Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Of Potions, Ointments, Toads & Mushrooms.

“It has been supposed that the words saka haumavarka, which in Iranian texts designate a family from whom the Achaemenides descended, meant 'the people who change into werewolves by intoxicating themselves with hoama.” - Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstacies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. (P. 305)
“According to Herodotus, men thought to change themselves into wolves may be Goetes.”
- Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician. (P. 80)
Following his very interesting continued points on The Blessed Dead in Christianity, Earl Lee shifts from focusing on Christianity for a bit to the topic of witchcraft. Unfortunately in focusing on mushrooms like Amanita Muscaria he misses a number of potential sources that would very much fuel his overall discussion. Nonetheless he cites on of the most interesting Historians on witchcraft – none other than Carlo Ginzburg – as the basis for his discussion. Following his theories about the Holy Grail being necromantic foods, he says:
At this point in history, the use of hallucinogenic ointments and food went underground but continued to be widespread in many parts of Europe long after the Cathars had disappeared...” (P. 73)

As Carlo Ginzburg observes, the witches who were brought to trial often made confessions that conformed to the expectations of the Inquisitor. At the same time few of the witches were likely to describe what they were really up to...” (P. 74)
He goes on to suggest that no one would ever admit to eating a mushroom cultivated from a human corpse to an Inquisitor; and he is more-or-less probably dead-on there. However the question of whether or not individuals involved in the cults that came to be seen as “witch-like” or working with necromantic ointments used sacred mushrooms like Amanita Muscaria as part of the preparation is... vexing. He is drawing his information from the last chapter of Ginzburg's Ecstacies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. In particular, one of the last segments in the chapter. It deals with the possibility of Amanita Muscaria, toads, and witches. Ginzburg unfortunately also advances Wasson's theory that the Soma/Hoama of Vedic religion is Amanita Muscaria; this is a very controversial idea, and even today is widely debated.

Ginzburg writes:
The existence of a connection between the mushroom used by the shamans to attain ecstasy and lameness will at this point not seem inconcievable in principle. Furthermore, this convergence is not isolated. In a number of French regions grilled mushrooms (for example, amanita muscaria) have names like bò (Huate Saôn) or botet (Loire) which immediately call to mind bot (cripple) and bot (toad). Here we see emerge the intersection of three elements: mushroom, toad and the ambulatory anomaly. It has been maintained that the convergence between the adjective bot, 'crippled' (pied bot) and the noun bot, 'toad', is illusory, because the two words derive from different roots (*butt, 'blunted', the first; *bot, 'to swell', the second). But the names that identify the toad with 'shoe,' 'slipper,' and so on, in the dialects of nothern Italy would seem to indicate the presence of a semantic affinity, which certainly cannot be reduced to an external resemblance. Equally unquestionable, although obscure, is the affinity between mushroom and toad. In China amanita muscaria is called 'toad mushroom', in France, crapaudin (from crapaud, 'toad'). 'Toad bread,' pin d'crapâ is the name with which agaric mushrooms (including the amanita) are designated in Normandy. In Veneto, the rospér zalo designates the Amanita mappa; in Treviso, in particular, the jongo rospér is the Amanita pantherina. Inedible mushrooms are called 'toad mushrooms' (zabaci huby), or 'similar to toads' (zhabjachyi hryb), in Slovakia (in the region of the Tatra mountains) and in the Ukraine, respectively. Moreover, terms like 'toadstool', 'toadhat,' and so on are used to designate these mushrooms in English, Irish, Welsh, Breton, Frisian, Danish, low German, Norwegian... If we eliminate the toad's negative connotations because they are belated and superficial, we see a different explanation emerge. From northern Italy to Germany, the Ukraine and Poland, the toad is designated 'fairy,' 'witch,' and 'sorcerer.' It has been supposed on the basis of good arguments that the Italian rospo derives from the Latin haruspex, the sorcerer and soothsayer which the Latins had imported from Etruria.” (P. 306)

Later, he adds:
But in the very few anomalous cases in which descriptions of a shamanistic type surface, amanita muscaria does not appear. The connection with states of altered consciousness that would seem to be suggested by terms like cocch matt, coco mato, ovol matt, bolè mat, with which amanita muscaria is designated in the dialects of Lombardy, the Veneto and Emilia, is not confirmed in the trial records. Only in some instances does it seem permissible to indicate a doubt at least. We have already said that during the trials of the Piedmontese heretics at the end of the fourteenth century there is a mention at one point of the potion distributed by Billia la Castagna, a woman from Andezeno near Chieri, to those who participated in a ritual orgy. The potion was made from the excrement of a large toad, which it would appear (fama erat) Billia kept under her bed, feeding it meat, bread and cheese. These repulsive or bizarre details may be partially due to a misunderstanding on the part of the inquisitors. From Europe to the Americas mushrooms are often referred to with names that evoke animal urine, faecies, or flatulence: 'dog piss,' 'wolf fart,' fox excrements' and 'puma excrements'. Andezeno is not a mushroom region: but the author of the confession, Antonio Galosna, wandered as a preacher through the Piedmontese valleys. Might not the 'toad excrement' of Billia la Castagna be a distorted echo of terms connected with crapaudin, pain de crapault – 'toad mushrooms', which in France and elsewhere denote amanita muscaria?” (P. 307)
In the case he presents, I am willing to suspect – at least – that it very well could be an indication of a potion utilizing mushrooms... Or a misunderstanding caused by the intense corresponding pattern of toads and their association with toadstools. However, most of the potion recipes and flying ointment recipes I've found in the historical record do not involve amanita muscaria. I would actually be very, very pleased if they did.

