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  • Vision Quest #3: Witch Lotions June 10, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback


    An interesting witch case from fourteenth-century Italy with hints of hallucinogens. The following passages appear in the work of Bernard of Siena (aka Bernardino, and Bernardine) (obit 1444). This, btw, is before the witch craze really catches fire. It has several curious features.

    I having preached of these charms and of witches and of sorceries, it seemed to them as if I dreamed all this of which I spoke. Finally it came into my mind to say that whatsoever person knowing a man or a woman who he knew did any such things as these, if he did not accuse them would himself be guilty of the selfsame sin. And after I had preached, there was accused a multitude of witches and enchanters. And because of the very great number of those accused, there came to me the guardian, and said to me: Know you not that one and all are going to the flames? I ask him: What then? What is this, what is this? A great number of men and women have been accused. Finally, seeing how the matter stood, he took counsel with the Pope, and it was determined that the most important of these women should be taken into custody, that is to say those who had done worst.

    Bernard seems to have got his own little witchcraze going in Rome then. There is one particularly interesting instance: the kind that fascinates modern witchcraft scholars. This woman confessed without any pressure. Was she a fantasist? Was she suicidal? Was she – whisper it – a witch?

    And there was taken among others one who told and confessed, without being put to torture, that she had killed thirty children or thereabouts, by sucking their blood; and she said also that she had let sixty go free; and she said that every time she let one of them go free she must sacrifice a limb to the devil, and she used to offer the limb of an animal; and she had continued for a long time doing in this wise. And yet more she confessed, saying that she had killed her own little son, and had made a powder of him, which she gave people to eat in these practices of hers.

    So a serial killer. But read between the lines. Is it possible that the children that went free were cured? The limbs of the animals were a term of substitution. As to her own son… The authorities interestingly went looking for proof. A century or two centuries later they wouldn’t have worried about that kind of a detail.

    And because it seemed be yond belief that any creature could have done so many wicked things, they wished to prove whether this was indeed true. Finally it was asked of her whom she had killed. She told who these were, and whose children they were, and in what way, and when she had killed them. And going thither they sought the proof from the father of those children who had been killed. Hadst thou ever a little son, who at such a time began to pine away, and then died? Finally, since he replied that this was so, and since the day and the hour and the manner in which this had come to pass all agreed, so it was shown to be nor more nor less than as she said.

    Are we to imagine a shyster-shaman-witch who went around the city collecting cases of dying children? Not any less interesting is the final passage where the witch describes a lotion that she created.

    And she told how she used to go before dawn up into the Piazza of Saint Peter’s, and there she had certain jars of unguents made of herbs which were gathered on the feast of Saint John, and on the feast of the Ascension. Thou knowest this, thou dost comprehend me? Art thou here present? Are there here perchance as well even some of those cursed ones who are in league with the devil? Finally these came into my hands, and when I put them to ray nose, they stank with so foul a stench that they seemed in truth to be of the devil, as they were. Arid they said that with these they anointed themselves, and when they were anointed in this way they seemed to be cats, and it was not so, for their bodies did not change into another form, but it seemed to them that they did. At length she was condemned to be burned at the stake, and was burned, so that nothing of her remained but her ashes.

    Bernard says (and by the way this is a sermon) that the women believed that they changed into cats when they placed this lotion on their bodies. He says that they did not. Beach would kill to know whether he deduced this from theology and his version of natural science or whether he had this stuff rubbed into some poor innocent. So what was the lotion? Are we dealing with an early modern hallucinogenic, a witch vision quest? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com If so what kind of drug could enter the skin in this way. Note that the ancient witches supposedly put a lotion on their bodies before becoming animals.