Granny Takes a Trip: Drugs, Witches, and the Flight to the Sabbat
By Jeremy Harte
Published at Beltane 2001
We are in a woman’s bedroom at twilight. She strips off and stands by the open window, clutching a little box of ointment. Across the room, in a dark corner, a man silently watches her every move. Slowly, the woman works a handful of the greasy ointment between her fingers and spreads it over her naked body, muttering to herself all the while. Then feathers start to grow over her clammy skin: her arms turn into two wings, and within minutes she has become an owl and is gliding over the rooftops (Apuleius, Golden Ass cap. 5)
So far, so good, but truth has many faces… and here we are, at twilight again in another woman’s room. She strips off and stands by her kneading trough, ointment in hand; as she smears it over her body, she is watched from the darkness by several men. They see her as she climbs muttering into the long trough, they see her as she stretches out in sleep, and falls into disturbed dreams - dreams so convincing that she is soon waving her hands about, as if flying. Before long she has shaken the trough down off its perch and falls with a crash on the floor, hurting her head and her pride at once, for the men rush up to assure her that she has not been travelling in the air at all, but has been the victim of a delusion (Nider, Formicarius bk.2 cap.4).
These stories are two variations on a theme, that much is clear. But which one is the original? If you are the kind of reader who thinks that legends are distorted, fantastic accounts of things that actually happened, then you will probably reckon that Nider’s version makes better sense. It is quite possible that women drugged themselves with an ointment that gave them a sense of flying, and afterwards they would of course have confused their adventures with reality. As for Apuleius, well, his fantastic owl-story is just what you’d expect from someone who had forgotten the real origins of these out-of-the-body experiences.
There’s just one problem - one fly in the ointment, you might say. As a rule, things which happen first influence things that happen afterwards, and not vice versa. And Apuleius came earlier - a lot earlier; he wrote in 160 AD, more or less, while Nider’s book didn’t come out until 1435. Like many readers of this journal, Apuleius was a thoughtful and well-informed pagan. It is worth emphasising that neither he, nor anyone else who wrote about witchcraft in the ancient world (Flint et al 1999) had ever heard of rituals which gave you hallucinations of flying. On the other hand, Johann Nider, unlike most White Dragon subscribers, was a Dominican friar who had set himself the task of exterminating witchcraft. He had read a great deal in the literature of the subject, which naturally included, amongst other books, the Golden Ass. So his anecdote about the old lady and the mysterious ointment may not be quite the straightforward report that we’d like.
Of course, the story in Apuleius could be a true account of events, too. Admittedly the Golden Ass is a comic novel, but like all novels it draws on a background of real life, and who knows what witches can get up to? Not turning real, physical women into real, physical owls, you weakly protest, but views on the possibility of this trick have changed over time. Apuleius’ witches transform themselves into weasels and mice; there is more than one box of ointment in that sinister attic, and when Lucius, hero of the story, tries out one of them, he turns into a donkey. Too late, he realises that ointments make it possible to shapeshift into all sorts of creatures, not just birds: no delusions of flying for him. It could have been worse. The werewolves of classical antiquity transformed themselves with herbal mixtures, too (Virgil, Eclogue 8).
Unlikely as these stories may seem, they were taken perfectly seriously by contemporaries. St. Augustine, no less, warns us against landladies from the lower class of Italian inn; they used to pick out their more sturdy guests, and slip something into their lunch that turned them into horses and donkeys. Like poor Lucius, they could then be used as beasts of burden (City of God bk.18 cap.18). Augustine has his doubts about this story, but they are theological rather than practical. He suspects the whole thing is a delusion implanted by the Devil, and passes on the cautionary tale of a friend whose father passed out for two days under satanic influence, during which time he led a double life as a legionary packhorse.
