word association game

Mike Bulgakov



The historical depiction of witches riding broomsticks has its origins in hallucinogenic plant pharmacology, as popularized by Shakespeare, but the indigenous knowledge predates even him.

Hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger(henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) and Datura stramonium(jimsonweed). During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make "brews," "oyntments" or "witches' salves" for witchcraft, sorcery and other nefarious activities.

Somewhere along the line, the observation was made that the hallucinogenic compounds, hyoscine in particular -- also known as scopolamine -- could be absorbed through sweat glands in the armpit or via the mucus membranes of the rectum or vaginal area. As compared to eating the plants or drinking their extracts, axial, rectal and vaginal routes of administration also bypassed the first cycle of rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort).

Just how did the alleged witches apply said ointments? According to Mann, the earliest clue comes from a 1324 investigation of the case of Lady Alice Kyteler:

"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 fifteenth-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."
These passages account for why so many of the pictures of the time depict partially clothed or naked witches "astride their broomsticks," as shown in the woodcut image featured here.

Why Flying?
But what about the issue of flying on said broomsticks?

The tropane alkaloid hallucinogens tended to cause sleep, but with dreams that involved flying, "wild rides" and "frenzied dancing." A 1966 description of tropane alkaloid intoxication was offered by the Gustav Schenk:

"My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me...but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying...I soared where my hallucinations - the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves...billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal - were swirling along."
So, these psychosensory experiences of flying were associated with boiled up hallucinogenic plants applied to the vulvovaginal area with a broomstick, probably used to mix the concoction.