Flying ointments typically refer to fat-based salves containing a mixture of psychotropic substances, applied by witches to their skin or mucous membranes and producing euphoric, soporific and trance-like effects. The ointment produced hallucinations, sensations of flying, or it basically put the user to sleep, and thereby allowed the witch to travel in the form of her Double to the Sabbat, or engage in other activities, such as shapeshifting. Ointments were also believed to be used by werewolves and others to induce metamorphosis.
Other academics, as well as an increasing number of modern witches and pagans, have fully embraced the role which entheogens may have played for witches of the past. In his article If Witches No Longer Fly, Chas Clifton states that “flying ointments represent a significant, verifiable link to an ancient European shamanic practice - perhaps the nearest thing to Margaret Murray’s “Old Religion””. It is certainly indisputable that entheogenic plants have been used by many cultures for thousands of years (Chas Clifton notes, for example, the artistic portrayal of Datura in ancient Egypt), not only for the purpose of inducing lucid dream states and shapeshifting but also as poisons, love potions, or as medicine. In his book The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic, Thomas Hatsis explores the origins of the witches’ ointment and concludes that these may indeed have been used by witches in the past, although perhaps not as popularly or to the extent that many modern witches and occult practitioners claim.
Witch hunting manuals of the Middle Ages suggest that brooms were used to topically apply the flying ointments mentioned above. A witch would grease the handle of the broom with the salve and proceed to ‘ride’ the broomstick, or else insert it into her vagina (in order to absorb the ointment via mucous membranes). I highly recommend reading Hatsis’ The Witches Ointment for a full treatment of the topic, and to see why this is unlikely although it was believed by clerics to be done.
Many modern witches and neo-pagans view the besom (an older term for broom) as a tool of purification, used for sweeping away bad luck and negative influences, or to cleanse ritual space. In the past, the broom was a powerful symbol of feminine domesticity as well. In addition to this, like all ‘sticks’ it was considered a phallic symbol and so the image of the witch riding a broom, like any other stick, had strong sexual overtones.
The first depiction of a witch riding broomstick isn’t really clear - there is an image of a woman riding what could be a broom or distaff in the Schleswig Cathedral dated to the twelfth century, and some woodcuts dated to the fifteenth century. Perhaps the first known artistic depiction of a witch riding what is obviously a broom is an illustration in Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames, published in the year 1451, and pictured here on the upper left. There are a few other references to brooms as witch’s tools in the writings of churchmen and demonologists, and a few confessions to using brooms for witches’ flight in witch trial records from the Middle Ages.
Although now more commonly associated with the figure of the wise old wizard, staffs were once believed to be a tool of witches and sorcerers as well. As seen the above manuscript photo, witches were depicted flying on staffs as well. The staff is yet another phallic symbol, commonly associated with the masculine by some modern witches.
Crooked staffs or sticks in particular were thought to be associated with sorcery and witchcraft. For example, Thorsteins saga baejarmagns states that, when Thorsteinn decides to travel to the underworld, he says “get out my crooked stick and my woollen gloves, as I want to go on a gandreið”. The gandreið will be discussed further below. Interestingly, this saga is a reworking of the adventures of Thor, replaced by the figure of Thorsteinn. Leszek Gardela, in his works discussing Old Norse staffs of sorcery, notes their similarity to crooked staffs (often gnarled or twisted branches and roots) used by pagan Baltic priests.
Staffs, and their shorter version the wand, were once the iconic tool of Norse seeresses and witches called Völur (plural; singular Völva). Their title is derived from the Old Norse word völr and thus literally means “staff carrier”. Iron staffs and wands, and a small number of wooden staffs, have been found in the rich graves of women believed to have been witches or priestesses.
The stang - essentially a forked stick - was also commonly depicted as a vehicle for transporting witches through the air, as pictured to the left. It is now a popular ritual tool for modern traditional witches, functioning as a portable altar and representing the Horned God or Devil, the world tree or axis mundi, and a gateway to the Otherworld or land of the dead. It also retains its associations with agricultural tools such as the pitchfork, and weapons such as the spear. However it also represents, like the Völva’s staves, a woman’s distaff (in fact the simplest form of a distaff was a stang, usually the tip of a tree with two or three points to wrap unspun flax or wool around). A common punishment for men in the Middle Ages was ‘riding the stang’ (or distaff) as a form of humiliation.