So according to the doctors of the Church, women cannot change into animals, not because this is physically impossible but because God would not allow it. Any evidence to the contrary must be a delusion. Since the old books said that shapeshifting was produced by an ointment, it followed that the ointment must be responsible for the delusions. This was the reasoning used by scholars throughout the middle ages - for instance, by Bernardino of Siena. ‘They said that… they anointed themselves. As soon as they were anointed, they believed they were she-cats, but this was false, because their body never changed shape, although they thought so’ (Piomelli & Pollio 1994: 243).
This was in 1427. Next year, Matteuccia di Francesso was burnt as a witch at Todi. She was charged with various acts of malicious sorcery, like many before her, but she was also accused of something else - she made an ointment, and smeared herself with it until she turned into a fly. Then the demon Lucibello would come in the shape of a goat, and swiftly as lightning he would carry her to the walnut tree in Benevento where the witches and devils held their great gathering (we have not yet learnt to call it the Sabbat). The ointment was made from the fat of vultures and the blood of bats, mixed with the blood of suckling babies. Nobody seemed to have doubted its reality, or the reality of its effects (Ginzburg 1990: 299).
This flight to the Sabbat was a version - perhaps one put about by Bernardino himself - of a much older tradition. From at least the tenth century, women had dreamed of riding through the air with the goddess Diana, or Herodias, or the lady of the good game. This belief or custom (it is hard to know what to call something that only happens in dreams) was treated by the Church as a superstition, but not a very serious one. Burchard of Worms prescribes a year’s penance for it, which is mild, much milder than anything which would have been handed out by the secular authorities (Flint 1991: 122-5). Burchard, like Regino of Prüm, is less concerned with punishing the women than with showing them how silly they are. It’s all a dream.
So this is the context for Nider, or rather for his informant, since he tells the story at second hand. The woman was not a diabolical witch; instead, she was one of those confused types that thought they travelled with Diana. According to the earlier sources, they didn’t use an ointment - they didn’t even choose to have this type of dream, it just happened - but it suits Nider’s purposes to suppose that they did, because he can then improve the story by showing how ridiculous peasant women can be. The deluded old thing doesn’t fly at all, but waves her arms around while lying in a bit of household equipment, and hurts herself in the process. This would be in the 1420s. A few years later, as Matteuccia found, talk of flying ointments was taken much more seriously.
The people who actually experienced these ‘delusions’ - the benandanti, taltos, and other travellers on the night wind - did not use chemical aids. Chonrad Stoeckhlin, who rode out with the dead at Oberstdorf in Switzerland, told his interrogators that ‘he needed no artifice for his journey’. They found this hard to believe, and drawing on the latest literature (this was in 1586) they put it to him that he had been anointing himself with a salve of herbs, bat’s blood and the blood of children; but he said no, he hadn’t. (Behringer 1998: 93-4). The benandanti similarly spoke of going into a deep sleep or lethargy, but not of using any kind of ointment, until late in the series of trials conducted against them, when they were brought to confess to greasing themselves with lamp oil (Ginzburg 1983).
These confessions were not voluntary, by any means. That would explain their stereotyped character. ‘What marvell then’, exclaims Reginald Scot, ‘though a poore woman… be made to confesse such absurd and false impossibilities, when flesh and blood is unable to endure such triall?’ (Scot 1886 : 29). If we were able to hear and see the processes by which stories of witchcraft were extracted, we might be a bit less keen to build so many speculative theories on them. In England, where judicial torture was not used, very little is said very little about the Sabbat, or flying, or ointments.
In a few cases it is possible to compare two narratives about witchcraft - one which was obtained by coercion, and one which was not. In the Basque country, the inquisitors Becerra and Valle spent much of 1609 establishing the reality of a Sabbat which took place near Zugarramurdi. ‘Before the witches set off they anointed themselves with a very evil-smelling fluid of a greenish-black color. They rubbed it on their hands, temples, face, breasts, genitals, and the soles of their feet… Sometimes they got out through cracks in the doors, windows or chimneys and flew through the air to the assembly. At other times they walked’ (Henningsen 1980: 71, 74, 160). It seems that the ointment was extracted from toads, which were carefully kept and nurtured by the witches, and then whipped until they swelled up: after this they could be trodden on, exuding fluid at both ends.
