Herbs, Hexes, & Hallucinogens: Inside the Witches' Apothecary
In the shadowy corners of history, where myth intertwines with reality, lies the enigmatic realm of the witch. Her magical apothecary consisted of powerful hallucinogens and deadly poisons.
There are no more iconic image of Halloween than the silhouette of a witch in a pointed hat floating past the moon on her scraggly broomstick.
Perhaps she has green skin or a long, hooked nose with a wart on it.
Maybe her cat is seen riding on the back of the broom with her.
Who is she? Where is she going? What are witches, and how much of common witch folklore is based on truth?
Generally speaking, witches (based on the classic Western European concept) were herbalists, midwives, and single women who deviated from cultural norms at the time. In light of the growing influence of the Catholic church, their pagan practices were not only ostracized and misunderstood but feared and condemned.
Throughout the 1500s, following the publication of a book called The Malleus Maleficarum — public opinion on witches and their herbal roots took a turn for the worst. Women who were accused by neighbors of witchcraft were often killed. Over the course of about 200 years, an estimated 80,000 accusations were made and over 40,000 murders.
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The Origin of the Witch
In Western Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, witches and witchcraft were a common topic of discussion. There was a real fear of these mysterious and malicious women.
Prior to the year 1400, hardly anyone was tried or harmed for being a witch.
With that said, being a witch was still not ideal prior to the 1400s, but the punishment was much less severe. Often, accused witches would be placed in the stocks for a night or two. All of this changed in the 15th and 16th centuries when fearmongering around witches turned violent.
The trouble started, like many other troubles do, with the ruminations and thoughts of just one man. In this case, German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer was to blame for society’s turn on witches and witchcraft.
Sure, the church had already condemned witchcraft (except in the case of exorcisms), but for the most part, people were living comfortably — until the Malleus Maleficarum came along.
The Malleus Maleficarum was a 1486 treatise that essentially functioned as a step-by-step guidebook for identifying, finding, and punishing witches. Written by Heinrich Kramer after he was expelled from Innsbruck, Germany, following an obsession and mishandled attempt to prosecute an assumed witch, the Malleus claimed that sorcery and witchcraft were heresy, which was a crime at the time and should be punished as such.
Kramer noted that heretics were often punished by burning at the stake and that the “evils of witchcraft” and those who practice it should meet the same fate. He was obsessed with women and witches and blamed them for his own lust.
Upon his expulsion from Innsbruck, Kramer began writing the Malleus, deciding that if the church and the government wouldn't help him enforce punishment on witches, he would dedicate himself to convincing the public to do it instead.
The Malleus described witchcraft in four different parts, noting these categories as tools for identifying witches and then, obviously, punishing them.
Witches, Kramer said, were:
People who had given up the Catholic faith (1)
People who had dedicated themselves to evil (2)
People who enjoy giving unbaptized children to the Devil (3)
People who engage in group orgies that include sex with the Devil (4)
All this on the Sabbath and in the dead of night… of course.
Kramer attempted to get theologians from the College of Cologne to approve his new book, but instead, they condemned it, claiming it promoted views that were against the church's current stance on demonology and offered punishments that were both illegal and unethical.
Despite this rejection, the book became pretty popular with laypeople of the time, and it helped spread new belief systems and fears around witches throughout Western Europe. It also inspired a host of other witch-hunting manuals that came after it.
For the most part, though, witches were just regular people, with an overwhelming female majority. They were midwives, healers, and herbalists — people from vulnerable populations, immigrants, the elderly, widows who seemed "too happy" their husbands were gone, and almost anyone who deviated, in some way, from the acceptable norm.
Again, the vast majority of them were women.
Thanks to the existing sexism at the time, women were seen as much more likely to give into temptation, especially when that temptation allegedly involved sex with the Devil.
The Witches Apothecary
Herbal medicine was the standard form of medicine for most people during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Western Herbal Pharmacopia at the time already contained hundreds of useful plants. Witches, being herbalists by trade, were well-versed in the variety of medicinal plants growing in the forests around them.
Some of these plants are powerful hallucinogens, deliriants, and deadly poisons.
Herbs like datura, mandrake, and belladonna stand out as especially powerful, “witchy” plants that can induce profound otherworldly visions and altered states of consciousness. Their association with death makes them especially synonymous with witches of Western Europe.
Most of these plants come from the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which is the same group that brings us tomato, eggplant, and potato. This group contains a powerful array of alkaloids — some of which are medicinal, others poisonous, and some hallucinogenic.
These plants still exist today — though we don't recommend taking any of them yourself.
Behold a non-exhaustive list of some of the most popular plants used by witches of the Middle Ages:
1. Datura (Datura stramonium)
Datura has a strong association with witches — even earning the Medieval nickname “Witches’ Weed” at the time.
There are between 9 and 14 different species of datura (taxonomists have a hard time agreeing) — all from the nightshade family.
This plant is classified as a deliriant — which means it causes hallucinations and removes one’s ability to distinguish these hallucinations from reality.
