I just finished reading Thomas Hatsis’ new work, The Witches’ Ointment, which is the first book-length treatise on the legend and practice (such as it is) of the “flying ointment” said to be made out of a variety of dangerous or questionable substances.
I consider the book to have aspects that are beyond my capacity to judge, including pharmaceutical and historical, so I’ll pass over them here. I do want to address one aspect of the book on which I’ve written previously.
One of the authorities Hatsis is particularly intent on taking seriously is Abraham of Worms, the purported author of the Book of Abramelin the Mage. In his first book, Abraham speaks of meeting a young woman near Lintz (likely Linz, in Austria) who shared with him an ointment that caused him to believe that he went on a magical flying journey. Upon putting her to the test, however, he later dismissed the experience as a delusion. I’ve talked about it before, and you can read Mathers’ version of the tale here.
Now, our earliest manuscript of Abramelin dates to 1608. This raises some questions as to whether it was written close to that date, or closer to the date of 1458 given in the manuscript. I think Georg Dehn opts for the work being written by an actual historical figure at the time. I forebear judgment for the time being, given that it would be easy to simply take a legendary figure and write a book that is supposedly his work. I don’t insist that it dates to 1608, but I don’t have enough evidence to bring its authorship back further. After all, historical accuracy was not necessary a primary (or even a tertiary) concern of people writing magical books.
Hatsis’ trouble is that he is dead set on Abraham of Worms being a figure who definitely did write the Book of Abramelin, and thus had the experience in Linz that is mentioned therein. He tells us that “[b]ecause the account is so damaging to the skeptic’s argument it has been either dismissed or ignored or explained as a later forgery.”
It’s not clear where these skeptical rebuttals regarding Abramelin and witch’s ointment have appeared, but we’ll pass over that for now. Hatsis pushes his argument further:
…it would have been dangerous – nay, downright foolish – if, at the height of the witch trials (the time that modern skeptics say the story originated), Abraham, a Jewish mystic, would essentially admit to engaging in witchcraft. So it makes more sense historically to date Abraham’s account to the time when such practices weren’t considered diabolical witchcraft at all…
According to Hatsis, Abraham’s account pertains to an earlier time, before the 1420s, in which the use of such substances was seen as perhaps improper, but not in and of itself demonic.
The problem here is context.
If you read to the end of the passage to which I link above in Mathers’ edition, you’ll know that the sorceress admits at the end that she got the ointment from the Devil. What makes this difficult is that Dehn’s translation – which is generally more accurate – states that it is the “Greek art,” described in the story after that of the witch of Linz, that is a demonic mixture. The version of Peter Hammer’s German work that I have available suggests that this pertains to the witch’s story.
I believe that, before Abramelin can be used as a source here, this particular reading of the original manuscripts needs to be teased out. If this is part of the story, Abramelin is not only discussing a flying ointment, but also endorsing a view that it has a diabolic origin – which means that Hatsis’ argument that it was written before that view collapses.
Speaking of diabolical involvement, what else might you avoid putting in a document if you wanted to avoid getting in trouble with authorities obsessed with demonic conspiracies? How about a procedure for summoning Lucifer, Leviathan, Satan, and Belial, and all their subsidiaries, such as the one Abraham provides? It’s safe to say that whomever wrote Abramelin did not consider being hauled in front of the magistrate to be a major concern.
A more plausible narrative emerges if we consider Abramelin to have been written much closer to 1608. By that time, a number of supposed eyewitness accounts had circulated of people under the effects of the ointment, on which our author could have drawn. Also, by this time the practice would have been considered wholly demonic, which fits with the narrative of that section.
This is not the only problematic aspect of Abramelin’s use, On the following page, Hatsis states that by the 1420s “the ointments contained plant-based psychoactive medical drugs as noted by Alonso Tostado and Abraham of Worms.”
As it turns out, however, Abraham mentions the ointment, but not anything regarding its contents. As a bonus, Alonso Tostado also fails to mention any such ingredients, instead simply speaking of a mixture that made a woman believe that she was joining a company for food and sex, which made her insensible to pain while in effect.
One could make the hypothesis that the most likely content of such ointments was indeed plant-based psychoactive medical drugs, but neither passage says this. This could be a simple misunderstanding, as Hatsis’ accounts of both authors earlier in the book does not say this, but I think an unwary reader could be led astray by this passage.
In short, although this book was quite informative, I feel that the link to Abramelin is presented more conclusively than it should be without a closer examination of the evidence. In addition, a person who reads it to find out about Abramelin and its links to psychotropic substances may wish to consult that book more closely.