Flying Africans & Flying Witches
If you are familiar with Hoodoo, then you certainly may be aware of the common belief that certain African’s had the ability to fly back to Africa during the slave trade. This is largely associated to the early folklore of the slave plantations, in which certain Slaves could fly back to Africa to avoid the chains and bonds of slavery. This is certainly referenced in Harry Hyatt Middleton’s "Hoodoo, Conjuration & Witchcraft & Rootwork", Vol. 1. In fact, it is referenced in numerous folklore tales and studies. In an interview with Gene Tattnail in the book “Drums and Shadows” for example, there is a clear reference to this:
“ Long as I kin membuh, missus, I been heahin bout dat. Lots ub slabs wut wuz brung obuh from Africa could fly. Deah wuz a crowd ub um wukin in the field. Dey don lak it heah an dey tink dey go back to Africa. One by one dey fly up in duh eah all fly off an gone back tuh Africa.” (pg. 108)
Both the Europeans and the Africans held the belief that certain people had the ability to fly. In Europe, of course, they attributed this ability to witches. It was commonly believed that witches could ride brooms, animals and demons. In some cases, they were thought to have ridden on the back of the Goddess Diana. This typically occured during the late hour of night as they would slip through the chimney and rise up to the sky. Sound familiar? One merely has to think of the superstitions of the American South, where witches could enter the home through the keyhole. This is a perfect example of how European superstition blended perfectly with the West African’s.
In Europe, the solution was to prosecute (and torture) the afflicted witch. In Africa, there were all types of remedies to prevent this such as laying down pepper and salt in certain areas of one’s home which, by the way, is still a remedy used both in Santeria and Hoodoo. Another common solution is to place a Bible under one’s pillow. The Europeans had the Inquisitors, the African’s had Witch Hunters. In both cases, those who possessed the ability to fly often were often considered to be associated with evil and negative forces although this is not always the case in Africa. Unfortunately, witches are associated to women by far more often than men and over the centuries women have suffered immense pain for it. As for the cause of this, well that’s an entirely different subject.
The concept of flying, however, is an old one and certainly can be found in many ancient cultures. In many cases, flying and shape shifting for that matter was frequently associated to hero myths and legends. If you are familiar with the Ancient Greek myth of Icarus than you can certainly see some of the similarities particularly with the West Africans. In the myth of Icarus, Icarus was born to a slave. As a form of punishment, Icarus was imprisoned with his father Daedalus. Daedalus was a keen inventor and developed wings for both him and his son. Daedalus heeded great care in warning his son of the cautions of flying. Icarus however, became too enchanted with the thrill of flying and fell into the water. In this case, the tale imparts two important lesson. The first references one’s ability to outwit constraints, the other imparts an important lesson. For the African slave, the concept of flying is an act of both defiance and survival. It is one that many slaves used as a sliver of hope, of out witting one’s slave master and defying the constructs of the slave system. You can see the same theme run through many Southern folklore tales such as the story of the Brer Rabbit.
Flying ointments and potions have their roots in European superstitions. One common belief held that witches could fly from an ointment made out of the flesh of unbaptized children. In Africa however, there are no flying ointments made from unbaptized children as Christianity does not play a role in sorcery and witchcraft. Well, at least by the cultures that remain untouched by it. There are “medicines” that can enable flying. In Geoffrey Parrinder’s book, “Witchcraft, European and African,” Parrinder goes into great length comparing European witchcraft to that of Africa. He cites that the Basatu tribe, for example, believe in flying herbs and magic wands which is very similar to the magic brooms and flying ointments of the European witch.
In hoodoo tradition, there is also the concept of having live creatures inside of you such as worms, snakes and insects. This has its roots directly in the African belief system whereby a witch has the ability to “poison” (to place live creatures in someone) someone through witchcraft. For the European witch, this typically was not the case. The power of the church simply used witchcraft as a means of control and to illicit fear in its subjects. The witches of Europe were the poor and uneducated. I believe that the rise of witchcraft of Europe throughout the middle ages up to the renaissance was largely due to the church. Perhaps it was their attempt to completely abolish any ties to the pagan past. Or perhaps it was a way to wipe out the wise women’s power amongst the people of her time. In any case, many of the folklore and magic of older pagan societies has been lost as a result of persecution. This is also true for ancient Jewish magic.
The belief in witchcraft throughout Africa still exists today. I tend to hold a much higher regard for these belief systems. They are old, very old and although much of it does appear to be nothing more than superstition, I would be very careful not to cross the wrong person. If you are at all familiar with Palo Congo or Palo Mayombe then you will know what I’m talking about.