When we think of witches today, what automatically comes to mind? If it is the fearsome, cackling hag leaning over a boiling cauldron or a silhouette in the moon of an old woman in a pointed hat flying her broomstick.
What is the witch?
A witch is a person who practices witchcraft. Traditionally, the word was used to accuse someone of bewitching someone, or casting a spell on them to gain control over them by magic. It is now also used by some to refer to those who practice various contemporary religions such as Wicca.
Although most indigenous peoples throughout history have had some beliefs about spirits and people believed to have power through herbs or spirits, these were not called ‘witches’ until contact with western ideas. Neither did they always have negative connotations.
In Europe, the panic over witchcraft was supported by the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman. It taught the prosecution of witches and was greatly promoted by the new technology of the printing press. It saw 29 printings before 1669, second only to the Bible. The book says that three elements are necessary for witchcraft. These are the evil intentions of the witch, the help of the Devil, and the permission of God.
Many women were killed by witch hunts. The exact number is hotly debated because of a lack of record keeping and different opinions on the time frames and regions that ought to be included. Since the entire persecuting legal system, “judges, ministers, priests, constables, jailers, judges, doctors, prickers, torturers, jurors, executioners” were nearly all male and the victims were overwhelmingly female, the witch hunts are considered by many to be a “gynocide”. In the documentary The Burning Times, Thea Jensen calls this period in history a “Women’s Holocaust”.
Witches and The Inquisition
Christian circles hate and fear witches since many ages. Even today, wiccans and pagans remain to be a target of Christian persecution in some parts of the world. Around 800 years ago, the Catholic Church set up a court known as the Inquisition. The duty of the court was to find and punish people suspected of heresy. However, the methods followed were crude, unfair, and even ridiculous. Many innocent people died because of fervent Inquisitors.
The Inquisitors persecuted Jews, Moors and even the non-Catholic Christians, however the most famous were the witches. The Catholics hunted for the midwives, healers, and dabblers in folk-magic who became the scapegoat. The ‘witches’ soon became the malevolent enemy of the church, and had to be eradicated.
There was no practice called as ‘witchcraft’ before Christianity. The word originated from a Celtic word for wise, ‘wicce’. Many of the signs of witchcraft found in the Inquisition can be related to pagan traditions and magic. They had no connection with devil-worship. Many of these practices can be traced to the ancient Celts and Gauls, who were a major pagan population in Europe where the Inquisition thrived.
As the Inquisition entered the 1400s, the focus shifted from Jews and heretics towards the “witches”. Pope Gregory IX had authorized the killing of witches in the 1200s, however, the trend did not catch on till the 1400s. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bill declaring that the witches existed.
As a result, church authorities tortured and killed thousands of women, in an effort to get them to confess that they flew through the sky, had sexual relations with demons, turned into animals, and engaged in various sorts of black magic. To make things worse, Christian leaders made things up, created stories which added to the fear and hate of the people towards witches.
The most famous incident was the one that took place in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 to 1693, in which nineteen women and men were hanged as witches. The colonists at that time described the incident as gruesome. The 17th century Inquisition witnessed many such witch hunts including trials, torture, and executions. Many people, mostly women, were suspected of performing dark acts which included curses against nobles and neighbors.
Individuals who were suspected of being a witch or practicing witchcraft had to undergo the detection test. Many methods were used to affirm whether the alleged person was a witch. Some of the methods included throwing the person into the water to see if he/she floated or sank, recitation of prayers and pricking of spots and moles on the individual’s skin.
The last method led to the flourishing of a cottage industry of witch prickers in the 1600s in Scotland and England. Often, a witch pricker was a male. The pricker used tools like large pins, sewing needles, and small knives. In the 17th century, the witch prickers were paid well to find the devil’s mark on witches.
The witch prickers would perform his tests and then move on to the next village or countryside. The witch prickers were paid for finding witches, and this led to many people using retractable pricking devices that disappeared into the handle. When they used these devices, it appeared as if the needle was going through the flesh. However, it wasn’t. The lack of bleeding or pain led to a conviction.
Reverend James Fraser wrote, “There came then to Inverness one Mr Paterson who had run over the kingdom for the trial of witches, and was ordinarily called the Pricker because his way of the trial was with a long brass pin. Stripping them naked, he alleged that the spell spot was seen and discovered. After rubbing over the whole body with his palms, he slipt in the pin, and, it seems, with shame and fear being dasht, they felt it not, but he left it in the flesh, deep to the head, and desired them to find and take it out….”
With the advent of the 18th century, the prickers’ trade diminished due to less belief and fear about witches by the people. The Great Britain Witchcraft Act of 1735 banished the testing and punishment of suspected witches.
Mystery of Flying Ointment
Witches were thought to have the ability to fly, shape-change and bring down horrible curses on those around. The witches are believed to fly to Sabbats or demonic holidays where they danced wildly, feasted on human flesh and cavorted with demons. The pagan priests came up with the idea of witches flying, as often they would put themselves in trances that felt like a flight.
It was believed that the witches used “flying ointment”, which in a historical context meant a salve containing a blend of fat and psychotropic herbs. This combination allegedly gave witches the ability to hop on their brooms and fly off to their Sabbat celebrations.
In Europe, people believed that this ointment was made from the rendered fat of murdered unbaptized infants. Occult artist and author Sarah Anne Lawless states that “Some may think flying ointments only go back as far as the Middle Ages as the majority of written accounts and recipes are from that period. But if we look in mythology, ancient literature, and folktales, we find a rich source of lore that leads back to pre-Christian times.”
So, what herbs would a crafty witch use in flying ointment? In general, historians indicate that it was primarily herbs in the Solanaceae family of plants – and these are all part of the Nightshade family, which includes belladonna, datura, mandrake, and henbane.
Flying ointment works as a hallucinogen when the herbs are placed in a salve or oil, rubbed on the body, and absorbed through the skin.
European witches in the Middle Ages were hardly the only ones taking advantage of hallucinogenic herbs during ritual. This practice goes back thousands of years. Early Siberian shamans may have used herbs in their rituals, and certainly, some Native American rites have included a number of hallucinogenic herbs. Carlos Casteneda has written extensively about his experiences with hallucinogenic plants during his travels in the southwest.
Why Do Witches Fly on Brooms?
If we put away the theory of hallucinogenic plants, using our world’s physics, how could one explain the mechanics behind a witch on a broomstick? The most appealing explanation would be a rocket – or jet drive, or some other kind of advanced flying machine. Can we probably associate the “then witches” with the “current extraterrestrials” and their brooms to today’s UFOs or flying saucers?
Hardly anyone ever claimed to actually witness a flying witch, but there are records of seeing weird creatures best described as a “flying humanoid entity”. In the foothills of Monterrey, Mexico a police officer encountered what he called a witch flying over top of a graveyard, Mexican newspaper reported. This flying witch, then turned to attack him. Frightened and confused he reacted calling in the bizarre encounter. Some believe this isn’t a witch but some sort of extraterrestrial flying through the air.