A Gallery of Historical Illustrations.
The popular icon of a witch is an ugly old woman riding across the sky on her magic broomstick and wearing a pointed hat. But as with all mythologies there is an element of truth behind the image. Witches did ride brooms, after a fashion, the brooms were magic, in a way, and the pointed hat was the mildest of the punishments inflicted on them for their activities!
During the time leading up to the witchcraft trials in Europe, the staple bread was made with rye. In a small town where the bread was fresh baked this was just fine, but as Europe began to urbanize and the bread took more time to get from bakery to grocer, the rye bread began to host a mold called "ergot".
Ergot, in high doses, can be lethal, a fact that led to the rise in popularity of wheat bread, which is resistant to ergot mold.
In smaller doses, ergot is a powerful hallucinogenic drug. And because the enjoyment of such things is not confined to this age alone, it became quite popular among those who were inclined towards herbalism and folk cures. Ergot is mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, and turns up in virtually every contemporary writing of the witchcraft age. In particular, it is the inevitable central ingredient in the ointment that witches rubbed their flying broomsticks with.
You see, when ergot is eaten, there was the risk of death, but when absorbed through the thin tissues of the female genitals, the hallucinogenic effects were more pronounced with less ill effects. The modern image of a witch riding a broomstick was inspired by the sight of a woman rubbing herself on the drug coated smooth stick of her broom, writhing in the throes of hallucinations, and no doubt, some intense orgasms as well. To her unsophisticated neighbors, such a sight would have been terrifying. The lack of an equivalent mechanism for men is one reason why "witchcraft" was seen as a predominantly female phenomenon. The addition of clothing to the witch is a modern embellishment to protect 'Family Values'.
In any event, what follows is a brief expansion on witches, brooms, and ergot, illustrated by woodcuts and engravings from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
The beginnings of the flying myth.The first stories of "flying ointments" were recorded in the early 1400's. In those cases, mention was made only that the witches dreamt they were flying. Watched all night long, the witches were not seen to actually leave, but would awake with lurid stories of far away gatherings.
While the forged "grimoires" produced by the clergy prosecutors wove lurid tales of the boiled fat of a child as the central ingredient of the flying potion, the reality is that the concoction was based on easily available herbs such as aconite, nightshade, belladonna, alcohol, and of course, ergot.
The clergy, eager to so horrify the masses as to remove all resistance to the abuses of the Inquisition cast all witches as a threat to the children, just as Hitler would later do to the Jews, and the present government to the internet and Muslims. This myth of using a child's fat for a flying potion has no basis in historical fact, but persists to this very day, and was used as a story element in the film, "Warlock".
Of all the folk drugs available to the witches, ergot was the most powerful, and the most dangerous. In use as a hallucinogen it was absorbed through the skin, most quickly through the thin tissues of the female genitals. "Flying ointment" was administered by rubbing it on a smooth wooden pole such as a broomstick, and then "riding" the pole.
Early 1600's illustration of a French witch preparing to fly. This hangs in the Witchcraft Museum in Bayonne, France. (Note the black cat at her feet).
1799. Illustration by Goya of an old witch teaching a young novice how to fly.
Cover of a pamphlet describing the mass trial of witches in England in 1645. The original is in the British Museum.
Illustration recording the first stage of what was thought to be demonic possession but what was most likely a bad drug experience.
Hans Baldung Grien. Witches anointing themselves with flying ointment.
Another Hans Baldung Grien illustration of witches preparing to fly. Note the one already up in the air.
Another Hans Baldung Grien illustration of witches preparing to fly.
Reflecting the predominantly female practitioners of witchcraft, this humorous illustration from the 17th Century is of a female witch trying (without much success) to teach a male novice to fly.
From the 17th century, a more conventional (and clothed) view of witches and broomsticks. Gone by this point are the original roots of the legend. The witches are now clothed, the brooms are far less phallic and far more aerodynamic, and the pilots operate under the "24 hour from bottle to throttle" rule! :)