:23) where it was mixed with cinnamon and myrrh to make a “holy anointing oil.”
Sweet flag gets its name because of the similarity in appearance of its sword-shaped leaves to those of species of iris, which are often called flags, and because it has a sweet scent which has been used in the perfume industry. It was once employed in Medieval times as a “strewing herb” too to make the air smell better in courthouses and other buildings.
Sweet flag grows at the edges of ponds, lakes and rivers. It is thought to have originally come from Asia but has been introduced to many parts of the world, including North America.
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) is also known as aconite, mother of poisons and devil’s helmet. It contains aconitine and is the most poisonous of all the dangerous plants used to make flying ointments. Just touching the plant can cause unpleasant allergic reactions. It is said to be one of the most toxic plants in the world, and a very small amount can cause numbness, vomiting, coma and death. Despite its very dangerous nature, monkshood is often cultivated in gardens but gloves should definitely be worn when handling it.
The plant has attractive purplish-blue helmet-shaped flowers and will grow in damp and partially shaded locations, In the wild it often grows on riverbanks.
Monkshood is said to have been used to kill Pope Adrian VI and in Greek myth, the enchantress Medea poisoned the cup of Theseus with this deadly plant. The related wolf’s bane (A. lycoctonum) was used, as its name suggests for killing wolves.
The cinquefoils are over 300 plants in the Potentilla genus. They get their name from having leaves divided into five, which in French is “cinque.” The creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) is one of the most common species in Europe, so was probably a species used to make flying ointments, and in North America, it was probably the common cinquefoil or five-finger grass (P. simplex). The first of these species gets its name from its habit of creeping over the ground by sending out runners. Unlike most herbs included in recipes to make these ointments, the cinquefoils have no poisonous or hallucinogenic properties and are actually members of the very large rose family (Rosaceae). So why they got used by witches remains a mystery, unless they saw some significance in the leaves being divided into five leaflets. The five leaflets reminds us of the pentagram five-pointed star. There are many other recipes for witches’ potions and spells that include cinquefoil.
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is a herb that has been long-associated with magic and superstitions, and has most recently found its way into the Harry Potter stories and movies. It looks magical because its roots can grow into a fork like two human legs. These roots used to be dried and made into magical amulets. In the trial of Joan of Arc, some of the evidence against her being in league with the Devil was that she possessed a mandrake that she used to perform witchcraft. Not surprisingly, this herb is another of the poisonous nightshade family, and is included in many flying ointment recipes. Amongst weird beliefs about the plant was the superstition that the mandrake could scream and this would kill anyone hearing it. To harvest the roots, the mandrake collectors would tie a dog by rope to the root of the plant and then throw some scraps of food to tempt the animal away. The dog would run after the food and pull the mandrake out. It would scream and kill the animal but the collectors could return safely and gather up their prize.
Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) is included in the ingredients for some flying ointments. Its botanical name gives us a clue to one of its uses, because it is also an ingredient in the very potent absinthe drink that many artists, poets and writers used to enjoy, although it was known to cause madness. Today, absinthe has become marketed as “Green Fairy, and although modern brews are very different and less dangerous than the original versions, it is still known to be a very powerful alcoholic drink. Wormwood is used in herbal medicine, as its moniker suggests, to expel internal worms. It is a very bitter aromatic herb and in the Bible King Solomon describes “the end of a strange woman” as being “bitter as wormwood.”
Wormwood is closely related to mugwort (A. vulgaris), another herb that is sometimes listed as an ingredient of flying ointments.
Thornapple or Devil's Weed
Thornapple (Datura stramonium) is also called Devil’s weed, and for good reason. This weird-looking plant, which is yet another from the nightshade family, is a very poisonous but hallucinogenic herb. It is known to cause bizarre hallucinations in which the intoxicated user can see and talk with people who are not really there. It is dangerous because too much of it can cause long-lasting insanity, and it can kill you. It is frequently included in flying ointment ingredients. The thornapple gets its name from its spiky seed-pods that develop after its flowers, which are funnel-shaped and white or purplish. The plant has an unpleasant smell and large leaves with jagged edges. It grows as a weed on cultivated land, roadsides and in waste ground, and is found, more or less, all over the world. The thornapple got mentioned in The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, as a “teacher plant,” and in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, as one of the mind-bending drugs that get used.
The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is a plant that is well-known for being the source of the highly addictive substance it is named after, and the drugs codeine, morphine and heroin that are also produced from the juice of this plant. The opium poppy is often included in the herbs used to make flying ointments. This is of particular interest, not just because of the poppy’s powerful narcotic effects, but because it has been said to work as an antidote to varying degrees to poisoning by deadly nightshade and herbs from the nightshade family. Alexander Kuklin discusses this in his book, How Do Witches Fly? (DNA Press, 1999.) Perhaps this is a clue as to how the witches of old didn’t get fatally poisoned by their flying ointments? A condition known as “twilight sleep” was once used to bring relief from the pains of childbirth, and the condition was produced by combining scopolamine from deadly nightshade with morphine from the opium poppy.
Flying Ointment poll
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is yet another poisonous member of the nightshade group of herbs that was once included in the flying ointments made by witches. Like thornapple, it has an unpleasant smell and other names for the plant include stinking Roger and stinking nightshade. Henbane grows a weed in waste ground, especially near the sea, and although originally from the area around the Mediterranean Sea it has spread to many parts of the world. It has attractive bell-shaped flowers that are pale-yellow and delicately veined with purple. After flowering seed-pods that resemble little pots are produced all the way up the stalks. Henbane contains atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine, and is so poisonous that a paste of the herb was smeared on the arrows of some tribes of the ancient Celts. It was once an ingredient in “magical brews” and it is said that one of the hallucinations produced by intoxication with this herb is the sensation of flight.
Olivia on July 22, 2016:
Thank-you for a very informative and interesting read . had a friend once took datura we found them the next day after they woke up an a skip just as the truck was picking it up . they got out in time but they later had there wallet returned from the fountain at the other end of the city lol . I loved this thank-you
Im tempted to try but this witch is getting old . think I'll take the plane ;)
Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 07, 2016:
Thanks for commenting! I am very glad you found it useful!
Karen A Szklany from New England on June 07, 2016:
Enjoyed reading this comprehensive and informative hub about flying ointment plants. Great source of reference!
Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 02, 2016:
All the datura species are very hallucinogenic but very dangerous poisons, as are the closely related species from the Brugmansia (Angel's Trumpet) genus.
Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on June 02, 2016:
We have stories told by the Yavapai Apache that tell of their Shaman being able to "fly" after consuming a mixture of flatbread impregnated with Moon flower, their word for Sacred Datura...The plant, eaten by itself, is deadly...the flatbread must have protected the Shaman from its poisonous effects...The plant is extremely bitter and malodorous preventing its consumption in most cases...I have seen foraging cattle in a high state of agitation after eating one of these plants...
Interesting hub...thank you.
Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 02, 2016:
That is the only explanation that makes sense.
Nicole Young 07 from Chicago Illinois on June 02, 2016:
Interesting, I know witches don't fly, perhaps the hallucinating effects of the herbs makes it possible for witches to think they were indeed flying