Although we are largely unfamiliar with the image of the distaff and its symbolism today - indeed, it seems almost ‘otherworldly’ to us now - women of all ages and social classes a few hundred years ago used distaffs on a daily basis, and it was the ultimate symbol of womanhood in the Middle Ages, and possibly earlier. A common term for the female line of descent was the ‘distaff line’. There is no shortage of artwork from the Middle Ages depicting witches with distaffs, either riding on them or using them to work magic. The distaff as a symbol of femininity and witchcraft is significant, as many other domestic tools were supposedly used by witches for otherworldly travel, such as forks, spoons, rolling pins, scutchers, pokers, etc. Witches were also believed to make boats out of sieves, or eggshells.
Robert Cochrane, viewed by some as the ‘father’ of modern traditional witchcraft, stated “the so-called ‘sacred object’ held in such reverence by some witches was in fact a weaver’s distaff”. In addition to the other symbolism also attached to the ‘stang’ (such as it being a microcosmic representation of the world tree) the reason for its sacredness, as Cochrane suggests, is its association with Fate and the creative powers of the cosmos. Spinning and weaving was intimately connected with women’s work as well as sorcery, witchcraft and the workings of fate or destiny. In many ancient mythologies, primordial goddesses were believed to spin and weave Fate and the fabric of the universe with their distaffs and spindles.
In his paper Spinning Seiðr, Eldar Heide explains the connection between an Old Norse form of sorcery called seiðr, practiced primarily by the Völur and other women both human and divine, and spinning. In fact it has been suggested that the staffs of sorcery found in the graves of Norse seeresses are cultic or symbolic distaffs, based on their similarity to wooden distaffs with basket handles, and Heide likens them to the golden distaffs of the Greek Moirae. They also bring to mind the golden ‘weaver’s beam’ carried by the druid prophetess Fedelm in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. He goes on to say that any kind of women’s textile work was strongly linked to supernatural power, and the sorcerers and witches who specialized in seiðr could send out a ‘mind emissary’ in the form of thread to work magic.
"Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander
Would ride through the air on a very fine gander"
The Old Norse word gandr (Latin gandus) was used for such a ‘mind emissary’. The term has many other meanings as well, such as ‘magic’, ‘spirit’, ‘stick’, and even ‘wolf’. Interestingly, it may also refer to, as Clive Tolley explains, “a sort of artificial mannikin made of twigs, hair, nails, etc which might in vengeance be sent unseen into the intestines of a victim”. The gandr may allude to a witch’s steed and/or familiar spirit and to her own spirit Double, capable of taking on a variety of shapes. The term gandr/gand has also survived into modern Scandinavian languages and can mean ‘gust of wind’, ‘gale’ or magic ‘wind shot’. This variety of meanings can seem confusing, however all the meanings relate to each other and essentially point towards the gandr as a spirit (whether helping spirit or spirit double isn’t clear) sent forth to work magic. The gander (male goose) that serves as Old Mother Goose’s mount mentioned in the above nursery rhyme may indeed allude to all of this.
A related term probably derived from gandr is gondull, which Clive Tolley believes relates specifically to the ‘magic staff’ witches used to summon their gandir spirits (he establishes this on the basis of another meaning of gand/gondull, ‘penis’). Is this hinting that the staffs of sorcery used by the Norse völur were used not only as shamanic steeds for travelling to the otherworld, but also as a means of summoning spirits? It certainly hints that these seiðstafr could have been a sort of familiar spirit, or at least a tool by which to connect with helping spirits. This idea is further supported by the way in which they were treated in the Viking Age burials of seeresses - the staffs seem to have been ritually ‘killed’ as though they were persons with a measure of power in their own right.
