Above, left to right: Woody nightshade in fruit and flower; Mandrake in fruit; Henbane flower.
Among the plants associated with witchcraft in antiquity and the Middle Ages are a number of poisonous and narcotic species that are chemically related to one another, including the mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum and M. autumnalis), henbane, (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura metel) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). All are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae.
The medicinal and psychoactive properties of these related plants derive from the tropane alkaloids that they contain: atropine, scopalamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids act on the central and peripheral nervous systems by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. They are part of the modern pharmacopoeia and are valued as anesthetics, just as the plants from which they are derived once were. They are also employed in cases of pesticide poisoning and severe allergic reaction, and to suppress motion sickness. They are nevertheless extremely toxic.
The psychoactive properties of the nightshade family were exploited in the famous flying ointment employed by medieval witches. The risk posed by ingesting such dangerous poisons was mitigated by applying them externally to the skin and mucous membranes. Extracts of plants in the nightshade family were incorporated into a fatty base which was then rubbed on the body. Being fat-soluble, the tropane alkaloids were readily absorbed.
The earliest reference to the application of a flying ointment appears in a Latin novel of the first century, The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The hero, who is insatiably curious about magical practices, observes the witch Pamphile as she smears herself from head to toe with a salve and then flies away over the rooftops in the guise of an owl. (The modern Italian word for witch, strega, comes through the medieval striga, from the classical Latin strix, an owl.) As in the Middle Ages, the power to fly was one of the chief attributes of the witch.
Skepticism about whether witches actually flew through the air or were simply deluded into believing they had done so was sometimes expressed in earlier medieval sources such as the Canon Episcopi. More literal-minded and stereotypical accounts in which witches flew on broomsticks to Sabbaths where they engaged in obscene orgies and had sexual congress with the Devil developed over the following centuries. These accounts sometimes made reference to flying ointments; the famous fifteenth-century witch-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum, includes testimony that witches anointed themselves with the fat of unbaptized infants or those unprotected by prayer.
The action and composition of flying ointment aroused the curiosity of natural philosophers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and their views anticipate those of modern scientific researchers into the nature of these preparations. Giambattista della Porta, in his Magia Naturalis, a work of popular science published in Naples in 1558, surmised that the sensation of flight had a physiological origin, due to the inclusion of soporific plants such as nightshade. He reports that he and his fellow investigators observed a witch who offered to demonstrate the ointment’s powers. After rubbing herself all over, she fell into a deep sleep. Once the witch was unconscious, she was given a drubbing which failed to wake her from her senseless stupor. As she returned to a waking state, she began to babble of her travels and refused to believe her observers when they insisted that she had never left the place where she had sunk into a trance, despite the evidence of the bruises they had given her. Twentieth-century investigators using a seventeenth-century formula that included deadly nightshade, henbane, and datura claim to have experienced such wild rides as the witches had taken after rubbing their foreheads with the mixture. (W. H. Lewis and M. P. F. Elwin-Lewis, Medical Botany, 1977.)