Happy Witches Night, :)
I remember seeing this on Mike's page a few years back.
A good read and love the illustrations.
The popular icon of a witch is an ugly old woman riding across the sky on her magic broomstick and wearing a pointed hat. But as with all mythologies there is an element of truth behind the image. Witches did ride brooms, after a fashion, the brooms were magic, in a way, and the pointed hat was the mildest of the punishments inflicted on them for their activities!
During the time leading up to the witchcraft trials in Europe, the staple bread was made with rye. In a small town where the bread was fresh baked this was just fine, but as Europe began to urbanize and the bread took more time to get from bakery to grocer, the rye bread began to host a mold called "ergot".
Ergot, in high doses, can be lethal, a fact that led to the rise in popularity of wheat bread, which is resistant to ergot mold.
In smaller doses, ergot is a powerful hallucinogenic drug. And because the enjoyment of such things is not confined to this age alone, it became quite popular among those who were inclined towards herbalism and folk cures. Ergot is mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, and turns up in virtually every contemporary writing of the witchcraft age. In particular, it is the inevitable central ingredient in the ointment that witches rubbed their flying broomsticks with.
You see, when ergot is eaten, there was the risk of death, but when absorbed through the thin tissues of the female genitals, the hallucinogenic effects were more pronounced with less ill effects. The modern image of a witch riding a broomstick was inspired by the sight of a woman rubbing herself on the drug coated smooth stick of her broom, writhing in the throes of hallucinations, and no doubt, some intense orgasms as well. To her unsophisticated neighbors, such a sight would have been terrifying. The lack of an equivalent mechanism for men is one reason why "witchcraft" was seen as a predominantly female phenomenon. The addition of clothing to the witch is a modern embellishment to protect 'Family Values'.
In any event, what follows is a brief expansion on witches, brooms, and ergot, illustrated by woodcuts and engravings from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.