Witches, Halloween and the Modern War on Drugs

This is an abridged excerpt from Drugs Are Not the Devil’s : How Discrimination and Greed Created Dysfunctional Drug Policy and How it Can Be Fixed. The two-volume first edition is currently available for purchase now and the single-volume second edition will be available in November 2017. To learn more or request a press copy for please contact Dr. Bearman’s office.

Flying Witches

Witches are herbalists. They are aware of both the healing quality of some plants and the ability of plant materials to create spiritual, hallucinogenic visions. Tradition says witches would collect plants at night in the full of the moon. This was not done as part of some obscure ritual, but is based on plant biology. Many plants farmed by witches have their highest active drug content in the evening.

Many modern drugs come from plants or are based on plant molecules, and witches knew many medicinal plants.

“Our society, modern medicine and the multi[b]illion dollar pharmaceutical industry owe much to the traditions of Witchcraft and the knowledge passed through the centuries by these practitioners of an ancient, persecuted art,” Cathy Peterson writes in Witchcraft Herbal Lore and Flying Ointments (1998).

The use of plants to promote a sense of flying, “out of body experience” and the ability to convene with the spiritual world is a recurrent theme in ancient religious practices. The shamans, priests and priestesses of religions throughout the world, as well as the witches of the Middle Ages, used specific plants to extend the normal boundaries of human experience and to further a spiritual connection with a force greater than themselves.

The Datura plants henbane, mandrake, monkshead and belladonna were common ingredients in flying ointments. They are all natural sources of atropine and atropine-like drugs. McKenna describes the use of Datura "...flying ointments and magical salves were compounded out of Datura roots and seeds, parts of the plant rich in delirium and delusion-producing tropane alkaloids. When this material was applied to the witch's body, it produced states of extraordinary derangement and delusion."

In the right dosage, these plant chemicals cause hallucinations. In addition to their use from India to Rome for spiritual communion, these alkaloids were commonly used as both poisons and in cosmetics. They also block parasympathetic functions, activities that occur when the body is at rest. It should be little surprise that atropine-like drugs, in appropriate therapeutic doses, are found in many modern common cold remedies to decrease runny nose and postnasal drip.

These atropine-containing drugs were used in naturalistic (pagan) religions in Europe to induce hallucinations interpreted as spiritual flight. Witches used hallucinogenic plants to perform rituals linked to the cycle of the seasons. The Church did not approve. Knowledge of Datura was suppressed by the Church during the witch-burning times. The Church associated Datura and other related, similar atropine-containing plants, with the Devil.

In addition to the atropine found in Datura plants, it is postulated opium was an important ingredient in the witches' ointment. It was certainly used in magic and witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

Because midwives were familiar with ergot's hallucinatory effects as well as its vasoconstrictive effects to control post-partum bleeding, ergot may also have gotten in some flying-potion formulas. Powdered calamus root was an ingredient in several of the ancient, psychoactive witches flying ointments. Calamus can have euphoric mind-altering and hallucinogenic effects, depending on the amount taken. It also positively affects the sex drive.


Halloween began as an important pagan holiday. It was called Samhain (pronounced sow-een) and means "summer's end". Like most naturalist holidays and celebrations of ancient religions, it was tied to the cycles of the seasons. Samhain was held in late fall in Ireland, England and many parts of Europe. It was a celebration before winter's gloom, a combination of the end of the harvest and a New Year's festival. The harvest signaled the end of the growing season, the end of one year, the beginning of the next. It was celebrated from sunset October 31 to sunset November 1.

The Church worked hard over several hundred years to eradicate this popular pagan holiday, but finally settled on co-opting it. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saint's Day, a day to honor saints and martyrs. In 1000 C.E., the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to remember the departed and to pray for their souls. People still continued to celebrate Samhain. The three celebrations (All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day) taken together were called Hallowmas, and people costumed as angels and devils, celebrated with bonfires and parades. The night before November 1 came to be called All Hallows Evening, which was eventually shortened to Halloween.

Witches, Broomsticks and Halloween

Witches and broomsticks are icons of Halloween. Most ethnohistorians believe riding broomsticks became associated with witches because sticks or other phallic-shaped objects were used to apply hallucinogenic ointments and salves upon the vagina's very absorbent mucosa. Topical mucosal application of the "flying" ointment is both a faster and safer route of administration for these emoluments than oral ingestion. But these witches' brews were also absorbed orally.

