Book Review: The Witches’ Ointment – The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic

Title: The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic
Author: Thomas Hatsis
Rhizome Rating: 
4 out of 5

The Witches’ Ointment is a topical book I’ve been hoping someone would write for a very long time. I was apprehensive with my wait because I was hoping that someone would write it with both a solid, scholarly approach as well as a sincere interest in the occult lore of flying ointments and their importance in folkloric witchcraft. I’m glad to report that The Witches’ Ointment  by Thomas Hatsis is a book that’s filled that criteria.

This book presents just about everything one might want in a book about the notorious witch’s flying ointment. Poison, politics, romance, folklore, terror, and persecution are all elements present. The style of the book is narrative and relies on historical storytelling to cultivate a visceral feel for what life may have been like for ointment crafters and the people who sought them out. Each chapter focuses on different types of ointments throughout different parts of the world and times in history. Learning about the love potions of central Greece and the lethal liquids of the southeastern French countryside contribute to the global emphasis placed on the idea of supernatural and psychedelic infusions.

While many modern witches are familiar with the idea of the ointment as originating from the British Isles through witch-trial records, Hatsis weaves together a more complete story of the unguent. He showcases its importance in magical folklore throughout the centuries. This is a refreshing deep-dive approach into a topic that’s often left at the doorstep of modern herbal folklorists. A scholarly curiosity is required to prod further into what is truly a vast subject matter.

One of the reasons this work shines is Hatsis’ confidence in compiling many different stories of the salves without forcing a thesis on any central connection they may share across the world. This is important in an area like scholarly witchcraft where many authors search too hard to find common threads in what is really a whole other cloth. The fascinating lore of the ointments stands on its own here, giving respect to the myriad cultures that host it.

The only reason I can find to give the title four rhizomes instead of five is the sometimes lengthy detours taken from the topic. While many of the asides to the tales are worthwhile to give a sense of story and history, some sections steered too far away from the subject matter for me. It might be challenging to hold your attention. Nevertheless, every chapter is worthwhile and intriguing, all leading to deeper insight in a topic that’s typically only approached at a surface level.

The Witches’ Ointment is an important work for readers interested in a wide variety of subjects. The witches among us will appreciate the scholarly treatment to what is usually considered a fringe topic in the Craft. Readers interested in psychedelic plants will be hooked by ancient stories of mixtures that stir the senses and bend the mind. Even secular botanists can’t help but become enamored with learning about the many ways in which our ancestors used roots, leaves, and stems to shift their consciousness and experience the world in a new way.

The book didn’t seem to create much of a stir within the world of pagan literature, but I feel that has more to do with marketing and says nothing about the quality of the book, which is entirely worthy of a spot in the herbalism section of my personal library.

The Witches’ Ointment is available for purchase at Inner Traditions and through many book retailers online.



About the Author

David Salisbury is a queer vegan witch and author of several books on witchcraft and the mystic arts. He lives in Washington DC where he works to co-facilitate The Firefly House, an open pagan organization for the area. He enjoys growing poisonous plants and eating cake (though usually not at the same time).

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