Of all a witch’s tricks, flying might be the hardest to pull off. Bluster and chance go a long way when it comes to spells and potions, but flying is pretty cut and dried. For centuries witches gave it their best shot, though, using a special concoction known as a “flying ointment” — they’d apply it to their skin and later tell of having flown through the night sky to distant places.
If you assume that the flying ointment didn’t actually enable flight, their vivid claims raise the question: What was really going on? A while back, a medical pathologist reviewed the most common ingredients in these flying ointments and found that while the concoctions probably didn’t allow witches to fly, it’s easy to see why witches thought they did.
Clive Harper, now a retired professor at the University of Sydney, reviewed scholarship on flying ointments, or “magic unguents.” These ointments were especially popular with witches in the 15th through 18th centuries. Harper found they were generally made from seven ingredients: plants and herbs like deadly nightshade, aconite (otherwise known as Devil’s Helmet), sweet flag, cinquefoil, and smallage, plus bat’s blood and young children’s fat. (Harper’s article, published in a 1977 article in the journal “Folklore,” was recently released for free online by the publisher Taylor and Francis as part of a collection of research articles related to witchcraft.)
You could imagine the list as a helter-skelter potion, but Harper explained that the inclusion of each ingredient made a surprising amount of sense. Deadly nightshade has “powerful psychotropic effects,” and aconite can be very toxic. More importantly, the two herbs balance each other: the atropine in nightshade tempers the potentially lethal impact of aconite.
Cinquefoil was also thought to protect against toxins in the other ingredients, and Harper figures the bat’s blood as a form of “sympathetic magic.” As for the young children’s fat, other sources state that the flying ointment was simply mixed with a fatty base and applied topically — and what better source of fat to claim than the one that was going to most terrify your neighbors?
All told, Harper concluded that the flying ointment would have acted as a “potent hallucinogen,” which adds an interesting twist to the standard relationship between society and witches. When we consider episodes like the Salem witch trials, we think of innocents being falsely accused; witches, however, suffered plenty of their own delusions.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.