The Powerful Solanaceae: Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Image banner: ginseng roots, echinacea flowers, juniper berries, raspberry, shining willow, and Gamble oak acorn.

Yesteryear’s Drug Addicts?

Nicholas Remy (1530-1616) was a French magistrate who launched a 10-yr campaign against witchcraft. He personally claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 900 witches, easy scapegoats at the height of Europe's devastating medieval plague. This image is from his 1595 book titled Daemonolatreiae. Photo: National Library of Medicine.

Over the last several decades, much has been written of the connection between the psychoactive tropane alkaloids contained in henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura stramonium), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), and medieval witches of Europe. Women and men who practiced witchcraft learned to use and perhaps abuse these compounds without the fear of death associated with the oral ingestion of these deadly compounds. They learned that combining these compounds with oils or fats and then applying them to the skin allowed for their absorption into their bloodstreams without the deadly effects of oral consumption. Some witches would also ritually burn henbane and inhale the smoke causing them to enter a hallucinogenic state of mind where they cast spells and performed incantations to summon demons and other dark spirits to participate in their revelry.

R.E.L. Masters and Jean Houston in their book, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, “That the witches’ ointment already was known in the fifteenth century, and that it was thought to produce dreams or illusions of flying and attendance at the Sabbat, is clear from a case cited at the time. A Dominican priest had watched a woman rub herself with the ointment and fall into a “trance.” When she awakened, she claimed to have been transported to the Sabbat and to have joined in the revels there. The witches’ ointment was actually analyzed in the sixteenth century by Andreas de Laguna, physician to Pope Julius III. Of a tube taken from a witch, Laguna reported that the ointment was green in color and contained hemlock, salanum, mandragora, and henbane.”

There is no way to document completely the practice of witchcraft in Europe during the 15th to 17th centuries. We do know that many of the medieval practitioners using these plants would have experienced extremely vivid hallucinations involving flying off to destinations where many emotional states and physical activities were experienced. In fact, period eyewitness accounts state that the force and intensities of these hallucinations, especially the vivid imagery, left memories for the witches that to them were as real as any other memory. These accounts lend a modicum of credence to the reports of some of these individuals confessing to being witches.

Witch flying on a broomstick.
The earliest known image of a witch flying on a broomstick dates back to 1440 from a manuscript in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris.

Woodcut showing flying witches.
This woodcut from a 1720 collection by William Dodd shows both male and female witches flying on broomsticks. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.