Users often experience illustrious demons or spirits. These visions are often grandiose, but the intoxicating effects of the plant completely inhibit one's ability to realize these gruesome visions aren't real.
Datura's psychoactive effects result from a cocktail of tropane alkaloids contained throughout the plant — but are especially concentrated in the seed pods. Compounds like atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine work by inhibiting the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which causes users to hallucinate — but also triggers a runaway sympathetic response, which can quickly turn fatal.
There’s a little poem that best describes the physical effects of datura:
Hot as hell — datura inhibits body cooling, causing users to overheat.
Dry as a bone — datura blocks mucus production and inhibits urination, causing users to feel dry inside and out.
Mad as a hatter — the deliriant qualities of datura make people appear insane.
Blind as a bat — datura dilates the pupils, making it very difficult to see. The vision becomes hazy, blurry, and light-sensitive.
The effects of chewing datura seed pods are extremely long-lasting — it’s common for effects to remain in full force for up to 72 long hours.
Datura is also deadly poisonous. Users most often die from self-inflicted injuries while under its spell or as a result of severe heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Even those who don’t die often end up in the hospital after taking datura — suffering from extreme body heat and dehydration, nausea, a pounding headache, and a desperate inability to urinate.
The borracherro tree is a separate but related species found in Colombia and other parts of the South American Andes. This plant has a strong association with shamanism and South American witchcraft in a similar capacity to datura.
2. Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
Henbane, a plant now more associated with Vikings, has a rich history as an ingredient in the witch's brew. Both the Vikings and the European witches used henbane for similar applications.
Viking warriors would sometimes consume henbane to enter a psychoactive rage state they called “berserkergang.” They also used to bury their dead with henbane seeds to protect them in the next life.
Witches were thought to use henbane for “making weather,” conjuring spirits, communicating with the dead or demons, and invoking bad dreams — specifically of being tortured or killed.
Traditional herbalists used it as a local anesthetic, painkiller, and sleep aid.
Henbane, like datura, is a member of the nightshade family. It’s both toxic and medicinal — depending on how it’s used.
Most healers who worked with henbane (including witches) would apply the herb topically to the mucus membranes. This was a common method for using toxic nightshades as it dramatically reduced the chances of fatal side effects.
Just like datura, henbane contains a group of alkaloids known as the tropane alkaloids. This includes atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine — all three of which are both toxic and powerfully psychoactive.
3. Wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus)
The word "bane" is common in the lexicon of traditional herbal medicine. If something is a bane, it means it can be used as protection against- or otherwise involved with the harm or destruction of its target.
"Wolfsbane" was, therefore, thought to offer protection against both wolves and werewolves.
“Henbane” was toxic to chickens, and “dogbane” was poisonous to dogs. There was also “fleabane,” “bugbane,” and numerous other plants named for their ability to kill or injure specific types of organisms.
Wolfsbane is one of the few major plants in the witches' apothecary that isn't a member of the nightshade family. This species is instead part of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).
Just like datura and henbane, the wolfsbane plant (AKA Monkshood) is highly toxic in moderate doses and medicinal in smaller doses.
As medicine, wolfsbane was mainly applied as a topical pain reliever.
Witches often combined wolfsbane with deliriants like datura, henbane, mandrake, or belladonna to enhance their effects. In lower doses, wolfsbane is a paralytic — allowing the effects of the other herbs to take effect while limiting body movement. This effect may have helped prevent thrashing and convulsions of the witches while they explored altered states of consciousness — thus reducing chances of interruption or self-inflicted injury.
4. Belladonna (Atropa belladonna)
The infamous Deadly Nightshade (AKA belladonna) is another highly toxic deliriant related to datura.
This plant gets its nickname from Venetian court ladies who used a tincture of the flower to make their pupils larger, which was a sign of beauty in Italy at the time. One of the many effects of the active tropane alkaloids inside the plant is to force a dilation of the pupils.
All parts of this plant are toxic, but the berries carry the highest concentration of poison. They were often mistakenly eaten by children, many of whom would later die. This may have added fuel to the idea that witches revel in harming and killing innocent children.
Belladonna was a crucial ingredient in many witches’ potions and tinctures for the same reason datura, henbane, and mandrake were used.
5. Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
Mandrake refers to five species of toxic roots from the nightshade family.
You might remember this one from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The scene involves pulling out little baby mandrakes, which produce a piercing screech once removed from the soil. This is a real myth surrounding the mandrake. People used to believe that once removed, the mandrake would let out a scream so loud it could kill any potential harvester. So, instead of pulling the root themselves, people would tie the base of the root to a dog or horse and have them pull the root as they hid from a safe distance.
Some of this mythology likely resulted from the plant's impressive toxicity. If juices from the mandrake root ended up in cuts or scratches on the hands of harvesters, it could have led to their untimely death.
Mandrake contains the same powerful tropane alkaloids as datura and belladonna — as well as a few extras such as mandragorine, which is only found in mandrake.
