Did people really brew potions? Yes. Many written recipes exist for potions such as witches’ flying ointments.

They use ingredients including the poisonous plants hemlock, yew, and “tooth of wolf,” or wolfsbane. Touching wolfsbane can make the skin tingle, as if one is flying through the air. Swallowing it, though, can be fatal.

Hundreds of years ago, herbal mixtures were made for everything from love potions and baldness cures to flying ointments. Some mixtures were used to heal—and others to kill. These potions, whether poisonous or medicinal, were often thought to work by magic, and in Europe, many people were executed as witches for using them.


In Macbeth, the three witches refer to "tooth of wolf," a reference to monkshood (Aconitum spp.). All parts of this lovely flowering plant, seen in a print from 1640, are toxic. (Image Via Wikimedia Commons)

In the upcoming exhibition The Power of Poison, opening Saturday, November 16, three wicked witches—brewing a vile concoction—will greet you.

Which witches are they? Here’s a hint from the exhibition itself:

First, a stage direction:

A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.

Then, a spell:

“…Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble....

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.”

The three witches from William Shakespeare’s dark tragedy Macbeth sing these words.


Chanting a long list of gruesome ingredients, they drop them in the pot: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog, / … For a charm of powerful trouble, / Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

The witches’ potion contains several well-known poisons. But it is not for drinking—its magic summons spirits who reveal the future. These ghostly apparitions encourage Macbeth to pursue his treacherous climb to power.

Images © AMNH/R. Mickens