Welcome to Afterglow, a newsletter that will change your mind. My name is Charles Bliss and I'm a psychedelic journalist from Norwich, UK.
This week we're exploring the gruesome, sexy, psychedelic origins of witches and broomsticks. Happy Halloween!
Hermione, Sabrina, Kiki, the Wicked Witch of the West — why are the most pervasive sorceresses depicted riding broomsticks? The answer lies in hallucinogenic plant pharmacology.
When chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938, little did he know that his novel psychedelic compound would offer some insight into the mythology and symbolism of witchcraft.
LSD is derived from ergot alkaloids, which naturally occur in Claviceps purpurea — a fungus that can infect grains like barley and rye. Consuming contaminated bread can be lethal, but in lower doses those who eat it can suffer hallucinations, causing them to appear mad or possessed.
One theory of the Salem witch trials, where 20 people were executed for practising the devil’s magic in 17th-century Massachusetts, blames ergot poisoning for the behaviour of the women accused. Many were afflicted with "dancing mania" which saw them thrashing in the streets, speaking nonsense and foaming at the mouth.
Other psychoactive alkaloids like tropane are made by a number of plants including Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Datura stramonium (jimsonweed) and Hyoscyamus niger (henbane). During the Middle Ages, these plants were used to brew witches' salves or ointments for sorcery. One of the active compounds is called scopolamine, which produces intense delirium at low doses.
Eating the plants or drinking their extracts causes severe intestinal discomfort, nausea, vomiting and skin irritation. To achieve their delirium, these early drug users searched for an alternate distribution method to simple ingestion. Somehow, they discovered that absorbing the compounds through the skin mitigated their toxicity and could induce hallucinations without the unpleasant side effects.
But why broomsticks?
The most receptive areas of the body for absorption are the sweat glands of the armpits and the mucus membranes of the genitals. Rectal and vaginal routes of administration bypass the first cycle of rapid metabolism by the liver.
The boiled hallucinogenic plants were applied to the vulvovaginal area with a broomstick, likely used to mix the concoction. This ointment-laden phallic object would allow witches to get high and 'fly' away.
In the 15th century, theologian Jordanes de Bergamo wrote:
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.
So, there's your answer: dildos.
🤯 Mind at Large
A breakdown of mind-blowing ideas I encountered this week:
📖 Book – William Blake vs the World by John Higgs (2021). Last week, after seeing Bob Dylan at the London Palladium, I decided to pay my respects to another mystical madman poet. I walked to Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, Islington — the resting place of William Blake. I listened to this audiobook and deeply enjoyed its exploration of Blake's biography, poetry, art and personal mythology, and how it intersected this with mysticism and even psychedelic culture. Higgs name-drops David Lynch, the Beatles and Robin Carhart-Harris. Strongly recommended.
🎵 Music – The Daily Mail by Radiohead. I am obsessed with this recording from The King of Limbs: Live from the Basement. The tuba in the crescendo will break your brain.
"One thought, fills immensity."
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