“Some Notes on ‘Flying’ Ointments”
Prof. A. J. Clark
(from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray Alice)
The three formulae for the ‘flying’ ointment used by witches are as follows:
1. Du persil, de l’eau de l’Aconite, des feuilles de Peuple, et de la suye.
2. De la Berle, de l’Acorum vulgaire, de la Quintefeuille, du sang de chauuesouris, de la Morelle endormante, et de l’huyle.
3. De graisse d’enfant, de suc d’Ache, d’Aconite, de Quintefeuille, de Morelle, et de suye.
These formulae may be translated as follows:
1. Parsley, water of aconite, poplar leaves, and soot.
2. Water parsnip, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat’s blood, deadly nightshade, and oil.
3. Baby’s fat, juice of water parsnip, aconite, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade, and soot.
These prescriptions show that the society of witches had a very creditable knowledge of the art of poisoning: aconite and deadly nightshade or belladonna are two of the three most poisonous plants growing freely in Europe, the third is hemlock, and in all probability ‘persil’ refers to hemlock and not to the harmless parsley, which it resembles closely.
The other ingredients have no marked toxic action, unless ‘berle’ and ‘ache’ refer not to the harmless water parsnip but to the poisonous water hemlock or cowbane. The baby’s fat and bat’s blood would of course have no action.
Aconite was one of the best-known poisons in ancient times; indeed it was so extensively used by professional poisoners in Rome during the Empire that a law was passed making its cultivation a capital offence. Aconite root contains about 0.4 per cent. of alkaloid and one-fifteenth of a grain of the alkaloid is a lethal dose. The drug has little effect upon the consciousness, but produces slowing, irregularity, and finally arrest of the heart.
The use of belladonna as a poison was also known in classical times; fourteen of the berries have been known to produce death; a moderate dose will produce wild excitement and delirium.
Hemlock is also a well-known and ancient poison; the fruit may contain as much as 0.9 per cent. of alkaloid, and ¼ grain of the alkaloid may produce death. The action of hemlock usually is to produce a gradual motor paralysis, consciousness being unimpaired, and death being caused by paralysis of respiration, but sometimes hemlock may produce delirium and excitement.
There is no doubt, therefore, about the efficacy of these prescriptions and their ability to produce physiological effects. They were administered by being rubbed into the skin, which is not an efficient way of introducing most drugs into the body, indeed some have denied that alkaloids can be absorbed from the unbroken skin; but there is no doubt that alkaloids can be absorbed when rubbed into scratches or into the quick of the nails, and it must be remembered that an unbroken skin is only possessed by those who are free from vermin and who wash regularly, and neither of these conditions would be likely to apply to a mediaeval witch. Cases of poisoning associated with delirium have actually been recorded following the application of belladonna plasters to the skin.
Of the three prescriptions the first is a watery solution and would not be very efficacious when rubbed into the skin, but the second and third are ointments, and if they were rubbed into the skin in sufficient quantities definite physiological results would be produced.
The first preparation, which contains hemlock and aconite, would produce mental confusion, impaired movement, irregular action of the heart, dizziness and shortness of breath.
The belladonna in the second ointment would produce excitement which might pass into delirium.
The third ointment, containing both aconite and belladonna, would produce excitement and irregular action of the heart.
I cannot say whether any of these drugs would produce the impression of flying, but I consider the use of aconite interesting in this respect. Irregular action of the heart in a person falling asleep produces the well-known sensation of suddenly falling through space, and it seems quite possible that the combination of a delirifacient like belladonna with a drug producing irregular action of the heart like aconite might produce the sensation of flying.