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St. John USVI Stories: The Witch

Datura Stories

There is a strong connection between joy juice and the familiar fairy tale image of a cackling witch in a black dress and pointed hat, stirring a bubbling cauldron and then flying off into the night sky, riding on a broomstick. Joy juice, whose botanical name is datura, is found in many parts of the world including St. John, where it grows wild in disturbed soil, on beaches and along roadsides.

Witches are commonly believed to be worshipers or followers of the Devil. This is not correct. They are in fact practitioners of an ancient religion that predates Christianity in Europe. It was a matriarchal religion based on the Earth, the cycles of the sun, the moon and the stars, the weather and on the nature of plants and animals.

With the establishment of Christianity in Europe, followers of this religion were declared heretics and Satan worshippers. They were persecuted, harassed, and sometimes tortured and burned alive for their beliefs. As such, they separated themselves from ordinary society and usually practiced their rituals and occult arts in secret.

The priests and priestesses of this religion, like the shamans of the Americas, often used psychoactive plants to search for inner wisdom, to divine the future or to find answers to life's riddles and questions.

One of the hallucinogenic potions used by the so-called witches was a concoction called the flying ointment. It was a brew made from the so-called "hexing herbs," one of which was joy juice or datura. Other hexing herbs included belladonna, mandrake, henbane and hemlock. Opium was also said to be included in the concoction.

The ingredients were boiled down in fat. It is very likely that the familiar cauldron from the witch image was used for the boiling process and also that the witch used a handy item such as her broomstick to stir the bubbling brew. Opponents of witchcraft have alleged that the fat used in the cauldron was that of an unbabtized stillborn child, but it is much more likely that lard or other animal fat was used for this purpose.

Joy juice or datura contains chemicals that are extremely toxic and dangerous. In non-lethal doses, however, they cause amnesia, delirium, delusions and hallucinations. Datura intoxication is such that the user characteristically does not remember taking a drug and finds it impossible to distinguish hallucination and delusion from reality. Thus the witch applying the flying ointment would truly believe that she was flying and experience the episode in minute detail.

In the 16th Century, Giovanni Porta, a colleague of Galileo, was witness to and documented the ritual, "…she stripped off all her rags and rubbed herself very thoroughly and heartily with some ointment (she was visible to us through the cracks of the door). Then she sank down form the force of the soporific juices and fell into a deep sleep. We then opened the doors and gave her quite a flogging; the force of her stupor was so great that it had taken away her senses. We returned to our place outside. Then the powers of the drug grew weak and feeble and she, called from her sleep, began to babble that she had crossed seas and mountains to fetch these false answers. We denied; she insisted; we showed her the black-and-blue marks; she insisted more tenaciously than before."

The witches had discovered that the potion was less toxic if absorbed through the skin then if ingested orally, thus the use of a salve instead of a tea. According to popular lore and to the documented testimony of both witnesses to the ritual and of witches themselves, the same broomstick that was used for stirring was also used to apply the flying ointment to the mucous membranes of the vagina, where it would be readily absorbed.

All this, the poisonous hallucinogenic herbs, bubbling cauldrons in secret places, tales of human beings flying like birds, and broomsticks used in unorthodox ways, must certainly have aroused the prurient interest of the public, creating powerful and indelible images.

To this very day in Europe or the Americas, that image of the old witch soaring through the heavens aboard her trusty broom has remained and become a veritable cultural icon.

By Gerald Singer