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Herbs from the witch's garden



Did you know that witches exist? And that they can fly? By anointing themselves (and sometimes their broomstick) with flying ointment they make an ‘astral journey’. Witches’ salves were well known in the Middle Ages and the recipes contain psychoactive plants native to Europe.

Many of the powerful European herbs have fallen into oblivion. Not just because they have unpleasant – sometimes even obscure – effects (this is especially true for members of the nightshades family). With the rise of Christianity and later on scientific rationalism herb lore was increasingly dismissed as ‘superstition’.

Knowledge about psychoactive plants and their application was embedded in an animated world view and its practitioners made use of techniques and rituals we would nowadays label ‘shamanistic’.

Within the psychedelic scene many study the shamanistic traditions of other cultures. But what do we actually know about herbs and plants indigenous to Europe?

Plants of the night

The most notorious ‘witches’ herbs’ are members of the nightshades family (Solanaceae) - which includes the potato, tomato and tobacco. Datura (Datura stramonium), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), belladonna (Atropa belladonna) and Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) were not only the main ingredients of witches’ salves but were also used in love potions, certain medicines and applied as poison.

The main alkaloids in these plants are scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine. The concentrations vary per plant. In a mild dose they often cause a spooky trip that lasts for days and that goes together with temporary loss of consciousness (deep sleep) and amnesia. A higher dose may lead to lasting insanity or death.

Herbalism and witchcraft

The preparation and use of the nightshades was only part of a broad-ranging herbalism. All kinds of plants have been used for their healing powers, to arouse lust (or limit it), for birth control (e.g. abortion) or as a poison.

Until late in the Middle Ages it was quite common to go to the local herbalist with any ailment or problem. The wise 'wortcunner' then gave you a salve, tincture or drink. Herbcraft was surrounded by ritual practices: harvest should happen at the right moon phase and uttering the right incantation was just as important as the administration of the herb itself. Parts of plants could also be worn as amulet or talisman to ward off evil spirits.

The berries of the Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) for example, were said to keep malicious gossip at bay when worn as an amulet. Hung above the cradle of a child the plant protected against enchantment. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) was mainly known as an aphrodisiac: by kissing someone while holding a piece of the root in your mouth, this person would immediately fall in love with you.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) - the main ingredient of absinth - was used as life elixir in the Middle Ages, to treat wounds and to expel worms. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) was an important woman’s herb that helped to bring on missed menstrual cycles and hasten birth. Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the most poisonous plants in Europe and was used to murder people. (Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a cup of poison hemlock).

If you want to apply the equally poisonous monkshood (Aconitum napellus) for healing purposes, a ritual harvest is required. The plant needs to be picked in the moonshine, after reciting the right charm. It was believed that this was the only way to obtain the plant's magical powers.

These are just a few examples. Such traditions date back to classical antiquity and have been observed with all European tribes, from the Slaves and Germans to the Celts and Vikings. In the Nordic cultures, the völva stood in high regard: these wise priestesses and seeresses sang songs to enter an ecstatic state, they could interpret the past and tell prophecies for the future.

The alruna fulfilled a similar role for the German tribes, like the druids for the Celts. With their herbal knowledge and shamanistic techniques, these wise women and men held power over life and death, sickness and health. They functioned as healers and ritual leaders. Our idea of ‘the witch’ is based on them.

The end of nature religion

With the rise of Christianity, ‘heathen’ customs were first partially adopted and later slowly suppressed. Where Christianity gained power, pagan holidays were given a Christian interpretation and Christian saints took the place of pagan gods and goddesses. Herbal remedies remained, though the corresponding spells were replaced with rhymes that for instance referred to a Christian saint.

In a document for missionaries from the 8th century amongst others the ‘singing of magical songs’, ‘rituals and sacrifice in the forests’, ‘moon magic of the women’ and ‘prophecy and the use of oracles’ were prohibited – which suggests these were widespread practices.

Witch hunts

For a long time, the Church had dismissed witchcraft as superstition. In the late Middle Ages, this changed. The Church sought a firmer grip on feudal society and established the Inquisition to combat all kinds of heresy.

At the end of the 14th century, the plague raged across Europe and wiped out one-third of the population. To make things even worse, the ships of Columbus brought back syphilis when they returned from the New World. This sexually transmitted disease fuelled an immense fear of sexuality and sexual contacts.

Diligently a scapegoat was sought to blame for all the misery and ‘the witch’ was an easy victim. The Inquisition propagated the idea of the witch as devil worshipper: she was said to have made a pact with Satan that was sealed at the witches’ Sabbath - which the inquisitors pictured as a sexual orgy. The witch was not only held responsible for disease and death, but also for causing natural disasters to happen and wilfully sabotaging the harvest.

This idea of ‘the witch’ was shaped by the Inquisition and functioned as a counter-image to ‘the good Christian’. Still, witch hunts mainly occurred at the local level, where neighbours accused each other. Typically, the immediate motive for a juridical process was sour milk, a stillborn baby or crop failure.

