Why Do Witches Ride Brooms?

3sbworld/iStock via Getty Images
3sbworld/iStock via Getty Images

The popular image of a witch, which you can see everywhere right now in the form of Halloween costumes and decorations, is a woman with a pointy hat and warty nose stirring a cauldron or flying on a broom. How did that odd choice of transportation get tied to witches and locked into our collective imagination?

One proposed explanation has its roots in a pagan ritual where people danced astride poles, pitchforks, and brooms in their fields, jumping as high as they could to entice their crops to grow to that height. “Anyone observing the leaping broomstick dance of witches at the full moon,” says anthropologist Robin Skelton, “could be expected to think of flying.”

Another explanation is that the broomsticks and the potions that witches brewed in their cauldrons are linked, and the former was a tool for delivering the latter. 

During the witch panics of the Middle Ages, authorities confiscated various brews, ointments, and salves from people accused of witchcraft and sorcery. In the early 1500s, physician Andres Laguna described one such substance that was taken from the home of an accused witch as “a pot full of [a] certain green ointment ... composed of soporific herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.”

The local constable was a friend of Laguna’s, so the doctor was able to obtain some of the ointment to experiment with. His first test subject was the executioner’s wife, whom he anointed “head to foot” with the green stuff. 

“No sooner did I anoint her than she opened her eyes wide like a rabbit, and soon they looked like those of a cooked hare when she fell into such a profound sleep that I thought I should never be able to awake her,” Laguna wrote. “However ... after the lapse of thirty-six hours, I restored her to her senses and sanity.”

When the woman was conscious again, she asked Laguna, “Why did you awaken me, badness to you, at such an inauspicious moment? Why I was surrounded by all the delights in the world.” She then turned to her husband and claimed that she had cuckolded him and taken a “younger and lustier lover.”

Laguna wrote that even long after her dream, the executioner’s wife “stuck to many of her crazy notions.”

“From all this we may infer that all that those wretched witches do and say is caused by potions and ointments which so corrupt their memory and imagination that they create their own woes, for they firmly believe when awake all that they had dreamed when asleep,” he said. 

Another 16th century physician, Giovanni Della Porta, described a similar case where he witnessed a suspected witch apply one of her ointments. She also fell into a “most sound and heavy sleep,” and when she awoke “began to speak many vain and doting words, affirming that she had passed over both seas and mountains.”

He reached a similar conclusion as Laguna: These potions were the source of the bizarre things that witches claimed to experience and partake in. After applying their ointments, Della Porta wrote, these women “seem to be carried in the air, to feasting, singing, dancing, kissing, culling, and other acts of venery, with such youths as they love and desire most: for the force of their imagination is so vehement, that almost all that part of the brain, wherein the memory consists, is full of such concepts.”

In the centuries since, scientists have confirmed the two doctors’ suspicions. There was no black magic at work in witches’ brews, just chemistry, and "the events of the Sabbat … were an imaginative fiction exacerbated by malnutrition and by the use of hallucinogenic concoctions.”

Many of the botanical ingredients included in witches' potions, says pharmacologist David Kroll, including nightshade, henbane, mandrake and jimsonweed, contain hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids. These chemicals can cause vivid dreams and the sensation of flight, not unlike those reported by Della Porta’s witch and others accused of witchcraft. In his own experiments with henbane, toxicologist Gustav Schenk reported feeling “an intoxicating sensation of flying ... I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves which were quite unlike any ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along.”

Clearly these chemicals are potent, but they can also be dangerous. Ingesting them by drinking a witch’s brew could lead to side effects ranging from mere intestinal discomfort to death. Jimsonweed poisoning, for example, sometimes left its victims “hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet and mad as a wet hen.” 

To get around the risks of taking these potions orally, somewhere some clever witch figured out an alternate way for getting them inside the body: a staff, stick or a tool they already had around the house—the broom.

The hallucinogens in the brews, it turns out, can be absorbed through the skin without any of the unpleasant side affects. Some of the best places for absorption are the sweat glands in the armpits and the mucus membranes around the rectum and female genitalia. To apply the potions to these places, witches would slather them on their brooms and “ride” them to their witchy gatherings. 

Antoine Rose, accused of witchcraft in France, confessed as much to the authorities. She claimed that the Devil had given her a stick and a pot of ointment, and that to apply it, she would “smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’”

Other confessions and investigations turned up the same technique. In the 1300s, authorities searching the home of suspected witch Alice Kyteler “found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” A century later, theologian Jordanes de Bergamo noted that “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.” 

In some cases, the accused specifically mentioned a broomstick as their tool of choice. In 1453, Guillaume Edelin, accused of witchcraft in France, admitted to flying on a broomstick, and later a man confessed to seeing his “aged mother straddle a broomstick and whisk up the chimney and out of the house.”

So folks were using brooms covered with hallucinogenic concoctions to produce vivid dreams that involved traveling through the air and partaking in wild sex and other rites. Add some rumor and fear mongering and twist it around a little bit, and it’s easy to see how people got the idea that witches were literally flying on their broomsticks, aided by magic ointments, to their black masses. 

To be fair, we have to take some of this with a grain of salt, given where the information is originally coming from. On the one hand, you have the church and government authorities and their citizen observers, who were often motivated by paranoia and social pressure to find and root witches out. As anthropologist Homayun Sidky notes, some historians dismiss the involvement of drugs in the practices of witches and argue that any witches’ potions, magic or not, were made up by the authorities to paint the targets of their persecution as more sinister. And on the other hand, you have the accused witches, who often gave their testimony and confessions under duress or torture. Still, it’s an interesting idea, and makes you look at the typical witch costume in a different light. 

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

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Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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