When Witches Fly

I just finished my second course about witchery here at UMass and this time it was a History course called Witchcraft, Magic & Science.  For our finals we had to write a 15-page research paper about any subject relating to witches through history (specifically in the Middle Ages).  We had to get our subjects pre-approved so I chose witchcraft and drug-use!  Maybe you’ll learn something from my paper.  🙂

Witches on Drugs

I propose that witches were real even in the Middle Ages and were, in fact, sought out for help in a number of things because of their wisdom, knowledge, skill and power.  Even in the Bible, there is a witch of Endor seeked out by Saul:

“And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines he was afraid…And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.  Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her and inquire of her.  And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor.  And Saul disguised himself, And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those with familiar spirits, and the wizards out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?  And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice   (Anonymous, 1915 BP, p. 341).”

However, where does the witches’ perceived supernatural power come from?  Flying on broomsticks, the unexplained ability to kill and resurrect without contact, bestowing great strength upon men…Where do all these stereotypes and presumptions about witches come from and why were they propagated so heavily in the Middle Ages?  My hypothesis suggests drugs; or more specifically, highly potent herbs.

Margot Adler directly addresses the issue of drugs in her book Drawing Down the Moon.  She interviews a witch who works in the health field, Sharon Devlin, about her perspective on the subject:

“In all indigenous Paganism possession of the participants by the gods and goddesses occurred frequently.  This is not occurring frequently among Neo-Pagans.  I attribute this to our loss of skill in the use of…psychogenetic drugs.  Another thing that was essential to the rites in ancient times was ritual drunkenness (Adler, 2006, p. 145).”

Adler then goes on to compare the effect of drugs while attempting or almost even expecting to have a paranormal experience:

“While “paranormal” events are extremely difficult to chart…much research has shown chances of such increase dramatically during altered states of consciousness–in dreams, hypnosis, drugged states, sensory deprivation, deep meditation, and highly emotional experiences….facilitate psychic activity (Adler, 2006, p. 157).”

Devlin also dares to attempt to suggest why drugs became not nearly as prevalent among witches particularly during the Middle Ages: “This form of Christianity has produced fear of…use of hallucinogens.  Flying ointment was used in ancient times.  Drugs…are an essential part of magical rites.  Some of the heaviest power is obtained that way (Adler, 2006, p. 146).”

The earliest example of this “heaviest of power” to give from the Middle Ages comes from the Scandinavian region of the Vikings.  These are the Berserkers among the Norse men.  Neuro-Psychiatrist, Howard D. Fabing references historical texts regarding this phenomenon in his article:  On Going Berserk:

“In the old Norwegian historical writings it is mentioned, in many places, that in olden times there was a specific kind of giants who were called Berserks, that is, men who at certain times were seized by a wild fury, which, at the moment, doubled their strength and made them insensible to bodily pain, but which also deadened their humanity and reason, and made them like wild animals. This fury, which was called ‘Berserksgang,’ occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power.  This  condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color. With this was connected a great hotheadedness, which at last went over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met, without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.”   In 1784, Samuel Lorenzo 0dman (26), a theologian at the University of Upsala, undertook to      explain the phenomenon of going berserk. He reviewed the Sagas for descriptions of the state. He found King Halfden’s Berserks depicted in Roifs Saga in this manner: “On these giants fell sometimes such a fury that they could not control themselves, but killed men or cattle, whatever came in their way and did not take care of itself. While this fury lasted they were afraid of nothing, but when it left them they were so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This fury lasted about one day (Fabing, 1956, p. 234).”

It should also be noted that these Berserkers were called such because in Old Norse, the word “berserker” means “bear-skin”.  It was quite common for the Berserkers to wear bear and wolf pelts draped over their heads and shoulders in hopes to take on the fighting spirit and immense strength of such creatures while in battle.  Now of course these men were not “witches” (certainly in the typical sense) but they were witnessed as having super-human strength and in some kind of trance that triggered them into a near-blind rage.  The emphasis here is on the perceived supernatural level their abilities changed to.

