…probably the most comprehensive single volume to look at the use of mind-altering drugs, or entheogens, for ritual and shamanistic purposes throughout humanity’s long story, while casting withering sidelong glances at our own times – as Paul Devereux points out, our modern mainstream culture is eccentric in its refusal to integrate the profound experiences offered by these natural substances into its own spiritual life.
This particular section discusses the little-known role of hallucinogenic substances by medieval witches, including a rather eye-opening theory as to the real use of the witches’ broomstick…
by Paul Devereux
The magical and medicinal plant lore of the rural “wise woman” (or man) in Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Early Modern Europe may not occupy a period we can properly call prehistory, but we can say that it was outside history, in that it was a living knowledge largely overlooked or dismissed by the ruling classes and the sophisticates, or discouraged and repressed by the Church. The Church-orchestrated witch-persecutions of the late Middle Ages transformed what was in fact a quietly surviving country tradition into what was hysterically and neurotically seen as a satanic activity.
One of the key elements of “witch lore” was that witches were able to fly on broomsticks, rods or other implements to their sabbats and other night-time gatherings in the wilderness beyond the pale of the town or village. “Flying ointments” were often used, either smeared on the person’s body or flying implements. Long before the Church contextualised this “flying out” to the wilderness as a diabolic practice, however, it was happening simply as part of the practice of women and men wise in the rural magic arts and healing based on arcane plant knowledge. The people who became identified as “witches” by the Church were in actuality simply the continuation of an ancient tradition of “night travellers.” In northern Europe they were called qveldriga, “night rider,” or myrkrida, “rider in the dark.” In Scandinavia, there was the tradition of seidhr, in which a prophetess or seidhonka would travel around farmsteads and hamlets with a group of girls to give divinatory trance-sessions. She wore a ritual costume and carried a staff. The goddess Freya, who taught Odin the secrets of magical flight, was the patronal mistress of seidhr. “Night travellers and the later witches are carelessly lumped together,” Hans Peter Duerr warns.
Depending on the time or place in Europe they operated, the night travellers might join the flying hosts of Diana, or Frau Holda-Mother Holle, the Old Norse Hela, the veiled goddess of the underworld, whose sacred bird was the migrant snow goose – the winter snows were said to be feathers falling from these birds’ wings. She is remembered in the nursery-rhyme image of Old Mother Goose, who, when she wanted to wander, we will recall, would fly through the air on a very fine gander. Researcher Nigel Jackson has noted:
Celtic iconography from the Dauphine shows the goddess Epona riding upon a goose in flight. The high calls of the migrant geese on winter nights were poetically perceived as the baying of the spectral hounds by folk in the north of Europe and are closely linked with the flight of the Wild Hunt in Celtic and Germanic regions. The German witch Agnes Gerhardt said at her trial in 1596 that she and her companions transformed themselves into snow geese in order to fly to the sabbat.
Medieval “witches” sometimes rubbed themselves with goose grease, perhaps enriched with hallucinogenic herbs, as a symbolic gesture of supernatural flight. Duerr remarks that the night flights were known as “grease flights” and the night travellers themselves called “grease birds” or “lard wings.” All this was the vestige of archaic spirit-flight symbolism invested in the goose, as expressed in the iconography of Siberian shamans, the literature of Vedic India, and in archaeological finds of geese effigies in the graves of Inuit (Eskimo) shamans who migrated into North America from Siberia.
The antiquity of the image of the night flying woman is shown by such instances as the scene in The Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius in the second century A.D., in which a woman is seen smearing herself all over with an ointment, muttering a charm, turning into an owl and flying off over the rooftops. The night-traveller and later “witch” represented the vestiges of archaic Indo-European shamanism: she is the last echo of traditional ecstatic experience in Europe, an echo the Church effectively silenced by intimidation and even sheer murder.
The boundary between the town or village (“civilisation”) and the wilderness beyond was freighted with dread meaning in Medieval Europe. Jackson points out that Saxon tribes referred to the night traveller as haegtessa, the “hedge-rider,” for she could traverse the mysterious “hedge” (boundary) that divided the worlds of the living and the dead. “Very early, women undertaking ‘night travels’ and fence demons are mentioned in the same breath,” Duerr informs. The stick on which the woman rode was known as a “fence switch.” The idea of the hedge-hopping night traveller or witch took on literal meaning in the minds of the ordinary people, and plants such as juniper, thought to ward off witches, were woven into real, physical hedges. Certain places along hedgerows were thought to be where witches were able to breach the boundary. The front doors of houses would be protected by such devices as “witch bottles,” tangled threads inside a bottle that would ensnare the spirit of any night-travelling witch who might happen to gain entry.
The real boundary was that between the conscious, waking mind – “civilisation” – and the dark, fearsome and unknown regions of the unconscious – “wilderness.” It was simply literalised and projected onto the physical environment. In reality, the night-traveller’s flight into the wilderness was a trance “journey” into the deep reaches of the unconscious mind, a “spirit flight” caused, usually, by hallucinogens in the flying ointments. The woman herself might even think of it as being a literal flight: John Cotta in The Triall of Witchcraft (1616) refers to an Italian case in which a woman having rubbed flying ointment on her body fell into trance from which she could not be roused. When she finally came round of her own accord, she declared that she had been flying over seas and mountains, and could not be convinced otherwise even though others had witnessed her body lying in an entranced state. Commentators themselves remained divided over whether the witches actually flew or only imagined that they did, but Francis Bacon had the measure of the matter in 1608 when he wrote in Sylva Sylvarum, “I suppose that the soporiferous medicines [in the ointments] are likest to do it.”
