Featured Image: Three Women and Three Wolves (1900), by Eugène Grasset
They ride through the air with ease, stirring magic wherever they go
It was once said that you should look to the sky when the blood moon rises high above the tree line, for you may spy the shadows of witches on broomsticks driven to revolt against their wifely duties. In one such village where generations of women took to the sky, a grandmother ceremoniously bestowed a broom on her granddaughter at the time of her womanhood. Of course, the men of the village were not allowed to attend the blessing and were expected to busy themselves with mundane chores as the women gathered in sacred solidarity.
During one such ritual, a curious young girl who had watched her sisters, one after the other, receive their own brooms bedecked in yarrow, mugwort, and branches of the black cottonwood that graced the riverside, finally asked her mother, “Why do we gift brooms? It seems such an unextraordinary token.”
Her mother squeezed her hand and whispered, “Soon, very soon, you too shall know the secret of the broom.”
The girl pondered that bit of knowledge on chilly March mornings, as she followed the women of her village to the riverside to gather resinous cottonwood buds. She thought about it on sunny May afternoons as they gathered yarrow in the meadow and when they climbed the steep hillside for the pungent mugwort used in brews for dreaming. And while gathering the pot marigold from her garden in September’s slanted light, she contemplated the significance of the brooms lined up against the fence. More questions arose as she helped fill the cauldron with the herbs they had gathered over the year, along with oils and beeswax that created a thick ointment. But every time she was about to speak, her mother gently hushed her. Instead, she was encouraged to repeat the charm the women spoke over the bubbling cauldron.
Year after year, the girl followed the traditions of the women of her village without knowing why. But then one morning, when the flame of October’s bloom shone bright and the air was filled with the scent of woodsmoke and apple, she found the red stains of her burgeoning womanhood upon her bedsheets, and she smiled.
The women of the village insisted that her ritual should take place immediately, as it was about the time of the full blood moon. So before the girl had time to process what was happening, she stood in a cloak of red, surrounded by the women of her village, all holding their beloved brooms.
As her grandmother bent down and handed her a broom lovingly decorated with the herbs of their craft, she whispered to the girl, “It was the men who handed us the first brooms, stating that we knew of their use.” She smiled and winked. “And use them we do.”
When the night of the full blood moon arrived, the women showed the girl how to anoint her broom with the ointment they had made. And as the scent of the herbs and oils filled the air, the girl’s soul was at ease, for the secret of the broom had finally been revealed. You see, the broom was not just an implement of female repression but a symbol of strength, solidarity, and freedom for all that believed they could fly. And fly they did.
Witches’ Flying Ointment
The iconic image of a female witch straddling her broom has been a part
of history since the Inquisition. To power a witch’s transport, it was said a salve was made up of the fat of a child steeped in such herbs as poplar buds, belladonna, hemlock, wolfsbane, and soot. Sadly these claims (as well as others) were based on fear and the patriarchal attitudes of the day, resulting in what we know as the witch hunts that spanned 300 years and may have claimed the lives of up 50,000 people.
Today you’ll find many sources for modern witches’ flying ointments that can be used for meditation and connecting to the spirit world, complete with lists
of psychoactive and potentially lethal plants. Medicinal salves have been used for thousands of years, and psychoactive herbs also have a long history of ritual use. But there is no clear evidence of a witches’ flying ointment ever being used in such a way—and these classic herbs can be deadly.
The much more benign poplar tree buds have also long been used in medicine, with poplar salve (unguentum populeum), known for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, being one of the oldest formulations. Recipes appear in many herbals and pharmacopoeias. Gart der Gesundheit (1485), for example, included henbane, poppy leaves, and mandrake among other herbs to mix with the poplar. Such salves were used much like we use aspirin today. Perhaps salves such as unguentum populeum are the basis for the folklore of witches’ flying ointment?
If you’d like to create your own witches’ flying ointment, a safer alternative can be made from these herbs, whose histories are just as rich as any of the baneful herbs referred to above. Infused oil from the buds of balsam poplar trees (known as cottonwoods) along with mugwort, yarrow, and calendula can be used for their medicinal properties and, in combination with your meditative practice of choice, can help induce a state of “soul flight.” (See detailed instructions at right.)
Cottonwood (Populus sect. Aigeiros)
Known for its its resinous buds, which have been extracted for centuries for use in medicine (sometimes called Balm of Gilead), it is antibacterial, antifungal, and mildly analgesic. It is used in spells to attract money, hope, healing, encouragement, and transformation, and as a base for ointments to induce soul flight.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Magical mugwort may be used to amplify psychic sight and induce astral travel. Known as the witch’s herb, it is also used in spells for protection, healing, and dreamwork. More recently it’s been used as a sedative and as a digestive aid, and in ointments to relieve dry, itchy skin.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
This hard-to-tame herb may aid in astral travel and induce psychic visions. It is also used in spells for courage and love. Long used in medicine for its cooling properties, it may help to break a fever and stimulate sweating. Its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, combined with its ability to slow bleeding, made yarrow useful on the battlefield for treating wounds.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
The petals of this bright and fiery herb, also known as pot marigold, can be used in a salve to trigger prophetic dreaming. It is also used in protection spells, for psychic powers, and for strength and courage. With high amounts of flavonoids, pot marigold is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, and is popular in ointments to treat cuts, bruises, and burns.
(Safe) Witches’ Flying Ointment
Black cottonwood, or western balsam poplar (Populus trichocarpa), grows along the river near my home in the Pacific Northwest, and in February, when the buds swell and the scent of their sweet resin fills the air, I collect them from saplings along the winding riverbank. I loosely fill quart jars with the buds and then with olive oil and let the mixture steep in my pantry until spring is in full bloom. The oil can be used in soap and salve recipes, but my favorite magical use for it is making soul-flight or witches’ flying ointment. When dabbed on the pulse points and on the third eye, this salve can open the practitioner to soul flight. Use also for its calming effects before meditation, or before sleep to enhance your dreams.
You will need:
4 parts cottonwood buds
1 part dried mugwort
1 part dried yarrow or calendula
Place herbs and buds in a quart jar and cover with your choice of oil (olive, grapeseed, sweet almond, etc.). Let steep in a warm, dark place for several weeks. Shake daily.
When ready, use a double boiler to melt one ounce of beeswax. When melted, add one cup of your infused oil, and stir until blended. Remove from heat and add optional essential oil of your choice. Pour into two-ounce tins and allow to cool fully. (Makes four.)