Psychedelic plants have been used as a tool for healing, power, and connection since medieval times for rituals and religious purposes. These psychoactive plants were involved in shamanic practices and were widely used in Indigenous tribes as well.
The Aztecs used sacred mushrooms in their rituals, and Psilocybe Mexicana has been culturally used in Mexico to heal people. The mushrooms were used by curanderas and curanderos - which translates as witch women and witch doctors.
Even though shamanism is predominantly known by male healers, there are also female shamans in many cultures, specifically in Asia. In Indonesia, the shamans were primarily female and were known as belian, wadian, or dukun, and they practiced herbalism, healing, and sorcery. In China, female healers called wu were performing divination, dream interpretation, healing, and exorcism.
Women Healers As Witches
In Western culture, when we talk about women healers, we often use the term “witch.” Witchcraft and shamanism might be connected in the healing culture around hallucinogenic plants. Shamans are found in many societies, specifically in northern Asia and North America, and they are the people who practice healing by entering an altered state of consciousness during their rituals. Since early modern European culture, witches were known as women who had extensive knowledge of plants, herbs, and healing people with their magical ointments.
If there is a connection between all the female healers worldwide, do witches have also experienced an altered state of consciousness as shamans do?
Did they benefit from the psychoactive plants of nature in their magical rituals?
The Role of Psychedelics in Witch Women
Although we do not certainly know due to the lack of evidence and literature, there are a lot of theories on whether witches consumed psychoactive drugs or not.
Many plants that witches used in their ointments had direct effects on the cognition and physiology of individuals. “Witch Salve,” also known as Flying Ointment, was a hallucinogenic ointment that has been widely used by witches in their practices. This flying ointment is thought to have strong psychoactive effects, and it was used for healing many conditions in the past.
Moreover, the herbs and plants witches used in their ointments, lotions, and medicines often belonged to the Solanaceae family - henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura stramonium), belladonna (Atropa belladonna). These plants consist of alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine - all having a strong effect on the nervous system and serving as sources of psychoactive drugs. While being influenced by these drugs, witches were experiencing vivid dreams and visions, as well as they were involved in rites.
There is another theory on witches' use of psychoactive substances, and that is the Rye Ergot, which is the fungus that is used by Albert Hoffman in the extraction of LSD.
This fungus was found in Europe and America during the 19th century and grew on grains like rye seeds and wheat. Ergot is a poisonous fungus with various effects, such as convulsions, vomiting, prickling sensations, and hallucinations. It can cause mental confusion, unconsciousness, and even death in overdoses.
The rye grains were used for baking, and this consumption made people poisoned by the plant during the 1900s.
The symptoms people had from this poisoning were quite similar to what happened to the Salem girls in 1692. Therefore, some anthropologists suggest that the same fungus might have caused paranoia and hallucinations that were labeled as“bewitchment” at that time.
The Role of Medicine Women In Communities Across Time
Women have always been associated with healing since ancient and medieval times, but their roles in medicine were different compared to men.
In the Middle ages, women had little chance to contribute to science or have an occupation in medicine. Due to political reasons, their suppression in medical organizations prevented them from education and work. Therefore they practiced traditional healing techniques and specialized in herbalism.
In Early Moden Europe, 14th and 15th centuries, women who performed healing were labeled as “witches” or “wise women“, who had a profound role in healing during that time. They served their population as medical practitioners for the people who had no access to a doctor or a hospital.
Rising Psychedelics: Medicine Women Claiming Their Power Back
During the past years, the attention and research on psychedelic plants started shifting our perspective on modern medicine. The use of psychedelics in Western culture nowadays brings the old healing traditions back and helps us to benefit from nature's plants.
Psychedelics not only help the healing process of individuals but also help women to claim their power back. Now Medicine Women are the women in the field who work as therapists, healers, and doctors, the women who bring people together for the ambition of healing, and the women who are ready to help others with the power of plant medicine. Not only treating others, but these medicines also helped women self-treating themselves and reconnect with their motherhood, femininity, and sexuality.
As well, many projects, communities, and collectives in the psychedelic field embrace women's role in medicine and provide a space to connect, explore, share and celebrate the role of plant medicine and the importance of the practices in our self-replenishing journeys.
About the Author: Aysu Naz Atalay is a curious person who loves research and writing. She is interested in exploring psychedelics and their connection with self-awareness. Naz supports destigmatization around psychedelics to find a deeper relationship with our surroundings and an individual sense of well-being. She believes in the transformative potential of psychedelic plants for humanity and hopes to contribute to the educational space while striving for a more connected future.
- Wu: Female shamans of ancient China https://www.academia.edu/4075139/Wu_female_shamans_of_ancient_China
- The Witches' Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic https://www.amazon.com/Witches-Ointment-Secret-History-Psychedelic/dp/1620554739
- Witches, Midwives, and Nurses https://www.amazon.com/Witches-Midwives-Nurses-Contemporary-Classics/dp/1558616616
- The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition, and
- The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience: The Classic Guide to the Effects of LSD on the Human Psyche https://www.amazon.com/Varieties-Psychedelic-Experience-Classic-Effects/dp/0892818972
- Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1739168/