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Dec 21

Medieval Magic & Pharmacy: Not Just “Flying Ointments”

By Thomas Hatsis

When I first started my investigation into the so-called “witches’ ointment” of the early modern period I was looking for a specific kind of ointment that caused a specific kind of experience – a “flying” experience, as recognised in contemporary popular culture.

But to delve deeper into the trial records, popular sermons, demonology texts, and medieval pharmacy one will discover not just a flying ointment, but a host of uses for these ointments. Therefore, a more neutral term, like “psyche-magical” (psychedelic + magical) is useful to convey the breadth of experiences available through these concoctions.

Such magical drug practices (veneficia) included (but were certainly not limited to) entheogenic uses (“generating the divine within”), bewitchment, prophecy, Christo-pagan medical magic, transformations, recreation, and, of course, flying. In short, to address only “flying ointments” in early modern Europe would be akin to referring to all cars in Australia as “Hondas.” Medieval veneficia was just as various as the cars we see on the roads every day. In point of fact, people didn’t even use just ointments: they also employed powerful potions, powders, and fumigations as drug delivery vectors.

To be sure, people did use these ointments as flying ointments. However, a further breakdown of even the flying ointment is possible. There is strong evidence to suggest that some magical practitioners used these flying ointments in ways that had nothing to do with entheogenic experiences and also in ways that had everything to do with entheogenic experiences! In still other cases, these magical ointments were used entheogenically that had nothing to do with flying. For example, while Dominican theologian Johannes Nider (c. 1375–1438) described a flying ointment used for entheogenic purposes, we must mark that against a report from Abraham of Worms (c. early to mid-15th century) who tells of a Linzian witch who used her flying ointment as a way to astral project leagues away to Abraham’s home town. There is not a trace of entheogenism in Abraham’s chronicle of the event. As further evidence that mindset and drug-use went hand in hand, it is perhaps no surprise that Nider’s description of a witch using an entheogenic flying salve included magical songs and chants, while Abraham’s report of a non-entheogenic use included no magical accoutrements beyond the powerful ointment itself.

Moreover, entheogenic experiences didn’t just take the form of spiritual flying; in some instances, according to tales from Northern Germany, a salve was rubbed near the eyes to allow a person to see the “inhabitants of the lower world.”

Beyond the entheogenic practices of common people, Renaissance magicians would fumigate powerful solanaceous psychoactives like henbane and mandrake to produce visions of spirits. Such plants, we are told, were even called “spirits’ herbs,” by magicians – a testament to these substances as used as entheogens in even high culture. On other occasions necromancers, too, would prepare henbane fumigations to call upon the dead. One further case featured a man who inhaled a psychoactive powder so that his “evil spirit” would appear to him. This is not to suggest that only solanaceous plants were used as entheogens.

There is evidence of a remote bacchanalian kind of heresy in the Cottian Alps that survived into the High Middle Ages, which employed the poisons from toads in their Eucharist. The mixer of the potion, one Bilia la Castagna, would brew her potion on the eve of Epiphany, perhaps suggesting that the drink was meant to induce visions of Christ. The report of Bilia’s brew is invaluable to historians because it describes the toad potion in a way consistent with bufotenine (the active psychoactive in such toads): one man drank too much and almost died; the other congregants who drank a smaller amount revelled in their visions.

Here we can see clearly the range of spiritual uses and beliefs associated with the entheogenic state, as spiritual flying ointments, as fumigations for inviting spirits into one’s home, as snuffs, as non-flying entheogens, and as Eucharists mixed by some heretics for their ceremonies.

Beyond the realm of entheogens, the ointments (and potions, powders, and fumigations) were utilised for other forms of medieval psyche-magic as well. For example, a certain kind of mercenary sorcery (“bewitching”), found in both common sorcery and learned magic, might include the surreptitious drugging of a rival or nagging neighbour. To begin in the realm of “low” or “common” sorcery, the spell-caster might place a drug in someone’s food or drink. Then, waiting for the opportune moment for the drug to take effect, she or he would then chant incantations at their victims – the victims, believing that the true power came from the spell-caster, not the drug. Other times, elaborate magical rituals covered the use of the drug, as we see with the dealings of a physician-magician from Gelders. After performing extravagant rituals, he slipped an unfortunate woman a drug, despicably raping her as soon as she fell under its spell.

Sadly for those living at the time, some trickery didn’t involve grand magical demonstrations at all, but rather relied on only two things: the drug itself, and the gullibility of the victim. For example, Dutch physician Petrus Forestus (1521–1597) warned that charlatans, posing as dentists, would often have an ailing patient inhale the fumes of burning henbane. As the drug took effect, and the victim started to fall into a soporific stupor, the thief would fleece the prey of her or his possessions, taking off shortly thereafter. This seems to have been a common form of thievery in the early modern period.

But not all non-flying magical drug practices were so dastardly. Some were benevolent, as found in some of the Christo-pagan shamanistic medical magic (yes, that existed!) of the time. Indeed, one of the more interesting realms of this psyche-magic could be found in the private homes of an ailing villager who, unable to afford a university physician, would call upon a local healer instead. What makes this form of shamanistic medicine so unique from other practices in the worldwide entheogenic geography is that it seems it was up to the patient to ingest the drugs, not the healer. Such magical medicinal ceremonies were instrumental in protecting against supernatural disease-makers like elves and goblins. It included the patient taking the powerful hallucinogen henbane, while the healer sung chants over her or his body. It is difficult to imagine the patient not having some supernatural, otherworldly experience with these kinds of stimuli in place.

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