We are all familiar with the Western cultural icon that is the Witch. The mythological female that possesses magical powers and hidden knowledge most popularly depicted in black or nude, flying on a broomstick through the nocturnal sky or in the midst of a preternatural, and sometimes orgiastic, gathering with her coven.
We may, or may not, all know that the concept of witchcraft and its practitioners has existed throughout recorded history in diverse forms amongst various cultures and religions worldwide, yet this western idea of witchcraft, that is ubiquitous today, was born by the church during the rise of Christianity in the Middle Ages.
In an attempt to either convert or condemn the Pagans that practiced a different polytheistic religion during this time, the Catholic Church – and later the Protestant church – launched an ideological attack on Paganism that transformed the multiple gods and goddesses that were worshipped into devils and demons. Essentially ensuring the Pagan belief system became one of devil worship that was treated with suspicion and hostility, turning their practitioners into witches (or warlocks) who consorted with the devil (as an aside: prior to this point in time, there was no mention of devil worship among Pagans until the church decided it so). Unsurprisingly, witch persecution became rampant during this religiously stringent time and lasted until the era of Enlightenment in the 18th century.
In a time where magical, scientific and religious thought were not separate philosophies but intrinsically linked, the witch was born. Whilst both men and women were subject to accusation and conviction of practicing witchcraft, historically it was a condemnation that was deadly to more women than men. This was due to the strong belief that a woman was more likely to be a witch; as she who was made from the bent rib of Adam, was herself twisted, weak, and an abomination by her very nature. This idea was perpetuated by the now infamous text Malleus Maleficarum, an historic witch hunter’s handbook published in 1486 by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, during the early stages of the witch hysteria. The book itself had a profound impact on witch trials in Europe for about 200 years – it was second only to the Bible in sales until 1678 and is now considered the most important treatise on persecuting witches during this time. Tellingly the Latin genitive Maleficarum translates literally to ‘of female evil-doers’. One of the most famous passages reads:
"As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men . . . the first reason is, that they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them . . . the second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable. . . . But the natural reason is that [a woman] is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations . . . All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable." (Kramer and Sprenger, (1486)
During this time, witchcraft accusations often focused on lurid details of ‘sexual depravity’ of the accused with accounts often detailing adultery, fornication, and sex with Satan or other women. The focus on the carnality or inherent eroticism of women in this passage highlights the strong link between witchcraft and the expression of autonomous sexuality in women; for a witch’s sexuality was essential to her enigmatic power, abhorrent corruption and her menacing allure.
In the Later Middle Ages, witches began to be depicted with broomsticks, particularly in art and literature. While the idea of witches and broomsticks was often thought to relate to earlier pagan fertility rituals, there are some explanations that are imbued with sexual meaning and symbolise sexually autonomous females subverting their societal stereotypes. The broom is a symbol of domesticity, representative of the home and hearth that women were relegated to. Yet, given its phallic nature, riding the broom became a symbol of female sexuality and protest against the confinement of the domestic space. This presented a challenge to the strong patriarchy of the time: the idea of a woman using a socially oppressive object such as the broom to explore her own sexuality was a form of untamed domesticity!
Around the same time as the first reports of witches flying on broomsticks emerge references to ‘flying ointments’. According to a 1563 book, Praestigiis Daemonum, the hallucinogenic plants of henbane, deadly nightshade, mandrake, and rye mould containing ergot fungi were readily accessible during that time and were principal ingredient’s in any witch’s flying ointment. We now know the effects of these plants are similar to those of LSD and can simulate a sensation of flying, among other things. Yet, swallowing these ingredients can cause sickness or sometimes death, so better forms of absorption were experimented with. Particularly effective techniques were achieved by ingestion through the mucous membranes, such as under the armpits, through the anus, or for women, through their vaginas. What better way to apply an ointment intravaginally than with a phallic shaped staff such as a broomstick?!
The 15th century records of Jordanes de Bergamo states ‘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’.
