The image of the witch has quite strong links to flight, the dead, herbalism and the unseen in most people’s minds. Much of where this iconic image comes from has been ignored or even passed off as vivid hallucinations and stories created from the minds and traumas involved in the interrogations, until more scholarly examinations of Traditional Witchcraft and Ethnobotany became available. In this ignored and forgotten lore that many are now coming to evaluate and embrace accordingly, the idea of Flying Ointments is of particular interest to many and suddenly becoming less of a taboo among those in the witchy community.
Death and Rebirth
One way to look at the subject of Flying Ointments is to look at the idea of death and rebirth. In many primitive cultures, initiatory rites exist in which the individual experiences a form of death and rebirth. This specific death is more that of the ego than a literal death, but they are also often brought closer to the state of death through the use of a wide variety of poisonous psychoactive plants depending on their location and the flora available to them. In this state, the individual’s soul is loosened from the body and able to fly to far away places and talk to spirits, those of nature and of the dead, and meet those that will act as their guides or helpers. Part of this experience however is being able to remain aware enough navigate this dreamstate.
The witches’ ointment is one such ethnobotanical wonder that enables one to come a bit closer to this realm of death. These ointments, when smeared upon the witch’s body, have been said to enable one to transform into beasts, talk to spirits, or fly to the Witches’ Sabbat. Those using them have come back with tales of great adventures, feasts, and orgiastic parties. Those who use them improperly may meet the true, final death instead.
(Painting of a Witches’ Sabbat by Goya)
The Solanaceae (and Other Plants)
Contained within these ointments were many of the toxic Solanaceous plants, as well as Hemlock, Aconite, and Poppy, depending on the recipe. The plants were typically infused into some sort of animal fat base (baby fat in some old recipes) for better transdermal absorption, although this isn’t exactly neccessary. Note that Hemlock and Aconite are both questionable and dangerous ingredients that many nowadays recommend NOT using, although the same could be said about the rest of the toxic ingredients as well. (See bottom notes)
Solanaceous plants in particular have a rich place in the lore of the witch, and include legendary plants used in flying ointments such as Mandrakes, Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna), Henbane, and Datura. Solanaceae also includes plants not used in ointments, such as tobacco and even common food items like peppers and tomatoes. By cunning folk and early medical practitioners alike, these plants have been used to sedate, treat pain, act as an aphrodisiac, aid fertility, bewitch, and even grant visions. They have been used in oils, ointments, soporific sponges, asthma cigarettes, and even tampons throughout history. They have also been brewed into wine or beer.
The effects of the Solanaceae are anticholinergic, narcotic, and hallucinogenic. Small amounts of the tropane alkaloids that give the plants their power can cause a drying of the mucous membranes including the mouth, flushed skin, dilated pupils, changes in visual perception, euphoria, confusion, sleepiness, and sexual arousal. More tragic effects may include spasms, hallucinations, delirium, heart problems, respiratory arrest, coma, and death. The main effects may last a few hours, but the hallucinations or visual changes may last several days. Visions produced from such plants are often considered terrifying.
The tropane containing plants are extremely toxic, and must be used in very small amounts through less dangerous methods such as through the skin. When ingested orally, the effects are much stronger, and much more dangerous. This makes Flying Ointments a more ideal, though still quite potentially harmful and even fatal, way to use these plants for spirit flight. (See bottom notes)
How Flying Ointments are Used
The amount used and the amount of skin covered depend on the strength of the product and the witch’s body and reactions. Those who use them typically apply them to the temples, back of the neck, wrists, feet, under the arms, and/or on the chest, before laying down unclothed in a dark room in order to enhance ones natural ability to enter a trance or attempt spirit flight. Typically a person starts with only a tiny dot on the wrist to check for allergies or reactions and then slowly works up from there until the desired effects are achieved. It’s important to take a few days break between these attempts, and most would say to only use enough aid your own abilities, not enough to achieve negative effects or hallucinations. These ointments are not a shortcut to spirit flight, and still must be combined with the proper skills in order for them to be effective. Flying Ointments must be treated with care and respect.
It is said that some witches, historically and modernly, apply these ointments to the mucous membranes of the vagina for better absorption. I, and many others, would highly discourage this: if you should need to get the ointment off, you do not want it to be smeared somewhere inside of your body. It’s also always a good idea for someone else to know what you’re up to and what to look for, so they can keep an eye on you and get medical attention should anything go wrong.