The root of the mandrake was used medicinally across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Levant for issues around infertility and sexual dysfunction. It was even referenced in the Bible in Genesis when Rachel was struggling to become pregnant and offered to trade Leah a night with her husband (a chance to conceive) in exchange for some mandrakes. She believed they could fix her fertility troubles.
The other mythical component of the mandrake is its shape — which looks strikingly similar to a human. They featured little arms and legs and even a squinty face. Many cultures around the world placed special emphasis on plants that resembled human forms — such as the mighty ginseng plant from China or the Peruvian maca root.
Ahh, the witches' flying ointment. It was a truly fascinating concoction with as many recipes surrounding it as there were curious herbalists in the Middle Ages.
The flying ointment was a liquid made up of most of the above ingredients, as well as some extras. It would sometimes include various animal parts.
Recipes varied — much like ayahuasca, the ingredients of the brew varied with the witch, and a few are still found floating around the internet somewhere, preserved from tattered old Middle Ages notebooks and pieced together by sleuths and historians.
Francis Bacon said that the flying ointment included the “fat of children.”
The flying ointment would also sometimes include Amanita muscaria (The Fly Agaric Mushroom), a mushroom with a very long and rich history of magic and psychedelic use from the ancient Greeks to indigenous eastern European cultures.
But two of the aforementioned witchy plants were absolute must-haves in the flying ointment, and those are the datura and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). No authentic flying ointment can be made without them.
The flying ointment would be applied to the mucous membranes around the body — such as under the arms or the vulva.
“[T]he witches confess that...they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places [...]” wrote Jardanes de Vergamo in an unpublished manuscript, later quoted in 1901 by Joseph Hansen in “Quellen und Untersuchen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexengefolgung im Mittelalter” (Sources and studies on the history of witch madness and the witch following in the Middle Ages).
Thus was borne the rumor that the ointment was something sexual and that the broomsticks were used sexually or as masturbation aids. “Riding the broomstick.”
Psychedelic author and advocate Michael Pollan makes reference to this in his book Botany of Desire, wherein he states:
“Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to "cast spells" — in our vocabulary, "psychoactive" plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladona, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), and the skin of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based "flying ointment" that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the "broomstick" by which these women were said to travel. (119)”
It’s unlikely the DMT was derived from toads in Western Europe at the time. The only toad that produces the psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT is the Sonoran desert toad (Bufo alvarius), which is native to Souther USA and Mexico. Some related species produce other DMT-analogs, such as bufotenin — such as the Bufo gargarizans which is found in Southeast Asia.
Likewise, Pollan's bold claim that the flying ointment was administered vaginally is just riffing off of a rumor stemming from a 50-year-old article by Michael Harner, who stated that witches apply the lotion and masturbate but whose sources are either taken out of context or cannot be found.
This myth is widely taken as fact but has very likely been misinterpreted from oral traditions and folklore over the years.
So why did this idea pop off so much?
A possible reason comes from the rise of feminism and psychedelics throughout the 60s and 70s. The focus on female sexual pleasure, sexual liberation, and getting high from hallucinogenic ointment sounded pretty good to the counterculture, and it stuck in society. As fun as it could be, realistically, it's probably just not true.
What Else Could Witches Do?
Witches were rumored to do a lot of things, and their different types of powers were typically divided into two categories — explanations for misfortune (casting curses or hexes on people, their lands, or their animals) and general magic (flying around, transforming into animals, or conjuring spells and potions).
Some examples of witches “abilities” included:
Turn milk sour
Strike people dead
Create terrible storms and bad weather
Cause stillbirths in infants
Prevent cows from producing milk
Prevent hens from laying eggs
Curse others to perpetual “bad luck”
It’s interesting to note that despite targeted witches being almost exclusively women, a large part of the concern or worry with them was that they would cause infertility, stillbirths, steal, kill, or sacrifice babies, and other things of that nature.
It’s easy to see that femininity was stripped from these women — while most witches were women, they lacked what actually made them women in the view of the Middle Ages — that is, mothers and caretakers and “machines for reproduction.”
Witches were believed to be supernatural. Doing this was an effective attempt to dehumanize them and help laypeople see the women they were killing as not like them but as an evil "Other."
The other category of witches’ powers were those of fantasy and magic.
Some of the things that they were believed to be able to do are:
Fly in the air
Change or “make” weather
Transform into a hare
Suckle familiar spirits from warts
Sail on a single plank
Witches could do a lot, but at the end of the day, witches were just women or people who were suffering in some ways at the hands of a suppressive culture. Midwives, windows, and non-locals deemed too different by their neighbors and provoked into fear. They were very often fatally condemned for these differences.
Today, we don’t burn people at the stake or drown so-called witches, but a culture of distrust and condemnation still permeates our culture. Perhaps, like our friends in the Middle Ages, we could all benefit from a step back to review our logic.
Nature's Unforgiving Bloom: A Dive into Datura (Tripsitter)
Boracherro: The Flower That Charms & Harms (Tripsitter)
The Murderous (And Magical) Mandrake Root (Tripsitter)
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