The crime of poisoning, or ‘veneficium’, according to the JM Latin-English Dictionary, involves magic and sorcery, the mixing of poison and the administering of poisoned drinks by a veneficus (male sorcerer) or venefica (female sorceress) as defined by such classic writers as Ovid, Pliny, Cicero and Horace. The art of
poisoning, however, goes back to the dawn of time when humans first discovered the Solanaceae genus of plants and learned of
their great powers – and their dangers. Those who knew these secrets later became greatly feared and/or respected in their
communities and the knowledge passed into the province of witchcraft and shamanism.
Daniel A Schulke’s now highly collectable Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft and the Poison Path offered a valuable insight into this intersection of magic and poison that originated in remotest antiquity and reaches into the present day. Pointing out that beyond their functions as agents of bodily harm, poisons have also served as gateways of religious ecstasy, occult knowledge, and sensorial aberration, as well as the basis of many cures, he wrote: ‘Allied with Samael, the Edenic serpent of first transgression whose name in some interpretations is ‘Venom of God’, this facet of magic wends through the rites of ancient Sumer and Egypt, through European necromancy, alchemy, the arcane the rites of the Witches’ Sabbath, and modern-day folk magic.’
Slowly we begin to realise that the knowledge and use of poison within witchcraft goes beyond the consideration of its ‘toxicological dimensions of magical power’, as Schulke examines the ‘concurrent thread of astral and philosophical poisons ... and explores ‘their resonance and dissonance with magical practice’. He included in his study the herbs of the socalled ‘Devil’s Garden’, in context with the witches’ supper, and the Unguentum Sabbati, the much-written about flying ointment that has exerted its fascination over scholar, historian, and magical practitioner alike.
Nevertheless, poisoning has always had a close connection with witchcraft and the powers of sorcery. Ever since the mistransliteration of biblical texts replaced the original, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live’, with, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, the two have remained synonymous even unto the present day. The introduction of laws against witchcraft and the rise of the witch-mania in Europe condemned simple village wisewomen, herbalists and midwives to constant accusations of being poisoners, abortionists and witches. In reality their knowledge of botanical medicines was probably far superior to that of the newly emerging breed of physicians, who did not study the subject scientifically until the end of the 16th century.
The wise-woman who was equipped with the means and knowledge to kill as well as cure, was extremely vulnerable when death occurred under what was seen as ‘mysterious circumstances’. Eric Maple in Man, Myth & Magic says that there is some evidence to suggest that this new medical profession had a vested interest in branding its rivals as poisoners and witches in order to rid itself of the competition. Especially, because of the deficiencies of the physicians of the time, these wise-women were in constant demand for the treatment of the sick and the poor.
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