Interestingly, there is little evidence for the use of flying ointments in the confessions of witches themselves. In suggesting that the Church was largely to blame for conjuring the mirage of satanic witchcraft, Duerr points out that it was in the interest of the Church to play down the hallucinogenic nature of the flying ointments, because if that was admitted then the “Devil would then have been left with only a very modest significance, or none at all.” But there are some records. A Belgian witch called Claire Goessen confessed in 1603 that she had flown to sabbats several times on a staff smeared with an unguent. In northern France in 1460, five women confessed to receiving a salve from the Devil himself, which they rubbed on their hands and on a small wooden rod they placed between their legs and flew upon “above good towns and woods and waters.” Swedish witches in 1669 rode “over churches and high walls” on a beast given to them by the Devil who also issued them with a horn containing a salve with which they anointed themselves. Members of Somerset covens admitted to smearing their foreheads and wrists with a greenish ointment “which smells raw” before their meetings. It may well have been that under the hysteria of the times and the intimidation of the Church authorities, some of those who confessed falsely admitted to the use of ointments – as they clearly bowed to the pressure to say that the ointments were obtained from the Devil. But even if this were the case, the idea of ointments itself was a reference to traditional practices that were still known among the rural classes at the time, and that had probably been around for untold generations.
It is known that some of these ointments were actual because certain European writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth wrote down recipes for them. Along with animal fat, the blood of bats or lapwings, toads, and other weird and disgusting ingredients, the most commonly listed plants were aconite, hemlock, deadly nightshade, henbane, poppy, and mandrake. We have already noted the effects of opium in the previous chapter, and of henbane in Schenk’s account earlier this chapter – especially the sensation of the body feeling light followed by the sensation of flying. Both aconite (Aconitum spp.) and hemlock (Conium maculatum) were sacred to Hecate, goddess of the earth and the underworld, and both are very poisonous. In German tradition, hemlock (Conium means “stimulating dizziness”) was home to a toad which lived beneath it and sucked up its poisons. (Certain toads do have hallucinogenic chemicals in their bodies and this might explain their association with witches’ brews.) Both plants in non-lethal doses can elicit feelings of flying. Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is of enormous importance in magical lore, in part, because its roots can sometimes look like a human figure, and there were specific folk traditions surrounding its gathering and uprooting. But it also is psychoactive.
Deadly nightshade or belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is the classic witchcraft plant, and was known in Old English as Dwayberry which derives from the Danish Dvaleboer, meaning “trance berry,” which in itself reveals the long-lived knowledge of its poisonous and hallucinogenic effects. Belladonna, mandrake and henbane are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, as are species of Datura which are or were widely used for ritual hallucinogenic purposes in the Americas and elsewhere. (In fact, thorn apple – Datura stramonium, Datura spp. – was introduced into Europe in time to establish itself and become included in the later witches’ brews.) They contain tropane alkaloids, especially hyoscyamine “a powerful hallucinogen, which gives the sensation of flying through the air…among other effects.” Michael Harner has observed that atropine is absorbable even by the intact skin, so the act of rubbing ointments made from atropine-containing solanaceous plants would be an effective way to become intoxicated. This has been confirmed in some extremely dangerous modern experiments. Folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert of Göttingen, for example, mixed an ointment made up of belladonna, henbane and Datura from a seventeenth-century formula and rubbed it on his forehead and armpits, bidding his colleagues to do likewise. They all fell into a twenty-four sleep. “We had wild dreams. Faces danced before my eyes which were at first terrible. Then I suddenly had the sensation of flying for miles through the air. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by great falls. Finally, in the last phase, an image of an orgiastic feast with grotesque sensual excess,” Peuckert reported. Harner emphasises the importance of the greased broomstick or similar flying implement, which he suggests served as “an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed, a typical illusion of the witches’ ride to the Sabbat.”
“A characteristic feature of solanaceae psychosis is furthermore that the intoxicated person imagines himself to have been changed into some animal, and the hallucinosis is completed by the sensation of the growing of feathers and hair,” Erich Hesse claimed in 1946. In 1658, Giovanni Battista Porta informed that a potion made from henbane, mandrake, thorn apple and belladonna would make a person “believe he was changed into a Bird or Beast.” He might “believe himself turned into a Goose, and would eat Grass, and beat the Ground with his Teeth, like a Goose: now and then sing, and endeavor to clap his Wings.” Animal transformation is a primary aspect of the hallucinogenic experience, whether it is an American Indian shaman in the Amazon turning into a jaguar, or a Western subject in a psychological experiment. Take this example of the latter, from a series of studies of the effect of harmaline, conducted by psychologist Claudio Naranjo in the 1960s. The subject had felt like a huge bird, then a fish, but then:
I wasn’t a fish anymore, but a big cat, a tiger. I walked, though, feeling the same freedom I had experienced as a bird and a fish, freedom of movement, flexibility, grace. I moved as a tiger in the jungle, joyously, feeling the ground under my feet, feeling my power; my chest grew larger. I then approached an animal, any animal. I only saw its neck, and then experienced what a tiger feels when looking at its prey.
The night-riders and “witches” often thought of themselves as flying animals – owls, farmyard beasts, and, quite often, wolves. Harner has commented that perhaps the ancient and widespread European belief concerning humans turning into wolves – lycanthropy – resulted from hallucinogenic experience, and suggests that the inclusion of animal fat, blood and body parts in witches’ ointments may have been for the purposes of creating the suggestion of becoming an animal.
We can see from this wide-ranging survey that the psychedelic experience was deeply insinuated into the beliefs and practices of the Old World, at least in its ritual and magical aspects – and to a limited extent, in its religious life too. Just how extensive this was in the development of Western culture awaits further investigative scholarship, which in turn relies in good measure on the willingness of modern Europeans to acknowledge that the emergence of their culture was accompanied by the sort of ceremonial drug practices still surviving in traditional societies such as those to be found in the Americas.