Close your eyes and think of a witch. What do you see?
In all likelihood, you’re picturing a woman, dressed in black, with a pointy hat atop her head and a broom in her hand. Have you ever wondered why brooms are considered a witch’s primary mode of transportation and not something more powerful or fearsome, like a winged horse or dragon?
The First Known Depiction of a Witch With a Broom
The first image of a witch with a broom dates back to the fifteenth century in the 1451 edition of Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames.
The contents of Le Franc’s poem aren’t super important, except to note that the women featured in the margin are depicted as morally inferior to the poem’s other subjects, so-called “virtuous women.”
Other than that, there’s nothing of particular note in the poem and certainly nothing that explains why the two witches are floating in the margins riding brooms. What we can draw from this poem is that the association of witches with broomsticks has been around for a very long time.
But still, why brooms? Two accepted explanations exist. Let’s start with the “safe-for-work” one.
The Safe-for-Work Explanation
Two commonly accepted explanations exist for why witches where broomsticks. The first (and more boring) involves a pagan ritual.
According to anthropologist Robin Skelton, the image of witches riding brooms dates back to an old pagan ceremony where people would jump in their fields, holding pitchforks and brooms, trying to entice their crops to grow as high as their jumps.
Skelton posits that people observing this ritual, mainly if it happened to take place during a full moon, would think that the farmers were flying with their brooms.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I jump, no one will mistake it as flying—falling, yes, but flying, certainly not. There’s a chance that Skelton’s analysis is correct (i.e., that the image of a witch with a broom is connected to a pagan ritual), but the far more commonly accepted explanation makes, in my opinion, more sense.
The Not-Safe-for-Work Explanation
Before we jump into the commonly accepted explanation for why witches ride brooms, let me start by warning you that this section is not safe for work. It’s got sex and drugs (no rock and roll, sorry), so if you’re worried about the IT department looking through your browser history (or if you’ve got kids around), you might want to bookmark this article and save it for later. Okay, let’s dive in.
Back in the Middle Ages (and up through the Renaissance), bread was an essential part of people’s diets. And bread, at the time, was made with rye. Rye (and rye-like plants) can be affected by a fungal disease called ergot.
Ergot is poisonous: if consumed in large doses, it can kill you. If consumed in smaller quantities, however, it can cause some pretty gnarly hallucinations.
We’re not 100% sure when people realized that they could use ergot to get high, but there are many accounts of people (in some instances, large groups of people) experiencing hallucinogenic episodes throughout the Middle Ages. Often, these hallucinogenic episodes were the cause of panic (e.g., during one of the dancing plagues that swept through Europe).
At some point, people recognized that ergot was causing these symptoms. Instead of shelving it, however, they decided to try to manipulate ergot so they could use it for a fun trip. Many people mixed ergot with other hallucinogens like belladonna, mandrake, and jimsonweed to create the optimal high. The balms they created were known as “witch’s brews,” and the creators themselves were known as witches.
Okay, But Where Do The Brooms Come In?
Even though the so-called witches had found a way to make ergot less deadly, ingesting their witch’s brews wasn’t fun. If you swallowed a witch’s brew, you risked experiencing nausea and skin rashes, which would undoubtedly harsh your hallucinogenic high.
To combat these side effects, people experimented with other ways of absorbing the witch’s brew. Eventually, they discovered that absorbing the brew through the skin led to all of the high and none of the nasty side effects. The best places for absorbing that brew? The armpits and genitals.
The crafty witches realized that absorption through the genitals led to a faster, nicer high. And, in searching their homes for an easy way to apply that high, they found brooms.
As a fourteenth-century investigation into an accused witch noted:
“In the rifling closet of the ladies, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”
You get the idea.
The greased-up handle of a broom became something of a smoking gun in witchcraft trials: if you were found with a sticky broom in your closet, it was highly likely that you were using it for something other than sweeping away the cobwebs.
So, there you have it: brooms are associated with witches because they indeed were the best and fastest way for them to fly (a.k.a. get high).
You’ll never look at a witch’s broom the same way again.