Witch hunts were not necessarily related to herbalism. However, as a direct competitor to the priest, the local herb woman was particularly vulnerable to demonization. Between 1450 and 1750, about 40.000 to 50.000 ‘witches’ were executed. About three times as many were persecuted and often tortured. Most of them were women.

Science and religion: control over nature

Within the pre-Christian traditions, nature is a direct expression of the divine. Stones and rivers are inhabited by spirits or gods and therefore sacred. Plants have spirits as well, which makes it possible to communicate with them. Obviously, humans can only treat the natural world in a respectful (ritual) way.

With Christianity, this changes: man gains power over nature and is allowed to use her at his own discretion. Nature is no longer divine, but something that needs to be controlled. The wilderness and its people – like the völva and alruna – are sacred no more. Instead, they are perceived as dangerous.

The paradigm shift unfolds slowly. Already in the 4th century BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates dismisses magical thinking interwoven with the application of herbs. He bases his practice solely on the direct observation of nature and is therefore seen as the founding father of modern medicine.

Still, herbcraft is surrounded by rituals and incantations till late in the Middle Ages. Only during the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment these 'rational' ideas develop further. Nature loses her soul and becomes completely ‘disenchanted’. Science becomes the instrument to dominate nature. Following Hippocrates, modern medicine only looks at the biological origins of a disease. She will not likely prescribe a ritual as part of a cure.

Contemporary witchcraft

Despite the strong influence of religion and science some currents within European culture hold on to ideas of witchcraft and magic. On the one hand are the folk traditions passed on from generation to generation. On the other hand, there is a wide range of esoteric movements based on Neoplatonic and Hermetic writings from late antiquity.

Concurrently with the rise of modern science, the intellectual interest in magic flourished. Within esotericism, it was seen as one of the ‘traditional sciences’. Esoteric writings distinguish between different types of magic: herbcraft belongs to natural magic and is opposed to the ceremonial magic that makes use of elaborate rituals.

Gerald Gardner is the first to proclaim himself as ‘witch’ when in 1951 the last English Witchcraft Act is abolished. He claims to be initiated into a traditional witches’ coven with a long line back into history. This remains unproven and the prevailing view is that witchcraft is a new religious movement inspired by ancient sources.

It builds directly upon both folk traditions and esoteric ideas but is for example also influenced by Buddhism, feminism, yoga and shamanistic traditions from other cultures. The "Gospel of Aradia" is an important folk source that shapes contemporary rituals. This book, recorded at the end of the 18th century by folklorist Leland, contains songs, spells, invocations and stories about "the Old Religion" of a witch (‘strega’) from Florence, which was transmitted to her by other practitioners.

Contemporary witches reject the idea of institutionalized religion and believe that one can experience the divine directly by aligning oneself to the rhythms of nature. Like their medieval counterparts, modern witches often posses a love for herbs and spells. A plant or herb corresponds to a particular element, colour and planet and is associated with a particular god or goddess. Burning a particular kind of incense gains ritual significance.

With some exceptions, most modern witches don’t use psychedelics. Instead, they prefer mind-altering techniques such as meditation, visualization and dance to induce a state of trance in which they can practice magic.

Plant Portraits: the nightshades in detail

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium)

Jimson weed (datura or thornapple) is recognizable by her white or purple, chalice-shaped flowers, sharply pointed leaves and prickly seed capsules that resemble those of the chestnut. All parts of the plant can be consumed. Usually, the seeds are chewed or a tea is made of the leaves. Datura is difficult to dose and you can easily take too much.

The plant causes a shadowy trip in which users often forget what they consumed. In low doses, it numbs and has a narcotic effect. Higher doses lead to a state of insanity, characterized by agitation, confusion and hallucinations.

In Europe, the seeds were sometimes added to beer in order to make it more narcotic. The seeds were also used as incense. Jimson Weed is still occasionally taken by reckless (or uninformed) teenagers who are looking for a cheap trip - often with disastrous consequences. Like the other nightshades, datura can be fatal when overdosed.

Scopolamine, the main alkaloid in Jimson weed, is also the main constituent of the Brugmansia- and other Datura species. All over the world these plants are used in a ceremonial context, for instance by shamans in the Amazon. The plants are also regularly used to mislead people: under influence you will lose your will and you are easily manipulated. In addition, one often forgets what happened during intoxication.

Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger)

Henbane is an annual or biennial herb with pale, bell-shaped flowers. The flowers and leaves are used as a sedative, analgesic and anaesthetic during surgery. Black henbane is the strongest but there's also a yellow variety. In the Netherlands, both datura and henbane can be found in the wild.

The effect of henbane begins with a feeling of pressure on the head. Some users describe it as if someone closes their eyelids with force. Vision becomes blurred and distorted. Unusual visual hallucinations occur. The trip may be accompanied by taste and olfactory hallucinations. Inhaling the smoke of the seeds causes numbness in the eyes and ears.

