When you think of a witch, what image do you conjure up? Is it the one of an unkempt, old crone – dressed in black, with a flowing cape and pointy hat? Is she stirring a cauldron or flying on a broomstick, with her faithful cat? Where on Earth does this notion come from? Blame it on the drugs….
Our vision of what a witch should supposedly look like is a fairly recent concept…. Go back to the pictures drawn by Medieval artists, during the times of the mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft – and a very different story is depicted….Wanton, naked women, cavorting with the Devil – if they did happen to be clothed, it was likely to have been in very ordinary attire of the day; any hat would most probably have been a simple bonnet. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that Western European artists began to draw witches with long pointed hats, possibly to symbolise devil horns, an indication to ‘dark magic’ – very likely coming from the Salem witch trials, after witnesses claimed to have seen the Devil himself – ‘a large man in a high-crowned hat’…. Later, during Victorian times, children’s books elaborated and exaggerated the image, adding the long black flowing cloak….
Back in the Middle Ages the World would have been a very scary place to live in….lack of scientific knowledge meant answers to the unexplained had to be found elsewhere…. For any situation – good or bad – that could not be accounted for by the obvious – it had to be down to magic…. People lived in constant fear of otherworldly beings….ghosts, fairies, monsters, witches…. At the same time, life was hard in so many other ways – not least the challenge of providing enough food to feed the family; not having the option of nipping to the local supermarket meant finding supplementary foods for the diet in any way possible – foraging was common-place….It is hardly surprising therefore, that certain plants were happened upon that had adverse effects on the body and mind – (indeed, the beginnings of our modern-day medicine can be attributed to some of these discoveries)…. Some of these discoveries would have actually of provided effects on the mind that some would have found rather pleasurable….
We may consider drug taking for recreational purposes a modern-day problem but people have been using mind-altering drugs since prehistoric times…. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic beverage dates back to 7,000-6,600 BC. Pottery shards discovered by archeologists, in the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu, were found to have remnants of an alcoholic drink consisting of ingredients such as rice, honey and fermented fruit….
Archeological finds in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras suggest hallucinogenic mushrooms were used between 500 BC and 900 AD. Fossil remains of a hallucinogenic cactus – ‘San Pedro’ – were found in a Peruvian cave and date back to between 8,600 and 5,600 BC. Finds in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas of Mescal bean seeds, dating from the end of the 9th millennium BC to 1,000 AD, all point to evidence Mankind has used hallucinogens almost from the beginning of his time on this planet…. A long with proof of opium being used from the mid 6th millennium BC, to South Americans chewing cocoa leaves 8,000 years ago and Argentinians smoking pipes as far back as 2,000 BC – it seems Man has always been getting high on some kind of drug or other….
So, what were they up to in The Middle Ages? As is so often the case, many a discovery is made by accident…. Bread has long been part of the staple diet of the World and Rye-bread would have been the most common type consumed in Medieval Europe…. Rye is susceptible to a fungus called ‘Ergot’ – eaten in large quantities this fungus can be fatal but smaller amounts cause a hallucinogenic reaction. Accounts from between the 14th and 17th Centuries record Europeans dancing through the streets, jabbering nonsense and foaming at the mouth after consuming Rye-bread infected with Ergot. Very often, large groups of people would carry on like this until they collapsed from exhaustion; when asked, they frequently claimed to have seen wild visions…. It became known as St. Vitus’s Dance – so named after the 4th Century Sicilian martyr, St. Vitus – Patron Saint of Dancers. We would nowadays liken the effects of Ergot to those of LSD….
Human nature, being what it is, meant there were those keen to experiment and gain knowledge to exactly what certain plants could do to the body – not always with the best of intentions…. Dabbling with ‘herbal remedies’ and in some cases outright poisons formed the basis of many an accusation of witchcraft….
In 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler was the first ever accused witch in Ireland….after some very damning evidence collected with which to condemn her…. Alice Kyteler was born as an only child in 1280 – By all accounts, those who knew her, thought her to be arrogant and bossy – she wasn’t much liked…. However, certain aristocratic gentlemen seemed to find her attractive and she went through a quick succession of wealthy husbands, each coming to an untimely end…. Rumours began to circulate…. At the age of 44, Alice was on her 4th husband, Sir John Le Poer…. Eventually, as the rumours became more rife, Le Poer became suspicious and carried out a search of his wife’s bed-chamber…. What he found were items referring to the Devil and evidence that Alice was an expert in the art of poisoning. Drawing the conclusion that she intended him to be her next victim, Le Poer sent his finds to the Bishop of Ossory….
