The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Tools of Witchcraft
Flying ointments, although still occasionally used by some, are not a common magical tool nor is it known whether they were ever common. However they are so commonly discussed during the history of witchcraft, especially during the Burning Times, that, even if they were rarely, if ever, used, they cannot be ignored.
Flying ointments are exactly what they sound like: ointments or unguents that allegedly enable people to fly, whether literally or shamanically (see DICTIONARY: Soul-journey).
The very earliest mention of a flying ointment may occur in Greek mythology. In the Iliad, Hera is described as anointing herself with fine oil before flying from Mount Olympus to Zeus on Mount Ida. Similarly, the hero in the second-century CE Roman novel The Golden Ass secretly observes a Thessalian witch transform into a bird and fly away after applying an ointment to her naked body.
During the witch-hunts, witch-hunters accused witches of literally using these ointments. Very often accused witches were tortured until they confessed that these ointments were gifts from Satan.
Various formulas for flying ointments survive from the witch-hunt era. No recorded surviving formulas come directly from witches or shamans: all known formulas were recorded by clerics, witch-hunters, and early physicians. It is unknown where these formulas truly originated or whether they were even used. They cannot be verified. In general, they contain combinations of potentially psychoactive but definitely poisonous botanicals like henbane, belladonna, opium, and water hemlock.
Recent scientific studies indicate that some of these herbal formulas may indeed stimulate hallucinations, visions, and sensations of flying and transportation, if they don’t kill you first. Allegedly the highly poisonous combination of wolfsbane and belladonna produces a sensation of flight, for instance. If these ointments were indeed produced and used as described, this indicates that European shamanic traditions, replete with profound botanical knowledge, secretly existed well into the witch-hunt era.
Despite witch-hunters’ allegations, records indicate that these ointments were associated with shamanic, rather than literal flight, even back then:
The Dominican Inquisitor Johann Nider, writing c.1435, described a peasant woman who offered to demonstrate to Dominican observers how she flew with Diana. He wrote that she sat inside a basket, anointed herself with balm, uttered magic words and fell into such a deep trance that she failed to awaken even when she fell from the basket to the floor. When she awoke, she told her observers that she had been with Diana and refused to believe otherwise.
In 1545, the Duke of Lorraine lay ill; a married couple was arrested and charged with casting a spell on him to which they confessed. Their home was searched and a jug containing a salve was found. Renowned Spanish physician Andrés de Laguna (1499—1560) analyzed its contents and suggested that it was a green poplar salve base containing belladonna, water hemlock (Cicuta virosa), and other botanicals. He tested it on the local hangman’s wife who lay comatose for three days and was annoyed when awakened because she had enjoyed her dreams and erotic adventures.
The connection between brooms and flying ointment isn’t arbitrary. It’s believed that if these ointments were used, then certain parts of the body lend themselves to most effective application, notably sensitive, highly absorbent vaginal tissue. Some scholars perceived the broom as the applicator tool for the ointment. The ointment was secret; the broom became symbolic for witches’ flight.
One theory suggests that following the increase in witch persecutions, fewer ventured out to literally dance on mountaintops or forests. Instead shamanic flight to witches’ balls was substituted.
Traditional Swedish Easter witches usually fly brooms but are sometimes depicted riding vacuum cleaners or flying machines instead. These machines don’t fly by themselves. Easter witches must prepare their brooms or flying vehicles with a special flying ointment, which is rubbed onto the broom rather than on their bodies. On their way to Blakulla or wherever they ramble, they gather in church towers to rest and socialize. The desire to stop in church towers isn’t just the joy of sacrilege as some might imagine but because it’s a necessary refueling stop. Ingredients in their flying ointment include grease scraped from church bells and bits of metal scraped off the bells. Their ointment is stored in hollow horns.
In witch-hunt era Europe, similar ointments with similar ingredients also allegedly provided werewolf transformations, too. As with flying ointments, information regarding European werewolf-transformation ointment derives solely from witch-hunters’ records, however similar traditions survived in Haiti.
The Haitian loup-garou is usually translated as “werewolf” but may be more accurately understood as “transformed sorcerers in flight.” The concept of the loup-garou originated in Brittany, from whence it traveled to France’s American colonies. These wolf shamans merged in Haiti with various Dahomean traditions involving secret magical societies.
The European werewolf was almost exclusively male; the loup-garou is frequently female. She anoints her wrists, ankles, and neck with herbal preparations enabling her to transform into animal shape and fly. Her most common form is a wolf; others include black cats, black pigs, crocodiles, horses, leopards, and owls. Botanical ointments aren’t sufficient, however; transformative ability is ultimately bestowed by the deity presiding over loups-garoux, the lwa Ogou-ge-Rouge, Red Eyed Ogun, a sorcerer aspect of the Spirit of Iron. (See ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves; DIVINE WITCH: Ogun; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.)