In Europe henbane was administered to people as a means of torture or death sentence. It brought them into a state of complete oblivion.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)

Mandrake is a Mediterranean plant. As the root resembles a human being, it was widely believed to have supernatural powers. A piece of root was often worn as an amulet. In the Middle Ages, there was a high demand for this plant. At one-time mandrake became so scarce that fake ones entered the market.

The harvest of Mandrake is surrounded by myths. It must happen at full moon in a ritual circle. While being pulled out the plant would shriek, which is fatal to the person who hears it. Therefore the task was carried out by a dog, that was tied to the root with a piece of rope. According to the stories the dog wouldn’t survive.

Mostly, Mandrake was extracted in wine. It's also possible to chew upon a piece of root. The effects are similar to those of datura. Mandrake is a tranquillizer and intoxicates. Physically you feel good, but you lose your sanity. Mandrake, therefore, can also be used to manipulate people and was a popular ingredient in love potions.

Possession of the root was associated with witchcraft and could be dangerous: in Hamburg, three women were sentenced to death for this reason in 1630. The name of the Germanic seeresses (alruna) was directly related to the name of the plant (alraun). They used the plant to enter a prophetic trance.

Belladonna (Atropa belladonna)

Belladonna literally means "beautiful woman." The plant was already known in ancient times for its pupil-dilating effects. Women made an infusion and trickled some drops in their eyes in order to look more attractive. This was not without danger: blurred vision is a common side-effect and prolonged use may cause blindness.

The dilation of the pupils is characteristic of atropine, the main alkaloid of the plant. Like the other witches’ herbs belladonna also contains scopolamine and hyoscyamine.

The berries are eaten or an extract is made from the leaves. The effect of belladonna can be described as a dream perceived as real. It leaves the user temporarily insane, while one forgets this is caused by the plant.

Like the other nightshades, belladonna was regularly added to flying ointments. The berries alone were said to be capable of transforming the user into an animal.

Other psychedelics from European soil

There are more psychedelics to be found in Europe, in addition to the nightshades, such as the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), psilocybin-containing mushrooms - like the Liberty Cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) - and cannabis.

The characteristic fly agaric - red with white dots – is found throughout the world. We know of ritual and shamanic use in Siberia, India, Central America and North America. The fly agaric, which grows in birch and pine forests, is occasionally listed as an ingredient in witches’ salve, but its use in Europe seems to have been less prevalent than that of the nightshades. Probably because for a long time the amanita was (incorrectly) known as ‘highly toxic’.

The hemp plant is native to Asia but currently grows all over the world. The Scythians introduced her to Europe in the 5th century BC. Herodotus describes how they inhaled the smoke of cannabis seeds to purify themselves during a funeral ritual. To what extent they became 'intoxicated' from the vapours is a topic of discussion.

Despite much speculation, little evidence remains for the use of cannabis for its psychoactive effects. We know that hemp was used for many other purposes: the fibres made good ropes and clothes and hemp seeds served as food. Also, more than one hundred medicinal properties were ascribed to the plant. In the 12th century for example, the Christian nun and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen describes how hemp can be used as a remedy for stomach pain and in the treatment of wounds. Other medieval sources mention hemp as a remedy for ulcers and tumours.

Likewise, there are no sources available about the possible (ritual) use of psilocybin mushrooms (which are actually native to Europe). Oddly enough, the effects of the mushrooms seem to have been discovered only recently. (Read more about this in our article on Mushroom cultivation).

So, what about that flying ointment?

To prepare witches’ salve the nightshade plants were simmered in fat. Pork or goose fat was common, but according to the Inquisition, baby fat was more popular among witches. Besides henbane, datura, mandrake and belladonna (these are mentioned in various combinations) other plants were added to the mix, such as monkshood (Aconitum napellus), poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and bearded Darnell (Lolium temulentum). The fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and cannabis (Cannabis sativa) appear in some recipes.

Another important ingredient was opium poppy (Papaver somnifernum). There is an antagonistic effect between the opiate alkaloids in opium and the tropane alkaloids in the nightshade plants: they are often used as an antidote for each other. The addition of opium makes the fly ointment less toxic and causes a dream-like state which may have contributed to the trip experience.

The ointment was rubbed on the skin, especially on the sensitive parts such as the forearm, forehead and temples and the pubic area. Reportedly, anointing a broomstick (or another object) and then ‘riding’ it was a very effective way to let the salve do its work. It was believed that intoxicated witches could communicate with spirits and were able to transform themselves into animals.

Nowadays, the nightshade plants are hardly used. Except for a few brave (or should we say foolish?) adventurers, most psychonauts choose for more accessible and 'user-friendly' options. We strongly discourage for experimenting with these plants and herbs yourselves. Although the plants are legal and often grow in the wild, they can be fatal at a low dose and may cause permanent insanity.

Written by Juniper

Read/watch more:

-Is the war on drugs a modern witch hunt? The religion that has no name. The persecution of psychedelic spirituality By Cognitive Liberty UK.

-Vice documentary about scopolamine. The world’s scariest drug


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