But there was a third inquisitor, Salazar, whose methods were somewhat different. He was careful to keep witnesses from meeting up to share ideas, and he checked their stories to see whether they matched each other, or if they bore any relationship to known facts. They didn’t, of course: and so the whole web of suspicion began to unravel, and people withdrew their earlier, forced confessions.
Given this sudden outbreak of doubt, it was vital for those who supported the theory of witchcraft to produce more substantial evidence. An actual jar of the toad-ointment would have made a mockery of the sceptics - it was the vital proof, the smoking gun which would show that witchcraft was a reality. And Salazar conscientiously looked for one (Henningsen 1980: 220, 297). In fact twenty-two jars had been delivered to his office by the end of the enquiry, but none of them, when tested by doctors, seemed to have any effects - levitatory or otherwise. This was hardly surprising. Three of them turned out to be ordinary horse liniment, and were reclaimed by their indignant owners. Others had been manufactured by suspects who were desperate to provide a good story for the authorities. Remember that, under Inquisition rules, if you were charged and found guilty you could confess and be let off with a penance: but if you did not confess at all, you would be burnt at the stake.
Maria de Mindeguia concocted a mixture of pork fat, water and soot. Mari Juan de Juanesgoncoa took some asphodel and wild plums out of the pigswill, boiled them and pressed out the liquid. Magdalena and Gracia de Arza made theirs from muck and kitchen waste. But Catalina de Yrurita was the most imaginative. Browbeaten into confessing that she had anointed herself with the unguent, she went back home and told her mother. Both agreed that, as there was no going back, they had better produce some of this ointment, which they did by boiling buttercups and mint in holy water, mashing the herbs and adding a little green colouring. Everyone knew the ointment was green.
The problem that soon confronted Salazar was not a lack of flying ointments, but a superabundance of them, all different, and all worthless. This was true on a much wider scale throughout the great persecution. If you decide that thousands of people, chosen more or less at random, are witches - and if you torture them until they confess, amongst other things, to preparing and using a flying ointment - then naturally there will be as many ointments as there are witches. Some of the confessions have a pleasingly herbal character: ‘you need all the flowers that Nature engenders of all the trees and all the herbs, and put them in a small vase containing a measure of oil’, said Bellezza of Fiano Romano in 1528. Violanta of Benevento (1634) specified ‘the best valerian and hyssop, mixed together’ (Piomelli & Pollio 1994: 255-6). Other recipes had a nastier character: while some people might not have had much experience of herbs, they would know that witches used disgusting and cannibalistic ingredients, and so they confessed to those.
So were the recipes all ineffective? Not necessarily. The net of persecution spread wide enough to gather up some interesting mixtures. In 1545, Andrés Hernandez de Laguna was acting as a medical officer near Nancy, where an elderly couple had been arrested on suspicion of bewitching the Duke of Lorraine. Their hut was ransacked in a search for evidence, and a small pot was produced, full of green ointment. Aha! Laguna was asked to examine this; he thought that it looked like unguentum populeum, a narcotic salve made from the buds of black poplar (which gave it the green colour) plus leaves of poppy, henbane and deadly nightshade. He sniffed the little pot, and recognised the heavy odour of nightshade and henbane.