Witches' flying ointments were made from plants high in the tropane alkaloids: atropine, scopolamine, hyoscyamine and hyoscine, plus a dollop of animal fat. The fat was employed to provide an oily base for the crushed plants, enable its application on the skin and mucous membranes, and as a medium to prevent the rapid evaporation of the volatile plant alkaloids.

Writers from the Middle Ages documented this association of witches and broomsticks. A 1324 witchcraft investigation mentioned in Michael J. Harner’s article, “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft” in the book he edited, Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973), supports this contention of applying the hallucinogenic "flying" ointments with a staff to the vaginal mucosa. "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of ointment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin." And we find in a 1470 reference: "But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place

The first stage of "seduction into witchcraft" was related to a woman's state of mind. Someone who was in a receptive psychological state would be a target for the devil. Examples of a "receptive state of mind" are someone feeling anger against someone else, despair caused by poverty or hunger or anxiety over being called a witch. Persons in those states of mind were popularly believed to be easy targets for the Devil to seduce.

The Instability of Changing Times Need a Scapegoat

What do witches and their potions have to do with today's drug laws? The witch hunts of the middle ages demonstrate how an anti-science, illogical, hysterical approach can occur in an environment of change and fear. Casting blame on scapegoats seems to occur more frequently in times of change. The demonization of some men and women as witches is analogous to drugs being demonized. With demons, witches or drugs, there is a simplistic way to detect who is evil and place the blame, whether warranted or not, on things and events happening in human experience that are not readily understood and over which humans have little or no control.

The witch hunts of the Middle Ages demonstrate the length to which humans will go in hurting other humans in the name of "all that is right and good." The witch hunts represent a historical antecedent, a veritable training manual for an inappropriate, ineffective, wrong-headed, over-the-top, hysterical and morally dubious (at best) response to a problem perceived demonic. This hysterical mindset then creates its own set of problems. A powerful tactic of the witch hunts was equating an opponent's behavior to demonic activity. Demonic characterization apparently gives a culture permission to take drastic, draconian action.

Over the past 30 years, the motivation for the medieval witch hunting era has been distorted and relative blame misplaced. Conventional wisdom points to the Roman Catholic Church and/or misogyny as motivation for the witch hunts. In some sense these causes are accurate, but closer scrutiny of the historical record reveals this is an oversimplification and many historians have largely discounted these as the major influences.

The Church's Preoccupation with Sex = Satan

The Middle Ages were not happy times. They were filled with depression, fear, despair and oppression. For 1,000 years, from 500-1500 C.E., daily life for the peasantry was miserable. In addition to minimal shelter, lack of sanitation and omnipresent disease, the Church removed all the joy from sex.

The Church of medieval times had strict and foreboding sexual codes. Sexual intercourse was to be performed as seldom as possible. To love, or even desire one's lawful marriage partner was considered sinful. Intercourse was to be done sparingly and only for procreation, not enjoyment. The Church saw only desire, not love.

G. Rattray Taylor, in Sex in History (1954), summarized the strict system of Church morality: "The Church was obsessed with sex. Every imaginable misdeed and every conceivable sin is discussed and analyzed at great length and appropriate penalties are set forth for each sexual misstep.”

Kurt Seligmann, in The History of Magic (1948), gave this analysis:

"... the ancient survivals, the amusements of serfs, the most innocent stories, were henceforth Satanic, and the women who knew about the old legends and magic traditions were transformed into witches … the traditional gatherings, the Druid's Festival on the eve of May Day, the Bacchanals, the Diana feasts, became the witches' Sabbath …the broom, symbol of the sacred heart … became an evil tool. The sexual rites of old, destined to simulate the fertility of nature, were now the manifestations of a forbidden carnal lust. Mating at random, a survival of communal customs … now [were] an infringement of the most sacred laws."8

This extreme sexual asceticism was not preached by Christ. The Church's medieval sex code is not supported by either the Old or New Testaments.

