Diana and the night flight of the witches

Diana and the night flight of the witches
Circa 1451. First known representation of a witch riding a broom; she is accompanied by another woman flying on a white stick. These are marginal drawings from Martin Le Franc's poem 'Le champion des dames' © 'Bibliothèque Nationale de France', Paris, MS. Fr. 12476, fol. 105v.

Diana and the night flight of the witches

I. Female divinities associated with magic

How did the goddess Diana become the guide of medieval covens? Diana (Artemis in the Greek pantheon) in antiquity is a virgin goddess, armed with a bow and arrows, who represents the wild beasts and the moon.

Going back to Roman times, the fusion between Diana and the goddesses Hecate, related to sorcery, and Proserpina, with the infernal, resulted in the eclectic goddess known as Diana Trivia. Thanks to the union of her attributes, she was associated with witchcraft, darkness and evil, which allowed, in Christian times, to add new negative aspects, such as a retinue of nocturnal animals. To this was added a fundamental pagan belief for the covens: the nocturnal flight of the soul. This was achieved by inducing an ecstatic state that allowed the departure of the soul to meet Diana’s retinue. According to Jordanes of Bergamo (15th century), this was achieved by means of ointments applied on a rod on which to climb to obtain its effects vaginally—origin of the later image of the witch with a broom. Like those mentioned by Apuleius in The Metamorphoses (I, 21-24), they would contain solanaceous plants such as Mandragora officinarum or Hyoscyamus niger, perhaps mixed with opium.

This belief was received with skepticism in the Church, being understood as fantasies induced by the Devil. In 906, Reginon of Prüm maintains that one should not believe these women «seduced by Satan’s illusions and mirages», who «go by night with Diana» riding «certain animals», as one would believe that this occurs «not in spirit (in animo), but corporeally (in corpore)».

However, the widespread diffusion of the belief in the nocturnal flight led to the debate about whether it was just a diabolical illusion or if these women really made those flights to meet not with the pagan goddess Diana, but with Satan himself. The latter would prevail, giving rise to the witch hunt.


Paula Avendaño Román