Witch hunts and the war on weed

During Europe’s dark ages, pagan herbalists and witches ? mostly women ? used cannabis in their ointments and cures. During a time when illness was equated with evil, these pagans attracted a devout following for their miraculous healing lore. The Catholic Church, threatened by the resurgence of ancient religions and by forms of medicine that challenged their exclusive right to perform healings, gruesomely tortured these women to extract confessions of supposedly satanic allegiance, and then burned them to death in public forums.
Weedy witches

Around 1000 AD, in festivals celebrating the love goddess Ostara, Easter bunnies were killed and consumed during orgiastic pagan festivals that involved cannabis. Such are the findings of Dr Christian R?tsch, after studying libraries of ancient German texts. “[Ostara’s] sacred animals, the hares, would be sacrificed and eaten in a communal meal?” he wrote in his book, Marijuana Medicine. “It [was]best washed down with a good hemp beer. Unfortunately, the Bacchanalian orgies that followed? fell victim to the Christian Liturgy.”

The name of the Christian holiday “Easter” is derived from the name of the Goddess Ostara, whose popular festival was celebrated in the Spring at the same time as Easter today. Christians feeding their children chocolate rabbits at Easter might be horrified to know that the Easter Bunny is really the Ostara Hare ? that they are feeding their children the placebo sacrament of a heathen cult that used cannabis.

In fact, cannabis was a common feature of pagan fertility celebrations in the first 1000 years AD. Like Ostara, the love goddesses Freya and Venus were also often worshipped with cannabis offerings.

Cannabis was one of the many psychedelic ingredients in the legendary flying ointment of medieval witches, which was known to induce visions. The ingredients were heated in oil, which was then applied to a broomstick and inserted into the vagina during a masturbatory ritual.1 Gallic druids (Holy men of the Gauls) also used cannabis to get high.

Pagan healers, mostly wise women, used cannabis for a number of medicinal benefits. Curiously, some of the earliest evidence of medical-cannabis using pagans comes from the writings of famous Catholic nun and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen of Germany (1098-1179). Hildegard’s self-education included ancient Greek medicine and local pagan folk remedies. From her education with pagan wise women, she learned of cannabis’ healing powers. In her famous work Physia, in an entry titled “Of Hemp”, she writes that “hemp is warm? it is wholesome for healthy people to eat? it can be easily digested, and it diminishes the bad humours and makes the good humours strong.”

Curiously, Hildegard also wrote poetry to the “Green Power,” and had strong visions, similar to Joan of Arc, who was accused of using the psychedelic mandrake plant and then burned as a witch. Hildegard von Bingen’s unprecedented influence on the early German pharmacopoeia ensured that cannabis remedies would eventually become common across Europe ? especially as the terrors of the Black Death crept up from European sewers and into the homes of millions, making the purveyors of mainstream medicine seem like helpless fools.

Aerial attacks in Colombia: fire from the sky.Aerial attacks in Colombia: fire from the sky.The Black Death

The Black Death killed nearly 25 million people in a devastating epidemic that saw bodies littering the streets of every European city. The plague first appeared in Europe in 1313 and blighted the continent until about 1375. Outbreaks continued for the next 300 years.

People tried everything to cure the plague, but nothing seemed to work. The stalwart tried riotous drinking, the clergy advised shouting at the plague to “scare it,” and the wise simply took to the hills. The plague was considered totally incurable by priestly faith-healers and physicians alike. At the same time, it was so contagious and its symptoms so grotesque that it was often difficult to find what little willing help was available. Victims usually died within three days, after suffering unbelievable pain.

In his 1351 Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, a contemporary of Dante and a prolific Italian writer who lived in Florence at the time of the plague, described the excruciating symptoms which included black spots and discolouration over the entire body. “In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or the armpits,” wrote Boccaccio, “some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli.”

Recent dissections of ancient plague victims reveal that the gavoccioli were actually massively swollen lymph nodes, which exploded painfully as the infected person died. Agnolo di Tura of Sienna, who also lived during the times of the plague, wrote that “almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain.”

It is not surprising, then, that the herbal painkiller Unguentum Populeum became increasingly popular while the excruciating Black Death ravaged Europe. In 1991, German researcher Herman de Vries revealed that later recipes for this ointment contained cannabis, a potent analgesic for the internal pains caused by the plague.2

Curiously, as Christian R?tsch notes, the recipe for Unguentum Populeum was exactly the same as that for the flying ointment. The similarity between the flying ointment and the painkiller leads to the conclusion that pagan women were the original source of the popular medicine.