Nonetheless, Mr. Lee is correct that the ointment could – or often seemed to – involve being made from human fats, which ties neatly in with his ideas. In the place of something like amanita muscaria we find the tropane producing plants far more often. In particular:
  • Mandrake (Mandragora Officinarum)
  • Enchanter's nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)
These plants were heavily associated with witchcraft/sorcery (maleficium) and potion-making, as well as death due to their high potential as poisons. All three have an interesting ritual history; in particular one of the names that Dioscorides' gives from Henbane is Pythonion, and it is possible that it was used by the oracles of Apollo for their frenzied oracles. Hence it is also called Herba Appolinarus. They occur in the Evil Sleep/Catalepsy potions of the PDM, specifically: PDM xiv. 716-32, 727-36.

While some of the others lack tropane producing plants, they also include varieties of animal blood or call for the blood of the practitioner: PDM xiv. 428-50, 675-94, 739-40, 742. We may also add to this list three non-tropane producing plants, but which also recur in some recipes:
  • Opium (Papaver somniferum)
  • Wolfsbane (Aconitum)
  • Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
It may be that knowledge of the psychoactive potentials of these plants was more well-known in Europe due to their extensive recurrence in use than amanita muscaria was. While it is used extensively in areas of Eastern European shamanism, it is far harder – aside from the interesting names and correspondence of magical ideas – to show that it was used. Nonetheless, by the time we see the records of flying ointments such as by John Baptista Neapolitanus, Paschal's Stimulant Powder, and the Onguent Infernale they all include, at the very least, a reference to the use of human fat in the preparation. This is hardly a standard practice today (I have thankfully never seen a reference to it) – in fact, it would be very illegal – but witches tend to get by just fine by using animal lard.

There is perhaps one last thing to be said about the use of such potions and ointments: records, that is to say, 'trip reports,' from all manner of different sources, describe the use of them causing hallucinations or sensations of being transformed into the shape of an animal; or, or flying out of the body upon the back of an animal, and so on. It might be best said that the use of such things could result in the individual meeting spirits, flying across the astral and into the realms of death and the night (or into the land of the Fairies), or of becoming animalistic. While these aspects do not seem to collate together well enough from an outsider's perspective, they are all essential parts of ecstatic practices and experiences shared by individuals throughout the history of magical practices. Whether we are discussing Goetes, witches, or priestesses delivering frenzied oracles.

As for why such things might be used? If I might close with the quote that seems to have inspired Mr. Lee in the fourth chapter of From the Bodies of the Gods:
On the other side of the Alps, a few decades afterAntonio Galosna's confessions, a young man told Peter von Greyerz, the judge from Berne (who in his turn spoke about to to Nider), of the macabre initiation ritual required of those who wished to become members of the witches' sect. The person who drank the macabre potion contained in a skin flask 'had all of a sudden the sensation of receiving and preserving within himself the image of our art, and the principle rituals of the sect.'”
- Ginzburg, Ecstacies. (P. 307)

While I have never had a sudden, 'complete' transmission of Gnosis regarding witchcraft from such a potion, I have met spirits and been told what others might call 'secrets' regarding the practice of witchcraft. They aren't, of course. All you need is the right potion, and the right plant raised properly and being willing to have a chat, or to take you on a flight.

Hence, after many years, I asked Mandrake how the Hand of Glory was supposed to work and it repeated three times:
Light the Candle / Light the Candle / Light the Candle.”

There was much more involved, of course, but that core piece of information still seems to me to be correct.

The individual armed with such tools is capable of learning to 'fly,' to converse with spirits, and to see the realms hidden within the astral. One wonders, given some of my posts recently, just how close to those experiences some early Christians may or may not have come... Finally, one doesn't have to use such things to learn to engage in 'witch flight,' speak with spirits, and so on... But sometimes, it just might help. (I have had plenty of trance experiences regarding witch-things that involved precisely no drugs; and I actually spent most of my youth avoiding such things.)

Be seeing you,


faoladh said...

A couple of random notes related to this:

* In Pharmacotheon, Ott mentions the use, in Afghanistan, of a topical ointment composed of A. muscaria and H. niger. I found this combination intriguing enough to look into it further, and apparently hysoscamine acts as an anti-muscarinic (and, if I recall correctly, muscarine acts as an anti-atropinic), meaning that the combination of the two minimize the toxic effects while retaining the medicinal (and, presumably, entheogenic) ones. I no longer have a copy, and so can't give an exact reference, but it is easy to find using the fine index of that book.

* In his The Living World of Faery, R.J. Stewart claims that he is in possession of a manuscript journal of the 18th century in which is given a detailed recipe for a salve serving some function in the faery-related practices of one Elisabet Greening, a person attributed with healing powers. It includes, among other ingredients, wormwood, vervain, and an oil of "the red spotted mushroom". I have corresponded with Mr. Stewart, and he said that he was editing the manuscript for publication. However, that was several years ago, and I have heard nothing about it since.

Jack Faust said...

Faoladh: Oh, most excellent! I'll have to check both of those books out. I'm actually not very up on the works of R.J. Stewart... Are you fond of his other work? Any particular titles you'd recommend?

faoladh said...

I have a complicated relationship with Mr. Stewart's works. I would, with some reservations, recommend a few (Earth Light, Power Within the Land, The Well of Light, Merlin: The Prophetic Vision and the Mystic Life, Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds, and The Living World of Faery). People who are approaching him less from my perspective (a religious one), and more from a magician's, may find more of his books interesting and valuable. Especially those who are interested in the works of William G. Gray.