In amounts smaller than those used for flying, some witches utilize such ointments for healing, pain relief, aphrodisia, or relief from anxiety. In this case the Solanaceous ingredients are chosen based on the desire, as all the plants do have their own specific feel to them, despite containing similar compounds. (See bottom notes)
My Background and Experiences on the Matter
I had tried safer substances for dreams and trances in the past, but never anything outright toxic. After the experience briefly mentioned in the Heliotrope Dreams post, I decided to try flying ointments and ordered a few online. After testing the lightly colored ointments on increasingly large areas, starting from just a tiny dot to be on the safe side, I eventually covered my entire body in it and laid down to give it one last chance. The only effects noticed, were that I felt like an angry greased pig, I laughed at the shapeshifting lore of such ointments and my current swine-like state. However, my interests in such legendary ointments were not diminished by the uselessness of the modern product.
After the failure of the ointments I had ordered online, I decided to make a Flying Ointment of my own, for which I would grow all of the plants myself rather than buying old dried up questionable products online. This would allow me to truly get to know the plants, and assure the authenticity of the extremely hard to find herbs like Mandrake, which is so often mislabeled Mayapple online. I could also ensure correct potency if I made the ointment myself.
My black-thumbed self ordered seeds and learned how to grow Mandrake (White and Black), Belladonna, Henbane, Datura (Jimsonweed and Moonflower), and Mugwort for it. Then waited a long time, but that did give me two years to really research the plants and study the subject. This is not something you want to do on a whim or play around with, as these plants are very deadly and you should never do something half-assed anyway. This year the Mandrake and Belladonna were finally ready to harvest, so the time to craft the ointment was now upon me.
Those are some of the babies I grew, (Black Mandrake, Belladonna, Black Henbane, and Moonflower, left to right).
Crafting the Unguent
Having set up the ingredients and tools on my altar, I carefully weighed out the five ingredients and ground them to as close to a powder as I could get them before adding them to the base oil to infuse for about a week. I kept the jar on top of a dehydrator during this time so that the heat would enable it to infuse faster. The jar stayed quite warm to the touch here. After straining out the herb material (and taking out a half an ounce to keep in oil form), it had an extremely dark color and was ready to move on.
Infusion methods vary greatly from witch to witch and herbalist to herbalist. Some choose to infuse at room temperature for weeks to months, some choose to heat the oils to speed things up to as little as a few hours. It is important to note that heat while heat is faster, it can bring the destruction of many sensitive phytochemicals and should be used in moderation. Exposure to light should also be limited by using dark glass or keeping infusing oils in a dark place, as light may destroy any photosensitive compounds.
I chose to add a bit of Clary Sage, Mugwort, and Clove essential oils to my oil, as those are all pretty good for dream work and fit well with this blend. Clove is also good for preserving things, as is Rosemary which I included a small amount of as well. I also added some White Sandalwood and Egyptian Jasmine essential oil for their influence. Overall I kept the scent from the added oils extremely light. Mugwort oil in particular must be used in EXTREMELY small amounts when used topically due to the toxic thujone content. The blend as a whole smells very herbal with just a bit of sweetness to it.
I didn’t want the ointment to be too hard, so I tried to eyeball out about a 1:5-1:4 ratio of beeswax to oil for this one. Holding the jar in boiling water, I stirred until the wax had evenly dissolved and tested consistency by dropping a few drops off my stirring device onto a piece of foil and let it cool to room temp. Once it was my desired consistency, it was ready to pour into glass jars, cool, and label. The final product lightened up to a beautiful green color, a quite pleasant sight in comparison to the pale, near-colorless flying ointments I had ordered online years earlier. As for the texture, it is smooth, remaining solid, but melting and spreading like warm butter upon contact.
I’ll save my experience for another post, so keep an eye out for that later!
While I recommend against experimenting with poisonous plants or making flying ointments without having been trained to do so, if you would like to learn more about this topic or these plants, I would suggest starting with:
The Witches’ Ointment by Thomas Hastis
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants by Christian Rästch
Witchcraft Medicine by Müller-Eberling, Rätsch, and Storl
A YouTube video on Flying Ointments. I am in no way recommending this recipe or it’s use, but if you are interested in Flying Ointments, this is an interesting video on the topic.
Sarah Lawless also has several posts on the subject of Flying Ointments and Poisonous Plants. Her Introduction to Flying Ointments is a good place to start.