And in 1477, Antoine Rose, known as the Witch of Savoy confessed under torture, that the Devil ‘gave her a stick, 18 inches long, and a pot of ointment. She used to smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’’.
This strong association of witches with broomsticks could also potentially express the cultural anxiety about women having sex with one another using ‘instruments’ such as dildos. Witches in art are often depicted holding a long stick perhaps used as a sexual instrument or are depicted in the engagement of a variety of women-to-women genital acts suggesting mutual and solo masturbation. Importantly this highlights the sexual discourses of the period where discussions of sexual behaviours and ethics were rampant and particularly restrictive for women. It is also a time where any sexual activity outside of marriage was considered sinful or criminal, and when masturbation came to be conceptualized as a self-polluting sin and anti-social ‘self-abuse’. Significantly, the depictions of these socially deviant women also refute the contingency of sexual stimulation being dependent on a man’s participation and promote the idea of female eroticism and sexual independence from men.
Yet, woman-to-woman sex practices were prominent enough during this time in elite circles that they are actually mentioned in penitentials (a book or set of church rules concerning repentance) by Theodore of Tarsus in the seventh century, Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth, St. Antoninus in the fourteenth, and St. Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth.
Depending on whether penetration occurred or not determined the seriousness of the offence. For example, Theodore recommended lesser penalties for women who ‘practice vice’ with one another than for heterosexual or male-to-male couples. However, using an ‘instrument’ was a serious offence, since penetration was considered ‘real sex’. The sixteenth century Italian jurist Prospero Farinacci wrote that the death penalty applied only if a woman used a sex object to penetrate another woman. Evidently the use of brooms or sticks as a sexual instrument would be a grave sin and crime even without the often cited witch or satanic implications accompanying the sex act.
From the viewpoint of 2017, such drug use and sexual autonomy like self-pleasure, sexual experimentation, and sexual preferences are not shocking acts, in fact they are both celebrated and liberating today. Yet, at that time, a woman choosing to do what she wished with her own body or mind was so inconceivable that it was considered evil doing or synonymous with the devil himself. Many women were tortured and killed because they dared to explore what we now know as personal liberties.
The idea of the witch was born in a time of much anxiety about women and the place they had in a transforming society; a time where women risked ex-communication, imprisonment, torture or even death to explore their own autonomous sexuality. Some women most likely imagined, feared, dreamed about, or actually engaged in prohibited sex acts such as extramarital sex, masturbation, woman-to-woman sex, or used ‘instruments’ to have intercourse with other women. It is not a stretch to believe that this real and imagined ‘sexual deviation’ of women both concerned and thrilled their contemporaneous male counterparts, who invested substantial amounts of time and thought into understanding why women might contest and contravene their stipulated sexual roles. Indeed, both men and other women likely struggled to comprehend these problematic women and their self-governing sexuality. It also highlights the formation of certain social categories that worked at marginalising women for their ‘otherness’; a wealth of gender scholarship from the 80s and 90s focuses on the misogynistic influences of the witchcraft narrative, arguing that witches were socially, economically, and sexually marginal figures who were punished for straying outside of the appropriate gender or sexual norms that were expected of them.
As such, the historical idea of the witch has come to reveal more about how well a woman fit into societal norms and gender roles of that period than it does of her actual use of magic; for to be a witch was to be a woman feared of her self-governing sexuality and power in a world where women were otherwise powerless.
Erin Mahony, Demonic Carnality: Female Witches and Sexuality in Medieval Magic, Science, and Faith (2013).
Justyna Sempruch, ‘Feminist Constructions of the ‘Witch’ as a Fantasmatic Other’, Body and Society Vol 10. No. 4 (2004).
Qinna Shen, ‘Feminist Redemption of the Witch: Grimm and Michelet as Nineteenth-Century Models’, Focus on German Studies 15 (2007).
Dylan Thuras, Sex, Drugs and Broomsticks: The Origins of the Iconic Witch, www.atlasobscura.com (2014).