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The ointment contains a fatty base and various herbal extracts, usually including solanaceous herbs that contain the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. The herbs' essential oils are extracted when heated in the base. These oils are poisonous when ingested; when applied to the skin, the alkaloids are absorbed more slowly into the body. Typical ingredients in alleged recipes include hemlock (Conium spp.), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), wolfsbane (Aconitum spp.), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), usually in a base of animal fat.
Some sources (such as The Botany of Desire) have claimed that the ointment is absorbed best through mucous membranes, and that it was possibly applied to a special dildo that was inserted in the vagina.
One possible key to how individuals dealt with the toxicity of the nightshades usually said to be part of flying ointments is through the antidotal reaction some of the solanaceous alkaloids have with the alkaloids of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy). This is discussed by Alexander Kuklin in his brief book, How Do Witches Fly? (DNA Press, 1999). This antagonism was utilized by the movement of Eclectic medicine. For instance, King's American Dispensatory states in the entry on belladonna: "Belladonna and opium appear to exert antagonistic influences, especially as regards their action on the brain, the spinal cord, and heart; they have consequently been recommended and employed as antidotes to each other in cases of poisoning; this matter is now positively and satisfactorily settled; hence in all cases of poisoning by belladonna the great remedy is morphine, and its use may be guided by the degree of pupillary contraction it occasions."[unreliable source?]
The interaction between belladonna and poppy was made use of in the so-called "twilight sleep" that was provided for women during childbirth beginning in the Edwardian era. Twilight sleep was a mixture of scopolamine, a belladonna alkaloid, and morphine, a Papaver alkaloid, that was injected and which furnished a combination of painkilling and amnesia for a woman in labor. A version is still manufactured for use as the injectable compound Omnopon.
There is no definite indication of the proportions of solanaceous herbs vs. poppy used in flying ointments, and most historical recipes for flying ointment do not include poppy.
Sources citing ointments
The use by witches of flying ointments was first described, according to known sources, by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456. It was also described by the Spanish theologian Alfonso Tostado in Super Genesis Commentaria (Venetia, 1507), whose commentary tended to accredit the thesis of the reality of the Witches' Sabbath.
In popular culture
- In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown", Goody Cloyse, after meeting the Devil, says "I was all anointed with the juice of smallage, and cinquefoil, and wolf’s bane" to which the Devil replies "[m]ingled with fine wheat and the fat of a new-born babe".
- In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Margarita, after agreeing to act as hostess at Dr Woland's ball, uses the ointment to become a witch and fly to the estate where the event is being held.
- In Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat, two recipes by Johann Weyer, a 16th-century demonologist, are given in a footnote:
- 1-Water hemlock, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat's blood, deadly nightshade and oil.
- 2-Baby's fat, juice of cowbane, aconite, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade and soot.
- In the movie serial Warlock, the villain kills an unbaptised boy to get this "Flying Ointment".
- In Jodi Picoult's Salem Falls, a group of four girls practicing witchcraft ingest a flying ointment made of belladonna. It has disastrous results for the main character of the story.
- In the book Calling on Dragons (Book three of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles), the witch Morwen uses a flying potion on a straw basket and a broomstick, not on herself. Both objects perform their duties as expected.
- In E. L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, two characters try to make a flying ointment.
- The Swedish symphonic metal band Therion has a song called Unguentum Sabbati (Ointment of the Sabbat) on the album Sitra Ahra.
- A witch kills an infant child and makes flying ointment out of his corpse in the 2015 horror film The Witch.
- Harner, Michael (1973). Hallucinogens and Shamanism. – See the chapter "The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft"
- Flying Potions and Getting to the Sabbat
- Belladonna in flying ointments
- Ritual of the Raven
- If Witches No Longer Fly: Today's Pagans and the Solanaceous Plants
- King's American Dispensatory on Belladonna
- FLYING OINTMENTS: Their Ingredients and Their Use
- Witches' Ointment: Information from the Gale Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology