A Bewitching History: Why Witches Ride Broomsticks

From LiveScience.com

By Megan Gannon 

Among the throngs of this year’s trick-or-treaters, hundreds of Americans will be dressed as Miley Cyrus or a minion from “Despicable Me,” but more will go with a fail-safe getup. “Witch” once again reigns as the No. 1 costume for adults, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2013 Halloween survey.

Many of the pointy-hatted sorcerers who roam the streets this Oct. 31 will be carrying broomsticks or besoms. But few likely know the murky tale of how witches came to be associated with those familiar household objects.

The story — full of sex, drugs and Christian inquisitors — starts with poisonous plants like black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), sometimes called stinking nightshade.

Flying ointments

Ingesting henbane, which is rich in powerful alkaloids, can cause hallucinations (if it doesn’t kill you first). According to legend, witches used herbs with psychoactive properties like henbane in their potions, or “flying ointments.” Some historical accounts suggest witches applied these ointments to their nether regions. And what better applicator than a wooden staff?

Lady Alice Kyteler, Ireland’s earliest known accused witch, was condemned to death for using sorcery to kill her husband in 1324. (Kyteler escaped, and her maid was burned at the stake in her stead.)

The English historian Raphael Holinshed later recounted the case and described some of the supposedly damning evidence authorities found against Kyteler:…