We see it every year at Halloween, the common image of a witch riding a broomstick across the night sky. But why? Where could this odd superstition have come from?
The answer is fascinating, and also a little racy.
The Pharmacology of Witches
The following discussion comes with help from the pharmacology blog Terra Sig Illata.
First of all, you have to understand that many beliefs in the supernatural throughout history were fueled by the use of drugs. What better way to make you think you can fly than tripping on some hallucinogenic? Drug use among so-called witches as part of their rituals was indeed very common:
Hallucinogenic compounds called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed).
During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make “brews,” “oyntments,” or “witches’ salves” for witchcraft, sorcery, and other nefarious activities.
One of the obvious progressions in drug use is the discovery of how to get high faster. People who abuse pharmaceutical pills eventually figured out that you could snort them, cocaine users eventually found out that you could bypass the nose or mouth and inject the drug directly. “Witches” found a similar way to quicken the hallucinogenic high that supported their occult beliefs:
Somewhere along the line, the observation was made that the hallucinogenic compounds, hyoscine in particular, could be absorbed through sweat glands (especially in the armpit) or mucus membranes of the rectum or vagina. These routes of administration also bypassed rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort) had these extracts been taken orally.
One benefit of absorbing a hallucinogenic witch’s brew in a way that bypasses the liver is that the drug is not broken down by the liver into a less potent form of the drug. By applying the drugs in the unorthodox ways mentioned above, not only would you get high faster, but you would get higher.
The way a witch’s hallucinogenic drugs were administered to bypass the liver, more specifically via the vagina, provides a clue to why witches supposedly “ride” broomsticks. [Yep, this is going exactly where you think it is going]
Why Witches Ride Broomsticks
The earliest clue for how witches applied the hallucinogenics in these fast-absorbing areas comes from a 1324 investigation of Lady Alice Kyteler:
In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.
And from the fifteenth-century records of Jordanes de Bergamo:
But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.
It was observed in reports like these that witches were applying drugs and hallucinogenic ointments to their private areas with a broomstick (or something similar). In the process of application, the practice could be visualized as a “riding” of a broomstick or staff.
So, in the age of “witches,” these hags found out that they could absorb their favorite hallucinogens much faster and without some side effects by applying them in ointment form to their armpits and their vaginas. And in a case of stoner ingenuity, these witches also figured out that a broomstick (or other staff) could be greased up with the hallucinogenic ointments and applied easily to their private parts. This process of applying drugs to places between their legs via broom stick or other staff is the genesis of why we imagine witches “riding” broomsticks.
This also explains why so many of the pictures of the time depict partially clothed (or naked) witches astride their broomsticks (picture here–slightly NSFW).
But why flying?
But why are witches depicted as flying on their broomsticks? It’s simple: a common function of one of the witches’ hallucinogenic of choice was to produce a sensation of flying. Witches believed that they were flying, as the drugs produced intense sensations of flying, and rumors probably spread and got contorted into the idea that witches indeed fly.
Again from Terra Sig Illata:
The tropane alkaloid hallucinogens tended to cause sleep, but with dreams that involved flying, ‘wild rides,’ and ‘frenzied dancing.’ A 1966 description of tropane alkaloid intoxication was offered by the Gustav Schenk:
My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me…but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying…I soared where my hallucinations – the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves…billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal – were swirling along.
Isn’t the intersection of science, superstition, and history fascinating?