Liminal Book Review: The Witches’ Ointment

The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic. Thomas Hatsis; Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont. 286 pages.

As the waning moon appears on a darkened horizon, I remove my clothes and light a candle with intentions of oneiromanic prophecies. From a hidden cupboard in an old 19th century secretary, I remove several tins with arcane symbols…magickal salves of soporific splendours made by a witch in Canada. Choosing the right one for my purpose, I dip deeply with Saturn’s finger, marking my body with the opaque ointment. Stars in my armpits, inner thighs, palms and footbottoms and a final one to my third eye, I am careful to wash my fingertips in case I rub my eyes in the night. Climbing between cool white sheets, my breathing takes it’s natural shallow waves to the belly. I say a prayer to Hekate, Domina who guides and keeps safe my spirit during these nocturnal journeys, and close my eyes. I can feel the herbs taking effect, creeping through my teeth and stomach like low-grade LSD. After an hour or two, I begin to dream…

My interest in flying ointments is what initially got me into exploring the study of witchcraft. As discussed on my last podcast, the night flight stories of witches seemed fantastical and entirely possible; even from a psychological perspective, the idea of acting out lewd and illegal fantasies while in the dreamscape of my mind sounded like a healthy expression. Reading the old recipes for true “witches’ potions” were something out of a fairytale: bat’s blood, opium, henbane, hemlock, belladonna and, of course, the fat from a unbaptised baby.

I first heard the interview with Thomas Hatsis on The Black Chair, a podcast I tune into from time to time, discussing The Witches’ Ointment. Then there were lecture dates in the Bay Area, which I was sadly unable to attend. But, I was able to order the book and just finished as the new horror movie, The VVitch, was playing at theatres…(SPOILER ALERT) the opening scene includes a classical sequence of using baby fat as a base, churning with herbs, then smearing it all over her old body for the sabbatic flight. Hatsis deconstructs the myths from realities in a very concise and narrative manner; with folktales and historical account retold at the beginning of each chapter. Although oozing with solid academic research, the author’s approach makes the data very digestible for those of us who do NOT like reading history books. Hatsis presents these ‘confessions’ and concludes that different experiences fall under the categories of either ointment induced experiences (used as an entheogenic tool for performing journey or magick), or blasphemy motivated nocturnal journies…but rarely were the two happening at the same time.

Whilst absurd to the modern practitioner, some of these recounted testimonies were given by actual folks who used these ointments, even if their chemical effects were unknown, and had intense experiences. Hatsis pinpoints when the stereotype of a satanic/diabolical witch’s’ use of Ye Olde Broomstik, including the fabrication of it as a masturbatory tool, is explored and debunked (we go from Heretic to Witch in less than two hundred years’ span).

The dusk flowers adorned the altar, their scent lifted by my heightened senses. I did not plant these, but this ally appeared in my new garden as an old friend. The intense summer heat had made the liminal times sweeter for their delicate white petals, releasing their strange smell. In dreams I sense their proximity, my soul flew through layers of spiritual projection to a wild, overgrown and ancient garden. A dry fountain overgrown with periwinkle, ferns of every shape and conifer trees help to hide the rabbit-faced beings which surround and spy on me. Their silvery glamour does not shade their true intentions…

In particular I enjoyed the fourth chapter titled “Roots of Bewitchment”, which focuses on commonly known materials used in traditional ointments, for either ‘soporferis medicamentis‘ (sleeping medicines) or ‘pocula amatoria‘ (love potions) (p.76). Plants, animal secretions, minerals and other pharmacopeia are examined; a background including etymology of the names, historical uses, medicinal uses and folkloric connections. I had a particular interest in the Solanaceae family: the henbane, mandrake, nightshade and, especially, datura. As a young woman interested in the herbal arts, these plants called to my curious side of gardening. However cautious as I am, it was better to try ointments from more skilled herbalists than bumbling through another experiment which could potentially make me ill, or worse.

It was last summer that Datura stramonium made a home in my new garden bed. Although I had grown this plant a few times in containers (always with great success), the seeds sowed themselves and I soon had huge datura plants. Drought tolerant and sun lovers, these beauties opened every morning at dawn and nightly at dusk, making it a wonderful setting for nocturnal devotionals to Hekate. Sitting amongst them, the plants cooling from the days’ heat, I would put my face close to them and inhale deeply of the trumpets. Sometimes called “mad apple”, I can see how this strange plant could be intoxicating to the point of fatality…but what a sweet way to go. The ointment from this plant was used extensively in the ancient world to help with insomnia; the effects of doziness I experienced to be rather rapid and the sleep deep but restful without feeling ‘hung over’ the next day. If I DO manage to stay awake after using the ointment, there is a euphoric but tense feeling… I actually have to fight off sleep but like a happy toddler.

The Awen comes straight into my mind…visions from my own imagination take on an absurd realism otherwise not experienced in regular lucid dreams. Poetry flows like colors, messages come to me in strange tongues and anticipation flows as wine in cups made of amethyst. I drink, deeply and awaken to write.

I was surprised to read Datura wasn’t just used in shamanic journeying or to poison/bewitch unsuspecting muggles, but some users found the imagination whipped to the point of exquisite inspiration…something I experienced as well.

Writing in 1784 Prussian toxicologist J.S. Halle became on of the first writers to praise the drug for stirring the artistic mind: 'Mixing the ground seeds of datura with wine will produce an artificial, magic and fantastic tincture; if a poet would drink (this blend), it would provide him with his most exalted flight in odes.' This datura-wine elixir will 'fire the pictures of imagination in the most vivid manner, swirling the natural impulse of the muse beyond all enthusiasm of wine'” (p.100).

For further information on the safe uses of these herbs, and to purchase some excellent ointments, follow these links down the rabbit hole.

Evolution of witches’ ointment

Article by author, Thomas Hatsis

Wise words of caution and use, Sarah Anne Lawless

More flying ointment history

Flying ointment feedback

Ointments for purchase

 

Datura from my garden.

Datura from my garden.

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