A woman, alone at night, pulls an ointment jar from a chest hidden beneath her bed. Opening the container, she scoops a handful of the foul-smelling goop—the witches’ ointment, lamiarum unguenta—into her palm. She turns to an ordinary broom in the shadows of the corner, the kind that her neighbors foolishly believe has no other use than that of sweeping—maybe killing a mouse or two. At present, this woman intends to do neither. Grasping the besom, she smears the long wooden handle with her witches’ ointment, destroying the freshly woven spiderwebs that now trail her fingertips. Straddling the oily broomstick, she is instantly lifted out the window into the ethers to join scores of other women who have similarly anointed implements, soaring alongside demons that fill out the aerial entourage.
As they glide over rooftops and clouds, dotting the moon in their wake, all are careful not to mention the name of God or Christ lest they plunge to their deaths. They are traveling to a faraway meadow leagues beyond the watchful eyes of the clergy and their neighbors where they will join others already assembled, reveling and worshipping Satan: the Sabbat. Should any newcomer wish to join Satan’s congregation she must pay homage to him by renouncing her Christian faith and trampling a large cross conveniently placed before her feet. Finally, she must solidify her devotion by planting the obscene kiss, the osculum infame, on the Devil’s derriere. Now a full member of the sect, she will join the others in a fine banquet of murdered child’s flesh. They will feast heartily only to discover that the food lacks all taste and oddly leaves the diners still hungry. Afterward, she will engage in such wicked debauches as dancing backward and fornicating with demons.
Satan had conspired to rule the world and conscripted gullible witches to help carry out his nefarious plans. He would eventually send his flock away, but not before instructing them in the malefic arts (maleficia, or “evil magic”), which include preparing ointments and potions from the remains of dead children. These mixtures could be used to inflict harm or death on the populace, raise storms and disease, and stir hatred among pious Christians.
The above, more or less, is what some demonologists believed witches practiced during the height of the witch trials, ca. 1550–1650, when tens of thousands of women and men burned at the stake for their supposed diabolical crimes. Scholars largely agree that the Sabbat first appeard in Europe in the texts of ecclesiastics writing in the 1430s. The witches’ Sabbat was a composite idea fueled by the literate class’s appropriation and redefinitions of numerous templates. Indeed, all of these acts associated with the Sabbat—night flying, demonic congregation, satanic worship, wild orgies, cannibalism, and celestial insurgency—were quite separate ideas at one time, derived from folklore, ecclesiastical ideas regarding heresy, and common ideas about magic and demonology that had been developing over the preceding centuries.
These components were tampered with and eventually amalgamated into the image of the diabolical witch performing her maleficia within a larger witch cult. One of these offenses, though, was a newcomer to the stereotype of the witch. While all those other ideas such as night flight, cannibalism, demonic orgies, etc., evolved between the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, the notion of an ointment used to enable flying through the air started to appear in the written record only around the early fifteenth century, on the cusp of theocrats’ formulation of the witch stereotype.
Witches’ ointments were magical drug pastes, ointments, and oils that women and men were said to smear over their bodies, and later, over “flying” vehicles such as brooms and rakes. Those thus anointed would then fall into a deep sleep, a soporatum,1 experience fantastic visions, and upon waking, claim to have traveled great distances and copulated with others.2 Contemporary reports have led some modern scholars to theorize that the so-called witches’ ointments contained soporific, hallucinogenic, or otherwise psychotropic ingredients mostly culled from the Solanaceae family of plants, and that the effects of these drugs were the cause of such bizarre delusions.3 This theory is not without evidence; most historians of medieval European magic agree that several kinds of medical folk magic existed and were practiced by low-status women and men.4 There is little doubt that this folk magic involved the use of plants and herbs in remedies and potions.5 Mostly when ointments and potions are mentioned in trial records of this time, they are used to heal, cause insanity, and incite love in humans, or to harm or cause death in people or animals.6 A scholarly yet romantic subgroup within this milieu holds that the ointments did exist, they had an unbroken link to antiquity, and they were smeared on brooms and inserted into the vagina or rectum, thus inaugurating our modern idea of witches “riding” on brooms.7 This theory is rejected by others who believe that the ointments were a “product of either harmless folklore or demonological theory . . . not effective mind-altering substances.”8 These skeptics maintain that during the period when the witch stereotype first began to crystalize, clergymen, lawyers, inquisitors, demonologists, and other members of the learned class fabricated their own fantasies about witchcraft, attaching diabolical implications to otherwise harmless folk practices. To the modern skeptics, the witches’ ointment bubbled up not from any crone’s cauldron but from the vivid imaginations of the priestly class and its long-held traditions concerning apostasy.
