The belief in magic and sorcery and its practice has been intertwined through human culture and history from the beginning. It was only in the late Middle Ages, around 1350, when Catholicism began to spread that witches were declared workers of Satan. As the Inquisition began to fade, the witch-hunts began. People turned their religious hatred towards these “witches” who were usually simple herbalists or elderly peasant women that lived on the outskirts of towns. Soon the hysteria escalated to the point where a person could be convicted simply from an accusation. The person was then tortured until he or she confessed to the alleged crimes. Even if a witch confessed immediately, she was still tortured because without torture the confession was viewed as untrustworthy. Regardless of this well know fact, a puzzling trend developed. Several of the witches continued to confess prior to torture and seemed to fervently believe they had committed wild crimes such as sex with demons, flying on broomsticks, baby eating, and more.
The most likely reason for this is a group of chemical compounds called alkaloids that come from plants and contain at least one nitrogen atom which is normally part of a carbon ring. Alkaloids are known for their affects on the central nervous system of humans. They are usually very toxic and create varying physiological phenomena which, if taken in small doses, are often desired by humans. The most common alkaloids witches used in their “flying salves” were hyoscyamine and hyoscine. These compounds are not very soluble and too toxic to be taken orally so witches dissolved them in fats and oils. This created the slaves which were ointments applied to the skin for a more gradual effect on the central nervous system through transdermal means and the desired sensations lasted for a few hours. After this, the women believed they had actually experienced their bizarre hallucinations and therefore, confessed fully when accused. Still today powerful hallucinatory alkaloids are used, one of them being coca, which is found in cocaine. Despite its devastating history, cocaine has led to the development of several anesthetics such as novacaine.
A different group of alkaloids also had a hand in the deaths of thousands of innocent women. These are the ergot alkaloids which are found in the ergot fungus. This fungus grows on grain that is stored in damp conditions. When famine struck villages, they ate the infected grain rather than starve. The ergot alkaloids caused ergotism when ingested. This terrible disease could include a range of horrible symptoms like seizures and hallucinations depending on the particular alkaloid consumed. Eventually, the victim died of gangrene caused by the lack of circulation from the ergotism. Entire villages were struck with this disease due to the fact that most villagers ate the same grain and flour. Only those too poor to buy flour were spared. These people tended to be the isolated old women previously mentioned. Erogot poisoning is attributed to the cause of hundreds of deaths during the Salem witch trials in 1692. Ergot alkaloids all come from the molecule called lysergic acid. Another derivative is lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD.
Obviously, the belief in witchcraft is far from rampant in the modern world, and herbalists are highly valued for their priceless knowledge. The witch hunts highlight our desire as humans to focus our anger and energy on people we can punish. We look for others to blame and ways to distract ourselves from our own miserable lives. In terrible times like some following the Middle Ages people derived their only pleasure from punishing others and simultaneously making themselves feel more righteous. The authors suggest that the superstitions surrounding women in general during this time period lingered far after and may still influence some prejudice against women. While this is an arguable point, I believe witches were viewed as powerful, independent, and capable. This could have lead to fear and hate in men at the time, but I do not believe it is at all a source of chauvinism today.