On Flying Ointments as Medicine

On Flying Ointments as Medicine

“I ha’ been plucking plants among
Hemlock, Henbane, Adder’s Tongue,
Nightshade, Moonwort, Leppard’s-bane
And twice, by the dogs, was like to be ta’en.”

~ Ben Johnson

I have been growing henbane, datura, and brugmansia plants from seed since late winter. I have been harvesting wild mugwort and wild lettuce. I have planted wormwood, belladonna, and datura inoxia in the garden behind the raspberry patch. I am waiting on a new crop of dried henbane leaf from my local supplier which should arrive from Toronto soon. I have been writing about flying ointments for publications and researching their solanaceous herbs of belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake to compose detailed monographs, I have been interviewed on flying ointments by a journalist, and I have been talking about them at local events and will soon talk about them at the Herbal Resurgence Conference in New Mexico. What I have not done is make any of this more up-to-date information available to the general public… time to remedy this!

below: pallid henbane baby plants and a datura inoxia seedpod

Banelings

A Witch Who Cannot Curse Cannot Heal

A poison that can harm is often also a medicine that can cure. Journalist Chas S. Clifton interviewed me about flying ointments recently and I admitted to him that after all my research and experience making and using these ointments it is my impression they survived as medicine, not as ritual entheogens. Right now I know there is a granny in Germany who makes a wild henbane leaf oil for her arthritis and sells it to her townsfolk just as there is a herbalist at a market in Mexico at this moment selling peyote and datura salves for pain made with pig’s lard. Perhaps the line between medicine and magic used to be more blurred and perhaps the psychoactive effects were once thought to be part of what made the medicine work. Perhaps it really is why the medicine is so effective and future scientific research will reveal this.

I think modern occultists tend to compartmentalize too much and be too serious — flying ointments can be medicine, intoxicants, and magic all at once with no need to separate out each application. Occultists and scientists have been trying to “recreate” flying ointments for centuries usually using instructions from a “common person” as with Agrippa and della Porta. This tells me they may have been in use all along, but the actual makers and users were likely just taking advantage of the psychoactive effects of a common medicinal pain ointment to achieve trance or soul flight the same way a group of pagans would get a bit drunk on wine during an ecstatic rite.

Henbane

above: black henbane blooming in my garden

It is my own conclusion that “flying ointments” are indeed real and have a historical basis in medicine, ceremony, and for recreation, but they would definitely not have been called flying ointments or witches’ ointments and would only have been used for astral flight by a teeny tiny percentage of the population at any given time in history… but who very likely did not identify as witches. When the solanaceous ointments were used, it was probably for medicine, otherwise our ancestors were much more likely to have been smoking or drinking them to become intoxicated for the pleasure of it alone. Granted, we now know ingestion is not a good idea as the toxic tropanes build up in your system, your heart doesn’t gain tolerance, and you will eventually wear our your body from heart and/or kidney damage… So as much as it is my goal to help revive the traditions and preparations surrounding European entheogens, it’s usually best to stick to external use only.

Datura inoxia

above: datura inoxia in bloom, below: double trumpeted white datura seedpods

datura seed pods

A Resurgence of Old World Medicine

Belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake have a storied mythology as baneful herbs of witchcraft, poison, madness, and death thanks to the tales spun in literature by the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to today’s fantasy fiction authors. In having spent the better part of the past decade growing, preparing, and using these plants in my herbal practice I have found they do not deserve their tarnished reputation and instead should have a place of honour at the table of respected plant medicines. I argue that the witches’ flying ointments of Europe’s Early Modern Period are largely just the church propaganda and fear mongering of the times. Flying ointments were just medicine, powerful and intimidating yes, but medicine nonetheless. The recipes for witches’ flying ointments are uncannily identical to the recipes for soporific sponges in common use of the physicians of the same era for anesthesia during surgery: opium poppy, mandrake, and henbane and sometimes belladonna and cannabis in even older recipes.

The medicinal members of the nightshade (or solanaceae) family are some of the most potent drugs we have available to us on the planet and extracts of their alkaloids such as atropine are still incredibly important in modern medicine for which belladonna, datura, and brugmansia are grown on an industrial scale to be turned into pharmaceuticals.  The herbs I use in my ointments (belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake) are aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antisialagogue, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. It is a very incredible range of actions which makes them a great resource for herbalists if they are able to grow their own for apothecary or clinic use.

Belladonna

belladonna flowers

atropa belladonna in bloom

In having built up a goodly amount of first and second hand feedback on my flying ointments over the years, I have found that the majority of my patrons who purchased my ointments for ritual almost always end up using them medicinally or recreationally instead… mimicking our ancestors’ preferences perfectly. People of all ages and walks of life are using these ointments, it’s not just traditional witches or even necessarily witches at all. They are powerful medicine and everyone is drawn to them because of it. I have baptist grannies in town using my flying ointments to relieve their arthritis (including my own mother), the florist is using them to help her with her insomnia, a friend to cope with the pain of her cancer, a lady the next town over to relieve the pain of bruising after hip surgery, and they’ve made both christian and pagan sufferers of fibromyalgia incredibly happy.