The Bishop, one Richard De Ledrede, was a man on a mission – he was obsessed with exposing witches…. Alice, her son – William Outlawe (from her first marriage) and her personal maid, Petronilla de Meath, were all arrested….
The rumours continued to grow, stories became embroidered – tales of her sacrificing animals, performing black magic in local churches and carrying on with a strange man called Robert Artisson – who some believed could manifest himself as a black cat – (was this a symbolisation of the Devil?) – all added fuel to the fire…. The Bishop, although he hunted rigorously, never did manage to find this elusive man….
It all became too clear that Alice had indeed murdered her previous 3 husbands and aimed to kill her 4th…. Her reason? Pure greed, a desire to gain more money….
However, the Bishop did not have the power to bring Alice to trial…. Witchcraft and sorcery was overseen by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who happened at the time to be a certain Roger Outlawe, a relative of her first husband…. Outlawe and other rich relatives supported Alice and had the Bishop imprisoned within a castle for 18 days…. On eventually regaining his freedom, De Ledrede resumed his quest to bring Alice to justice….but by then she had fled to England, leaving behind her maid and even her son to face the consequences…. William begged for forgiveness, which he was granted – but in return he had to pay for a new roof for St. Mary’s Cathedral…. The maid, Petronilla did not have such luck – under torture she admitted Alice had taught her the art of witchcraft…. She was flogged and burnt at the stake on November 3rd 1324…. Alice was never heard of again….
There are many plants Alice could have used to make her poisons…. Some of the most common belong to the Solanaceae family. Consisting of approximately 98 genera and some 2,700 species, many of these plants will be very familiar to us today….potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies, foxgloves, petunias, tobacco and deadly nightshade to name but a very few….
Written references to deadly nightshade being used as a ‘flying ointment’ go back to at least the 9th Century…. Deadly nightshade, if taken orally, can speed up the heart and be fatal; however, when applied to the skin in small quantities it can cause hallucinations…. People began to make the connection to how certain plants could make an impact upon them and started to experiment in how to use them safely…. Mixing a concoction of deadly nightshade, hemlock, henbane, mandrake and wolfbane, usually in a base of animal fat, produced a potent balm called ‘flying ointment’…. All of these plants contain hallucinogenic chemicals known as ‘tropane alkaloids’ – causing vivid dreams that take the user to another world of fantasy – full of pleasure….feasting, dancing, singing and loving…. (apparently)…. Perhaps not so much ‘black magic’ but simply chemistry…. For those who found the World a particularly hard place to live in back in the day – such escapism must have been so very tempting…. For women, particularly, exploring their own sexuality, liberation and self-pleasure – totally unthinkable at the time – this would have been seen as a link to the Devil himself….
However, ingesting any of these ingredients causes a problem, in the form of nausea and vomiting. It became realised that the body can absorb in other ways….namely through the sweat glands – particularly those located in the armpits and genital regions….
Now…. I have often wondered why witches are associated with broomsticks – but never in a million years would I have suspected a reason such as this…! The broomstick, or besom broom, a symbol of feminine domesticity – yet at the same time, a phallic, sexual symbol – or perhaps in the case of the witch – one of femininity gone wild and out of control….
The besom broom was often used in Pagan fertility rituals….poles, pitchforks, brooms – in fact anything resembling a phallic object – were carried by folk dancing through the fields, jumping as high as they could, to encourage the crops to grow…. Then there is the traditional ‘jumping of the broomstick’, a feature of the Wicca hand-fasting ceremony – the broom being a reference to new beginnings, sweeping away the old…. The besom is also used in Wicca to cleanse and purify a space which is to be used for a ritual ceremony – sweeping out negative energies….
So, why the connection with the witch of the Middle Ages? For that, we need to refer back to the application of that ‘flying ointment’…. Having discovered it could be applied to the sweat glands, especially those that are in a very intimate place if you happened to be a woman, a utensil was required in order to apply it…. What better than the handle of one of the most common household items – the humble broomstick!! Yes, I’m serious….they really did do just what you’re thinking…. It puts a whole new definition on ‘riding that broomstick’…!
“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….” – English historian Raphael Holinshed – 1324 –
with reference to the evidence collected against Lady Alice Kyteler…
“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….”
– Theologian Jordanes de Bergamo – ‘Quastio de Strigis’ – 1470
I will never look at a broomstick in the same way again….