Ever wonder how the story of witches riding brooms got started?
Ingesting henbane, which is rich in powerful alkaloids, can cause hallucinations (if it doesn’t kill you first). According to legend, witches used herbs with psychoactive properties like henbane in their potions, or “flying ointments.” Some historical accounts suggest witches applied these ointments to their nether regions. And what better applicator than a wooden staff?
Lady Alice Kyteler, Ireland’s earliest known accused witch, was condemned to death for using sorcery to kill her husband in 1324. (Kyteler escaped, and her maid was burned at the stake in her stead.)
The English historian Raphael Holinshed later recounted the case and described some of the supposedly damning evidence authorities found against Kyteler: “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.”
Another oft-cited account comes a from 15th-century manuscript by theologian Jordanes de Bergamo. In his “Quaestio de Strigis” of 1470, Bergamo writes of witches who 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.”
Though the image of the broomstick stuck, early depictions in 15th- and 16th-century Europe show witches flying on a wide range of items, including stools, cupboards, wardrobes and two-pronged cooking forks, Zika said. But rarely are witches shown getting aloft on their own.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, images of witches riding up and out of chimneys start to dominate. During this period, women also were more closely associated with domestic space than they were 200 years earlier, Zika said. At that time, too, brooms are depicted more and more often in relation to domestic work in art.