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  • The Witches' Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic by Thomas Hatsis
  • Michael Ostling

Michael Ostling, Thomas Hatsis, witchcraft, psychedelics, psychedlia, entheogens, drugs, medieval magic, medieval witchcraft, early modern witchcraft, potions, witch flight

thomas hatsis. The Witches' Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2015. Pp. xvii + 286.

Every few years, someone sets out to show that the alleged flight of accused witches can best be explained via an examination of the hallucinogenic properties of the supposed witches' ointment: witches, it is claimed, induced the experience of flight by vigorously rubbing into their skin the powerfully psychotropic extracts of henbane, mandrake, belladonna, and other herbs of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family.1 Thomas Hatsis's Witches' Ointment stands out from this perennial genre for its erudition and concern for historical context. Unlike such efforts as George N. Conklin's "Alkaloids and the Witches' Sabbat" (1958), V. B. Haarstad's "Witchcraft: A Pharmacological Analysis" (1964), Michael Harner's "Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft" (1973), Hans Peter Duerr's Dreamtime (1985), Alexander Kuklin's How Do Witches Fly? (1999), or John M. Riddle's Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches (2010), Hatsis is not content to recite the ointment recipes proposed by sixteenth-century physicians and natural magicians, elucidate the toxicology of hyoscyamine and other solanaceous alkaloids, and consider the [End Page 271] case proven. On the contrary, he draws on a wide range of primary sources in their original languages, contextualizing these through a strong grounding in the secondary literature. Nevertheless, The Witches' Ointment fails in its goal of providing "previously overlooked evidence indicating that the witches' ointment … had a foundation in real folk sorcery, i.e. intentional drug use" (4).

Refreshingly, Hatsis rejects "reducing medieval and early modern period magic to drug use" (xvii). Instead he stakes out a middle position between lurid suggestions that witches smeared hallucinogenic ointments on brooms "inserted genitally or anally to effect the experience of flight" (4, cf. 159–60) and the dismissive "predispositions" of "modern-day skeptics" (6). Against these extreme positions, Hatsis asks for a dispassionate review of "the best evidence" (6). He hopes to demonstrate that witch flight represents a confluence of several streams, including folklore, elite magic, and antiheretical polemic, but also includes a tradition of "medical drugs" that were "used by some people as an element in psyche-magical rites" (167). To make this argument, Hatsis needs to do more than show that nightshades are hallucinogenic and were available in the early modern period. He needs to make a plausible case that nightshades were used intentionally for entheogenic experience, trance flight, or recreational drug trips by cunning-women, herbalists, heterodox subcultures, shamans, or indeed any candidate for witchcraft accusation. To his credit, Hatsis recognizes this problem: two chapters seek to connect the solanaceous soporifics known to surgeons and literate botanists with the love potions used by cunning-folk, and thus potentially, by accused witches. Chapter 4, "Roots of Bewitchment," discusses the surgeons' "soporific sponge," but Hatsis provides no evidence for his assertion that the sponge would be widely known among commonfolk healers (107). Chapter 5, "Veneficia," seems a promising place to show that cunning-folk used the nightshades to induce hallucination, trance, or the experience of madness. Instead it brings forward just a handful of trials in which botanicals figure in any way: the juice of a black berry ("likely nightshade berries") in 1611; bitter almonds ("probably nightshade berries") in 1651 (121). The remaining trial documents record unspecified herbs or powders, their solanaceous content simply assumed.

Indeed, Hatsis's declared dispassion is quickly replaced with a tendency to bend any evidence, however slim or vague or problematic, toward supporting the thesis that witches (and their ancient medieval forebears) used psychoactive drugs on themselves and others. Chapter 3, "The Heretics' Potion," sets the pattern. By combining reports that second-century Marcosian Gnostics practiced ecstatic prophecy with heresiological slanders about the same [End Page 272] group's use of love potions, Hatsis can suggest that "Marcus and his group used psychoactive love-potions consensually for erotic entheogenic experience" (58). Or again, the "heavenly food" of the eleventh-century Orléans heretics was described in confessions...