A little something for Halloween, from the always witty and informative proprietor of the Straight Dope.
First there was a discussion of hallucinogens and their possible/probable role in the origin of religions. (I'd like to add that chemical imbalances in the brain of natural origins, i.e., being crazy, plays its part too.)
If drugs work for religious types, they'll work for pagans, too. That brings us back to witches. Today many scholars assume there never were any actual witches, just a bunch of old crones, simpleminded adolescents, and other unfortunates who became targets of religious paranoia. But a few writers have asked: What if there really were witches? Not, I hasten to say, people who were genuinely in league with the devil, flew on broomsticks, turned into beasts, etc., but rather people who believed they were or did? Moreover, what if the agency of this belief was a drug-induced hallucination?
There, in a nutshell, is the working hypothesis of Michael J. Harner's "The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft" in Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973). Harner notes that since antiquity many hallucinogenic plants have been known throughout the world, including some species of the potato family (family Solanaceae, genus Datura) such as jimsonweed, devil's-weed, mad apple, etc., as well as potato cousins like mandrake, henbane, and belladonna (deadly nightshade).
Trolling through the works of medieval and Renaissance writers, Harner finds a number of instances in which witchy hallucinations follow a potent hit of drugs. How were these drugs administered? Typically in the form of an ointment. Where was this ointment applied? To the skin, of course, but more effectively to the mucous membranes. Where can one find mucous membranes? In the vagina, among other places. How would one apply ointment to one's vagina? Well, one can always count on one's fingers, I suppose. But you could also use, uh, a pole. And where might one find a pole in the average peasant household? A broomstick. Bingo.
Harner buttresses his thesis with some choice quotes. From a witchcraft investigation in 1324: "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin." Also this from around 1470: "But 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."
Scant underpinning for a mighty far-fetched theory, you may say, and I won't deny it. Still, gives you something to think about next time you're dressing your daughter for Halloween.
— Cecil Adams
If you're wondering what we neo-witches are doing on the evening of Oct. 31, wonder no further: NOTHING LIKE THIS, sorry.