Is There Chemistry In Witchcraft?

New Orleans has a deep spiritual history of witchcraft, voodoo, and other occult religions. Go into any souvenir shop, and you will see voodoo dolls for everything from improving your health to getting out of a bad relationship. I was walking down Royal Street in the French Quarter yesterday when I stumbled upon an occult shop called Starling. I was lured inside by the dilapidated-looking exterior of the shop and, upon poking my head in, the sight of hundreds of dusty bottles lined up against the wall, nearly to the ceiling. img_6844a.jpg The bottles were labeled with curious names such as Dragon’s Blood and Devil’s Shoestring. I asked the shop owner what the bottles are used for. He told me that they are spiritual tools to practice various occult religions. Most of the products are derived from natural sources. Dragon’s Blood, for example, is a resin from the Dragon Tree, which is native to southeast Asia and Africa. The sap is bright red, and when it flows, the tree looks like it's bleeding. By burning Dragon’s Blood in an incense, you’re offering fire, mars, strength, protection, and you amplify the power of spells, the shop owner told me. img_6842a.jpg I admit, I’ve stumbled into very unfamiliar—and somewhat uncomfortable—territory, and I don’t even want to attempt to explain the chemistry behind these things. Does anyone want to take a shot at it?

Author: Linda Wang

Associate Editor, Chemical & Engineering News

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  1. There have been attempts to unravel the chemistry behind voodoo rituals. Perhaps the most famous is that of Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist, who traveled to Haiti in order to study the science of zombies. He obtained some zombie powder and claimed that analysis revealed the presence of tetrodotoxin, a powerful paralytic agent. These claims are not very well substantiated. However, his adventures make for a gripping yarn, and have been popularized in books and movies, such as The Serpent and the Rainbow.

    For more details…

  2. No but if you find something that cures Writer’s Block, pick some up for me. 😀

  3. Aha! I have read “Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie,” by Wade Davis.

    The article that KayKay has provided is very interesting, and, while sceptical of the chemistry, provides good insight. It does, however, leave out a few things.

    First, there is not just one concoction used in the zombification process: There are two. The first one contains a lot of ingredients, it is true, including the puffer fish’s tetradoxin. But it also includes parts of certain toads that excrete hallucinogenic compounds. If the mixture is prepared properly, and doled out in accurate doses, it is said to lead to a death-like state (paralysis with slowed heart rate and breathing), with potential for brain damage or other permanent effects. In Haiti, at that time, people were buried almost immediately after death, due to the smell from decomposition in the hot and humid climate. If dosed improperly, the subject might actually die or the effect might wear off too soon (people’s bodies left next to the grave as the vodoun priest could not revive them, or they clawed their way out of their graves before the voodoo guy can come get the body). There are a whole ton of variables in this, obviously – the vodoun priests are not pharmaceutical scientists!

    The second concoction that the vodoun priests use in the zombification process, according to Davis’ book, is basically a smelling salt to wake the “zombie” up. After the zombie is able to move, it is fed narcotics to keep it docile and unaware of its surroundings. The zombie’s slave owner is said to maintain this narcotic dosing.

    There really are a lot of theories about zombification, although I am only familiar with Davis’ book. It is a very interesting topic, and it definitely has a background in real chemistry, but is really mixed up with uncontrolled settings, common religious and social beliefs, and lack of good data collection.

    The rest of it, however? I am not sure if a combination of Dragon’s Blood, Devil’s Shoestring, and throwing stones on the ground while chanting will grant you the ability to do anything amazing.

  4. I can think of no better person to ask whether there is chemistry in witchcraft than Mr. Max Beauvoir of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This chemist has pursued an unusual career path, having recently been elected to the newly created post of supreme master of voodoo—worldwide. The New York Times (April 5) reports:

    “Mr. Beauvoir left Haiti in the mid-1950s for the City College of New York, where he studied chemistry. Then he went off to the Sorbonne for graduate study in biochemistry. After various jobs in the New York area, he returned to Haiti in the early 1970s to conduct experiments on traditional herbal remedies.

    “It was then that voodoo called.”

    A brief perusal of the ACS membership database indicated Mr. Beauvoir is not a member.

    For more information, the article, which contains hints of animal sacrifice and unsupported allegations is permalinked here:

  5. The compounds on the chemist’s shelf in New Orleans don’t sound quite as dangerous as the prescriptions Iatrochemists of the 16th century might prescribe. They favored sulfur compounds as well as mercury. And for a while powdered cadaver promised to be a cure of many ills. Although as one contemporary commentator said, its main effect “Was to sour the stomach and give one bad breath.”


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