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Origins of the witch’s broom
The image of the witch’s broom is ubiquitous. Popular culture is replete with witches and their brooms just to mention the Nuimbus 2000 ridden by Harry Potter. The question does beg to be asked, though: where did the image of the witch’s broom spring from
The question does beg to be asked, though: if we live in a world where, as yet, it remains to be proven that the men and women accused of witchcraft were able to achieve flight, where did the image of the witch’s broom spring from?
‘CERTAIN WICKED WOMEN’
The earliest mention of night-flying women appears in the Cannon Episcopi, a possibly 8th century document included in Buchard of Worms’ Decretum: “…certain wicked women, turned back toward Satan, seduced by demonic illusions and phantasms, believe of themselves and profess to ride upon certain beasts in the night-time hours, with Diana, the Goddess of the Pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and to traverse great spaces of earth in the silence of the dead of night, and to be subject to her laws as of a Lady, and on fixed nights be called to her service…”
This idea of women flying at night on various mounts can be found all over Europe in the Middle Ages: in Jean de Meung’s The Romance of the Rose, finished in 1280, he writes of how, “Many people’s senses deceive them, and they believe they are witches wandering the night with Dame Abonde…”
As early as the 12th century, John of Salisbury wrote of the night flying witches ruled by Herodias, a female figure featured in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. In John’s Polycraticus he writes, “They claim that a noctiluca or Herodias or a witch ruler of the night convokes nocturnal assemblies at which they feast and riot and carry out other rites, where some are punished and others are rewarded according to their merits. Moreover, infants are set out for lamias and appear to be cut up into pieces, eaten, and gluttonously stuffed into the witches’ stomachs.” This vision of the witch is melded with the belief of the lamia, demon/ogre women who often travelled with night flying witches to enter houses and feed on children.
This folk belief in women who flew at night and feasted was a battleground for the Medieval Christian church. William of Auvergne, the Bishop of Paris in the 13th century, criticised the belief in Dame Abonde and her company of night-flying women, “…it is our old women, who, through lack of wisdom, have, in astonishing fashion, spread this detestable belief that they have maintained… It is especially women whom they have persuaded in the existence of the ladies… and their beneficial qualities…”
The demonization of this folk belief can be seen not only in John of Salisbury but in Jacobus de Voraigne’s work ‘The Golden Legend.’ In one tale of St. Germaine, the miracle-working bishop finds himself the guest of a family and is surprised to find them re-laying the table immediately after the evening meal. In Jacobus’ telling of the story the saint asks the purpose of the second feast, only to be told that the food was being set out for “…certain good women who journeyed through the night.”
Saint Germain subsequently stays awake through the night to catch these ‘good women,’ asking his host to identify them as they make their way into the property. When the family identifies the women as friends and neighbours, Germain leads them to the neighbours’ houses, where the innocent women are still sleeping peacefully in their beds. He then returns to the property and calls upon the spirits to tell the truth, whereupon they reveal themselves as demons.
‘SHE FLEW ON A BROOMSTICK FROM VALPUTE’
One of the earliest images of the witch on her broomstick can be found in Martin le Franc’s poem ‘Le Champion des Dames’ from 1440. The poem was part of an ongoing debate stirred up by the misogynistic images of women portrayed by Jean de Meung’s ‘The Romance of the Rose.’
In the margins of one 1451 edition of the text, currently held in the Bibliotheque National de France, we see two women plainly straddling broomsticks and in flight. In Le Franc’s work he confronts accusations of women taking part in Satanic gatherings.
The conceit of his poem is a conversation between The Adversary and Free Will, with Free Will defending women and The Adversary interrupting with more and more damning, misogynistic evidence, “I’ve seen in a written trial record where an old woman confessed how, since the time when she was just sixteen years old, that on certain nights she flew on a broomstick from Valpute and went directly to the awful synagogue of devils. Ten thousand old woman in a troop were there, as in a great assembly in the shapes of cats or goats, approaching the devil courteously, kissing him openly on the ass as a sign of their obedience… some were instructed in their arts and perverse sorceries from the devil himself, by which they later committed many evils… Then each returned home, like the wind, on her broomstick – so much power had Satan given her, that wretched thief of souls…”
The key to the origins of this wild Sabbat can be seen in the label applied to the illustrations: ‘Des Vaudoises’, or ‘Waldenesians.’
SABBATS OF THE WALDENESIANS AND CATHARS
As Christianity’s external threats had dropped away, a greater threat had started to present itself – fragmentation by various groups seeking to make their own spiritual headway. Groups such as the Waldenesians and Cathars preached moderately ascetic, self-empowered Christianity, arguing against doctrines such as purgatory, and demanding that clerics be sinless before exercising spiritual authority.
By 1184, the Waldenesians of Northern France had failed to come to an agreement with the Bishop of Lyons and had been expelled from the city. By 1231, the situation had become sufficiently troubling to the authorities in France and Germany that the friars of Regensburg were mobilised with the Decretal Illi Humani Generis, which deputised the Dominican friars: “Prior Buchard… brothers of the Order of Preachers in Regensburg… we seek, urge, and exhort your wisdom, by apostolic letters sent to you under the apostolic seal, that you be sent as judges into different districts to preach where it seems useful to you to the clergy and people assembled together, using for this purpose other discreet people known to you, and to seek out diligently those who are heretics or are infamed of heresy.”
