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Babyfat and Belladonna: Witches’ Ointment and the Contestation of Reality

Babyfat and Belladonna: Witches’ Ointment and the Contestation of Reality ABSTRACT: This article explores a historiographic irony: in the early modern period, those who doubted the reality of witches’ flight posited an ointment of soporific herbs (especially nightshades) to explain witches’ flight: with transvection thus explained away as the effect of phytochemicals, alleged witches must be innocent. In contrast, those who believed in the real crime of witchcraft insisted that the devil caused bodily flight, while the ointment (composed of the rendered fat of murdered babies), provided a concrete symbol of their depravity. In contemporary (20th-21st century) historiography, these positions are reversed. Most historians treat the ointment as an elite slander, while many of those who wish to assert the reality of the practice of witchcraft turn to the ointment as a scientifically explicable hallucinogenic “trip.” After demonstrating that we have no evidence that any accused witch ever used a hallucinogenic ointment, the article reflects on the continued deployment of this trope to defend reductionist models of history and of human agency. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft University of Pennsylvania Press

Babyfat and Belladonna: Witches’ Ointment and the Contestation of Reality

Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft , Volume 11 (1) – Jun 16, 2016

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Publisher
University of Pennsylvania Press
Copyright
The University of Pennsylvania Press
ISSN
1940-5111
Publisher site
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Abstract

ABSTRACT: This article explores a historiographic irony: in the early modern period, those who doubted the reality of witches’ flight posited an ointment of soporific herbs (especially nightshades) to explain witches’ flight: with transvection thus explained away as the effect of phytochemicals, alleged witches must be innocent. In contrast, those who believed in the real crime of witchcraft insisted that the devil caused bodily flight, while the ointment (composed of the rendered fat of murdered babies), provided a concrete symbol of their depravity. In contemporary (20th-21st century) historiography, these positions are reversed. Most historians treat the ointment as an elite slander, while many of those who wish to assert the reality of the practice of witchcraft turn to the ointment as a scientifically explicable hallucinogenic “trip.” After demonstrating that we have no evidence that any accused witch ever used a hallucinogenic ointment, the article reflects on the continued deployment of this trope to defend reductionist models of history and of human agency.

Journal

Magic, Ritual, and WitchcraftUniversity of Pennsylvania Press

Published: Jun 16, 2016

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