Fabing also takes care to describe the sudden halt of these Berserker rituals with the knowledge the Viking lawmakers gained on how these occurrences were happening:

“One of the curious aspects of Berserksgang is that it disappeared abruptly in the 12th century A.D., after plaguing Viking sociopolitical life for more than three centuries.  Schuibeler pointed out, too, that the more enlightened Viking leaders soon learned that the state was one which could be prevented, and therefore could be legislated against. He wrote: “Before Erik Jarl left Norway he called together (in 1015 A.D.) the feudatories and the mightiest peasants in order to deliberate with them about the law giving and the rule of the country. At this meeting campfighting (holmgang) was abolished, and Berserks and robbers were outlawed. In Thorlak’s and Ketil’s Icelandic Christian Law, which was adopted in 1123 A.D., there is the following decree: ‘If someone goes berserk, he is punished with three years of banishment (fjorbaugsgard), and the men who are present are also banished if they do not bind him; but if they bind him, none are punished.  If this is repeated, then the punishment occurs!’ Schiubeler regarded this as proof that the Vikings came to know that the paroxysm was temporary and preventable. Berserksgang ceased after this law was passed (Fabing, 1956, p. 234).”

Let’s explore a little further into the use of this fungus.  Fabing uses Odman’s research again to describe this process of ingesting the mushroom:

“He then reviewed the possible botanical products indigenous to Scandinavia which might have been used in this manner, and decided that /lugswamp, the mushroom Amanita muscaria, was the one which solved the riddle of the Berserks.  He then compared the accounts of Berserksgang in the Sagas to the “amanita debauches” of the Koryaks and other far-eastern Siberians, and found them to be almost identical behavior patterns (Fabing, 1956, p. 234).”

Fabing, however, takes time to place an addendum to that research with the opinion of Frederik Gron:  “He feels, however, that the best explanation would be that of ecstatic fury psychogenically determined in a group of aggressive psychopathic personalities (Fabing, 1956, p. 234).”  This is to suggest that those who were capable of “going berserk” when ingesting fly-agaric had certain genetic pre-conditions of the brain that made this possible.  It is also hypothesized this specific neurology could be from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Referring back to the mention of indigenous Siberian tribes, Michael Harner touches upon them and their use of  fly-agaric in the introduction of Hallucinogens and Shamanism:

Native Siberians had close relationship with fly-agaric (Amanita Muscaria)…fly-agaric produces intoxication, hallucinations and delirium….certain degree of animation and some spontaneity of movements.  Many shamans eat fly-agaric previous to their séances to get into ecstatic states.  Under strong intoxication sense become deranged;  surrounding objects appear very large or small, spontaneous convulsions.  Attacks of great animation alternate with moments of deep depression.  The intoxicated sits   quietly rocking from side to side.  Suddenly the eyes dilate and they converse with unseen persons (Harner, 1973, pp. xii-xiii).”

Note a few similaritiesetween the Siberians and the Berserkers (before the rage kicks in) while ingesting fly-agaric.  Perhaps the Siberians is where the Berserkers learned of Amanita muscaria in order to test its capabilities.

Earlier mentioned was how did witches fly on broomsticks?  Well, there is plenty of recorded history to deduce that hallucinogens were absolutely used by women in order to make this happen.  The next few paragraphs will examine some recorded testimonies of women who admit to anointing themselves with “flying ointment” in order to fly by broom (or sometimes by beast) to their moonlight meetings…sometimes with the devil.

Using Hallucinogens and Shamanism again, Harner writes:

“The Inquisition…has supplied the bulk of our data on the role of hallucinogenic plants in late medieval Europe.  From the variety of sources, it is clear we are dealing with practices that were widespread throughout Europe.

Elizabeth Style on Flying Ointment 1664:  Somerset witches used a “greenish” oil in transporting themselves to their meetings…carried in a very short time, using these words as they pass, THOUT, TOUT A TOUT, TOUT, THROUGHOUT AND ABOUT.  And when they go off from their Meetings they say, RENTUM, TORMENTUM…all are carried to their several homes in a short space (Harner, 1973, p. 129).”

Alice Duke contributes to her own experience: “…After all was ended, the Man in black vanished (Harner, 1973, p. 129).”

Lady Alice Kyteler in 1324:  they (the legal authorities) found a Pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed (Harner, 1973, p. 130).

So, in essence, this is how the image of a witch riding a broom is conceived!  Harner elaborates further: “The use of staff or broom was undoubtedly more than a symbolic Freudian act, serving as an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed, a typical illusion of the witches’ ride to the Sabbat (Harner, 1973, p. 129).”

