On the Origin of Witches and Broomsticks

Welcome, Reader: This post was updated on Halloween 2009 to remedy linkrot and add an interesting tidbit on the famous Macbeth passage. As it is likely you ended up here via a search engine, click here to go to the updated post.

Have you ever wondered, perhaps on 31 October, why witches are depicted as riding brooms?

The answer is alluded to by Karmen Franklin at Chaotic Utopia in her post as to why witches need to know their plant biology.

The excerpts I'm about to give you come from a superb and accessible pharmacology text entitled, "Murder, Magic, and Medicine," by John Mann, host of the BBC Radio 4 series by the same name.

Hallucinogenic compounds called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed). During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make "brews," "oyntments," or "witches' salves" for witchcraft, sorcery, and other nefarious activities.

Somewhere along the line, the observation was made that the hallucinogenic compounds, hyoscine in particular, could be absorbed through sweat glands (especially in the armpit) or mucus membranes of the rectum or vagina. These routes of administration also bypassed rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort) had these extracts been taken orally.

Just how did the alleged witches apply said ointments? The earliest clue comes from a 1324 investigation of Lady Alice Kyteler:

"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." And from the fifteenth-century records of Jordanes de Bergamo: '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.' It also explains why so many of the pictures of the time depict partially clothed (or naked) witches astride their broomsticks."

So as not to directly offend those with delicate sensitivities toward the naked human form, here is a link to such a picture.

But what about the issue of flying on said broomsticks?

The tropane alkaloid hallucinogens tended to cause sleep, but with dreams that involved flying, 'wild rides,' and 'frenzied dancing.' A 1966 description of tropane alkaloid intoxication was offered by the Gustav Schenk:

"My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me...but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying...I soared where my hallucinations - the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves...billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal - were swirling along."

I never cease to be amazed or impressed by how much of our folk history is influenced by of natural products used in cultural or medical rituals.

To learn more about the colorful convergence of drugs and history, you owe yourself the indulgence of John Mann's book.

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This really changes my interpretation of the Harry Potter books. Haha.

Well, that would certainly get my students interested in natural products!

The use of natural products and folk history would make an interesting lecture.

Very interesting stuff, even though I think I heard about it before in Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. This did remind me of something else I had once heard involving Santa Claus, as well. I may be wrong and I haven't been able to find the reference, but I once heard that there is a mushroom eaten by reindeer in the arctic that, if consumed by humans, gives one the sensation of flying.

Laelaps - yes that would be the Amanita muscaria (fly agaric or Fly Amanita) - it is usually not eaten raw . Lapp shamans feed it to their reindeer and then drink the reindeer urine, others boil it. There's good coverage of this in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria

Abel - depending on the journals of witchcraft investigations from medieval times for accurate information is dubious to say the least :). Most information you will run across was revealed under torture (the Malleus Maleficarum (http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/) is certainly the most infamous of these volumes)

I would recommend Plants of the Gods, Origins of Hallucinogenic Use by Schultes and Hofmann (McGraw-Hill, 1979), a very entertaining and informative book. Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard botanist, was one of the world's foremost experts on the ethnobotany of hallucinogenic plants. Yes, I have no trouble spicing up my economic botany lectures.

By the way, this also means that when a "witch" was astride her broom, the straw broom end was up, not down. Most pictures illustrate witches riding brooms backwards, broom end to the back, like Harry Potter and the boys.

It's kind of a strange way to apply an ointment. I wonder, do tropane alkaloids produce any direct effects on the uh, er, mucous membranes in question that would explain why it's necessary to ride a broomstick?

Occasionally a story will pop up in the news about some kids who tried ingesting Datura stramonium (jimsonweed) in order to trip out. While it can make you hallucinate, it can also make you tremendously ill. Best to stick with safer, albeit illegal, hallucinogens.

Also, that John Mann book is awesome. So much good pharmacology trivia.

Indeed, Dr A, that is why I used the link to this picture as it depicts the historically correct use of the broom.

I do not have the 1979 copy of the Schultes book but others of us at ScienceBlogs also hold him in high regard. I will get a copy as soon as my next grant application is submitted! Many thanks for the recommendation.

Chris, I don't think that the alkaloids have much local effect (primarily antimuscarinic) other than to reduce various local secretions. Since you have Mann's book, pg. 91 of the 2000 edition notes that you can do boring stuff like make a plaster of plant extract and apply it to one's forehead for the same effects. The common thread appears to avoid oral ingestion, intestinal exposure, and first pass metabolism.

By the way, I should note that Chris writes an excellent blog of his own called Drugs and Poisons. He has been in my blogroll for some time and, from the depth of his content, I was amazed to learn that he was a graduate student and not a professor (no offense intended toward graduate students). Then I saw that he was Canadian and it all made sense. Go read Chris' blog when you have a chance.

The 'santa mushroom' is the fly agaric. Its a very strong hallucinogenic - never really caught on recreationally, largely because its just so easy to overdose, and in part because a bad trip can be very bad.

The santa link is a little truth, mixed in with a lot of legend. The toadstool definatly exists, its eaten by reindeer. It doesn't have much of an effect on them - its much more effective on humans. It has been used in shamanistic rituals, where sensations of flying were reported.

But the red-coat connection is nonsense: Santa's read coat has a surprisingly modern origin in advertising. Same for smokehole/chimney, stockings, just about all of it.

Santa's true origin appears to be a general gift-giving figure, merged with a Christian saint, distorted beyond all recognition, embelished by generations of parents trying to make their children behave and adding to the mythos, and finally taken up by retail advertising to increase sales and by movie makers trying to cash in.

Being a witch, I had already heard this explanation on the flight of the broomsticks in my coven, although nobody then could account for the use of a broomstick as an applicator either !

Off topic: there is a nice article on the origin of the modern day Santa Claus at snopes. Being a Dutch witch, I am very pleased with the very accurate mentions of Sint Nikolaas in the article, as it is still a nationwide holiday to this day (and fast approaching I might add).

ha! I actually knew that one before I read the answer. I believe Erica Jong is where I read about it first. And the 'broom' or 'staff' in question is also symbolic. Guess what of for $200...

Well... be aware... the world is full of witches, especially those who dislike good environments, what ever that means. hihihihihi

Thank you for posting that! I've known that since I was 12 years old (my parents didn't moderate my reading as much as they maybe should have!) and no one every believes me when I tell them that. Actually, it's a bit of a conversation stopper...

Wade Davis was a grad student of Schultes. Wade repeated Schultes' travels and wrote a masterly account of the trips. The book,'One River', is well worth a read or two.

By killinchy (not verified) on 13 Dec 2007 #permalink

Thanks for finding the link, Tristram. That's the exact page and image I cited originally - it seems that they changed hosts.

No idea about witches and witchcraft, but both mandragora and hyoscyamus were commonly used to treat all sorts of ailments, and mostly they were meant to be applied at the place of manifestation of the disease. This also includes skin disorders. So maybe there is a local effect? The sources I am quoting are practical medical handbooks from the Greek middle ages. These texts present a simplified form of Galenic medicine, listing mainly ingredients which were easily available and affordable. It is more than likely that the efficiency of drugs was also taken into account.

I read somewhere that an additional connection between witches and broomsticks is that in the Middle Ages women who had extra beer to sell would lay a broom in the road as a sign. I can't remember where I read this, but it seemed logical.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink