When Witches Took FlightRoundup
tags: folklore, witches, Supernatural
Chris Halsted holds a PhD in medieval history from the University of Virginia. His research looks at identity and belonging in early medieval Europe, focusing especially on witchcraft, gender, and ethnicity. In 2023–24, he will be a Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress.
Witchcraft and flying are inextricably bound together in the popular imagination. From Harry Potter to Kiki’s Delivery Service to The Witch, the hallmark of the witch is flight, whether raised alone into the air or by broomstick or other contrivance. The humor of movies like Hocus Pocus, where Mary flies on a vacuum cleaner instead of a broomstick, is predicated on a shared cultural understanding of what a witch’s flight looks like. We have an expectation of what cleaning implements witches fly on, and vacuums are not included. We also expect them to fly in groups: this is the famous “coven,” often seen flying across the moon’s silhouette on their way to their black sabbath (or to hunt down wisecracking children in Salem).
Many of these stereotypes date from the Renaissance, when artists like Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung put into vivid image their understanding of what made a witch. These understandings were based on centuries of debate about witches — what constituted a witch, the kind of activities they engaged in, and even whether they were real at all. Central to these conversations was a text known as the Canon Episcopi, a short description of exactly what witches did during their nocturnal flights. The Canon Episcopi appeared frequently in medieval canon collections (collections of religious law derived from various church councils), though the original dated from the tenth century.1 The Canon represented an innovation in witchcraft beliefs: while witches had flown since antiquity, they had done so while transformed into owls or other flying creatures. Some witch-figures, like the serpentine lamia, were supernatural creatures or monstrous hybrids in the first place.2 The idea of the witch as a human woman who could propel herself through the sky, by her own power rather than by transforming or growing wings, was a creation of the Middle Ages.
I first started thinking about early medieval witchcraft in the spring of 2019, while I was supposed to be working on my dissertation (which was not about witchcraft). Procrastinating on what I should have been doing (and about six months out from an ADHD diagnosis), I fell down a wormhole of hyperfocus. For a month, I read nothing but witchcraft. It’s easy to detour like this in early medieval history — relatively few primary sources means that many have been digitized, allowing me to read ninth-century Latin from my couch with my dog on my lap. Not having to travel to an archive made distraction enticingly easy.
I was quickly surprised to find that flight — a defining feature of the modern image of the witch — figured relatively little in the earliest medieval sources. The Canon Episcopi, which most scholars cite as the beginning of the group flight motif,3 was only a single entry in a canon collection completed in 906. The text does not seem to have created much of a stir at the time; the next source which mentions (and expands upon) the Canon came more than a century afterward.4 This in itself is not odd for early medieval evidence, where spotty and recalcitrant are the rule rather than the exception, but it did seem strange that such an important motif had its origins in such a forgotten corner of the tenth century. I resolved to explore further.
The compiler of the 906 canon collection was an abbot from the Rhineland named Regino of Prüm. Regino had had an illustrious political career as the abbot of a wealthy Carolingian abbey, but had seen his fortunes decline after a change in leadership among the elite in the Lotharinian kingdom of Trier. Whether Regino authored the Canon Episcopi or merely copied it remains a live issue — his collection seems to attribute it to the Synod of Ancyra in 314, but no such canon was promulgated there. Scholars have debated whether Regino got the Canon somewhere else, then assigned it to the prestigious Ancyrene synod (something he was known to do) or simply made it up entirely (something he was also known to do).5 For my own part, I think Regino probably composed the text himself, or changed a previous text so significantly to have functionally composed it — the obsessions and anxieties revealed by the text accord remarkably well with Regino’s biography, in particular indicating a deep distrust for women in political power.
We are fortunate here to have another of Regino’s works, a history of the Carolingian empire called the Chronicon. In the Chronicon, Regino blames the downfall of the Carolingians on sexual sin and female ambition, specifically Lothar II’s attempt to divorce his queen and marry his mistress Waldrada. Indeed, Regino’s career had developed alongside a stark reminder of this sin: Lothar and Waldrada’s son Hugh, who attempted to claim the kingship of Lotharingia only to be blinded and sent to Prüm, where Regino himself tonsured the failed rebel.6 The Chronicon also reveals a few of Regino’s personal political grudges: by the time he wrote both the Chronicon and his canon collection, Regino had actually fallen from grace, ousted from the abbacy of the wealthy monastery of Prüm. This was part of a political changeover involving the influence of the emperor Arnulf’s widow Uota – another politically ambitious woman.7 All of this biographical context should be kept in mind when we read Region’s description of sinister, powerful women in league with the devil.