On returning to his regular job at Metz, Laguna took the ointment with him. He soon had the opportunity to try it out. One of his patients was the wife of the city executioner, driven crazy through insomnia caused by jealousy of her husband. Laguna doesn’t say if it was justified: anyway, this being the sixteenth century, they decided to treat her, not him. Smeared from head to foot with the ointment, she passed out for three days and woke up with a grin and a story of having cuckolded her husband (Piomelli & Pollio 1994: 246-7)
She had taken quite a risk in agreeing to the treatment, for the unguentum populeum was strong stuff. Originally employed as an anaesthetic before surgery - ‘to make a man slepen whyles men kerve hym’ - it drew in one form or another on all the soporific poisons known to contemporary medicine. Doctors aimed, rather imperfectly, at a dose that would be high enough to stop patients screaming under the knife, but low enough to remain sub-lethal. Fortunately the action of the two main ingredients, aconitine and atropine, is antagonistic, so in practice the handfuls of monkshood and deadly nightshade tended to balance each other out (Kuhlin 1999: 84-5).
None of this explains what a jar of unguentum populeum was doing in the old couple’s cabin. There is no evidence - not even that of a forced confession - to suggest that they used the stuff for making nocturnal flights, hallucinatory or otherwise. Of course, they may have been the wise old village herbalists of popular legend, with surgery as a sideline. Or it is conceivable - only in sixteenth-century France, of course - that officers of the law might stoop to planting drugs when they want a conviction.
However, Laguna was not the only medical man in the 1540s to show interest in the effect of herbs on the mind. Girolamo Cardano covers the topic in his De Subtilitate (1550), where the eighteenth book contains the passage:-
This is interesting. Are we dealing with a secret recipe, whispered into the young Cardano’s ear by a village witch? Probably not. The list of hallucinations, for one thing, is obviously taken from books - whatever Italian peasants dreamed about in those days, it wasn’t the theatre. His first ingredient, the children’s fat, had been a staple ingredient of witches’ ointments ever since the days of the Malleus Maleficarum. The soot was presumably included, as it had been by the witchcraft suspects of Zugarramurdi, to give the whole thing a hellish blackness. Wild celery and cinquefoil are not psychoactive, though they were used in popular medicine for other purposes. As for the two narcotic ingredients, they were already well-known in mainstream medicine, although Cardano’s description is a bit vague - especially considering his interest in botany. He recognised two sorts of aconitum (our monkshood and wolfsbane) and at least three of solanum (our black, woody and deadly nightshades). Had he been speaking from personal knowledge, he could have identified the species concerned, and the fact that he did not suggests that he was copying from books.
Cardano in his turn was copied by Giovan Battista Della Porta in his Magiae Naturalis (1558), writing on ‘the origin of those ointments, which are made by the witches’.
Despite the gossipy reference to ‘what I have been told by them’, Della Porta’s book relies heavily on other books. Children’s fat is the usual demonological commonplace, though he offers oil as an alternative: actually, oil wouldn’t work (Kuhlin 1999: 90). We have already met with bats’ blood in the confessions of Matteuccia. Of the other eight ingredients, five were already to be found in Cardano, while poplar leaves show his indebtedness to the unguenteum populeum. That leaves sium (water parsnip) and acorus (yellow flag), and while it is quite possible that both plants may have come from old wives’ lore, neither of them has the slightest mind-altering quality.
Della Porta’s twin recipes may be a little short on authenticity, but he supports them with a telling anecdote. On his travels, he had met up with an old woman who offered to prove to him that the ointment really worked. She stripped off and worked the mixture over her body as he and a few friends watched from the darkness… yes, it’s another story of a midnight watch. The woman fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be awakened (they tried beating her up a bit, experimentally) and when she woke, she said she had travelled across seas and mountains, and had seen fine young men.
Now it is possible that Renaissance intellectuals regularly stayed up all night to watch old ladies tripping, but it is much more likely that they spent their days cribbing stories like this from one another’s books. Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg repeats the original story from Nider in Die Emeis (1508), while Luther in turn copies it from von Kaisersberg (Cameron 1998: 171), although to be fair, neither author passes it off as his own personal experience. Another version makes the old woman into a witch who voluntarily surrenders herself for examination, and says that neither bolts nor bars can keep her from flying to the Sabbat. She is watched as she goes into trance, alone in her prison cell. (Summers 1926: 129). In a sexier version, Adam Tanner (Disputation de Angelis, 1629) tells of a woman who had promised a young lad that she would be in his bedchamber that night. It seems she stood him up, and he went round to complain at her house, where he found her fast asleep in bed with another woman, both of them naked and covered in grease. When she woke up and saw him, she said she had applied a flying ointment , and was sure that she had been in his room all the time. That’s a pretty good story to come up with on the spur of the moment.
