This week I heard, for the first time, the origin of the iconic witch-on-a-broomstick image – and it’s AWESOME!
I have often wondered what the whole broom thing was about. I idly mused that it might be a phallic thing. Then I’d dismiss that, assuming that my brain was going off trying to find sex at the bottom of everything – #typicaltherapist…
But hurrah for the radio! I caught a snippet of an interview on NewstalkFM where a guy was talking about witches, broomsticks and female masturbation. I missed most of it but my interest was piqued, naturally, so I decided I’d try the Google machine. It didn’t take much to find a few pieces written on this topic. Those witches – what amazing women, and what fun they had! When they weren’t being shunned, mistreated and murdered for being, well, women.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ rolling – or riding, or whatever…
From our modern viewpoint, female drug use and sexual pleasure are not quite so shocking as in the middle ages. Although it could be argued (and I do argue it, all the time) that people still seem to have enormous difficulty with women enjoying sex as much as men. Dare I say even more? The female arousal experience is one I’d love for men to experience – oh yes guys, you are missing out. Apparently though, we all have similar orgasms – apart from ours being longer (a lot longer, but it’s not a competition so I won’t go on about it. But if it were, we’d win, just saying).
But I digress…
In enlightened and civilised circles, female enjoyment of sexuality is now seen as liberating. But witches were “invented” at a time when a woman choosing to do what she wished with her own body or mind was so unthinkable as to be synonymous with the devil himself. This might have echoes of a more recent discussion we had here in Ireland. Sometimes, OK often, I shudder at how little has changed.
In the “olden days” as we well know, women were tortured and killed because they dared to explore such personal liberties. And as we also well know, that still happens, although not here thankfully. Not in the literal sense at least.
The Science Bit (NSFW)
“Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – Macbeth IV, i
You might be wondering – what has this has got to do with broom sticks?
Well, it turns out that the historical depiction of witches riding broomsticks has its origins in hallucinogenic plant pharmacology. Shakespeare knew this, but the indigenous knowledge predates him.
Hallucinogenic compounds called tropane alkaloids are produced by several plants:
- Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade)
- Hyoscyamus niger (henbane)
- Mandragora officinarum (mandrake)
- Datura stramonium (jimsonweed).
You’ll have heard of some of these and their effects. During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make erm… ointments… for witchcraft, sorcery and other nefarious activities. Somewhere in their evolution, these crafty ladies discovered that these ointments could be absorbed through the armpits or via the mucous membranes of the anus or vagina – also bypassing intestinal discomfort which might y’know, ruin the mood.
And just how did they apply this ointment?
According to Mann, the earliest clue comes from the case of Lady Alice Kyteler (1324):
“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 15th 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.”