The archetypal witch has always embodied the sexual fears of patriarchy, whether they be of women finding pleasure without men, emasculating them, or castrating them. Portrayals of the woman-as-witch throughout history have thus reflected an unquenchable desire for female flesh mixed with fear, straddling horror and pleasure, disgust and arousal. My upcoming book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive delves into the ways female sexuality has been demonized since the early modern era — and how self-identified witches of today are fighting to claim their sexuality for themselves. The following is an excerpt about sex magic and the tools of pleasure.
Sex was the X factor in the early modern witch trials. The Malleus Maleficarum decreed witchcraft was afoot when a woman was exceedingly amorous and dared to publicly express as much—or when a man couldn’t perform sexually. There was no room for female sexual pleasure in church doctrine, only procreation. In fact, any whiff of enjoyment outside reproduction was condemned.
Notorious troll and Malleus author Heinrich Kramer singled out “female fornicators” as the type of women who were “frequently sorceresses.” Even before the tome’s publication, stories were spun regarding witches perverting the domestic tools of womanhood to pleasure themselves—and to fly through the air to their orgiastic sabbaths. Female sexuality, on its own, separate from men, was an abomination—and an obsession—during the witch hunts. And so the debate was sparked: Was the witch’s broom a dust buster, transportation device, or dildo?
In extant documents from the 1324 trials of Ireland’s first accused witch, Lady Alice Kyteler, inquisitors describe finding her special stash of flying ointment. “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,” they write.
Imagine being arrested after the cops found your Hitachi Magic Wand? (This could conceivably happen in Alabama today, where sex toys remain illegal.)
Less than a hundred years after Lady Alice’s dildo was taken as evidence of her witchery, the broom-as-sex-toy discourse found its way into visual art. An unattributed woodcut from c. 1400 depicts a witch, demon, and warlock incoming on their broomsticks toward a peasant woman. Ulrich Molitor’s 1489 etchings star a few strange beasts riding backward on a cooking fork, and Albrecht Dürer’s c. 1500 “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” shows a broom slipped between a sorceress’ thighs.
Richard Cavendish drops another morsel of masturbation intrigue in The Black Arts: A Concise History of Witchcraft, Demonology, Astrology, and Other Mystical Practices throughout the Ages. He details accused witch of Savoy Antoine Rose’s broomstick confession under torture in 1477. After she supposedly made a deal with the Devil, the dark one “gave her a stick eighteen inches long and a jar of ointment. She would smear the stick with the ointment, put it between her legs and say, ‘Go in the Devil’s name, go!’ and immediately be carried through the air.”
Beyond such carnal accounts, this diabolical ointment has also been studied for its hallucinatory qualities. Michael Pollan discloses in The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World that midwives, herbalists, and ladies in the know (aka witches) would cultivate “psychoactive” agents including datura, opium poppies, belladona, hashish, and even the skin of toads with trace levels of the hallucinogen DMT. “These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based ‘flying ointment’ that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo,” he writes. “This was the ‘broomstick’ by which these women were said to travel.”
We will never know for certain the extent to which the broomstick was a metaphorical or metaphysical device. To some witches, masturbation can be an act of sex magic, where the energy raised during arousal and release is tantamount to spellcasting, and a specific goal can be achieved in the throes of ecstasy. As Margot Anand asserts in The Art of Sexual Magic, “any vision or desire that you wish to manifest in your life needs to be charged with your orgasmic sexual power.”
Intimate spellcasting can indeed take many shapes. But sometimes a broom is just a broom.
For Chakrubs founder and witch Vanessa Cuccia, the sex toy remains a transformative, healing object that is both spiritual and sexual. Instead of dealing in brooms, however, she deals in crystals.
After feasting her eyes on an enchanting crystal wand at a friend’s house, Cuccia told Slutist in 2015 that she suddenly had “the aha moment to masturbate with crystals.” “I wanted to have crystals inside. In my mouth, in my bra, in my pussy,” she said. “It felt like an urge to have my body be filled with crystal.”
