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Were They Witches?

To: soc.history.medieval,alt.pagan,alt.religion.wicca
From: (Robert Mathiesen)
Subject: Re: Were They Witches? (was: Why 'Witch'? (Was
Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996 13:04:38 EDT

In article <4kbhqh$hoi@vesuri.Helsinki.FI>, (Otto T
Hyvarinen) said:

>I am not an expert, but what I have read there is not much evidence,
>that such ointments existed at all. "Nearly all analyses linking
>witchcraft with drugs rest on highly suspect testimony drawn from
>secondhand or more remote accounts of (often coerced) witch confessions"
>(from "Servant of Satan, The Age of he Witch Hunts" by Joseph Hunts)

No doubt some of the ointments seized in evidence did not work.
However, we possess three 16th-century recipes for "witches' ointments"
which appear not to have come from inquisitorial sources, and which
clearly possess psychoactive properties.  They are as follows:

(1)  Jerome Cardan, _De subtilitate lib. XXI_ (Lyon, 1559 [ed. princ.

Constat, ut creditur, puerorum pinguedine e sepulcris eruta, suceisque
apii aconnitique tum pentaphylli [var. ad.: solani] filigineque.

(2) Giambattista Porta, _Magiae naturalis, sive De miraculis rerum
naturalium, lib. IIII_ (Antwerp, 1562 [ed. prin. 1558]):

Puerorum pinguedinem aheno vase decoquendo ex aqua capiunt, inspissando
quod ex elixatione ultimum, novissimum subsidet, inde condunt,
continuoque inserviunt usui: cum hac immiscent eleoselinum, aconitum,
frondes populneas et fuliginem.

(3)  Ibidem:

Sium, acorum vulgare, pentaphyllon, vespertilionis sanguinem, solanum
somniferum, et oleum (etsi diversa commiscent, ab iis non parum
dissidebunt), simul conficiunt.  --  Partes omnes perungunt, eas antea
perfricando, ut rubescant et revocetur calor, rarumque fiat quod erat
frigore concretum.  Ut relaxcetur caro, aperiantur pori, adipem
adiungunt, vel oleum ipsius vicem subiens, ut succorum vis intro
descendat, et fiat potior vegetiorque, id esse in causam non dubium

To these should be added the following, which is *not* specifically said
to be a witches' ointment, but to merit comparison with the preceding

(4) Johannes Wier, _De praestigiis daemonum, et incantationibus ac
veneficiis lib. VI_ (Basle, 1583 [ed. prin. 1563]):

[After quoting the three preceding recipes:]

Cui non absimile ad inducundum profundum longumque comnum, adiungam hic
Rec. semin. lolii, hyosciami, cicutae, papaveris rubei et nigri,
latucae, portulacae, ana part. iiii baccarum solani somnifici part. i.
Ex his minibus fiat oleum secundum artis legem, et pro qualibet uncia
istius olei misceatur scrup. i opii Thebaici.  Hinc sumatur scrup. i vel
i.s, et duorum dierum subsequetur somnus.

Leaving aside the fat of children, likewise the soot and bat's blood, as
additives for dramatic effect, the active plant ingredients are:

Apium [whether graveolens or petroselinum], acts on the nervous system
in its own right, and is also easily mistaken for hemlock.

Aconitum [whether napellus, i.e. monkshood, or pardalianches, i.e. herb
Paris], containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Pentaphyllum [Potentilla reptans], an herb with traditional magical
uses, psychoactive or toxic properties apparently not yet investigated.

Solanum (somniferum) [Solanum nigrum, i.e. black nightshade, or Atropa
belladona, i.e. deadly nightshade].

Eleoselinum, see Apium (above).

Populus [spp.], not obviously relevant to the other ingredients.

Sium [latifolium], psychoactive properties (if any) unknown, but easily
confused with hemlock.

Acorum (vulgare) [calamus, i.e. sweet flag], the root of which is a
traditional North American folk psychoactive, possibly Walt Whitman's

Lolium [temulentum?], which is sometimes psychoactive, though it seems
not to be known whether it is such in its own right, or only because it
hosts a psychoactive fungus (perhaps ergot?).

Hyosciamus [niger, i.e. henbane], clearly psychedelic and/or toxic.

Cicuta [Conium maculatum, i.e. hemlock, or Cicuta virosa, i.e. water
hemlock], highly toxic.

Papaver (rubeum et nigrum) [rhoeas, i.e. red and black poppy], usually
not strongly psychedelic.

Latuca [virosa, i.e. wild lettuce], the source of "lettuce opium," as it
is called.

Portulace [spp.], no clear relevance to the other ingredients.

Opium thebaicum [Papaver somniferum, i.e. opium poppy].

The identification of the plants is always a bit problematic, as the
terminology of the period refers often not to species, but to what are
now considered genera, and in addition plants which are now assigned to
different genera were not always distinguished back then (e.g. cicuta).
Nevertheless, it should be clear that we have recipes for ointments
capable of producing visions and/or delerium, whether through the action
of psychoactives or toxins or both.

Specific effects of any given toxin or psychoactive chemical can be
determined from modern studies, but clearly some produce a sense of
flying, others sexual excitement, dependent in part of set and setting.

Robert Mathiesen, Brown University, SL500000@BROWNVM.BITNET

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