Tales of the midnight watch became a feature of occult literature, such as The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. Abramelin, if he is not a fiction, was the last of many characters encountered in an arduous spiritual journey described by Abraham the Jew, who may also be imaginary. Amongst these was a young witch who - supposing her to be real, which isn’t very likely either - lived at Linz: and she showed Abraham how to use the ointment. They both had strange experiences, travelling out of the body and coming back with information on faraway places. But when she explained that the ointment was given her by the Devil, Abraham, a pious man, broke off relations (Valiente 1973: 143).
This was the problem: if the flying ointment came from the Devil, was it safe for learned men to speculate on its contents? In a nasty sideswipe at his rivals, Jean Bodin devoted a section of his Démonomanie des Sorciers (1580) to Cardano, whose autobiographical accounts of out-of-the-body experiences could be twisted to present him as a magician. Bodin also repeated Della Porta’s story of the midnight watch and his account of the ointment, hinting that anyone who publicised Satan’s cookbook in this way had probably received it straight from its author. Della Porta, who had already been in trouble with the Inquisition over printing this information, responded indignantly in the second edition of Magiae Naturalis.
This spat between the intellectuals was only a sideshow to the main debate. It was not the origins of the ointment that concerned most scholars, but its purpose - the flight to the Sabbat. Scholars of the early mediaeval Church had confidently affirmed that ecstatic flight wasn’t real, and there the matter would have rested, except that after 1400, witchcraft was real. And the worst thing that witches did was to meet together at some distant place, where they bowed before the Devil, planned to do evil, and then gave themselves over to the monstrous delights of the Sabbat. If this was all fantasy, if witches had not in fact gone anywhere at all, then what in hell’s name were they being punished for?
You might think that there could only be two answers to this. Either you believed that witches really, magically flew through the air… or you doubted, and realised that they stayed in bed, dreaming. But it’s not that simple. From the Malleus onwards, the demonologists were quite happy to accept both options - flying-through-the-air and staying-in-bed - as being possible, and both were equally diabolical in origin. ‘There was the woman in the town of Briesach whom we asked whether they could be transported only in imagination, or actually in the body; and she answered that it was possible in both ways’ (Krämer & Sprenger 1928 :108). Bernard de Como says the same thing in De Strigiis (c1510 - Lea 1957: 1.372). Sometimes they go physically to the Sabbat, sometimes they go in dreams: it’s no big deal.
Huh? If they haven’t really gone to the Sabbat, what have they done wrong? The inquisitors patiently explain: they have made a pact with the Devil. You can do that as easily in your own bed as under the walnut tree of Benevento. And once you are in the company of devils, the possibilities are almost endless.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Early modern intellectuals didn’t think exactly in those terms, but they would have recognised the general idea. Devils, according to them, are hyper-intelligent and very, very old. They found out, long ago, how to produce effects so astounding that we might (almost) mistake them for miracles, even though we know that miracles are the province of God alone. They can carry people through the air, for instance, or they can leave them where they are but give them the illusion - it’s hard to avoid thinking of virtual reality here - that they are in fact interacting with others at the Sabbat. And if they go, the evil spirit will provide a substitute body to fool the people at home, while if they stay, he can create an imitation which will be recognised by the other witches. It’s amazing what devils can do.