The solanaceae aren’t just medicine for physical pain, they are also medicine for the soul. Friends and patrons alike use the ointments to treat anxiety and depression. Scientists are still trying to figure out why botanicals with both psychoactive and pain relieving properties are so effective in managing mental illness. Not nearly enough studies are being performed with cannabis, magic mushrooms, medicinal nightshades, and other euphoric analgesics.

I got into this because I was fascinated with flying ointments and the sabbat imagery. I wanted to help people achieve trance and soul flight, and I most definitely have, but these plants have taught me so very much they’ve humbled me and turned me into a healer on a scale I would never have predicted or sought out. As the solanaceae continue to reveal their seemingly limitless power and potential to me, I am ever more in a state of awe. It is my goal to continue making these ointments, but with a heavier focus on their varied medicinal applications, and to teach as much as I can about them so their uses can be reconstructed within modern herbalism to the point we regain the lost knowledge of our ancestors regarding these powerful healers.

Nightshade Ointment FAQs

1. Yes I still make and sell them!

2. No, they are no longer labelled flying ointments because my customers use them for so many different purposes (mostly pain & sleep), and I do not like people treating Fern & Fungi like a head shop. I am a herbalist, not a drug dealer.

3. They are not consistently available in the shop because the herbs are difficult to get firstly because they are rare, and secondly because crop failures are common. The nightshade ointments often sell out before we have herbs to make more or are able to finish new batches… which often makes it appear as if they are always sold out.

4. If you want to be notified when “flying ointments” are restocked, I cannot send out individual emails to people so please follow my personal facebook page (facebook.com/sarahannelawless), the business facebook page (facebook.com/fernandfungi/) or sign up for the newsletter (sign up is at the bottom of every page of both my Sarahannelawless.com and Fernandfungi.com websites).

5. If you’re not into that check this shop section regularly: fernandfungi.com/collections/medicinals

6. Head’s up: I’ll likely only be making simple recipes from now on! I have moved to a bible belt and can’t get away with products named “Witches’ Flying Ointment” or “Saturn Flying Ointment” at my farmers’ market booth. Look for: Belladonna Herbal Ointment, Datura Herbal Ointment, Henbane Herbal Ointment, Mandrake Herbal Ointment, and Wormwood Herbal Ointment. Massage oils may become available as well.

7. Do you miss my witchy instructions and write ups about the plants? I’ve included links below to my current body of public writings on nightshades (please note that any shop/product info in these posts is outdated). You can also search for their names in the entheology.com database for good, solid articles or use Erowid – both are free and online.  If you are as passionate about these plant healers as I am you can read up on them using books recommended in my Poison Path Reading List.

Writings on Nightshades & Flying Ointments by Sarah Anne Lawless

Flying Ointment FAQs

Introduction to Flying Ointments

The Making of a Flying Ointment

The Toad in the Ointment

The Ritual of the Duck

Entheogens & Self Control

Moonflower (Datura)

Solanum: The Poison Plants of Witchcraft

Weeds for Witches: Bittersweet Nightshade

If I missed anything, let me know in the comments!
Love to you all!
Sarah

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • dre says:

    It has been very cool watching you progress on this journey. The shop changes and your writings reflect new layers of depth and also a lightness of being that is a real joy to see. Much happiness to you!

  • Martha says:

    Which seems most effective for depression? Are there concerns about SSRI interactions?

  • Alma Mercer says:

    thanks I really enjoy your articles and the knowledge you give , cant wait to see what you have for us next time ….

  • Malorie says:

    I have not dabbled in flying ointments, but I do suffer from anxiety and so I have been methodically going through all of your writing on the subject. This post was a really great sort of culmination as well as compilation of your resources and will be very helpful. I also am so appreciative of how beautiful these plants that are so deadly are. Your garden is just beautiful, and I envy your beautiful plants. I have no space for them, and even if I did I am so spacey that I fear I would kill them all without noticing only to go out to very dead plants and wind up with a very crestfallen demeanor. 😉 Thank you for your blog and all that you do! I have been lurking and reading for a while, but I wanted to let you know that you are appreciated from my little corner of the woods.

  • Soli says:

    Mental health uses you say? Hmm, I may need to dip back in. Thankfully the chronic aches which had me regularly dipping into henbane are just about gone but there are still many many jars of ointment in my house.

  • Southern Wytch says:

    Nice article Sarah. Growing Bella myself this year, doing nicely. #6 – you moved to the Bible Belt? Must be the South.

  • Boobird says:

    I would love to try, but allergic to aspirin! Any chance of a formulation for those allergic?

  • PJ says:

    I recently found a swath of henbane, growing near my house, not knowing what it was. All my reading had me in a respectful terror for this plant, so it was refreshing to read a more full take on its powers.