Day 72-Witches and Medicine

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img_0540In the “spirit” of the season, I thought I’d share some information I read today while researching a story for The Weekly Knob  a publication on Medium.

Did you know that modern medicine may have witches to thank for giving them the cures to many of today’s ailments? Instead of the fabled sorcery they were accused of, most of these women were actually concocting various tinctures, potions and other folk remedies.

One of the most popular examples of witchcraft’s influence on today’s medicine comes from the so called “flying ointments” made from psychotropic plant compounds, which were known to cause hallucinations and delirium. At lower doses, one of these compounds called hycosine was used as an anesthetic.

The “witches” found that by applying the salves they made from some of these plants like hemlock, mandrake and henbane through sweat ducts such as armpits or even the gentitalia, it  kept them from being poisonous and gave them the effects without the danger. This may explain the link with witches “flying” on broomsticks-that was the delivery method used to apply the ointment to their nether regions, they greased the broomstick and slid it between their legs. Since they then experienced an altered state of mind, or hallucinated, it may have given them the illusion of flying.

Today, hycosine is a common motion sickness treatment which goes by a different name, scopolamine.

Most of the people accused of being witches back in medieval Europe were really mid-wives or medical practitioners who got a bad rap since women were prohibited from formal training. They were very close to nature and knowledgable about the plants and what they could do, so they used them frequently in their potions and lotions.

One of the deadly nightshades, belladonna, later was developed into atropine, a muscle relaxer and the antidote for nerve gas poisoning. The tropane alkaloids found in these and other herbs like henbane and mandrake became the chemical backbone in all of our modern drug design and one such drug, haloperidol is one of the more noted anti-psychotic medications.

Some of the ingredients used by these so-called witches are probably found in most of our homes under different names today. Willow bark was used to treat inflammation, it later morphed into salicin which is more commonly known as aspirin. Garlic, a natural cure all back then, now has been developed into medicine to inhibit blood clotting.

The purple Foxglove has been linked to the cure for heart disease and after further investigation by William Withering, a Scottish doctor from the 16th century, tracked down the gypsy woman who had prescribed one of her potions to a patient with dropsy, realized that the potion contained foxglove, he tested various forms on a few hundred heart patients and discovered it was effective and used the compounds to develop the modern heart drugs digitoxin and digoxin.

Purple foxglove
Purple foxglove

So, while witches don’t really fly on broomsticks, their home remedies should be counted more than just hocus pocus! Interesting story and imagery though, don’t you agree?  By the way, you all will be the first to know if my story (not yet finished) gets published in The Weekly Knob.