The number one Halloween costume for at least the last five years has been a witch. Aside from the pointy hat, the most recognizable accessory for any witch is her trusty broom. The image of a witch flying around on her broomstick is very iconic of Halloween, but where did this legend originate? As it turns out, the broomstick might have been a way to get high on hallucinogenics.
The origins of the myth come from the late Middle Ages, when suspected witchcraft was met with being burned at the stake. Medieval times, if you’re not familiar, were not a great time to live. A series of famine, disease, and war killed large portions of the population. Anyone suspected of performing magic or having questionable morals was assumed to have been in cahoots with the devil and became a catch-all scapegoat for the cause of those problems. Those who practiced “magic” were often using herbs to treat various conditions, though various side effects made them appear like sorcery. Some concoctions were used recreationally—not medicinally—which is where the legend of the broomstick comes in.
The ingredients of these “witches’ brews” typically included nightshade (Atropa belladonna), devil’s snare, (Datura stramonium), black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). The blended ointment is able to bring on psychoactive symptoms that induces hallucinations. These herbs are high in alkaloids, which makes them very toxic. Even if ingested in small quantities, nausea and vomiting can occur. Applying the herbs topically minimizes the negative side effects without interrupting the hallucinations.
Not all areas of the skin are able to able to absorb the brew in the same way. Sweat glands in the armpits are good at absorbing the mixture, but women during that time period wore immense amounts of clothing that were layered and tight-fitting. They covered the neck and made the armpits hard to reach. There was one other location that readily absorbed the brew: the genitals.
Those who wished to use the mixture on the genitals were now tasked with getting it up there. It is believed that the broomstick became the preferred tool. The earliest evidence of this comes from the investigation of Lady Alice Kyteler, who was suspected of using witchcraft to kill her husband in 1324:
“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.”
Jordanes de Bergamo, a Medieval writer who studied witches’ behavior, had this to say in the 15th century:
“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.”
After applying the ointment to the genitals with the broomstick, the psychoactive effects began to sit in. Getting high in this manner has been described as feeling weightless, like you're disassociating from the ground, free to move in any direction. After straddling a greased-up hallucinogenic broomstick, the user subsequently experienced the feeling of flying. Over several centuries, the story morphed into what we commonly think of today.
However, it’s hard to know exactly how forthcoming the historical accounts are, particularly because of fear associated with witchcraft during that time. Most of these sources come from judges who may have embellished details and from accused witches, who likely gave forced confessions under extreme duress.
Now the next time someone asks you, “Why do witches ride on broomsticks?” you’ll be able to proudly respond: “To shove hallucinogenic drugs into their vaginas, of course.”
[Hat tip: David Kroll, Forbes]
[Header image by Phyllis via Flickr, article image "Broom" by dhendrix73 via Flickr. Licensed by CC.]