We recognize a witch when we see one, right? Take the one on this sign, innocuously travelling by broom. We know her by her conical black hat, hooked nose, and pointed chin. This witch has pretty good posture – no hump on her back. Do you think she practices yoga?
The dead giveaway, of course, is the fact that this allegedly female figure is riding a broom. Who else, apart from students at Hogwarts playing Quiddich, would do that?
Modern witches are likeable. Remember Bewitched or more recently Sabrina, the Teenage Witch? Witches are just like the rest of us, except they can do magic. To this day, I wish I could wiggle my nose and my suitcase would be packed, including the bag for TSA. Not gonna happen.
Witch Identification Procedures
At Halloween it’s important to have a witch profile. This was a huge issue in early modern Europe, which runs roughly from 1400-1700. Everyone agreed witches were bad luck. As you recall from last week, the benandati risked their lives to face witches in night battles. [You forgot? No worries, you can access the blog here.]
One of the problems with witches was that they lived in the village, just like the good people. Witches looked like anyone else, so it was hard to tell who killed the baby or caused the milk to go sour or the blight to ruin the crops. A witch could be anyone, male or female. But of those charged, 75 to 90 per cent were female.
Witches flew to meetings at night, after good folk said their prayers and went to bed. Most people thought witches were female because, being morally weaker than men, they were more susceptible to the devil’s promises. Witches were most often postmenopausal women with sharp tongues who didn’t hesitate to speak their minds. They were poor, without family support, and social deviants. Often they had a history of skipping church, cursing, or prostitution.
And, even worse, they were sexually insatiable. Male authorities on witchcraft were terrified of women’s sexuality. It had to be contained through early marriage and a male-headed household. Women were less enthusiastic about the new restrictions. Illustrations showed them trying to escape by using domestic articles to fly out the chimney for an unauthorized field trip. Brooms, stools, cupboards, wardrobes, and 2-pronged cooking forks all became fanciful items of transportation.
You may remember the Cinderella’s fairy godmother (sometimes referred to as a good witch) transformed an ordinary pumpkin into an elegant coach so she could escape domestic drudgery for one night and go to the ball.
But I digress. I know you want to get to the part about hallucinogenic drugs.
Baking bread was a daily domestic chore. And it was hard work. No self-rising flour. No yeast. Just lots of natural fiber in the form of rye grain. Depending how damp the weather was, rye hosted a fungus called ergot. In small doses, ergot has a hallucinogenic effect that some folks enjoyed. There was however, a problem with the delivery system. Direct ingestion of ergot causes unpleasant side effects – nausea, vomiting, skin irritation. But if applied directly to the skin, the side affects disappeared. The most receptive parts of the body for skin application were the sweat glands in the armpits and the mucus membranes of genitals.
So, clever entrepreneurs formulated a paste, sometimes called a witches’ brew, out of the ergot and other ingredients. Next they needed a delivery system. Jordanes de Bergamo writing in the 15th century stated:
“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.”
I suppose that’s why the image of witches flying on brooms stayed in our minds, rather than witches flying on wardrobes – which are also probably difficult to get through the chimney.
There’s a moral to this story. If you run into a witch flying on a broom this Halloween, one of you is probably high.
Featured Image: Witch Crossing Sign. Hexenvorfahrt by Gernheim. Released to Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Megan Gannon. “A Bewitching History: Why Witches Ride Broomsticks.” Live Science. Oct. 30, 2013. Here.
Megan Garber. “Why do Witches Fly on Brooms?” The Atlantic. Oct. 31. 2013. Here.
Carlo Ginzburg. Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries. Penguin Books. 1985.
Brian P. Levack. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Pearson-Longman. 2006.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.