The gandreið, defined as ‘spirit ride’ or ‘witches’ ride’ and often considered synonymous with the Wild Hunt, is referred to in several Old Norse sources and later folklore. Stephen Mitchell, in his book Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, argues that initially, the gandreið involved a witch either sending a helping spirit out, or venturing forth in the form of her spirit double, in order to gather information. Later on it became associated with traveling to a Witches’ Sabbat. In at least one saga (Njáls saga), as Mitchell points out, “the sighting of a witch-ride can portend great events”, seemingly strengthening the connection between witches, flying processions such as the Wild Hunt, and the workings of Fate. Various Old Norse terms for witches describe them as riders. This includes kveldriða ‘evening-rider’, myrkriða ‘dark-rider’, and tunriða ‘fence-rider’ or ‘hedge-rider’. A person who may be ridden by the spirit double of a witch was described as trollriða ‘witch-ridden’.
Wolves and Other Beasts
Witches riding through the air upon the backs of animals is a familiar image to us. They were frequently depicted as mounting black rams, goats, cats, dogs, horses, hares, geese and various other birds and beasts. Perhaps the most interesting of the witch’s animal steeds, at least in the Scandinavian sources, was the wolf.
In the Norse sagas and poetry, picture stones and even runic inscriptions, witches and giantesses or troll-women (synonymous with witch, really) travel astride wolves. As mentioned above, one meaning of gandr was in fact ‘wolf’ or ‘wolf spirit’. In the Foestbroeðra saga, the seeress Thordis runs at night with spirits in the form of wolves on a gandreið. Giantesses such as Hyndla and Hyrrokkin ride wolves, with snakes as reins. Various kennings for wolf refer to their association with giantesses or witches, such as leiknar hestr ‘ogress’ steed’ and kveldriðu hestr ‘evening rider’s steed’. A spirit carrying a curse or ill-wil from a witch was described as gygjar gonduls andar or ‘witch’s wolf breaths’. Thus further reinforces the imagery of a wolf in spirit form (as well the connection between spirit and breath), either as a witch’s familiar or helping spirit and mount or as her spirit double.
Witches used tools with a wide range of powerful symbolism and were strongly associated with the wild in the form of animal spirits. As a liminal figure straddling the boundary between civilization and otherworldly wilderness, the witch figure in various cultures gave new meaning to common domestic tools and features of the land by making use of these to work her magic and travel in spirit to other realms.
References and Further Reading:
Behringer, W. (1998). Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the phantoms of the night. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Clifton, C.S. (2001). If Witches No Longer Fly: Today’s Pagans and the Solanaceous Plants. The Pomegranate 16, 17-23.
Dashu, M. (2016). Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion 700-1100. Richmond, CA: Veleda Press.
Gardeła, L. (2008). Into Viking minds: reinterpreting the staffs of sorcery and unravelling seiðr. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 4, 45-84.
Gardela, L. (2009). A Biography of the Seiðr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions. L. P. Słupecki, J. Morawiec (Eds.). Between Paganism and Christianity in the North. Rzeszów: Rzeszów University, 190-219.
Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles: witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.
Ginzburg, C. (2004). Ecstasies: deciphering the witches’ sabbath. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Hatsis, T. (2015). The witches’ ointment: the secret history of psychedelic magic. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
Heide, E. (2006). Spinning Seiðr. Anders, A. & Jennbert, K. (Eds.) Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Nordic Academic Press, 164-70.
Heide, E. (2006). Spirits Through Respiratory Passages. John McKinnel et. al (Eds.) The fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint papers of the 13th international saga conference, Durham and York, August 6-12 2006. Durham: University of Durham, 350-358.
Howard, M. (2011). The children of Cain: a study of modern traditional witches. Three Hands Press.
Lecouteux, C. (2003). Witches, werewolves and fairies: shapeshifters and astral doubles in the Middle Ages. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Mitchell, S. A. (2011). Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Pócs, E. (1999). Between the living and the dead: a perspective on witches and seers in the early modern age. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Tolley, C. (1995). Vǫrðr and Gandr: Helping Spirits in Norse Magic. Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 110, 56-75.
Wilby, E. (2005). Cunning folk and familiar spirits: shamanistic visionary traditions in early modern British witchcraft and magic. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Wilby, E. (2010). The visions of Isobel Gowdie: magic, witchcraft and dark shamanism in seventeenth-century Scotland. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.