Medieval witches, shamans, and modern day astral projectors all shared the ability to enter autohypnotic trance states and transport their consciousness awareness outside the body, into the oneiric or "astral' dimensions. Because of their craft and their reputed capability of taking of nocturnal flight, European witches were credited with either helping or harming the harvest, and were believed to be capable of bewitching animals and humans, causing storms, and all other manner of powers often attributed to magick workers in ancient pagan cultures.
Pagan Lore, Shapeshifting & Familiar Spirits
European witches were usually women in possession of Indo-European lore that had been passed down by oral tradition and customs, despite the attempt to convert the population to the foreign import of Christianity. The pagan past was not always forgotten by witches, however. Witches performed various forms of folk magick such as such as healing or divination. They also concocted herbal ointments to enhance trance states, and (like shamanic cultures) engaged in astral projection by various means, sometimes with the use of soporific or hallucinogenic "flying ointments."
Reginald Scot, in his Discoverie of Witchcraft: "Some saie they can transubstantiate themselves and others, and take the forms and shapes of asses, woolves, ferrets, cowes, apes, horsses, dogs... Some say they can keepe divels and spirits in the likenesse of todes and cats." Many witches presumably did keep familiar spirits as companions, and to assist them with various tasks— just as the shamans from many ancient cultures have always done. Familiar spirits who assist humans with their occult work were not merely the imaginative concoctions of medieval Europeans making accusations of witchcraft, but have much older origins. In the pagan Anglo-Saxon tradition the personal guardian spirit of the individual was called the Fetch, and often had an animal form. Fetches were believed to have been bestowed on an individual through ancestral lines, or by the goddess or god of witches, with whom the fetch animal formed a stronger link.
Both the god and goddess were substituted with "Satan" or the Devil by Christian priests. A 9th century Christian council recorded that "certeine wicked women following sathans provocations, being seduced by the illusion of divels, beleeve and professe that in the night times they ride abroad with Diana, the goddesse of the Pagans, or else with Herodias, with an innumerable multitude, upon certeine beasts, and passe over manie countries and nations, in the silence of the night, and doo whatsoever those fairies or ladies command."
The Mysterious Nature of the Witch's Flight
Witches were often believed to be capable of physical nocturnal flights — usually after having shapeshifted into animal form. In the The Golden Ass Lucius Apuleius describes a witch physically transforming into an owl after smearing her body with a flying ointment "to work her sorceries on such as she loved" and "to fly whither she pleased." Some witches who used powerful hallucinogenic ointments to induce astral projection even seem to have believed this themselves, while many others were well aware of the autohypnotic nature of the projection of the astral body.
Burchard of Worms pronounced that those who believed in the witches' flights were "deceived by the devil," and those who investigated the claims of witches usually came to similar conclusions. The Speculum morale of Vincent de Beauvais records an account of an old woman who told her priest that she had entered his chamber at night, and that the locked doors and barred windows did nothing to prevent her. The priest then began to beat her with a crucifix and demanding that she perform this same feat in her physical body. When she could not, he sent her away with the words: "You can see at what point you are stripped of good sense, you who give credence to the inanity of illusory dreams."
In a later work on witchcraft, the sixteenth century demonologist Johan Weyer gave a similar account of an old witch who allowed an investigator to observe her astral projecting by applying a powerful "flying ointment" — presumably a sedative, possibly with hallucinogenic properties. The witch rubbed her nude body with the ointment until she "collapsed under the force of the soporific juices and fell into a profound sleep," after which the investigators were unable to wake her even after striking repeated blows. After a period of time she awoke and "began a long raving story of crossing seas and mountains, and she brought forth false responses. We denied her story, but she insisted upon it. We showed her the black-and-blue marks, but she became all the more stubborn."
Astral Projection and the Deep Theta Trance State
Many witches understood perfectly well that their ability to project came from allowing their mind to guide them into an altered state of consciousness close to the threshhold of sleep. A witch named Catherine Delort stated in a 1335 trial that she accomplished her nocturnal flight simply by falling into "an extraordinary sleep." The deep theta trance state opens the gateway to the subconscious mind, after which conscious awareness can be transported into the otherworldly realms (energetic dimensions) in which the spirits exist and shapeshifting is possible. The phenomenon of the appearance of visible apparitions of flying witches presumably due to their having projected a more densely concentrated astral body (or an "etheric" projection) into an astral dimension closely overlaying the physical plane. Such visible astral bodies were also observed in many accounts of the "bilocations" of Christian saints during the medieval period.