Since 2011, Cuccia has been selling 100 percent pure crystal sexual wellness products through her company Chakrubs. With the goal of bringing “a sense of sacredness to your playtime,” these objets d’art can be used in a variety of ways.
Designed with the practice of crystal healing in mind, Chakrubs’ products can be charged under a full moon to activate their potential. Each crystal has a different energetic purpose that users can learn about from the company’s website. Rose quartz, for example, can work on “dissolving emotional wounds, fears and resentments,” amethyst can “bring emotional stability and inner strength,” and black obsidian can “absorb negative energy and help to release mental stress and promote emotional well-being.” Chakrubs’ fetish- and weapon-inspired Shadow Line is crafted predominantly with black obsidian and stainless steel, and users are encouraged to employ these “interactive sculptures” to delve into the darkness we all carry within.
It’s the rare sex toy that aims to erase both boundaries between the sacred and the profane and the shame surrounding female sexual pleasure. “Crystals are something magical I can touch,” Cuccia said. “I prefer to practice my spirituality in very practical ways. And I know for many crystals don’t seem practical, but to me it is clear the magic they hold. I can feel the energy pulsing through them into my hand when I hold them. Crystals make sense to me. They are grounded, they come from the earth.”
Whether you embrace the healing properties of crystals or just like the idea of a sleek, all-natural sexual aide, Chakrubs offers much to the modern, sex-positive witch.
In the 1950s, the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey helped to slowly initiate a societal conversation about female masturbation. Sixty-two percent of women in his 1953 study Sexuality in the Human Female admitted to pleasuring themselves, and although he found that masturbation was the second most common sexual practice of women, it was the single practice where orgasm was most likely achieved. Despite Kinsey’s publicized findings, the pushback by conservative religious groups against masturbation—female masturbation in particular—continued via campaigns spreading misinformation and sex-negative distortions.
Over fifty years later, masturbation stigma persists, but science is now more than ever on the side of self-pleasure. A variety of studies have enumerated the connections between masturbation and self-esteem, sexual health, and positive body image for women, and there are an increasing number of entrepreneurs such as Cuccia who seek to challenge centuries of sexual repression through their sexual products.
To explore the links between self-pleasure and contemporary witchcraft, I interviewed a witch-identified woman who recently experimented with a “flying ointment” she sourced online. On condition of anonymity, she revealed her very personal experience with this psychedelic salve.
“It’s amazing now with the internet all the ways you can connect with fellow witches around the world. I was linked by a friend to a woman who created a flying ointment in Spain. She grows her own henbane, mandrake, belladonna, and datura, and she fertilizes it under the full moon with her menstrual blood. She’s very intentional about creating this substance, packages it beautifully, and sells it on Etsy.”
“Because I don’t have much of a green thumb, I thought I would just get it and keep it on my altar. I sat with it for two years before I actually got around to doing it because I didn’t feel like it was the right time. I had a beautiful experience with it actually, feeling very connected to the energy of the plant, feeling like it was giving me a new lens with which to understand the universe and have this dialogue with the plant, the spirit of the plant, whatever you want to call it.”
“It was kind of saying it was now part of my vocabulary and was going to be informing my thought processes and my understanding of things going forward, even when I’m not actively taking it. It was very different than other psychedelic plants. It’s technically a deliriant and not a psychedelic. It’s part of a different chemical family with a different way of acting on the body.”
“I was reading about the witch’s ointment and the idea of witches riding broomsticks and how it’s still debated about whether it took place or not. Either it was slander by the church or it was real, and even if it was just slander, it’s still fascinating because we’re scared of women humping broomsticks and getting high. Sex and drugs are so threatening to our society, and in particular women’s sexuality and women having access to altered states.”
“It did feel like a real reclaiming to be rubbing that ointment on my pussy.”
Header image: Coz Conover