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  • Writer's picturePhoebe Hildegard

Nachtschade: Flying Ointments and Underworld Delight


I hope that things are beginning to move for you. And if you’re finding that things in the phenomenal world beyond your fingertips aren’t yet moving fast enough for your liking, just wait. The great snowglobe always gets reshuffled. Today I’m happy to share with you that I’ve listed some of this year’s Flying Ointments in my shop. I make them every year in winter and I say this not to brag, but truly as a warning, this is the strongest batch I have ever made. So do exercise caution if you feel called to give these a try.

An altar to Atropos, one of the three Fates who severs the cord of mortal lives. Could she also sever the living from their illusions? Bright green ointments seem to reflect the light with their feral intensity.
Homemade salves with the sorcerous nightshade herbs Datura Inoxia and Atropa Belladonna

These plants have certainly made their mark on post-wicca witchcraft revivals and rightly so. Their use is traditional and potent. The use of flying ointment offers us a true link to practices of spiritual flight undertaken by many of our ancestors, truly globally and not just in the witch trials where these plants became infamous. (Search out, for instance, the use of datura in Burmese sorcery, or the cultus around latua pubiflora "the sorcerer's tree" in Chile.) Perhaps you know all about these, my dear reader. But for those who may not, allow me to give a brief introduction and even to wax poetic about some aspects of these famous magical herbs which you may not have considered.

Atropa Belladonna in full flower. Bright and warm green leaves contrast with cool purple bell-like flowers. She is resplendent in her vegetal ferocity.
Atropa Belladonna in flower. From my garden last year.

The nightshade family includes innocent plants like the petunia and the bell pepper, yet it also earns its name of nightshade in poison sacraments like the Belladonna and Datura used in this salve. The feeling of communing with these plants, and to a lesser extent with the equally famous Henbane and Mandragora, is certainly a chthonic one. When seeing these plants in the flesh or when under their influence it’s easy to understand why they have been associated with the dead and the underworld in many cultures across the globe.

And to be clear, yes, these plants can be injurious. In high doses they can absolutely cause paralysis and death and so they absolutely must be approached with respect. These are not plants to use lightly. Yet their use is traditional, widespread, and long-lived. Yes, these are associated with sorcery, poison power, and wild magic, not just in old europe but also in present day South America, and nearly everywhere else they grow wild. Take, for instance, the use of Datura flowers in Hindu offerings to Lord Shiva.

On the left, an image of Lord Shiva with crescent moon and serpent. On the right, the seed pod of Datura Stramonium, covered with inch long spines.
Spiky Datura fruits and Velvety Datura flowers are offered to Shiva in recognition of the teaching about his drinking of the dangerous Halahala poison, when Datura flowers are said to have bloomed from his chest

These nightshades also have a longstanding place in medicine. Indeed, one of my closest friends takes a tin of my flying ointment every year, not to commune with any spirits or gods, nor to leave her body in ecstatic flight, but to soothe the pain of her degenerative arthritis. When the pain of this ancestral disease overwhelms her and she cannot sleep, she uses my ointments and gets relief.

A package of OTC medicine labeled "Belladonna Plaster".
An OTC preparation of Belladonna for external use to relieve aches and pains, sold in the UK.

Outside of herbalist practices, extracts from these plants are still used daily in hospital settings, as anesthetics and anti-spasmodic agents even in modern “western” countries. Last year when I was put under for an operation, I was given scopolamine, which is one of the alkaloids present in both Datura and Belladonna.

There is one more aspect of the nightshades I’d like to discuss here. There is an underrated beauty to these plants, a deeply Venusian side that I feel is very underexplored. It should be obvious to us given the name Belladonna, which is Italian for “beautiful woman”, and the oft-repeated uses of that plant in cosmetics, love magic, and magic performed by women to become more beautiful and alluring. But this quality is present to varying degrees in Datura and Mandragora as well, indeed in many of the more potent members of the nightshade family.

Perhaps it is our own natural morbidity or fear of death that causes us to focus solely on the Saturnine darkness of these nightshades. In my own work with them I have found this creative, sensual, Venus aspect to be just as pronounced. I was pleased to see this side of them explored in the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), a French lesbian love story that includes a totally unexpected appearance of flying ointment, in which it is applied during a scene of tender sweetness between the two lovers.

Movie poster for "Portrait of a Lady on Fire". A french caucasian woman looks dissastisfied as the hem of her dress catches fire. Speaking as a lipstick lesbian, why are lesbian movies always so dramatic?
I’ll never understand why every lesbian movie is a tragic slow-burn, and why culture (both mass straight culture and queer subculture) seems to be so enamored with dyke drama and so afraid of dyke joy. But this movie does feature a really beautiful example of the use of nightshade ointments in a loving erotic context.

If you’d like to learn more about the nightshades, I have a recording of my (extensive) lecture about my work with them posted for sale on my site here. It covers folklore, magic, medicine and growing techniques.

Otherwise I’m reading tarot for clients, continuing to give my deeper magical consultations (which are really the heart of the work!) and making time to mind my own path.

Let’s have some links and close out for now. -Here is a very short but rather profound video about the reason Shiva is offered Datura flowers. I’d go so far as to say this is also a main reason why many people of many various traditions work with Datura.

-Chas S. Clifton’s classic article on nightshades and witchcraft revivals, If Witches No Longer Fly, is available to read in full here. -Here is a trailer for the classic psychedelic anime film Belladonna of Sadness (1973). You can find the full film in several places online, just be aware its not for the faint of heart. So beautiful though. -And then here is the nightshade queen herself, Sarah Anne Lawless, speaking in depth about these plants.


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