How Did Witches Come To Ride Brooms?

A Gallery of Historical Illustrations.

The popular icon of a witch is an ugly old woman riding scross the sky on her magic broomstick and wearing a pointed hat. But as with all mythologies there is an element of truth behind the image. Witches did ride brooms, after a fashion, the brooms were magic, in a way, and the pointed hat was the mildest of the punishments inflicted on them for their activities!

During the time leading up the the witchcraft trials in Europe, the staple bread of the general population was made with rye. In a small town where the bread was fresh baked this was just fine, but as Europe began to urbanize and the bread took more time to get from bakery to grocer, the rye bread began to host a mold called Ergot.

Ergot, in high doses, can be lethal, a fact that led to the rise in popularity of wheat bread, which is resistant to Ergot mold. Ergot was often used in poisons called "Inheritence powders",

In smaller doses, Ergot is a powerful hallucinogenic drug. And because the enjoyment of such things is not confined to this age alone, it became quite popular among those who were inclined towards herbalism and folk cures. Ergot was so popular it was even in Shakespeare's plays, and was mentioned in virtually every contemporary writing of the witchcraft age. In particular, it was the inevitable central ingredient in "Flying Ointment".

When Ergot was eaten, there was the risk of death, but when absorbed through the thin tissues of the female genitals, the hallucinogenic effects were more pronounced with less of the harmful side-effects.

The modern image of a witch riding a broomstick through the sky actually began with women woman rubbing themselves on the drug coated smooth stick of their brooms, writhing in the throes of hallucinations, and no doubt, some intense orgasms as well. The witches did not really fly, of course, they only dreamed that they did. To her unsophisticated and superstitious neighbors, the sight of a nude woman thus enjoying herself would have been strange indeed if not terrifying. The stories of the hallucinations told after the fact of the Ergot experience form the core of the withcraft and demon myths of the middle ages. The lack of an equivilent mechanism for men to enjoy the Ergot drug experience is why "witches riding the broom" was seen as a predominantly female occupation.

Over the years, the image of the witch was changed in response to various agendas. Clothing was added for modesty sake amnd to conceal the sexual aspects of the practice, and eventually the witches went from riding the broom in their homes to depictions of actually flying the brooms through the skies. The pointed hat is the hat of the heretic, added to the popular conception of the witch during the height of the witchcraft burnings, to further propagandize a negative image of the women.

What follows is a brief historical tour of the transition of the popular image of witches from young beautiful girls in their rooms to old hags in the sky, illustrated by artworks from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

The beginnings of the flying myth.

The first stories of "flying ointments" were recorded in the early 1400's. In those cases, mention was made only that the witches dreamt they were flying. Watched all night long, the witches were not seen to actually leave, but would awake with lurid stories of far away gatherings.

While the forged "grimoires" produced by the clergy prosecutors wove lurid tales of the boiled fat of a child as the central ingredient of the flying potion, the reality is that the concoction was based on easily available herbs such as aconite, nightshade, belladonna, and alcohol.

The clergy, eager to so horrify the masses as to remove all resistance to the abuses of the Inquisition cast all witches as a threat to the children, just as Hitler would later do to the Jews, and the present government to the internet. This myth of using a child's fat for a flying potion has no basis in historical fact, but persists to this very day, and was used as a story element in the film, "Warlock".

Of all the folk drugs available to the witches, Ergot was the most powerful, and the most dangerous. In use as a hallucinogen it was absorbed through the skin, most quickly through the thin tissues of the female genitals. "Flying ointment" was administered by rubbing it on a smooth wooden pole such as a broomstick, and then "riding" the pole.

The Gallery

[Bayonne Witch]

Early 1600's illustration of a French witch preparing to fly. This hangs in the Witchcraft Museum in Bayonne, France. (Note the black cat at her feet).

[Goya Witches]

1799. Illustration by Goya of an old witch teaching a young novice how to fly.

[Pamplet Cover ]

Cover of a pamphlet describing the mass trial of witches in England in 1645. The original is in the British Museum.

[Hans Grun Illustration ]

Hans Grun, exact date unknown. An old witch, using a pitchfork instead of a broom (any old pole in a storm) summons a young witch.

[demonic posession ]

Illustration recording the first stage of what was thought to be demonic posession but what was most likely a bad drug experience.

[ Oxford print]

A print found in the library at Oxford University. While nude witches party in the background, the man at lower right is vomiting. Yet another indicator of witchcraft as a mostly female avocation!

[Grun 2 ]

Hans Baldung Grun. Witches anointing themselves with flying ointment.

[ Grun 3]

Another Hans Baldung Grun illustration of witches preparing to fly. Note the one already up in the air.

[ Grun 4]

Another Hans Baldung Grun illustration of witches preparing to fly.

[ Grun 5]

Another Hans Baldung Grun illustration of witches preparing to fly.

[ flying lessons]

Reflecting the predominantly female practitioners of witchcraft, this humorous illustration from the 17th Century is of a female witch trying (without much success) to teach a male novice to fly.

[ more conventional witches]

From the 18th century, a more conventional (and clothed) view of witches and broomsticks. Gone by this point are the original roots of the legend. The witches are now clothed, the brooms are far less phallic and far more aerodynamic, and the pilots operate under the "24 hour from bottle to throttle" rule! :)

Happy Halloween!


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