What is a Flying Ointment?
We know them by many names: witches’ flying ointment, unguentum sabbati, unguentum lamiarum, and other times they are simply referred to as the diabolical potions or oils of witches. A flying ointment is a salve made with rendered animal fat or vegetable oil which has been infused with poisonous, psychoactive herbs. These substances were purportedly used by witches to fly to their sabbath rites, to shape-shift into animals, to cause people to fall asleep, to cast love spells, or to curse people with madness. Although most documentation and recipes of flying ointments are found in the early modern period during the height of the witch hunts in Europe, their mention can be found in ancient mythology and literature. Flying ointments are mentioned in Apollonius Rhodius’ The Argonautica from 200 BCE, Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass from around 160 CE, and the oldest possible reference is in Homer’s The Iliad from around 800 BCE where the goddess Hera uses an oil of ambrosia to fly to Olympus, while never touching the earth.
Many of the plants traditionally found in flying ointment recipes are deadly poisons and well known hallucinogens associated with witchcraft, lycanthropy, and madness. It is enough to stop even a seasoned herbalist or botanist from experimenting with them. Other than containing poisonous herbs, one thing the differing flying ointment recipes have in common is they all contain at least one nightshade and sometimes several nightshade herbs including belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake. Due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the proper preparation and administration of these plants, most reports of poisoning or death are due to improper dosage by people seeking a recreational high. These associations have given nightshades their bad names and led to such a large buildup of fear and fakelore that Western spiritual and herbal communities have completely bypassed them in favour of herbs which come without propaganda and tales of terror. How bad is the propaganda surrounding nightshades? As an example, cannabis and opium poppy were found in historical flying ointment recipes too, but instead of being shunned like nightshades, they are the most-used drugs of our current era.
What Are Nightshades?
Nightshades belong to the Solanaceae plant family which includes a large variety of vines, herbs, shrubs, trees, vegetables, flowers, and spices. It is a very important plant family, but its medicinal members of belladonna, brugmansia, datura, henbane, mandrake, and scopolia are often forgotten or unused in modern herbalism because, firstly, their applications and preparations are rarely taught in schools of Traditional Western Herbalism, secondly, they can be rare and hard to source if you don’t live in their native habitat or grow them yourself, and thirdly, there is a lot of fear and propaganda surrounding their poisonous and hallucinogenic properties. It is my goal as a herbalist who has worked with these potent plant allies for the past decade to help dispel the fear and misinformation as well as educate people about the multi-purpose uses of these powerful herbs.
Yes belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake are poisonous and psychoactive, but so are tobacco, alcohol, and coffee! In fact, tobacco is a nightshade too! After a few years of continuing to make my nightshade ointments any fear my clients initially had went away and was replaced with an overwhelming amount of feedback on how effective the ointments are and how much they are helping people with serious health issues and giving them a better quality of life.
When dosed and prepared properly as a salve by an experienced herbalist and applied externally, medicinal nightshades can be used with the same safety as ibuprofen or a rub-on analgesic. Use them as needed, but don’t go overboard. Give yourself breaks so your body doesn’t build up too much of a tolerance and the medicine becomes less and less effective as with any medicine.
Poison as Medicine
A poison that can harm is often also a medicine that can cure. When the nightshade ointments were used in the past, it was mainly for medicine as remnants of salve jars and seeds have been excavated out of ancient hospitals such as Soutra in Scotland and also the prescriptions and recipes of ancient physicians that have been found in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BC and clay tablets from ancient Sumerian libraries dated to 5,000 years ago. The recipes for witches’ flying ointments are uncannily identical to the recipes for soporific sponges in common use of the physicians of the same era for anesthesia during surgery: opium poppy, mandrake, and henbane and sometimes belladonna and cannabis in even older recipes. The archaeological evidence suggests our ancestors were actively smoking or drinking these psychoactive plants to become intoxicated for the pleasure of it and the recreational use of herbal salves would have been pretty rare. Unlike our ancestors, we now know ingestion is not a good idea as the toxic tropanes of nightshades can build up in your system, your heart doesn’t gain tolerance, and you will eventually wear our your body from heart and/or kidney damage… so as much as it is my goal to help revive the traditions and preparations surrounding medicinal nightshades, it’s usually best to stick to external use only for the most part.
