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The over-used image of a witch is a woman, with pointy hat and a warty nose, stirring cauldrons and flying a broom. How did that odd choice of transportation get tied to witches and locked into our collective imagination?
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One explanation say that this was derived in a pagan ritual where people danced astride poles, pitchforks, and brooms in their fields, jumping as high as they could to entice their crops to grow to that height. “Anyone observing the leaping broomstick dance of witches at the full moon,” says anthropologist Robin Skelton, “could be expected to think of flying.”
Another explanation is that there’s a connection between the broomsticks and the potions that witches brewed in their cauldrons.
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During the witch panics of the Middle Ages, authorities confiscated various brews, ointments, and salves from people accused of witchcraft and sorcery. In the early 1500s, physician Andres Laguna described one such substance that was taken from the home of an accused witch as “a pot full of [a] certain green ointment … composed of soporific herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.”
In the centuries since, scientists studied and have confirmed there was no black magic at work in witches’ brews, just chemistry, and “the events of the Sabbat … were an imaginative fiction exacerbated by malnutrition and by the use of hallucinogenic concoctions.”
Pharmacologist David Kroll say many of the botanical ingredients included in witches’ potions is nightshade, henbane, mandrake and jimson weed, contain hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids. These chemicals can cause vivid dreams and the sensation of flight.
“an intoxicating sensation of flying … I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves which were quite unlike any ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along.” Toxicologist Gustav Schenk reported in his own experiments with henbane.
Clearly these chemicals are potent and also can be dangerous when taken orally. Ingesting them, Jimson weed for example, can cause mere intestinal discomfort and death. So the clever ‘witch’ has to figure out an alternate way for getting them inside the body. It turns out that hallucinogens in the brews can be absorbed through the skin without any of the unpleasant side effects. Some of the best places for absorption are the sweat glands in the armpits and the mucus membranes around the rectum and female genitalia. To apply the potions to these places, witches would slather them on their brooms and “ride” them to their witchy gatherings.
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A century later, many 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. In some cases, the accused specifically mentioned a broomstick as their tool of choice. It is also reported that folks were using brooms covered with hallucinogenic concoctions to produce vivid dreams that involved traveling through the air and partaking in wild sex and other rites.
Add a little spookiness to history of reported events, it is easy to see how people got the idea that witches were literally flying on their broomsticks.