Ointments and Broomsticks: How Witch Imagery Came to Be

With a full moon in the background and wearing a pointed hat blowing in the wind, the stereotypical image of a witch has become synonymous with Halloween decor. Although this visual can be seen on the walls and windows of just about every elementary school in late October, the origins of a witch’s look are not well known.

What you’re about to read is somewhat NSFW. 

For a while now, the answer to why witches and broomsticks went hand-in-hand was vague. The broom symbolized female domesticity, but because the broom was phallic, placing it between one’s legs represented female sensuality. As such, domesticity and femininity had run amok, frightening patriarchs! This wasn’t limited to women, though. The original reference to witches riding broomsticks was spoken in Saint-Germain-en-Laye by Guillaume Edelin, a man who was suspected of practicing witchcraft. In 1453, he confessed doing such things while being tortured.

At one time, there was a pagan fertility ritual that became quite common. It involved pitchforks, poles, and brooms (yes, all of which were phallic objects) that flew through fields as people jumped up. This was to encourage crops to grow at the height the jumpers reached. According to the 1543 book, The Discoveries of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot depicted such festivals as magical gatherings. Witches would regularly dance, chant, and sing with a broom up high.

Mix brooms, pagans, jumping into the air, and phallic fertility symbols, and you’re left with a concoction known as the myth of the flying witch. There’s a more logical origin of the connection between witches and broomsticks, though.  

In addition to flying on broomsticks, the second most recognizable visual of a witch is of aged hags stirring up a boiling brew. It makes you think, what exactly were those witches brewing? In the 1600s, there were reports of witches flying on broomsticks, and talk of “flying ointments” followed suit.

Hallucinogenic plant use for shamanic reasons traces back to prehistory. In medieval Europe, it was very easy to get your hands on a hallucinogenic plant. One of the earliest of them was the rye mold containing ergot fungi. With an impact on people akin to the effects of LSD, ergot was a strong hallucinogen. Other easy-to-get hallucinogenic plants included deadly nightshade, henbane, mandrake, and, based on Johann Weyer‘s “Praestigiis Daemonum”, these substances were the main ingredients witches needed to make a “flying ointment.”

That said, there was an issue with consuming such a powerful brew, the biggest one being that it made the individual drinking it very ill, to the point where fatalities were a possible side effect. There were other non-oral methods to taking a hallucinogen, such as beneath the armpits, up the anus, or for females, through their vagina’s mucous membranes. The ointment was applied to mild mucous by anointing a staff to the intended area, or anointing themselves beneath the arms and similar areas with hair on them, according to the 15th-century records of Jordanes de Bergamo.

According to suspected witch Alice Kyteler, while investigating a woman’s closet in 1324, townsfolk discovered ointment found in a pipe. The substance was to be used to grease a staff so the woman could gallop on it.

While being tortured in 1477, the so-called “Witch of Savoy”, claimed that the devil, who went by the name “Robinet”, was a dark male who spoke with a raspy tone. After paying tribute to Robinet by kissing his feet, she renounced Christianity and God. Robinet placed his mark on her left hand’s little finger, handed her a pot of ointment and an 18” stick. After applying ointment to the stick, she placed it between her legs and shouted praise for the devil.

Afterward, the impact of the “flying ointment” started to conjure. The ointment was concocted from potent ingredients like wolfbane, deadly nightshade, hemlock, and henbane, sometimes in a base of animal fat. According to an observation in 1966 from Gustav Schenk, the brew, known as a tropane alkaloid hallucinogen (derived from the henbane and nightshade), would make one’s body feel separated from the individual, inducing fear. Simultaneously, the user would endure intoxicating sensations, including a flying effect.

Why the focus on the broomstick, though, as opposed to another object? Some say that preparation herbs would have been contained in small whisks, which are broom-esque bundles. The whisks would have been boiled whole in oil, dispersing the active ingredients from the whisk and therefore dousing the handle with the mixture. The whisk, broom, or stick coated in oil would have worked just as well.

From a modern perspective, self-pleasure and use of drugs are not surprising actions, and can be quite liberating. At those times, women opting to do what they wanted to their own minds or bodies was unheard of and linked to devilish behavior. Some women were tortured and murdered for having the audacity to ponder such freedom.

Thankfully, those times are behind us, at least for the most part. To paraphrase Antoine Rose, the so-called Scottish witch who went missing once her trial ended, hop on your broomstick and “Go, in the name of the Devil, go!”

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