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Flying refers to the belief in the legendary power that gives witches the ability to fly. This ability has been acknowledged since ancient times, and is also known as transvection. The origins of the belief are rooted in Grecian and Roman lore that witches could transform themselves into birds, especially owls and ravens. (see Metamorphosis) Needless to say by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance this power was ascribed as coming from the Devil.
According to legend witches usually flew with the aid of broomsticks, forks, or shovels. Along with this, some witches were said to ride demons that transformed themselves into such animals as goats, horses, cows, and wolves. The clergy and others claimed this was accomplished with Devil's power to pick people up and whisk them through the air without any visible means of support or transport.
Also witches, sorcerers, and necromancers were accused of flying aided by ointments consisting of baby fat boiled from limbs of young children killed before baptism. Other magic ointments supposedly contained various herbs and drugs that obviously put the witches into hallucinatory states that caused them to believe that they had actually flown. (see Transformation Mysteries) One of the notable examples is seen in the records of the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily (1579-1651) associated with a sect known as donna di fuora. Members in the sect confessed to flying in spirit form to Benevento (a famous mainland gathering site for Italian Witches) to take part in a sabbat. Other instances were that in 1560 another Italian Witch said she rubbed herself with an ointment, and entered a trance. When coming out of it she discovered herself flying over mountains and seas. Also, Witches confessed out-of body travel in northern Italy as late as the 17th century. These were the sects known as the Bernandanti and Malandanti. And, in 14th-century Italy, some necromancers made beds fly with magical incarnations.
Once again in the history of Witchcraft the determination of whether an act, in this case flying, is good or bad is not determined by the act itself, but rather by who does it. As it has been described in many centuries the witch's ability to fly, whether actual or not, was said to be the Devil's work. But it should be noted, that in Christian hagiographical records there are numerous instances of saints levitating or moving about in mid air. Partial explanation to justify such activity was that this type of movement signifies the soul breaking free of its earthly bonds, and soaring into the cosmos, accessing realms that others only reach through death. Thus, in these cases flying is a transcendent experience, a flight of the spirit. In some cases, the ecstasy manifested itself in the form of corporal levitation.
It is interesting to note that flying was not mentioned much in English cases of witches. The various witchcraft acts in effect between 1542 and 1736 outlawed many witchcraft practices but never prohibited flying.
Throughout the centuries magical and mystical flying has been attributed to alchemists, mystics, sorcerers, shamans, medicine men, yogis and fakirs, as well as Witches. Every magical/spiritual system has developed its own techniques to achieve the ecstasy of flight. This age-old belief still continues.
The magical/mystical ability to fly is still honored by many modern neo-Pagans and neo-Pagan Witches, although the ability itself may be explained or interpreted differently. It has been reported witches have said they flew in spirit, or spiritual, form; another flew in a trance induced by rubbing ointment on herself, which probably put her in a hallucinatory state; in another case a witch reported attending sabbats without physically being present, she said, all she did was lay on her left side and breathe out a blue vapor in which she viewed the sabbat activities. The latter is thought to be an instance of a medieval version of clairvoyance. The point is, that evidence of current paranormal investigation indicates such past instances could bear some truth. Traveling in spirit form may be or is similar to what is now referred to conscious astral projection. The witch who applied ointment on herself before going to sleep, and then consciously found herself flying over mountain and seas, could very well have been experiencing an out-of-body experience (OBE). And, clairvoyance is becoming more recognized.
So, what was once called the Devil's work is today becoming more accepted as the paranormal abilities of the human being that many people are seeking to strengthen. A.G.H.
127-128; 78, 374-375.