By 1254, this system of investigation and questioning by Dominican and Franciscan friars had become sufficiently widespread that Pope Innocent IV laid down his final Papal Bull, Ad Extirpanda, setting out the powers and uses of a new form of investigation: ‘Inquisitio.’
This Bull ordered heads of state to erase legislation that went against the rules of Inquisition, and allowed Inquisitors the authority to take control of citizens and their property, “…seize the heretical men and women and carry off their possessions into the custody of the Dioceasan bishop or his surrogates… [and] summon in our name and by our authority all the parishioners of such and a place, men from the age of fourteen, women from the age of twelve, or younger if perchance they shall have been guilty of an offence, to appear before us on such a day at such a place to answer for acts which they may have committed against the faith and to abjure heresy…”
While there was a healthy dose of revenue-making and political expediency in the persecution of heretics, this new fear of heretics had also come from spawned lurid tales of Waldenesian and Cathar Sabbats.
Conrad of Marburg accused the Count of Sayn, alleging that the nobleman rode a giant crab to orgies where he kissed the devil’s backside. In 1233, Pope Gregory’s Decretal, Vox in Rama, depicted lurid heretical gatherings where, “…when any novice is to be received among them and enters the sect of the damned for the first time, the shape of a certain giant frog appears to him… some kiss this creature on the hindquarters…” By the 15th century, the words ‘Cathar’ and ‘Vaudois’ were synonymous with witchcraft in France, Switzerland and Germany.
‘THE ERRORS OF THE CATHARS’
This book, coming out of Savoy in the 1430s, gives us the first full description of the witch’s Sabbat, and a clear depiction of the broom being used to fly to secret meetings. When a Christian of either sex was seduced into witchcraft, the Devil would give them a jar of ointment used to anoint a staff upon which they might fly to the ‘synagogue.’
Here the author depicts all the usual depravities: when all the witches had arrived and parked their brooms, the Devil would appear in the form of a black cat or some other ill-famed animal, and the assembled witches would kiss its backside. Once the novice had made his or her oath to the devil they would swear to kill as many children under the age of three as possible and bring their bodies to the Sabbat so that their fat could be melted down and used for ointments, some to fly to the Sabbat, others to kill or bring bad weather.
This image of the witch riding a staff or broom was now embedded in the European psyche. While the most influential witch hunting manual of them all, the Malleus Maleficarum, found the idea of physical flight to the Sabbat problematic, no less influential thinkers than Martin del Rio supported the idea of physical travel to the Sabbat as late as 1600. In his Disquisitiones Magiae Libri Sex, Martin depicted witches straddling a staff smeared with ointment made from the fat of a dead child: “They are usually carried away sitting on a staff, a pitch-fork, or a distaff; or they stand on one leg in a basket; or they sit on brooms, or a reed, or a bull, a pig, a male goat, or a dog…”
‘OINTMENTS OF THE LAMIAS’
Finally, it would be reductive of me to say that the witch’s broom and the idea of night flying came only from the unpleasant myths of Medieval Inquisitors. The Benedanti, men and women who flew in trance states to ensure a good harvest, were a feature of folklore in Northern Italy well into the 17th century.
While it should be stated that there is no evidence of an organised ‘olde religion’ fighting quietly against the Catholic Church, there certainly were people practising folk magic all over Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. These ‘Cunning Folk,’ as they were called in England, gave a variety of services. In England and Scotland many of them claimed to have derived their powers from meetings with the faeries, or from supernatural parentage, and the unfortunate Agnes Sampson – executed during the North Berwick witch trials of 1591 – was a Christian mystic, using prayer for healing and divination.
And although there is no evidence that Ergot poisoning led to any witchcraft convictions, there is evidence of mystics using psychoactive compounds for shamanistic travel. Giambattista Della Porta, writing in the 16th to 17th centuries, describes a woman using psychoactive ointment to ‘fly’: “she undressed hir selfe, and rubbed hir bodie with certeine ointments… when she fell downe thorough the force of those soporiferous or sleepie ontments into a most sound and heavie sleepe… until hir powers were exhausted, and she awoke of her own accord, and began to speake… affirming that she had passed over both seas and mountains…”
Text by Jon Kaneko-James / http://jonkanekojames.com
Jon also writes children's books as Jon Chant, check out his debut novel, Great Fire: http://jonkanekojames.com/books/
The image of the witch’s broom is ubiquitous – simply typing the word ‘witch’ into a modern search engine will return pages of results showing a cheerful, hook nosed figure straddling a flying broomstick. Popular culture is replete with witches and their brooms: Sir Terry Pratchett’s witch characters, the sisters of Spelling television’s Charmed, and the Nuimbus 2000 ridden by Harry Potter.
Did you know?
Agnes Sampson was accused of creating vicious sea storms in order to send King James VI of Scotland to a watery grave.
Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer often depicted witches naked.
Anna Göldi is believed to have been one of the last witches to be executed in Europe, in 1782.