On the Origin of Witches, Broomsticks, and Flying

This post appeared here originally on 31 October 2007

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.

"Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble"
- Macbeth IV, i

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 the case 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. [Dang! - that link is dead - here's the best photo I can find right now, from Hallucinogens and Shamanism by Michael J Harner (1973)]

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.

An aside: Legendary pharmacologist, Dr Susan Band Horwitz, reminded me that the same passage from Macbeth quoted above also contains a reference to the source of one of our most useful natural product anticancer drugs, Taxol / paclitaxel.

. . .Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat and slips of yew. . .

In 1979, Horwitz and her then-doctoral student, Peter B Schiff, and Jane Fant, published in Nature the seminal report demonstrating that taxol acts by promoting microtubule polymerization to the point that tumor cells cannot coordinate chromosomal segregation.

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In case any readers are tempted to seek out the plants listed and try this yourselves: DON'T. Those plants are seriously toxic. Yes, you will have a hallucinogenic trip. You could also make yourself very very sick or give yourself a heart attack. Contemporary witches don't touch this stuff - we have much safer ways to "fly."

Two words: Baume Tranquille :)

Search Google books for the recipe in old pharmacy books. It's decent against muscle cramps of you can't get something prescribed, and is usually made weak enough that toxicity it not a problem.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 31 Oct 2009 #permalink

Ah, yes, one of my lectures on toxic plants, appearing here in the sciblogs. Economic botany is a subject rich in material. Now consider the scientific name of another nightshade Atropa belladonna.

I's always assumed a more obvious symbolism, but perhaps that was a phallusy.