Flying Ointment

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An old witch annointing a young witch in preparation for flight to sabbat, eighteenth century. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Flying Ointment

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The popular idea of Witches portrays them flying through the air on a broomstick, pitchfork, or pole of some kind as a means of traveling to the sabbat meetings. This is known as transvection, and the earliest depiction of it is Ulrich Molitor's engraving in De Lamiis (1489). He shows three Witches, each with an animal's head, each astride a long, forked branch. Many of the old illustrations show Witches either flying or preparing to fly by rubbing their bodies with an ointment that supposedly enables flight. According to reports of the period, the main ingredient in this potion was the fat boiled off the limbs of unbaptised babies. Other major ingredients often mentioned were aconite (monkshood, wolfsbane), hemlock (cowbane), and belladonna (deadly nightshade).

From as early as the ninth century, there has been skepticism regarding Witches' ability to fly. The Canon Episcopi, of c. 900 CE, stated that Witches did not have the power to fly through the air, nor to turn themselves into birds and animals. It stated that: some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves, in the hours of the night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights. . . . For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true, and so believing, wander from the right faith and are involved in the error of the pagans when they think that there is anything of divinity or power except the one God.

However, later Christian inquisitors decided to ignore this and admit flying as evidence of a Witch being in league with the Devil. In addition, a large number of those accused of witchcraft did claim to have rubbed their bodies with ointment and flown through the air.

The Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous book of instructions produced by the two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, and followed by the majority of judges at the Witch trials, says that: It must not be said that witches cannot be locally transported because God does not permit it. For if He permits it in the case of the just and innocent, and of other Magicians, how should He not in the case of those who are totally dedicated to the devil? And we say with all reverence: Did not the devil take up Our Saviour, and carry Him up to a high place, as the Gospel testifies? . . . Now the following is the method of being transported. They take the unguent which, as we have said, they make at the devil's instruction from the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism, and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; for the devil can conceal a body by the interposition of some other substance.

Records of the trial of the Somerset Witches, in 1664, contain reference to the use of flying ointment. According to one of the accused, Elisabeth Style, they all anointed themselves with a greenish ointment given to them by their Chief, an unknown man dressed all in black. Style said that after anointing themselves they would fly while saying the words: "Thout, tout a tout, tout, throughout and about." On their return journey they cried, "Rentum Tormentum."

Francis Bacon, in Sylva Sylvarum (1608), gives a list of ingredients for the flying ointment that includes "the fat of children digged out of their graves" and adds, "I suppose that the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it." The soporiferous medicines were henbane, hemlock, mandrake, deadly nightshade, opium, saffron, and others. Reginald Scot, in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), details how the "bowels and members" of children, similarly dug up out of their graves, are fast boiled in a cauldron and the thickest of the resulting grease is used for the flying ointment. Scot, however, did not believe that Witches really did fly, with or without this ointment.

Flying by Witches has been compared to the levitation of saints—the one condemned, the other lauded by the Church. St. Joseph of Cupertino reportedly made seventy flights in the seventeenth century. Magdalena Crucia, Abbess at Cordova, Spain, reportedly levitated on a number of occasions, although she later confessed to being a Witch. In the secular world, in 1855, Daniel Dunglas Home supposedly flew out of one window at Ashley House on Victoria Street in London and into another, all while seventy feet above the ground. This was done in front of credible witnesses, including Lord Adare, the Honorable Master of Lindsay and Captain Charles Wynne.

The most popular form of egress from the Witch's cottage was by way of the chimney, first mentioned by Petrus Mamor in Flagellum Maleficorum (1460). The Witch would stand beside the cauldron in which the ointment was made and anoint herself, aided perhaps by an older woman. It was then simply a matter of stepping forward into the large fireplace and soaring up through the chimney. It would seem that any sparks, flames, and soot were inconsequential.

In The Book of Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin, the Mage, which supposedly dates to the fifteenth century, there is the following passage: At Lintz I worked with a young woman, who one evening invited me to go with her, assuring me that without any risk she would conduct me to a place where I greatly desired to find myself. I allowed myself to be persuaded by her promises. She then gave unto me an unguent, with which I rubbed the principal pulses of my feet and hands; the which she did also; and at first it appeared to me that I was flying in the air in the place which I wished, and which I had in no way mentioned to her. . . . Appearing to myself to have remained there a long while, I felt as if I were just awakening from a profound sleep, and I had great pain in my head and deep melancholy. I turned round and saw that she was seated at my side. She began to recount to me what she had seen, but that which I had seen was entirely different. I was, however, much astonished, because it appeared to me as if I had been really and corporeally in the place, and there in reality to have seen that which had happened.