Sex also became part of the mix of demonizing people who use drugs. Throughout history, an association between drug use and sex has been seen as being a tool of the Devil. This theme has been played out over and over. Be it alcohol, opiates, cocaine or marijuana, each has supposedly lead good girls to go bad and somehow causes "our" women to have sex with "them".

Many scholars point to the Church itself and its extreme, intrusive doctrines and dogmas as causing a rebirth of paganism. The extreme regulation and repression of the private lives of ordinary people allowed for the seeds of the old pagan practice to once again take root and flourish. The Church's ob- session with sex and equating it with sin and their attempt to eradicate this sin inadvertently created fertile ground for the rebirth of the dormant Old Religion. The stories of the old pagan ways and customs, with their emphasis on fertility and community sex rites, become appealing to some common folks.

There was basically a war between Christianity and Paganism. The Medieval Church characterized paganism as demonic witchcraft that worshipped Satan and sough to destroy Christianity.

The Devil Made Them Do It

By the 9th century C.E., the Roman Catholic Church had consolidated its power over much of Europe and the pagans residing there. The control is credited with bringing scientific development and social enlightenment to a grinding halt.

However, the so-called Dark Ages were not all that "dark". While later voices worked at painting the previous period as darker than it actually was, the prime era of witch burning was from 1450 to 1750- the height of the Renaissance and the early years of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."

The Black Plague

Starting in the 14th century, the bubonic plague, the Black Plague, was killing people like flies. It first appeared in 1313 and ravaged Europe until 1375, during which it killed fully one-third of the population. But the lengthy period of poor weather devastated food production, causing starvation and weakening of human immune systems. Thus, there continued to be outbreaks of the plague over the next 300 years.

Rats carry the organism causing this painful and deadly condition, the Black Plague. The Plague is marked by large, black, painful, pus-filled masses called buboes, often found in the groin or armpits. These buboes were actually enormously swollen lymph nodes. The inflamed lymph nodes were extremely painful and could break through the skin and become an oozing mass. Death commonly occurred in three days.

With these kinds of symptoms, it is no wonder the populace was desperate to find out the cause and to try and prevent and/or cure the Black Plague.

Ergot Poisoning

The cooler climate of the Little Ice Age both decreased the amount of the grain harvest and promoted fungal growth, or ergot. Ergot is a fungus that affects rye, barley and other grains. Grain stored under cool, damp conditions can develop a fungus known as ergot blight. The ergot alkaloids vary in kind and amount depending on the climate and location where the grain is grown.

Because of their vasoconstrictor properties, ergot alkaloids were used by midwives in the Middle Ages to stem postpartum bleeding. The midwives were wise to using the proper dosage to avoid the potentially dangerous side effects associated with ergot poisoning.

This ergot fungus also contains chemicals very similar to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), the psychedelic drug. When these psychotropic fungi were unknowingly consumed, such as by eating bread tainted with the ergot fungus, it caused wild and unsettling hallucinations.

The cool, wet summers of the Little Ice Age contributed to numerous outbreaks of ergot poisoning throughout Europe. In those times, small villages were often served by only one or two bakeries. Eating bread accidentally, or in some cases purposely, made with ergot-afflicted rye, could cause ergot poisoning throughout a small community. This caused many who ate the bread to have hallucinations with no idea of the source of these visions.

Not only could those afflicted with ergot poisoning suffer troubling hallucinations, but because ergot is a vasoconstrictor, the decreased blood flow and lack of oxygen to tissue causes fiery pain. Ergot poisoning also causes extreme muscle spasms, which result in uncontrollable movements referred to as "the St. Vitus Dance." In some cases, blood flow was so compromised for so long the prolonged lack of oxygen caused arms and legs to become gangrenous. The gangrene could require amputations and even cause death. These were all symptoms of what was called "St. Anthony's Fire." St. Anthony was appealed to because he had allegedly vanquished the Devil, so it was felt this was something he could handle.

Someone or Something Must Be Responsible: Witches

The denizens of the Middle Ages were faced with several concurrent negative phenomena: enormous weather changes, rapidly spreading illnesses among previously healthy people, the stress of starvation, and inexplicable hallucinations-none of which had "rational" explanations. These forces had enormous psychological consequences, including great pessimism, fear, gross sensuality, flagellantism, divisiveness and religious fervor.

