Flying Ointment

It's Halloween, which means that most folks will dabble, unwittingly on some of their parts, in magical traditions. I will forgo instructing you on the history of most accouterments associated with this holiday, since there have been volumes written about them (some even accurate).

My training is in anthroplogy, so it is that to which I turn now to bring you some amusing and educational facts about what could be considered the witch's number one accessory: the broomstick. You've always suspected it to be a phallic symbol, but it goes deeper than that.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris, among others, has argued that the broomstick is just a convenient instrument for applying the (in)famous witch's flying ointment.

What is flying ointment?

Many recipes exist for it, most containing at least one hallucinogenic compound, namely deadly nightshade (belladonna) along with the expected "ghoulish" ingredients like bat's blood.

Deadly nightshade deserves its name: it can be poisonous. However the alkaloid atropine derived from deadly nightshade also has medicinal uses. For ritual purposes, the atropine-containing plant was combined with fat to help the drug pass through the skin and enter the bloodstream. The fat could be easily obtained from the kitchen although some recipes (of questionable origin) called for the fat of an unbaptized infant.

The optimal application of the ointment required a surface with many blood vessels, like...the genital-anal area. Some sort of stick would be needed, one that would not attract the attention of the neighbors and the authorities. Something resembling the shaft of a broomstick would do.

"Sometimes the witches used a staff made of ash wood to apply the ointment themselves, but because witchcraft was against the law...they often disguised the staff as a broomstick" (Mendelson & Mello 78).

The first known image of a witch riding on a broomstick, now an icon, hails from the 13th century.

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Copyright (c) 2003 by AKG