After all my research and experience making and using nightshade ointments it is my impression they survived as medicine, not as witches’ flying ointments. Right now I know there is a granny in Germany who makes a wild henbane leaf oil for her arthritis and sells it to her townsfolk just as there is a herbalist at a market in Mexico at this moment selling datura salves for pain. I believe the line between medicine and magic used to be more blurred or non existent and that the psychoactive effects are at the core of what makes these plant medicines so much more effective than non-psychoactive ones. The once maligned mind-altering effects are turning out to be the reason psychoactive plant medicines are so effective at treating physical and emotional pain and current scientific research is validating this. The fear around the use of these poisonous and hallucinogenic substances is subsiding the more we learn about them and how they can be used to safely aid in a wide range of physical and mental health issues.
I think modern people tend to compartmentalize too much and be too serious — flying ointments can be medicine, intoxicants, and magic all at once with no need to separate out each application. Occultists and scientists have been trying to “recreate” flying ointments for centuries usually using instructions from a “common person” as in the cases of Cornelius Agrippa and Giambattista della Porta. This tells me these ointments may have been in use all along in regional traditions of folk medicine, but the actual makers and users were likely just taking advantage of the psychoactive effects of a common medicinal pain ointment to achieve trance or soul flight the same way a group of pagans would get a bit drunk on wine during an ecstatic rite.
What Can Nightshade Medicine Do For You?
The medicinal members of the nightshade (or solanaceae) family are some of the most potent drugs we have available to us on the planet and extracts of their alkaloids such as atropine are still incredibly important in modern medicine for which belladonna, datura, and brugmansia are grown on an industrial scale to be turned into pharmaceuticals used today to treat severe gastro-intestinal issues, motion sickness, nausea and vomiting after surgery, and are made into injections to premedicate patients before operations as a pain-killer, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory. The herbs I use in my ointments (belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake) are aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antisialagogue, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. For a herbalist, it’s an incredible range of useful actions that can help people with many different types and levels of pain, mental health issues, and sleep issues.
Medicinal nightshades relieve inflammation, muscle spasms, as well as acute and chronic pain. Plants that are narcotic and sedative help with falling and staying asleep. Antisialagogue/anticholinergic medicines help with dizziness, gastro-intestinal issues, asthma, bronchitis, and insomnia. Used externally, however, a nightshade ointment will only help with insomnia and cramping, not respiratory problems or bowel issues.
As euphoric plants, the solanaceae aren’t just medicine for physical pain, they are also medicine for the soul. Friends and patrons alike use the ointments to treat anxiety, frayed nerves, and depression which often go hand in hand with chronic pain and sleep issues. Because of their applications, medicinal nightshades can be used instead of cannabis and opiates. Everyone is different, so they won’t work the same for everyone, but if they work for you they are a legal and non-addictive option for those looking to soothe the body and soul.
Why is it safer to use medicinal nightshades topically than internally? Medicinal nightshades are not safe to use long-term when ingested, but small amounts taken for short time periods can help with certain health issues. Most modern medications containing alkaloids extracted from nightshade herbs are meant for short-term use and are only available via prescription. When ingested the body builds up a tolerance to the tropane alkaloids in nightshades, but the heart, liver, and kidneys do not and one can unintentionally poison themselves — even when following the dosages on a tincture bottle. It is when the herbs pass through the digestive tract that we put ourselves at the most risk of poisoning. The safest ways to prepare and use poisonous nightshade plants as medicine is to infuse them in oil or lard to make a topical ointment or to smoke the dried leaves like cannabis or tobacco but obviously in much smaller quantities due to their comparable toxicity. Having said that, I would not recommend smoking nightshades in the datura/brugmansia family unless it is for medicinal reasons and under the direction of a clinical herbalist.
It is my own conclusion that “flying ointments” are indeed real and have a historical basis in medicine, ceremony, and for recreation, but they would definitely not have been called flying ointments or witches’ ointments and would only have been used for astral flight by a teeny tiny percentage of the population at any given time in history… but who very likely did not self-identify as witches.
To sum it up: nightshade ointments were and still are mainly for medicinal use, it is when the herbal salves are abused for their psychoactive effects that they become “flying ointments”. The witches’ flying ointments of Europe’s Early Modern Period are largely just the church propaganda and fear mongering of the times. Flying ointments were just medicine, powerful and intimidating yes, but medicine nonetheless.