I thought about making my first post of 2016 a Happy New Year sort of affair – y’know, where I tell you about my resolutions and lay out my goals for the coming months. But the truth is, I have little in the way of writing goals other than to keep writing and keep publishing. So far, so obvious. So instead, I’m going to write about witches and broomsticks because … well, because I want to.
Witches feature just as heavily as werewolves in the Wolf Land books and, yes, my witches fly. Sometimes with the use of potions, sometimes on a broomstick and sometimes by other means …
Whilst I’ve created my own fictional world in Wolf Land, and my witches do whatever my imagination wants them to, I thought it might be fun to take a look at just where the stories of witches riding broomsticks and flying high in the sky began.
Any Wiccans among you might have heard of the besom broom. The phallic nature of the broom’s shaft – commonly made of ash – is said to be masculine, while the bristles – made of birch – are said to be feminine. The combination, apparently, balances the feminine and the masculine. And whilst there are many Wiccan rituals that involve the besom, there were witches long before there was Wicca, and they were using other means to fly …
In Wolf Land Book One, when told of her mother’s skills at making flying potions, Sorcha says: “Perhaps she created such a heady hallucinogen that she thought she could fly.”
Sorcha may have been right. The ointments that witches were said to have used to enable them to fly were highly hallucinogenic mixtures. In The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia by Paul Devereux (Daily Grail Publishing, 2008), the author tells us of the 20th century experiments of folklorist Will Erich Peuckert. Peuckert used a mixture of belladonna, henbane and Datura and said:
“We had wild dreams. Faces danced before my eyes which were at first terrible. Then I suddenly had the sensation of flying for miles through the air. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by great falls. Finally, in the last phase, an image of an orgiastic feast with grotesque sensual excess.”
I would not advise anyone to try that particular experiment.
There are other ‘recipes’ for flying ointments. They include ingredients like ergot, hemlock, wolfsbane, henbane and belladonna, usually in a base of animal fat (or, I’m sorry to say, the fat of a young child). Of course, these ingredients would be highly toxic if ingested, but it seems that instead of swallowing, the witches rubbed the ointment on the skin. They may have also employed the use of opium, a substance which is said to be antagonistic to belladonna, in order to avoid/cure being poisoned. I cannot state it enough times – do not try this at home, or outside your home, or in a field at midnight while the moon is full and the other naked ladies are telling you it’s the only way to join their gang …
Lady Alice Kyteler is infamous in Irish history for being the first witch condemned to death. She even features in the William Butler Yeats’ poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen. She was said to have used sorcery to kill her husband but she escaped (of course she did, she was a witch!) and in 1324 her maid, Petronilla de Meath, was flogged and burned at the stake instead.
Here is some of the damning evidence that was used to prove Kyteler’s guilt (recounted by the English historian Raphael Holinshed): “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”
And in the Quaestio de Strigis (An Investigation of Witches, about 1470), Giordano da Bergamo says of witches 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.”
The idea of witches riding staffs began to take hold. In those lovely old days of witch hunts, pictures and stories of pagan ladies were everywhere. And no matter what those horny old witch hunters might’ve said, those pictures were not for educational purposes. Famous artists depicted them naked and riding brooms or distaffs (or other household items). Parmigianino went one step further and depicted a witch riding a phallus. At least he was keeping it real!
We can all come to our own conclusions about whether women/witches really did use ointments and other implements for rituals, pleasure or freedom. In a society where women/witches are sexualized and feared at the same time … who knows what is and isn’t true. As women were forced further into domestic servitude, brooms had become the most common vehicle for flight (at least in the pictures). Witches were riding these brooms (a symbol of household drudgery?) and using them to fly up and out the chimney.
And that’s the image most of us have ingrained these days – the fully clothed witch, riding a broom with a cat on board. I don’t know about the cat (mine won’t go near a car so I seriously doubt he’ll ever join me on my broom) but I definitely prefer the idea of flying with my clothes on. It gets chilly up there 🙂
I wish you all a magical new year.
P.S.: Wolf Land Book Three will release in the spring …