A question to consider then is why were these women doing this?  Why, in a time and place where religion ruled with an iron fist and permeated every aspect of Medieval Europeans’ lives, did these women (considered second-class citizens, at best, thus much more harshly punished for acting out, especially against the church) succumb to taking drugs and risk facing horrid torture if caught?  Perhaps the answer can be found in an account from Bartolomeo Spina, 1523 that Harner reveals:

“A certain witch, who said that she had often been carried on the journey, was being held in the prison of some cleric Inquisitor.  The Prince, hearing of this, desired to find out whether these claims were true or dreams.  He summoned the Inquisitor D., and finally prevailed upon him to let the woman he brought forth and anoint herself with her usual ointment in their presence…Having anointed herself several times, however, she remained motionless; nor did anything extraordinary manage to happen to her…it is rather that when they think that they are so carried, it happens by a delusion of the Devil (Harner, 1973, p. 133).”

He also references Giovanni Battista Porta, a colleague of Galileo, about how the ointment is made and applied.  Often Cinquefoil, blood, fat, datura, and belladonna are boiled together.  The lard is then kneaded into some other herbs here & there.  Finally it is rubbed into body so it becomes hot and the skin pliable in order for pores to absorb more hallucinogenic material (Harner, 1973, pp. 137-138).

He reasons that these oppressed women have visions of dance, feast and gentleman they desire but they are really just lying naked and motionless.  They are essentially rendered unconscious by the drugs and experience lucid dreams/hallucinations from the drug working with their psyche (Harner, 1973), p. 138).  To answer my earlier question of why do these Medieval European women resort to this even if they know the consequences, I say that this is the only relief they have from their repressed lifestyles.  It’s an escape and a way for them to feel like they have control of something.  In psychology, they call this a “rage at helplessness” and the term is usually associated with people who criminally deviate from society (drug addicts, thieves, murderers).  These women have learned the universal lesson that power is never given, therefore it must be taken.  They criminally deviated from society because witchcraft (or drugs in this case) was the only source of power they had.

This can also carry over to the mythology of witches poisoning people for vengeance or using love spells to attract eligible bachelors (or in some cases, eligible married men).  A witch stole your husband?  She likely put a depressant and aphrodisiac in his soup to slightly incapacitate him and influence his mood.  Why?  Probably because he was rich or well-respected within the community and she was either poor and unmarried or too old to bear children anymore.

Also in witch mythos there is the notion that witches dance naked under the full moon.  Being a witch myself, I can attest that is still in practice today.  However, after taking a close look at the drug-use guided by Harner, it can be theorized that witches were naked so they could absorb the herbs effects without fatally-poisoning themselves.  It’s likely they had knowledge of how much of a dosage these herbs could cause death.  Ingesting them orally, of course, was much more likely to result in never waking up from these deep sleeps.

Well-known in the pagan world, green-wiccan Scott Cunningham provides four recipes for flying ointment in The Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews.  Two of the four contain a few poisonous herbs and he highly advises against using them.  Some of the common ingredients include Cinquefoil, Parsley, Aconite, Belladonna, Hemlock, Cowbane, Hog’s Lard, Hashish, Hemp Flowers, Poppy Flowers and Hellebore.  The directions state to anoint the body with the mixture prior to attempting astral projection (Cunningham, 1989, p. 127).  There is little difference between this modern procedure and the one described in Medieval Europe.

A final look at drug-use among witches involves the modern a bit more.  In his own book, Serpent and the Rainbow  Harvard Ethnobotanist, Wade Davis  reflects on his experience  researching pharmacology in Haiti.  He’s employed by his university to research “Zombi-poison” used in the country.  They are trying to find an alternative to anesthesia and think the near-paralyzing zombi-poison will work (Davis, 1997, p. 21).

Davis describes the zombification symptoms through the perspective of Clairvius Narcisse, a recent zombie victim:

“Quite incredibly, he recalled remaining conscious throughout his ordeal.  And although completely immobilized, he heard his sister weeping by his deathbed.  He remembered his doctor pronouncing him dead.  Both at and after his burial, his overall sensation was that of floating above the grave.  That was his soul, he claimed, ready to travel on a   journey that would be curtailed by the arrival of the bokor and his assistants (Davis, 1997, p. 62).”

Also because the zombi victims are actually paralyzed and not dead, they are buried alive which causes them to suffer brain damage from oxygen deprivation.  The oxygen deprivation is responsible for zombis being in their submissive state and not having the will to rebel when they are carted into slavery (as is custom for zombification in Haiti) (Davis, 1997, p. 29).

Upon his journey, Davis learns that the main psychoactive ingredient in the poison is tetrodotoxin (puffer fish venom), one of the most deadliest nerve-toxins on earth.  The “potion” made by the bokor is usually sprinkled on the victim’s doormat and absorbed through the feet (Davis, 1997, p. 117).   Davis also concludes that zombis are very real in Haiti because the people have cultivated the mythos around it and belief is quite a strong power.  Poisonous drugs, however, are also very real in the modern scientific world and many people end up sick because they believe they are poisoned (Davis, 1997).