None of this was, strictly speaking, supernatural - it was all done through a profound knowledge of natural causes (Clark 1997: 161-178). But what about the ointment? Sometimes it seemed to cause an actual, physical flight through the air (transvection, as it was called); sometimes it was an agent of delusions. But when you got down to brass tacks, the ointment didn’t really do anything. It was the devils who were behind it all. In fact they went out of their way to fool the witch into thinking that she had acquired something with marvellous powers, when in fact all the strings were being pulled by her sinister friends. ‘The things they use - formulas and figurines, herbs, powders, ointments, sacraments - are only instruments; it is the devil who does it all’, wrote Martin Plantsch (Opusculus de Sagis Maleficis, 1507 - Lea 1957: 1.365). In fact, as Plantsch ingeniously pointed out, an ointment that made solid things fly through the air would be quite impossible to use - the jar would have taken off long before you could grab a handful of the contents.
This is why, though they debated over the effects of the ointment in loving detail, none of the early demonologists worried about its contents. It was all a trick of the Devil, and if he wanted to fool witches into thinking that baby oil would make them fly through the air, that was his business. As late as 1698 Johann Klein, in his thesis on the use of the ointment in transvection and lycanthropy, held that the Devil only made his dupes use the stuff in order to conceal his own agency (Kuhlin 1999: 81).
Of course the Devil, super-scientist that he was, could also use natural causes such as hallucinogens, if they suited his purposes. To that extent, a herbal analysis of the flying ointment was not particularly radical: it might well be a drug which caused delusions, but who sent those delusions in the first place? What disturbed the traditionalists, when they read Cardano and Della Porta, was the strong hint that natural causes could explain the whole thing. If anomalous mental experiences were to pass into the province of the doctors, it seemed as if the Devil might be left out of the equation altogether.
This was the step taken by Johann Weyer in De Praestigiis Daemonum (1583). Instead of the theologian’s witch, the woman who had surrendered her free will to Satan, Weyer proposed a scarcely less flattering clinical interpretation; his witches are doddering old nuisances with mental health problems. Aberrant human behaviour was a doctor’s business, and in support of this Weyer included a chapter on natural soporific medications, which quotes Della Porta at length from the earlier, unexpurgated edition of Magiae Naturalis, and proceeds to discuss the psychotropic effects of opium, belladonna, bhang and other plants (Weyer 1991: 225-231).
So the herbal interpretation of the flying ointment had now entered mainstream demonological literature. Actually, Weyer was no more bothered about the finer details of the recipe than the traditionalists: it established the principle that drugs could give you odd experiences, and that was all he needed. The Cardano/ Della Porta twin recipe went on being copied from book to book, getting a name for itself in the process as the authentic witches’ flying ointment. When Reginald Scot translated it into English from Weyer (Discoverie of Witchcraft bk.10 cap.8) he was not much concerned to prove that the drugs had the effect claimed for them. It was enough to show that they were one amongst many alternatives to claims of a real, physical Sabbat. Scot concludes pugnaciously:
Indeed. Scot is exploiting the kind of confusion which will always arise if we ask ‘did the flying ointment work?’. For there were dozens of flying ointments, just as there were thousands of witches. And by ‘witches’ we mean Chonrad and Matteuccia and Catalina and Bellezza and Violanta… people who had absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that someone, somewhere had decided they were witches and was forcing them to agree to it.
Today there is an extensive pharmacological literature in what Nigel Aldcroft Jackson has evocatively called ‘the black wine of owls’. Behind it all is the unspoken hope that, if we can only shine the light of science long enough into the dark places of superstition, we shall discover what the witches were really up to, what really went on when they travelled to the Sabbat. Does that sound familiar? It ought to, because it was exactly the same goal that motivated the inquisitors. Given the choice, it’s better to torture the evidence than to torture people, but neither strategy will yield the truth about witchcraft - because witchcraft never existed as a phenomenon, but was always a creation of the people who studied it. So put the drug-testing kit away. If flying ointments were brewed anywhere, it was in the cauldron of the imagination.
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