It was believed in medieval times that the wonders performed by witches such as changing themselves into animals or being transported through the air (i.e., transvection ) were accomplished by anointing themselves with a potent salve. As ointments had been used in the ancient world as a means of inducing visions, many believe that a similar ointment may account for the hallucinations the witches may have experienced.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, a trial was held near Bern, Switzerland, where the accused were said to have drained the juices of stolen children to make an ointment for flying. The Witches Hammer stated that the flying ointment was made "at the devil's instruction" from "the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism." Francis Bacon stated: "The ointment, that witches use, is reported to be made of the fat of children, digged out of their graves; of the juices of smallage, wolfebane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat: but I suppose that the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it, which are hen-bane, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, tobacco, opium, saffron, poplar leaves, etc."
Other recipes that have been handed down as flying ointments for witches include the following: 1) Parsley, water of aconite, poplar leaves and soot 2) Water parsnip, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat's blood, deadly nightshade and oil 3) Baby's fat, juice of water parsnip, aconite, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade and soot.
It should be noted that such poisonous drugs as aconite, hemlock, and belladonna, absorbed through the skin, would probably cause mental confusion, dizziness, irregular heart action, and shortness of breath. These effects might give the sensation of flying through the air, although witchcraft authorities during the great witch hunts have claimed that witches did actually travel in the air.
Krammer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Male-ficarum (Witches Hammer). Translated by Montague Summers, 1928. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959.