The medieval suppression of herbal medicines like cannabis over other, less effective treatments like bloodletting shockingly reminds us of the war on drugs today, in which multinational
pharmaceutical companies sponsor anti-drug propaganda campaigns against marijuana medicines to give their more dangerous, less effective medicines a competitive advantage.

Demons from Hell

Many believed that the Black Death was eiher a punishment from God sent to inflict suffering upon humankind, or a demon from hell. So imagine the embarrassment of the holy fathers when pagan women ? supposedly agents of Satan ? could combat this and other diseases better than they, using only a handful of hemp and forest plants.

Many women healers were also midwives, as the church believed birthing a child was a sinful act, for which the mother was temporarily excommunicated for 40 days.3 Physicians would not stoop to such a service. Midwives, often pagan healer women, filled the gap made by conventional medicine and often gave mothers cannabis to relieve labour pains.4

Even though the church was second in power only to Jesus Christ, to whom it was theologically married, its priests still could not heal the way her holy husband could. It became the subject of public ridicule.

In 1593, English author George Gifford wrote a short piece titled A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraft, mocking the witch-craze hysteria, and the impotence of the church in the healing arts. One of the characters in Gifford’s work comments that a local wise woman “doeth more good in one year than all these scripture men will do so long as they live?”

Dr Catherine Stolley, an American sociologist, researcher and writer, comments that “The Church and physicians (many from the Catholic elite) were not able to stop the illnesses and deaths brought by the Black Death and the epidemics that followed. Much to the disapproval of the ruling elite in church, state, and medicine, people turned to wise women for help since the Church wasn’t helping them. The Church also perceived this as a challenge to its authority. Although university trained physicians had no better knowledge of controlling illness than these laywomen, the testimony of male doctors was used against many accused witches. Physicians could reputedly tell if an illness was from witchcraft or a biological cause. For example, an illness resulting from witchcraft could not be relieved by drugs.”

Conveniently, this meant that the Black Death itself was frequently blamed on witches? those with the best and most capable healing skills. Rumours spread faster than the plague that these wise women intentionally infected European cities to undermine and destroy Christian kingdoms.5

Ganja burning in Jamaica.Ganja burning in Jamaica.Pope calls pot “satanic”

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII suddenly changed his mind about witches. Until that date, his official position was that they didn’t exist. Now, because of a lengthy papal bull called the Malleus Mallificarum, not only did witches exist, but they were to be persecuted, tortured and killed. Pope Innocent VIII made it well known that witches included midwives and herbalists.

According to Ernest Able, a former scholar of medieval studies at the University of Toronto and author of Marijuana: The First 12,000 Years, Pope Innocent VIII also specifically condemned cannabis in 1484, called the herb “an unholy sacrament” of satanic masses, and banned its use as a medicine. Too bad the pope didn’t have the good sense to burn cannabis in a bowl instead of witches at the stake.

That same year the pope also banned literature, like George Gifford’s, that made fun of the church, saying such works were “a mass of the travesty.” In The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer speculates that these prohibitions were also intended to stop people who were high on cannabis from laughing uncontrollably at the ridiculous excesses of the church.

Possession by sativa

Demonologists ? who sprang up in abundance to combat the sudden scourge of witches after 1484 ? often found cannabis and other psychedelics in the pantries of those they branded “witches.”

In 1615, the Italian physician Giovanni De Ninault, who persecuted witches in his spare time, listed cannabis, belladonna, henbane and hemlock as common ingredients in what was known as “flying ointment” when inserted in the vaginas of witches, and as Unguentum Populeum when used to treat painful maladies. According to De Ninault, these ingredients were carried in hemp seed oil, which would have been an excellent solvent for their mind-expanding and pain-killing alkaloids.

The psychedelic plants mandrake, datura and monkshood were also likely ingredients in the flying ointment and in the medicinal Unguentum Populeum. In fact, just about any psychedelic plant or fungus that might be found in Europe at that time is likely to have been used by herbal loremasters in their brews and ointments.

Charges of possessing such brews and ointments ? even for strictly medicinal purposes ? were grounds to be burned alive. In her factual book The Dark Side of Christian History, author Hellen Ellerbe explains that “The Church included in its definition of witchcraft anyone with knowledge of herbs for ‘those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.'”

It mattered not whether the criminal was an herbalist or a pagan, or whether her intentions were good or evil. The 17th century preacher, college lecturer and writer, William Perkins, who later became known as the father of English Puritanism, epitomized this attitude. “The most horrible and detestable monster,” wrote Perkins, “is the good witch.”

The burning continues: good medicine goes up in smoke.The burning continues: good medicine goes up in smoke.Pagan sex ceremonies

In Aldous Huxley’s 1952 look at the French Inquisition, The Devils of Loudun, he describes how inquisitors and demonologists of the Catholic Church portrayed sacred pagan sabbaths as unholy masses, at which Satan himself was invoked by a priest in a devilish mask, who would bend over to let everyone kiss his ass in preparation for wild orgies.

