Albert Joseph Pénot, “Départ pour le Sabbat” (1910) (via Wikimedia)
Witches were almost always portrayed naked until the 1900s.
In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.
— 1324 investigation of suspected witch Lady Alice Kyteler.
Silhouetted against the moon, pointy hat pushed back by the wind, the witch on her magic broomstick is an iconic image, ubiquitous during the Halloween season.
While the image can be found pasted in elementary schools throughout America, the story of why witches look the way they do, and why they fly on broomsticks, is a racier, lesser-known tale. .
For a long time the common answer to the question of why witches flew on broomsticks was relatively straightforward if a bit broad.
The broom was a symbol of female domesticity, yet the broom was also phallic, so riding on one was a symbol of female sexuality, thus femininity and domesticity gone wild. Scary for any patriarch!
It wasn’t just women, however. The first known reference to witches flying on broomsticks was confessed by a suspected male witch, Guillaume Edelin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, while he was being tortured in 1453.
There was also once a common pagan fertility ritual where poles, pitchforks, and brooms (basically, phallic objects in general) were piloted through the fields with people jumping as high as they could to entice the crops to grow to that height. (A tradition related to the jumping of the broom wedding traditions.) Reginald Scot’s book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584, described these festivals as such:
At these magical assemblies, the witches never failed to dance; and in their dance they sing these words, ‘Har, har, divell divell, dance here dance here, plaie here plaie here, Sabbath, Sabbath.’ And whiles they sing and dance, ever one hath a broom in her hand, and holdeth it up aloft.
Combine pagans, brooms, phallic fertility symbols, and jumping into the air, and you have all the ingredients you need for the myth of the flying witch. But there is another possibility, a more literal and much saucier origin story of the witches riding their broomsticks.