A reader says, “I’ve been reading some books about the history of witchcraft, and I keep seeing reference to something called “flying ointment.” What is that, and do people still use it?”
Flying ointment, in a historical context, was basically a salve containing a blend of fat and psychotropic herbs, which allegedly gave witches the ability hop on their brooms and fly off to their Sabbat celebrations. Keep in mind that because this concept became a popular one during the witch hunts, or so-called Burning Times, in Europe, part of the legend included the grisly idea of this ointment made from the rendered fat of murdered unbaptized infants. This, of course, was part of the fear-mongering spread with the purpose of getting people to accuse unlikeable neighbors of witchcraft.
Occult artist and author Sarah Anne Lawless points out, “Some may think flying ointments only go back as far as the Middle Ages as the majority of written accounts and recipes are from that period. But if we look in mythology, ancient literature, and folktales, we find a rich source of lore that leads back to pre-Christian times.” She adds that remnants of various psychoactive drugs have been found and dated back as far as the Neolithic period.
So, what herbs would a crafty witch use in flying ointment? Well, depends on who you ask, but in general, historians indicate that it was primarily herbs in the Solanaceae family of plants – and these are all part of the Nightshade family, which includes belladonna, datura, mandrake, and henbane. In addition, some recipes called for the use of less dangerous but still effective plants such as mugwort, poppy and cannabis, among others.
Flying ointment works as a hallucinogen when the herbs are placed in a salve or oil, rubbed on the body, and absorbed through the skin.
European witches in the Middle Ages were hardly the only ones taking advantage of hallucinogenic herbs during ritual. As mentioned above, the practice goes back thousands of years. Early Siberian shamans may have used herbs in their rituals, and certainly, some Native American rites have included a number of hallucinogenic herbs. Carlos Casteneda has written extensively about his experiences with hallucinogenic plants during his travels in the southwest.
Do witches still use flying ointment today? Well, not generally, and that’s because most people don’t have the medicinal or herbal knowledge to do so safely. Does that mean that hallucinogenic herbs are never used? Certainly not – just that the majority of people who currently practice what we consider witchcraft don’t typically include it as part of their practice.
In fact, even among those who do know their herbs, it’s still considered not a very good idea – and the reason for that is simple. Many of those herbs that you think you want to use in flying ointment are poisonous, and can easily kill you.
In her groundbreaking book Drawing Down the Moon, author Margot Adler quotes an experienced Wiccan herbalist who experimented with flying ointment. She told Adler:
“I made it about a thousand-fold stronger than I should have because I was using denatured alcohol instead of spirits of wine to extract it, which is what they did in the old days, and instead of lard I was using hydrophilic ointment. As a result I increased the potency about two hundred to three hundred percent, and I got enough under my fingernails just by mixing it to kill me. I would have died if it hadn't been for a friend of mine who was a doctor and a magician, whom I called immediately. I learned a very heavy lesson.”
Today, numerous website and books list recipes for non-toxic “flying ointment.” These blends typically include a selection of herbs that are associate with astral projection combined with a nice harmless oil such as grapeseed or jojoba. While they may assist in astral projection, they are not true flying ointments in the historical sense of the phrase.