The Atlantic racconta da cosa è nata la leggenda delle streghe volanti su manici di scopa. Ha a che fare con i poteri lisergici della segale cornuta e di altri estratti e il metodo usato per assumere tali derivati allucinogeni.
It started with bread.
In the Europe of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, bread was made, in large part, with rye. And rye and rye-like plants can host fungus--ergot--that can, when consumed in high doses, be lethal. In smaller doses, however, ergot can be a powerful hallucinogen. Records from the 14th to the 17th century mention Europeans' affliction with "dancing mania," which found groups of people dancing through streets--often speaking nonsense and foaming at the mouth as they did so--until they collapsed from exhaustion. Those who experienced the "mania" would later describe the wild visions that accompanied it. (In the 20th century, Albert Hofmann would realize the psychedelic effects of LSD while studying ergot.)
So people, as people are wont to do, adapted this knowledge, figuring out ways to tame ergot, essentially, for hallucinatory purposes. And they experimented with other plants, as well. Forbes's David Kroll notes that there are also hallucinogenic chemicals in Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed). Writing in the 16th century, the Spanish court physician Andrés de Laguna claimed to have taken "a pot full of a certain green ointment… composed of herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake" from the home of a couple accused of witchcraft.
So why do the brooms fit into this? Because to achieve their hallucinations, these early drug users needed a distribution method that was a little more complicated than simple ingestion. When consumed, those old-school hallucinogens could cause assorted unpleasantnesses--including nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation. What people realized, though, was that absorbing them through the skin could lead to hallucinations that arrived without the unsavory side effects. And the most receptive areas of the body for that absorption were the sweat glands of the armpits... and the mucus membranes of the genitals.