While some of the medieval witch trials certainly originated in this manner,* and those charged with witchcraft, once charged with other witch-related crimes, were often compelled to confess to having attended Sabbats after being arrested for practicing magic, there is previously overlooked evidence indicating that the witches’ ointment, like other aspects of the witch stereotype, had a foundation in real folk sorcery, i.e., intentional drug use. There is reluctance by some to consider the possibility that a few of these potions were vended for private use to clients specifically for their psychotropic effects. The argument is made in several ways, but can be summed up as follows: “The earliest recipes [of witches’ ointments] . . . consist not of narcotics, but of . . . disagreeable but non-toxic substances.”9 But the evidence suggests otherwise.
While all magic may seem like the same clatter to us today, to those living in Western Europe during the early modern period, defining what constituted magic was not so simple. Although trial dossiers of the time are terse on the modes of folk magic and often “specify neither means nor ends,”10 we can nonetheless get a taste of local magic by the practices that inquisitors and others of the literate class documented. Some of these arts involved weather magic, lot casting, invocation, image magic, medical magic, murder through magical means, poison magic (veneficia†), and love magic.
*The uniformity or “script” of the Sabbat as recorded by inquisitors in the mid-fifteenth through the early eighteenth centuries was clearly a demonological interpolation by the learned class.
†Veneficia can mean a variety of things, including the subject of our inquiry: “poison magic”; other times it can refer to the more banal “general herbal knowledge”; it can even be equated more broadly with a vague word like witchcraft—a term that doesn’t tell us much. The details of how veneficia was used, above all else, will matter throughout the following pages as we decipher the secrets of psyche-magical sorcery.
Of these latter two categories, further breakdowns are possible: some kinds of love magic were “sympathetic” in nature—saying certain words while winding the shirt of the person the lovelorn person hoped to gain affection from was one technique;11 placement of magical objects in proximity to the target was another method. Other forms of veneficia specifically dealt with ingesting poisons and elixirs of various types, the contents of which comprise the present study.12 Veneficia also included truly spiteful poisonings, in which the ultimate outcome was indeed surreptitious homicide. A modern historian put it this way: “A veneficus . . . is not ‘a witch,’ since the latter may include the former but the former does not necessarily imply the latter.”13
This is the story of how veneficia of the sorcery kind (i.e., not just homicidal poisoning) got swept up into the witch stereotype and thereby became a tool of diabolical witchcraft in the opinions of church authorities. It is the story of an early medieval canonical belief, outlined in the famous Canon Episcopi (or Capitulum Episcopi), a certain passage found in medieval canon law that was debated and readapted by theologians over time. By the beginning of the early modern period this process had transformed local forms of witchcraft into a new heresy. It is also the story of how the Canon’s original condemnation of a specific folk belief once found dubious—that of night riding with ancient goddesses—was reinterpreted by theologians centuries later to prove that witches really did exist. It is the story of folk magic and the knowledge of the poisons some people used to practice those arts and rites. Finally, it is the story of how, within this theological redefinition of the witch in the early fifteenth century, the witches’ ointment was used to explain how witches flew to the Sabbat.
An Internet search of witches’ ointments will draw nearly one million hits. The validity of the information available is at best questionable; however, the zealousness of the writers is without question. While some academics, both conservative and romantic, can be praised for their contributions to the field, shoddy research from some conspiracy writers has led some academics to reject the possible reality of these magical ointments, and for good reason—most of this “history” by the conspiracy theorists is critically and contextually inadequate.14 Nonetheless, wholly denying the existence of the psyche-magical experience during the early modern period in Western Europe, as I discovered, is merely zealotry of a different kind. Modern-day skeptics have predispositions that are obvious;15 their reasons for this skepticism, however, remain debatable.
For now, let us suspend all partiality and start the investigation anew. Let’s reject feeble proclamations and focus on the best evidence; let’s put that evidence into historical context. Let’s shine a light into dark torture rooms, eavesdrop on the fireside lore of the superstitious, aid a village sorceress as she casts her spells, congregate with heretics gathered under cover of night, delve into the minds of fanatical inquisitors, stand in magic circles with necromancers, and see what reality, if any, exists surrounding the lore of the enchanting witches’ ointment.
1. Joseph Hansen, Quellen und untersuchungen, 228.
2. Friedenwald, “Andres Laguna,” 1037–48.
3. Bever, Realities of Witchcraft, see chapter 4; Rudgley, Pagan Resurrection, 47; Baroja, World of the Witches, 35; Sidky, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, see chapter 7; Harner, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, see chapter 8.
4. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, 205; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials, 101.
5. Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials, 73, 97.
6. Ibid., 49.
7. Harner, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, 131; Rudgley, Pagan Resurrection, 47.
8. Levack, Witch-Hunt, 49. Richard Kieckhefer, e-mail to author, Dec. 11, 2009. For the best arguments from skepticism, see Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, 175–76; Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 56.
9. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, 176.
10. Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials, 64.
12. Ibid., 58–59.
13. Del Rio, Investigations into Magic, 24–25.
14. The latest offenses can be found in Rush, The Mushroom in Christian Art, 269–70.
15. Most recent would be Robin Briggs’ review of Edward Bever’s Realities of Witchcraft in European History Quarterly.