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Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger. Source: Public domain

SCIENCE & TECH: The Cringeworthy Reason Witches are Shown Riding Broomsticks

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What comes to mind when you think of a witch? For most people, the first image that comes to mind is of a witch flying through the night sky on a broomstick. Ever wondered why witches have been depicted riding broomsticks throughout history? Well, the reason is a shocker!

Witches, Bubbling Cauldrons and Hallucinogens

While the image of a witch flying on a broom may be the most common depiction, the image of a witch standing over a bubbling cauldron as she prepares a potion is also iconic. There is an excellent reason for this. You see, the use of powerful hallucinogens was very popular around this time, and this is intimately related to the reason for why witches were portrayed flying on brooms.

Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger. Source: Public domain

During the period witch hunts surged in popularity in Europe, people’s diets included large amounts of bread. At the time, bread was made primarily from rye which was commonly infected with a disease known as ergot, caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. As result many people unknowingly consumed ergot, thinking it was part of the plant.

Ergot has hallucinogenic properties, giving those who consumed it an LSD-like high. Unsurprisingly, many people liked this effect and began experimenting with it, as well as with other plants which produced similar results. This included henbane, mandrake, deadly nightshade and jimsonweed.  Johann Weyer, a Dutch physician and occultist named all these as ingredients in witches “flying ointment” in his 1563 work Praestigiis Daemonum.

A witch mixing her cauldron by David Teniers the Younger. (Public domain)

A witch mixing her cauldron by David Teniers the Younger. ( Public domain )

But, Where Does the Witches Broomstick Come in?

There were, however, some nasty side effects to these hallucinogens. When ingested they caused rashes, nausea, vomiting or even death. Undeterred, some creative people quickly realized that there were other ways to enjoy the witches brew besides ingestion that allowed them to avoid these side effects. This was by absorbing the drug through the skin.

The best way to do this was through the delicate mucous membranes under the armpits or, for women, the genitals. “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,” explained the 15th century theologian Jordanes de Bergamo.

A 16th century physician Andres de Laguna also studied the potions. On one occasion he took one of these potions from the home of a woman accused of being a witch and tested it on another woman. According to de Laguna, the woman then “fell into such a profound sleep that I thought I should never be able to awake her.” Luckily, after 36 hours he finally did.

The woman was incredibly upset about being woken up. “Why did you awaken me, badness to you, at such an inauspicious moment? Why I was surrounded by all the delights in the world,” she reportedly said. This led Laguna to the following conclusion:

“From all this, we may infer that all that those wretched witches do and say is caused by potions and ointments which so corrupt their memory and imagination that they create their own woes, for they firmly believe when awake all that they had dreamed when asleep.”

Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath Detail of engraving by J. Aliame based on Teniers the Younger painting. (Public domain)

Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath Detail of engraving by J. Aliame based on Teniers the Younger painting. ( Public domain )

Riding the Broomstick: Were Witches Actually Junkies?

For any woman who wished to use these drugs, there was an obvious and convenient way to apply these ointments. Take their readily available broomstick and dip it in the potion and then straddle or ride the broom. According to accounts, as the drugs quickly began to take effect, riding the broom became even more fun. A quote from the 1324 investigation of accused witch Alice Kyteler backs this theory: “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of ointment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”

According to Johann Weyer, when this flying ointment was applied to the genital areas it produced “a sensation of rising into the air and flying.” Since witches were under the influence of the Devil, most people came to the conclusion that witches were flying broomsticks to meet for Devil worship at the sabbat.

Backing this idea is the more modern work of German writer and photographer Gustav Schenk. “I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying,” described Schenk in 1966 when writing about his experience taking Henbane. “I soared where my hallucinations… were swirling along.” Given this evidence, it is not surprising at all that witches were depicted in this way.

Two naked witches riding on a broomstick by Francisco Goya. (Public domain)

Two naked witches riding on a broomstick by Francisco Goya. ( Public domain )

Witches Confess to Riding Broomsticks

Given, the suspicions of the public, witches were soon confessing to riding broomsticks under some pretty dubious circumstances. In 1453, Guillaume Edelin became the first to confess, admittedly under torture, to the practice of flying on broomsticks as well as watching his “aged mother straddle a broomstick and whisk up the chimney and out of the house.” Edelin was a priest who had publicly criticized the church’s warning about witchcraft. Shortly after, he was arrested and tried for witchcraft.

According to Dean Miller, writing in Witches and Witchcraft , a female witch known as Antoine Rose, the Witch of Savoy, confessed under torture that “the Devil, whose name was Robinet, was a dark man who spoke in a hoarse voice. Kissing Robinet’s foot in homage, she renounced God and the Christian faith. He put his mark on her, on the little finger of her left hand, and gave her a stick, 18 inches long, and a pot of ointment. She used to smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’”

While these confessions would seem to back the theory that women applied this flying ointment using broomsticks, the people who confessed did so under incredibly brutal circumstances. The interrogation and torture of those suspected to be witches was incredibly vicious. Furthermore, the writings of physicians and theologians such as Weyer, de Bergamo and de Laguna was incredibly biased with pre-conceived notions of what a witch looked like.

These things make it quite difficult to determine exactly how widespread this practice was. Nevertheless, these accounts are still where the image of a witch flying on a broomstick came from, and why it endures to this day. Whether or not the myth came from reality or the creative, paranoid minds of the religious public is unclear.

Top image: Witch on a broomstick. Source:  T.Den_Team / Adobe Stock

By Mark Brophy



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