Witches riding on broomsticks through the nighttime sky, conjuring magic and mayhem for all those below. It’s an image that is so imprinted on our consciousness – especially at Halloween – that few may wonder where such a legend originated.
Fortunately, Mother Nature’s apothecary can provide the answer. Unfortunately, it’s an answer that you may have trouble explaining to the kids.
The historical depiction of witches riding broomsticks has its origins in hallucinogenic plant pharmacology. Hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Deadly Nightshade, Henbane, Mandrake and Jimsonweed. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, parts of these plants were used to make brews, ointments, or witches’ salves for use in witchcraft, sorcery, and various other nefarious activities. These hallucinogenic plants were, in the beginning, ingested. However, they often caused severe intestinal discomfort, together with copious amounts of vomiting. Thus, somewhere along the line, it was discovered that these compounds, specifically when made into ointments or salves, could be absorbed through the sweat glands in the armpits, or via the mucus membranes in the vaginal and rectal areas.
Analysis of historical texts on the subject, show that it is the specific application of these ointments to the vaginal area, which leads to the image of a witch on a broomstick. The earliest clue that we have in this regard is the investigation in 1324 into the case 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 15th century comes this account:
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.From the records of Jordanes de Bergamo
Passages such as these (if you’ll pardon the pun) account for why so many pictures of the time depict partially clothed or naked witches “astride their broomsticks.”
But what about the supposed act of flying on said broomstick?
Again, tropane alkaloid hallucinogens can provide the answer. These chemicals tend to induce sleep, but sleep that was often punctuated with dreams of flying, wild rides, and frenzied dancing. A description of these dreams was offered in 1966 by Gustav Schenk, who wrote an account of his own tropane alkaloid intoxication:
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.
So, there you have it. The psychosensory experiences associated with boiled up hallucinogenic plants applied to the vaginal area with a broomstick that was probably used to mix the concoction, have been passed down through the ages, added to and augmented in the melting pot of mythology, to create the enduring image of witch flying on her broomstick.
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