Huxley, who had yet to become famous for taking psychedelics and writing The Doors of Perception, naively accepted that such satanic masses actually took place, although scholars today largely scoff at the church’s records as attempts to make these celebrations seem dangerous, evil and worthy of relentless persecution.

At the heart of the church’s propaganda was a demonization of the sexual experience, especially the sexual experience of women, often high on aphrodisiacal cannabis potions. Sociologist Catherine Stolley, who researched the witch trials extensively, found that according to the Malleus Mallificarum “all witchcraft came from women’s insatiable carnal lust, expressed by witches’ sexual relations with the devil.”

What pagan-haters called “orgies with the devil” were actually fertility rites to the love goddesses of the various pagan sects across Europe, at which cannabis was used as an aphrodisiac to inspire communal lovemaking. In an interview with Cannabis Culture, entheobotanist Christian R?tsch spoke about the cannabis prohibitions against sexuality embodied by Ostara worship, in which pagans quaffed barrels of psychoactive beer.

“The old Germans were really fond of their beer,” said R?tsch. “But it was brewed by women and these women used all kinds of herbs in the brewing process including hemp and henbane, and these beers were always related to pagan ritual and to fertility and of course to sex an so on. And this whole thing was suppressed by the Catholic Church in the time of the witch hunts, and the Germans passed out a law against brewing beer with any other herbs but hops.”

“There were also some cases from Switzerland in the records of the Inquisition, when locals harvested the cannabis fields. Young women got very high on cannabis fumes and they started to dance naked in the cannabis field to be observed by boys, who were old enough to marry. In the 17th Century, the church called these erotic harvest rituals ‘witches’ sabbaths’ and tried to suppress them.”

In his 1996 book Verboten Lust, Kurt Lussi describes how young female devotees of the Norse love goddess, Freya, would steal away to the cannabis fields at night to make a wreath of hemp, which they would throw onto a tree bough, while being watched by local boys ? an early pagan form of innocent courtship that was captured in the records of the Inquisition as a satanic ritual.

As 1484 drew to a close, and the Pope’s pot prohibition spread across the land, a cloud of sexual oppression and burning flesh rose above Europe.

The evolution of cruelty

We might feel relieved that over the few hundred years following the Inquisition, society became less reliant on tyrannical religious leaders for laws, and more reliant on reason. We endow reason with the power of righteousness and morality, an ideal that was birthed by 17th Century Enlightenment writers like Voltaire. But no matter, human cruelty evolved to survive the death of inhumane superstition, a phenomenon that the modern philosopher Jean Ralston Saul described in his book Voltaire’s Bastards.

Saul explains how “reason” has been used to justify such atrocities as the extermination of Jews in WWII, another dark period in history sometimes fittingly referred to as a “witch hunt”. In The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley hit on this realization as well: “Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number,” he wrote. “In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”

This explains how what was once a religious war against plant-using pagans evolved into the secular drug war of our current age, still fulfilling all of the same social functions as its predecessor, but now justified by “logic” instead of religion.

China`s drug war: public burnings and executions.China`s drug war: public burnings and executions.Today’s medieval laws

The evolvement of the witch hunts into the drug war has resulted in bizarre, modern twists on the ancient theme of human cruelty.

Medieval witch laws and today’s drug laws have more in common than just the persecution of cannabis users. Like modern drug laws, the Malleus Mallificarum empowered officers ? in this case demonologists and exorcists ? with the license to strip search suspects for evidence, entrap their targets, and confiscate the property of those caught growing or selling illegal substances. Popular sentiment about these medieval practices were much the same as today in the US, where asset-forfeiture laws are under attack from a variety of opponents.

In the early 1600’s, an anonymous French critic of the Inquisition wrote a defamatory pamphlet titled Remarques et Consid?rations pour la Justification du Cur? de Loudun: “People say that it is most convenient that the devil should name so many magicians and sorcerers,” he wrote, “for by this means they will be tried, their goods confiscated and shared among the accusers.” Many contemporary men of letters scoffed at the concept of black magic, seeing it largely as a device for empowering corrupt officials,7 much like educated and open-minded folk of today scoff at the concept of marijuana causing disease or the break-down of society.

