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. 

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]