It’s well-known that a traditional view of witches in the Middle Ages was that they had a magic potion that enabled them to fly to their sabbats. It’s more likely, however, that this was an outsiders’ misinterpretation of an hallucinogenic Witches’ Ointment that brought on visions and an illusion of flying. MARK GREENER, award-winning science journalist and former research chemist, discusses the three main ingredients of this fabled substance.
The composition of the Witches’ Ointment was, and remains, a closely guarded secret. Each coven may have used its own recipe. However, many ointments included three main hallucinogenic herbs: henbane, belladonna and, after the 11th century, mandrake.
Henbane’s unpleasant smell inspired some of the herb’s folk names, such as stinking nightshade. All parts of the plant contain active chemicals, such as hyoscyamine and scopolamine (also called hyoscine). However, the roots and to a lesser extent the seeds are especially rich sources of scopolamine, henbane’s main hallucinogen.
According to Rudgley (in The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances,1998) henbane can induce hallucinations involving any or all of the senses as well as memory loss, profound sweating and marked physical discomfort. Some people endure a sensation that their body is breaking up or dissolving away. Users may also see things larger than they really are, feel an irrepressible desire to move and, tellingly, experience sensations of flight.
Henbane grows across Britain, especially in wasteland and rubbish dumps. But don’t be tempted to try it. Henbane and the other main ingredients in the ointment are notoriously toxic – bane means poison. Indeed, henbane’s been responsible for some high-profile murder cases. Henbane was probably the fatal poison dripped into the ear of Hamlet’s father. And Hawley Harvey Crippen killed his wife, deliberately or accidentally, with an overdose of hyoscine. (Dr Crippen then dismembered the body, dissolved parts in acid and fled over the Atlantic.) So don’t try concocting your own version of the Witches’ Ointment.
Folklore has long linked belladonna, deadly nightshade, with the devil. As late as 1870, a report in Fraser’s Magazine commented that people in Bohemia, now broadly in the Czech Republic, believed that the devil tends belladonna. In some traditions, Rudgley says, while the devil is away overseeing the sabbats on Walpurgis Night, belladonna transforms into an enchantress. Like the plant, the enchantress is beautiful but deadly.
Belladonna also contains hyoscyamine and scopolamine. However, Melechi, in his Fugitive Minds (2003) notes that belladonna’s most marked effect is inducing a state similar to somnambulism – sleep walking. A person intoxicated with belladonna seems emotionless, unaware of their existence and performs their usual tasks mechanically. Once the somnambulism fades, the person ‘has not the slightest recollection’ of what happened.
Mandrake, the final main ingredient, is perhaps the archetypal magical plant. Witches and herbalists harvested mandrake using an elaborate ritual. As part of this, the witch tied a hungry dog to the plant. They then threw a piece of meat that landed out of the dog’s reach. The dog lurched forward, lifting the root. The witch or herbalist stuffed their ears or blew on a horn to avoid hearing the mandrake’s scream. Hearing the mandrake’s scream meant certain death.
Mandrake contains hyoscyamine and scopolamine as well as the narcotic and hallucinogen mandragorine. However, Mandrake probably only reached Britain around the 11th century so it’s likely that the older ointments used only belladonna and henbane.