The oppression and sexual abuse of women provides another striking similarity between the Inquisition and today’s drug war. Feminist writers and researchers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English found that “At Toulouse [in France], four hundred women were put to death in a day. In the Bishopric of Trier, in 1585, two villages were left with only one female inhabitant each.”8 In larger German cities, they found an average of about 600 a year executed, mostly by burning at the stake. In total, sociologists estimate that between two-hundred thousand and nine million witches were killed. 85% of them were women. In comparison, today one out of every three women in prison in the US was sentenced for a non-violent drug offense, compared to one in five for men. From the beginning of Reagan’s drug war in 1980 to 1996, the number of American women in prison for drug offenses grew at double the male rate, a shocking 888%.

During the Inquisition, ghoulish torture and perverse sexual abuse were used to extract confessions. Aldous Huxley expounded at length on the topic. In France in the early 1600’s, wrote Huxley, public exorcisms became side-shows in which possessed nuns revealed themselves and were sometimes given enemas. While undergoing exorcism by the church fathers, many women were raped and sexually tortured. Those suspected as witches often had their breasts cut off and their vaginas mutilated. Similarly, women in prison on drug offenses can expect the vilest of treatment from guards. Amnesty International, the US General Accounting Office, and the US Department of Justice have all documented extensive rape and regular sexual abuse of female inmates in US prisons.

The Catholic Church guarded its monopoly on healing with hateful propaganda against pagan wise women, and now pharmaceutical companies guard their monopoly on healing by sponsoring hateful propaganda against natural herbs, especially psychedelics. The largest drug-war propaganda machine ever conceived, The Partnership for a Drug Free America, has received funding from a host of pharmaceutical companies, including Dupont, the Proctor and Gamble fund, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Johnson and Johnson, Hoffman la Roche, the Merck Foundation, and Smith Kline Beecham.9

Monsanto, another multinational pharmaceutical corporation, provides a different kind of support for the drug war ? billions of dollars worth of poisonous glyphosate herbicide to the US drug-war machine in Colombia. The environment-destroying and health-endangering spray is dropped from military planes on coca, poppy, marijuana and even food crops.

Today’s burning times

State-sponsored terrorization of the masses through public burnings and executions have taken on new life in the drug war. If you are in China, Myanamar or Teheran on June 26, you might witness the public burning of tons of cannabis, opium and heroin. You might also see the simultaneous stadium-style execution of growers and dealers by firing squads. In China alone, 62 drug offenders were publicly shot to death this year.

The public spectacle of drug-war executions fulfills the same function as killing Jews in WWII, burning witches in medieval Europe, or sacrificing virgins to a Hawaiian volcano god. It provides a scapegoat ? a sacrifice ? for the ills of society and the erosion of official state culture. In the Malleus Mallificarum, Pope Innocent VIII blamed cannabis-using pagans for murders, diseases, crop failures, causing the perishing of “the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains.” Innocent also blamed witches for the deterioration of Christianity by setting a “pernicious example for the multitudes.”

In Hitler’s infamous 1924 work, Mein Kampf, he blames Jews for all the problems of society, including its “physical and intellectual regression.” “The Jewish people,” wrote Hitler, “is without any true culture of its own? and for the most part [culture]is ruined in [their]hands.” Compare Hitler’s criticism of the Jews to the words written in Dr AE Fossier’s 1931 book The Marijuana Menace: “The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic, whilst the races and nations addicted to hemp and opium, some of which once attained the heights of culture and civilization, have deteriorated both physically and mentally.”

Fossier was a contemporary and collaborator of Harry Anslinger, the man largely responsible for creating and enforcing American drug laws in the 1930’s. Anslinger echoed many of Fossier’s sentiments in his 1937 article Marijuana! Assassin of Youth. Anslinger turned drug laws into a tool for persecuting African and Mexican Americans.

The Roman Church of medieval Europe, Hitler, and many recent political leaders high on anti-drug hysteria have all used the arbitrary and unjust persecution of minority cultures to centralize and magnify their power.

Many of us would like to think that the Inquisition is a relic of superstition and that the Catholic Church would not be capable of supporting such abuses today. Yet as recently as 1997 Pope John Paul II asked the Italian government to ban cannabis as a hard drug.10 The paradox of a spiritual leader of one of the largest and most pervasive religions on earth supporting a war on drugs that has killed and imprisoned millions around the world should not be lost on those of us who can still smell the sickly smoke of the “burning times.”China`s drug war: public burnings and executions.


1. Psychedelic Shamanism, Jim De Korne
2. ?ber die sogenannten hexensalben, Herman De Vries
3. The Dark Side of Christian History, Hellen Ellerbe
4. Marijuana Medicine, Christian R?tsch
5. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbat, Carlo Ginzburg
6. Marijuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, Ernest Able
7. The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley
8. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Expert’s Advice to Women, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
9. From tax returns obtained by the Washington Hemp Education Network
10. National Review Magazine, March 24, 1997, page 6