There needed to be an explanation. Ignorance and fear provided motivation to find someone or some force to blame. Many blamed the Jews. Thousands of Jews were murdered in medieval times for their presumed role in causing the Black Plague. But weather-making was an ability traditionally ascribed to witches, so much of the blame was laid on the Devil and his cohorts-the women accused of being witches.

So in the late 14th and 15th centuries, it came to pass that male inhabitants of what is now Europe believed the poor weather was caused by a great witch conspiracy. Extensive witch hunts took place during the most severe years of the Little Ice Age, as people looked for scapegoats to blame for their suffering.

During the midst of a seven-year drought in 15th century England, a large conclave composed of the landed gentry, clergy and the nobility met to decide what to do about the declining food supply.

Should they irrigate? Should they ration food? They concluded a plague should be called down on the poor. Their prayers were answered. The plague being what it is, within a year more than one-third of the attendees were dead.

The search for scapegoats to explain these disturbing social changes and the inexplicable and equally disturbing weather, health and perceptual distortion phenomena was an important factor leading to the rise in accusations of sorcery. Because of torture and other tactics, these accusations inevitably led to persecution and prosecution. To be accused of being a witch became a self-fulfilling prophecy that a person was a witch.

Modern Madness

Today, society is more sophisticated. But, as many have noticed, U.S. drug policy enforcement methods are suspect and the results of American drug laws are cruel.

In medieval times, witch accusers could get some of the assets of the accused, which is similar to modern day forfeiture laws. The possibility of financial gain for the government through forfeiture is as seductive an inducement to stretch the truth today as it was in the witch hunting days of yore.

Such forfeiture laws are draconian and should shake all fair-minded Americans to their core. So too, should the appalling horror stories of ten years in jail for possession of one joint.

Forfeiture and extreme sentences have been applied against ordinary citizens. This is a form of modern madness, just as the witch hunts of the 15th through 18th centuries are a testament to humankind gone mad. The witch hunters of medieval times had excuses too. Starvation, rampant disease and changes in weather can do that to people.

Thoughts of forfeited bounty and some boasting glory can motivate law enforcement to find real or imagined drug kingpins, modern witches. And Christianity, with its worldview, was a significant contributory cause of this bloodbath. Approbation of witches is clear in the Bible. The New Testament has Paul's denunciation of witchcraft and, of course, King James added his "get the witch" touch in the King James Bible.

In 1484, the Pope not only labeled cannabis "an unholy sacrament" of satanic masses but he banned its use as a medicine. In his 2002 essay, "Witch Hunt and the War on Weed", Reverend Damuzi states, "what was once a religious war against plant-using pagans [has] evolved into the secular drug war of our current age." Damuzi continued that this demonization is "still fulfilling all of the same social functions as its predecessor, but now justified by "logic" instead of "religion."

Make no mistake; the Malleus Maleficarum was a misogynist document. It condemned women as being imperfect humans and responsible for original sin. This was offered to explain why "a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men." And it certainly fingered women healers and midwives as being in the company of witches. In some locales, witches were accused of not healing people, "but only seem to do so by ceasing to injure them."

The Malleus Maleficarum stated, "No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils."

Midwives' traditional practices were in conflict with teachings of the Catholic Church. Midwives used herbs, provided contraception, procured abortions and gave pain relief during childbirth. So some, but by no means all, who were accused of being witches were midwives.

There are many theories about why certain people were accused of witchcraft, including the view the witch hunts were just the ultimate power play by men. On balance it appears modern feminist interpretations may emphasize only one aspect of historical accounts, but they certainly catch the mean, irrational spirit of those literal witch hunting times.

Today's substance policy is often called a witch hunt. This contemporary witch hunt shares with its medieval predecessor a lack of respect for science or truth, irrationality, demonization and focus on "them". The effort of modern drug-policy warriors to avoid responsibility and change the topic, very closely resembles the witch hunting mentality of the Middle Ages.

This is an abridged excerpt from Drugs Are Not the Devil’s : How Discrimination and Greed Created Dysfunctional Drug Policy and How it Can Be Fixed. The two-volume first edition is currently available for purchase now and the single-volume second edition will be available in November 2017. To learn more or request a press copy for please contact Dr. Bearman’s office.

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