A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the deal with witches and broomsticks?

September 3, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Like all good parents, I mindlessly pass on cultural traditions to my kids and usually don't have a clue where they came from. We decorate a tree in December, hide colored eggs on Easter, and in October we dress up and carve pumpkins, and my kids tape up pictures of witches on broomsticks on the window. I've heard theories about some of these other things, but where did the "witches flying on broomsticks" thing come from?

Cecil replies:

You don't want to hear it, mom. Well, maybe you do, but you don't want to tell the kids. As we've learned from our previous forays into folklore, most of these old rituals have something to do with S-E-X. You thought Easter eggs and bunnies as fertility symbols was kinky? You ain't heard nothin' yet.

The easy take on the witch's broomstick is that it's a burlesque of female domesticity. But you needn't have an especially dirty mind to realize that a woman riding a pole has sexual connotations — and not merely as a metaphor for intercourse. Before we get into that, though, we should talk about drugs and religion. Tolja this would be weird.

A lot of people who did drugs in the 60s thought, Wow, man, I can see God! This gave rise to the following line of thought: (a) We're not the first people who ever did drugs. (b) Many leading religious figures have been mystics, and mystical experiences have been a primary source of religious revelation. (c) A good way to have a mystical experience is to do drugs. (Forty days of fasting in the desert will do in a pinch.) (d) Ergo, many of the world's major religions owe their origins to drugs! I'm oversimplifying, but not much. See for example Weston La Barre, "Hallucinogens and the Shamanic Origins of Religion," in Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens (1972).

If drugs work for religious types, they'll work for pagans, too. That brings us back to witches. Today many scholars assume there never were any actual witches, just a bunch of old crones, simpleminded adolescents, and other unfortunates who became targets of religious paranoia. But a few writers have asked: What if there really were witches? Not, I hasten to say, people who were genuinely in league with the devil, flew on broomsticks, turned into beasts, etc., but rather people who believed they were or did? Moreover, what if the agency of this belief was a drug-induced hallucination?

There, in a nutshell, is the working hypothesis of Michael J. Harner's "The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft" in Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973). Harner notes that since antiquity many hallucinogenic plants have been known throughout the world, including some species of the potato family (family Solanaceae, genus Datura) such as jimsonweed, devil's-weed, mad apple, etc., as well as potato cousins like mandrake, henbane, and belladonna (deadly nightshade).

Trolling through the works of medieval and Renaissance writers, Harner finds a number of instances in which witchy hallucinations follow a potent hit of drugs. How were these drugs administered? Typically in the form of an ointment. Where was this ointment applied? To the skin, of course, but more effectively to the mucous membranes. Where can one find mucous membranes? In the vagina, among other places. How would one apply ointment to one's vagina? Well, one can always count on one's fingers, I suppose. But you could also use, uh, a pole. And where might one find a pole in the average peasant household? A broomstick. Bingo.

Harner buttresses his thesis with some choice quotes. From a witchcraft investigation in 1324: "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." Also this from around 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."

Scant underpinning for a mighty far-fetched theory, you may say, and I won't deny it. Still, gives you something to think about next time you're dressing your daughter for Halloween.

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