Why Do Witches Ride Brooms? (NSFW)

http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/TheAtlantic/~3/c_0LEUGUZcs/story01.htm

It started with bread. In the Europe of Middle Ages, most bread was made with rye. As nations urbanized, however, bread-delivery methods changed: Bread went from kitchen-to-table to bakery-to-customer, meaning that it often spent more time sitting around, waiting to be eaten. A mold, ergot, began to develop on the bread. People, in turn, began to consume it. Ergot, in high doses, can be lethal. (The spread of ergotism, in fact, is what led to the popularization of wheat bread in Europe: Wheat is resistant to the ergot mold.) In smaller doses, however, the ergot fungus can be a powerful hallucinogen. Records from the 14th to the 17th century mention Europeans’ affliction with "dancing mania," which found groups of people dancing through streets—often speaking nonsense and foaming at the mouth as they did so—until they collapsed from exhaustion. Those who experienced the "mania" without being killed by it would later describe the wild visions that accompanied it. (In the 20th century, Albert Hofmann would realize the psychedelic effects of LSD while experimenting with ergot.) So people, as people are wont to do, soon adapted this knowledge, figuring out ways to tame ergot, essentially, for hallucinatory purposes. (There may have been other plants involved, as well. Forbes’s David Kroll notes that there are also hallucinogenic chemicals in Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed). And writing in the 16th century, the Spanish court physician Andrés de Laguna claimed to have taken "a pot full of a certain green ointment … composed of herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake" from the home of a couple accused of witchcraft.) But why the brooms? Because to achieve the feeling of flight, these early drug users needed a distribution method a little more complicated than simple ingestion. Ergot, when consumed, can cause, along with hallucinations, assorted unpleasantnesses—including nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation. What people realized, though, was that absorbing ergot through the skin, thus bypassing rapid metabolism by the liver, could lead to hallucinations without the side effects. And the most receptive areas of the body for ergot absorption were the sweat glands of the armpits … and the mucus membranes of the genitals. So they used rye to make drug-laden "oyntments"—yep, "witch’s brews." To distribute those salves, these crafty hallucinators borrowed a technology from the home: a broom. Specifically, they borrowed the handle of the broom. And then … you get the idea. According to an investigation into witchcraft from 1324: 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. And here’s Jordanes de Bergamo, writing in the 15th century: 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. So that explains the brooms. And what about the flying? Part of the connection may be explained by brooms’ place in pagan rituals. As a tool, the broom is seen to balance both "masculine energies (the phallic handle) and female energies (the bristles)"—which explains why it was often used, symbolically, in marriage ceremonies. But the more likely connection has to do with the fact that users of "witch’s brew" were, in a very practical sense, using their ointment-laden broomsticks to get high. They were using their brooms, basically, to "fly." Indeed. Here’s how Gustav Schenk described the effects of tropane alkaloid intoxication, in 1966: My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me … but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying…I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves … billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along. So there you have it. Rye bread, ointments, flying brooms. But "witches" in the cultural imagination, of course, don’t necessarily need re-purposed cleaning supplies to be accused of sorcery. In 1976, Linnda Caporael presented work suggesting that the Massachusetts of the late 17th century had been the unknowing victim of an outbreak of rye ergot. Her work has since been substantiated by later scholars: The Massachusetts of 1692 likely did see an outbreak of the fungus that was a primary component of "witch’s brew." The epicenter of the blight? Salem.

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