During the Burning Times, one of the many feats attributed to accused witches was the ability to fly. The details of these flights varied from region to region, but often involved staffs, bundles of sticks, or broomsticks. Sometimes witches would be ‘seen’ travelling on bewitched animals or familiars.
In reality, it’s generally accepted today that the ‘flying ointments’ of times past did not help witches actually take to the skies. The chemical compounds in the traditional herbs used likely caused hallucinations or even induced true astral travelling. When accused witches talked of flying, people took them literally.
Many people who still fear and misunderstand witchcraft consider these ointments to be actual magickal products of great antiquity, and that true witches can truly fly through the air if in possession of these ointments.
There were many different recipes but the uses of certain herbs tended to be common: belladonna, datura, mandrake, henbane, hemlock and/or foxglove.
These are all highly toxic plants and should not be experimented with! Besides hallucinations and other physical effects, the chemicals in these herbs can kill you. Other items that were supposedly used in traditional flying ointment was fat from an unbaptized baby, and bat’s blood. These things were never really used, but were invented by the witch hunters of the time in order to further demonize the accused.
Though these ointments would only cause any actual physiological effects when rubbed on the skin, it was also believed that they could be used on broomsticks to make them fly as well. A myth that persists today.
The first references to ointments or unguents used by witches are found in “The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abremelin The Mage”, written in 1458, and “De Miraculis Rerum Naturalium”, from 1560. There are many other descriptions of these ointments and their uses, but these tales are somewhat suspect as they were extracted from accused witches (typically under interrogation and torture.)
Recipes for modern-day flying ointments rely on herbs and oils that have magickal associations with astral travel, rather than those that are physiologically active (and potentially dangerous). Oils such as sandalwood, mugwort and benzion are common in safer versions of this ointment.