The depiction of a witch riding a broomstick goes back a long way. It’s become a bit of an iconic image. It reminds us of Halloween and thanks to the Wizard of Oz, scared the pants off of us when we were children. But what’s the origin of the association of broomsticks and witches?
Well, there is a simple answer you might want to tell a child if they ask, and then there is the R-rated version.
The G-rated answer is that a witch’s broomstick was originally a symbol of female domesticity. Back in those days, most women were responsible raising children, cooking, cleaning, and upkeep of their home. They didn’t have vacuum cleaners but they always had their trusty broomstick close at hand. When people began claiming others were witches, brooms were often thought of as a “disguised tool of the trade” since nearly every woman had one nearby or in her possession.
What’s the R-rated version?
Humans have been altering their consciousness since the first person accidentally left some juice out to ferment into alcohol, accidentally ate psychoactive mushrooms or decided to bite into a poppy plant. Many of these people would have mystical visions, out of body experiences or even think they’re conversing with a God. It’s likely a primary source of many early “religious revelations”. Even an ardent atheist may think he’s talking directly to God if dosed with enough jimsonweed, magic mushrooms, or belladonna which were readily available throughout most of human history.
So what does this have to do with witches?
Michael J. Harner explains how in his book “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft”. He states that if you browse through the works of medieval and Renaissance writers, you will find countless instances in which witch based hallucinations follow a potent hit of hallucinogenic drugs.
How were these drugs administered? Typically in the form of an ointment. Where was this ointment applied? To the skin, of course, but in the most effective place possible; the mucous membranes. Where can you find mucous membranes? In a woman’s vagina, among other places. How would one apply ointment to one’s vagina? Fingers are an option but the most common way for a typical doctor or drug abusers in those times was to lather the ointment on a narrow pole. And where might one find such a pole in the average peasant household? A broomstick.
In Harner’s thesis, he includes some interesting quotes. Here is one taken from a witchcraft investigation in 1323: “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” And this one from 1470: “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.”
While not the sole reason for association, there is a fair amount of evidence and written anecdotes from that period to support a claim that it certainly contributed. It will certainly make you think twice the next time you see a picture of a witch riding a broomstick.
“Man, Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural” 1970, edited by Richard Cavendish.
The Medical Origins of the European Witch Craze: A Hypothesis
“Murder, Magic, and Medicine” Oxford University Press 2000, J. Mann ISBN-10: 0198507445
“The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft” Harner, Michael J., ed. 1973. Library of Congress: 72-92292. p. 128-50
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