The reason I say that is because Davis goes a little further into other uses of puffer fish venom.  Japanese chefs have been taught how to cook the fish just right so that microscopic traces of the venom are left raw within the fish, so the consumer can feel a slight inebriation when eating the meal.  However, the very wealthy in Japan will pay a hefty price to bribe cooks into adding more than the legal amount of raw venom.  This is to increase the intensity of their altered state but can have dire consequences!  Some Japanese celebrities have died from this (Davis, 1997, pp. 120-121).

So why is this relevant to witchcraft?  Well, the bokor of Haiti, much like the witch of Endor in the Bible, is hired for his services.  He is the one people turn to when they seek revenge.  Essentially when someone believes they have been severely wronged by another member of society, they hire the bokor to work his magic.  He mixes the zombie potion, sprinkles it on the offender’s doormat, waits for them to be buried, digs up their body in the middle of the night with a band of helpers, and transports them—usually to a plantation to be a slave for the owner (Davis, 1997, p. 100)

The bokor is not respected in Haitian society.  He is seen as “the priest who serves with the left hand”, or a witch doctor who dabbles in the black arts.  Davis meets man who defends the bokor, however.  He says the bokor “must know evil to combat it…But this talk is all in vain.  This is a land where things are not the way they seem.” We also learn that even though people do not like bokors, they still turn to them in times of desperation.  In my own mind, I compare him to the neighborhood drug-dealer.  The Haitian police also know who the bokors are, but understand that they also serve a means of justice.  The police and the Haitian vodun secret societies have an understanding with each other.  One cannot separate a Haitian citizen with the vodun subculture (Davis, 1997, p. 47).  After knowing this, one can compare a bokor to a living deity.  A god people would pray to for whatever they wanted or needed.

All of these examples give us quite an interesting lesson in power dynamics and perception.  The Vikings used drugs to grant them what they thought was power; great physical strength and extended endurance to last them in battle.  The oppressed women of late Medieval England (and much of Europe at the time) used drugs to escape from their miserable lives or sometimes gain a providing husband.  Finally, the bokors of Haiti use drugs to enact revenge for the people.  Drugs are just another tool for people to empower themselves in whatever means they find appropriate.

To better explain this point of drugs being very prevalent in their effect changing from culture to culture, I think it can bee summed up best by quoting Davis a final time:

“This is what experts call the “Set and setting” of any drug experience.  Set in these terms is the individual’s expectations of what the drug will do to them; setting is the environment-both physical and this case, social-in which the drug is taken.  For example, in the northwest rain forests of Oregon there are a number of native species of hallucinogenic mushrooms.  Those who go out into the forest deliberately intending to ingest these mushrooms generally experience a pleasant intoxication.  Those who inadvertently consume them while foraging for edible mushrooms invariably end up in the poison unit of the nearest hospital.  The mushroom itself has not changed.

This did not suggest that the zombi poison might be only a pleasant hallucinogen.  But like the mushroom, its potential was latent.  The Japanese victim lying conscious but paralyzed while his family mourned his death  might, upon recovery, rationalize his terrifying experience within the expectations of his society.  Everyone knows that is what fugu poisoning is like.  Without a doubt, Clairvius Narcisse had his own expectations that he carried with him literally into and out of the grave” (Davis, 1997, p.130).

On a final note, I can say from my own personal experience that drugs are still used for the same reason witches have been using them: to feel in control, or powerful…even if it’s only minute and nothing more than escaping the real world for a little while.  I suppose when any of us take control of something in our lives or others’ lives we are witches.

Works Cited

  • Several Authors, Bible(approx. 1915 BP) Middle Eastern Region.
  • Margot Adler, (2006) Drawing down the moon:  Witches, druids, goddess-worshippers and other pagans in america. New York, NY:  Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Scott Cunningham, (1989) Complete book of oils, incense and brews. Woodbury, MN:  Llewellyn.
  • Wade Davis, (1997) The Serpent and the rainbow. New York:  Simon & Schuster.
  • Howard D. Fabing (Nov. 1956) On Going berserk:  A Neurochemical inquiry. The Scientific monthly, Vol. 83, No. 5, pp 232-237. http://www.jstor.org/stable/21684.  Date Accessed: 2/27/2015.
  • Michael J. Harner, (1973) Hallucinogens and shamanism. Oxford University Press.
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