‘When did witches start to fly?’ a reader asked me after the Harrogate History Festival. Good question!
Until the 16th century, witchcraft was not a crime unless it caused injury or death. The community needed witches who could calm storms or banish pests from crops. Early writers on witchcraft didn’t mention the infamous witches’ sabbat. They did write about women gathering to perform spells, but there is no suggestion that they travelled there by any means other than walking.
But by the 16th century, both the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Inquisition had decided witchcraft of any kind was heretical, therefore punishable by death. They constructed the elaborate myth of the witches’ sabbat, which not only included the Black Mass, but sexual orgies with the devil. Prosecutors alleged that as many as 2,000 women would assemble at a remote location to take part. But how could they get there in a single night and be tucked up in bed at home by dawn? They had to fly.
The idea of flying women was not new. In the 10th Century, the Canon Episcopi condemned women who believed they could fly with the Goddess Diana in the wild hunt. But it was the belief in the goddess to which the Church objected, not the flying. The medieval Church’s complaint against witches was not their magic, but that they made offerings to the old goddesses rather than to the relics of saints.
During the Middle Ages, flying or levitating was often a sign of Christian piety. Numerous saints werereported to have this ability including Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila. Ironically, it was the very ability of the saints to levitate through the power of God that would be used as proof that witches could do it through the power of demons.
But with the rise of both the Inquisition and Protestantism even a saint’s ability to fly began to be regarded as a sign they might be a secret witch. St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63) was denounced to the Inquisition because he could levitate. Levitating nuns were in even greater danger. Magdalena Crucia, Abbess at Cordova, who died in 1560, was persuaded by her confessors that her levitation was not a sign of her devotion, but proof she was a witch.
But the question that vexed the Church was – did witches fly in body or spirit? It was a common medieval belief that the spirit left the body in the form of a mouse while the person slept. If you moved a sleeping person their soul might not find its way back, so the victim would die. St. Martin de Porres and the 20th Century saint, Padre Pio, were both credited with bilocation – the ability to appear in spirit in one place while their bodies were miles away. This became central to an outbreak of anti-witch hysteria in 1683, in Calw, Germany, when children swore they attended witches’ sabbats while their parents watched them sleeping
But by the late 16th century, most theologians insisted witches could not travel in spirit, therefore their bodies must be flying. Only God, they said, could work the miracle of taking the spirit from thebody then restoring it, bringing a corpse back to life. God certainly wouldn’t perform that miracle for a witch. The devil carried Jesus up to the top of the temple, so that ‘proved’ that demons were able to bodily transport witches.
Witches were accused of smearing their bodies with a flying ointment, containing babies’ fat or blood and deadly herbs dedicate to the goddess Hecate, such as monkshood and dwale. In 1460, under torture, witches in France confessed that after smearing the devil’s ointment on ‘a tiny stick’ they could fly where they wanted. Witches were depicted riding fantastic beasts or their ‘familiars’ such as cats or foxes – animals associated with Satan. Women ‘bewitched’ neighbours’ horses and they would be found sweating in their stables having been ‘hag-ridden’.
Witches were also thought to ride shovels, pitchforks, distaffs and forked sticks. Brooms were already linked to magic. If a woman brushed the dust from the room outwards, she would be brushing away the fortune of the house. If she brushed in front of neighbour’s door, she would be stealing their luck. The broomstick probably became the favourite object to depict witches riding as they were associated with women’s work and were a phallic symbol used in peasant weddings, emphasising those sexual orgies.
Why was it so important to convince the populace witches could fly? If they could fly they could appear anywhere, they couldn’t be safely contained, and they could gather to plot. It wouldn’t be the last time in history authorities would make ‘the enemy’ appear more powerful than they were to justify killing them.