Everyone may be familiar with the concept of witches flying about on a broomstick and whatnot. One association between witchcraft and gravity-averse ability came about with the idea of so-called “flying ointments.” These were unguents (new favorite word) or ointments that contained a mixture of different plant materials which had all sorts of interesting potential. There was not a uniform recipe. These ointments might contain varying amounts of plants such as mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, and the Socratic favorite, hemlock. Other substances might be mentioned in recipes, including things like opium.
One thing in common with the non-opium substances mentioned is that they all contain what are called “tropane alkaloids.” These alkaloids, whether ingested, inhaled, or, in the case of ointments, absorbed through the skin, could certainly make one think they were mid-flight if the doses were high enough. These substances affect the autonomic nervous system–the part of that system responsible for helping regulate the heart rate, pupil size, digestive system activity, increasing or decreasing blood flow to certain areas of the body, controlling one’s bladder, and even regulating the more interesting bodily functions such as sexual intercourse or vomiting.
Too many tropane alkaloids and one can find themselves with a racing heart rate, high body temperature, agitation, and, important to the “flying” bit, in a hallucinatory stupor. Death can result as well.
The ointments might be applied to certain areas of the skin or coated on a broomstick or similar wooden staff which could be held, allowing the alkaloids to cross the skin into the bloodstream.
Cool bit is that many modern medications derive from these alkaloids, including scopolamine (for motion sickness, dizziness), hyocyamine (for abdominal discomfort and diarrhea), and even atropine (speed up slow hearts, reverse certain nerve gas or pesticide toxicity, dilate eyes for the eye doctor).
Maybe it wasn’t magic, but it probably seemed close enough given the understanding of the natural world that the 12th-19th century peoples had.
Doctor with a mustache.