The book, written "as delivered by Abraham the Jew Unto his son Lamech," was translated by S. L. MacGregor Mathers in 1932. The episode agrees in many ways with this author's own experience in Scotland, in 1963. Gerald Gardner's High Priestess, the Lady Olwen, managed to make ointment following an old recipe from the Book of Shadows. The ingredients included aconite, cinquefoil, foxglove, and poppy juice. She and I rubbed a little on our wrists, inside elbows, armpits, backs of the knees, and ankles. We were sitting in front of a fire, as was prescribed, and in a very short time both of us felt a sensation of rising up off the ground and floating in the air. This continued for a while before we returned to normalcy. Olwen stated that one of her other Witches, when trying the ointment, had sworn she floated outside the house and onto the front lawn. It would seem, then, that it is indeed the potency of the ingredients that gives one the illusion of flying. Gerald Gardner suggested that originally the ointment was rubbed on the body simply as protection from the cold when traveling skyclad to a sabbat. The potent ingredients then persuaded the Witch that she had actually flown to the meeting place.

One recipe for a traditional English flying ointment, found in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, is as follows:

Lard—100 gram, Hashish (first quality)—5 grams, Hemp flower—a handful, Poppy flower—a handful, Powdered Hellbore Root—a pinch, Ground Sunflower Seed—a pinch. To be rubbed into the skin behind the ears, on the neck along the line of the carotid arteries, in the armpits, to the left of the sympathetic nerve, in the back of the knees, on the soles of the feet, and in the bend of the arms. After application, subject should sleep naked in front of a fire, or a statue of the Goddess.

Another recipe from the Book of Shadows: 3 grams annamthol 50 grams extract of opium 30 grams extract of betel 6 grams cinquefoil 15 grams henbane 15 grams belladonna 15 grams hemlock, ordinary 250 grams Indian Hemp (Cannabis Indica) 5 grams cantharides Gum tragacanth Powdered sugar Blend with any oil, such as pure olive oil, or mix in with creme, such as lanoline. For external use only; not to be taken internally; extremely dangerous.

A modern recipe is also available, which is: 1 jar hand cream 1 tsp vegetable oil 2 tsp belladonna 3 drops liquid detergent 2 tsp wolfbane juice To be mixed with a perfume of your choice.

In an appendix to Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, A. J. Clark gives three French recipes:

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.

The soot was probably added merely to make it more difficult to see the Witch traveling in the night. The baby's fat (or perhaps pig's fat) is simply a base or carrier, and the bat's blood would seem to be an inert ingredient. But from the use of the aconite, belladonna, and hemlock, there can be no doubt about the efficacy of this unguent.

Giambattista della Porta was one of the earliest to investigate the ingredients of such aids to flying. His book, Magia Naturalis, appeared in 1558 and included a section on flying unguents (Lamiarum Unguenta). His knowledge of such matters was called to question by the Church, and he was summoned before Pope Paul V to explain about Witches' flying ointments and the necromantic arts.

Montague Summers states that Martin Anton Delrio, in Disquisitionum Magi-

carum Libri Sex (1599), says: The Demon is able to convey them to the sabbat without the use of any unguent, and often he does so. But for several reasons he prefers that they should anoint themselves. Sometimes when the witches seem afraid it serves to encourage them. When they are young and tender they will thus be better able to bear the hateful embrace of Satan who has assumed the shape of a man. For by this horrid anointing he dulls their senses and persuades these deluded wretches that there is some great virtue in the viscid lubricant. Sometimes too he does this in hateful mockery of God's holy Sacraments, and that by these mysterious ceremonies he may infuse, as it were, something of a ritual and liturgical nature into his beastly orgies.

Modern Wiccans do not believe that they fly to the sabbat. The use of drugs is anathema to them, so there is no use of unguents today, even to give the illusion of flight. Individuals may experiment, as individual nonWitches may, but the old flying ointment recipes are only of historic interest and are not considered utilitarian.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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