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These days we have so much street lighting that the stars are blocked out, and cities are easily seen from space. That wasn't the case a few centuries ago. Flyers in the middle ages (witches on broomsticks) would have a nice view of the stars - but would they be able to navigate by eyesight?

I am presuming they would have an easy time when there's moonlight. And on a night with no moon (or a new moon), it may not be pitch black (thanks to sources like zodiacal light) but identifying features on the ground may be problematic, from an airborne perspective. Even in populated places, people did not just light torches 24/7.

My question from two years ago is about cities. Time to cover the countryside! Taking the following:

  • 14th century central Europe.
  • Witches routinely flying on brooms from town to town.
  • They fly exclusively at nighttime (sunlight cancels their magic; an untimely sunrise drops them out of the sky).
  • The moon might be unavailable, either because it is new moon (few nights a month), the moon is below the horizon, or there's cloud cover.
  • The witches fly below the clouds, at about 500 meters altitude. They can ascend to 2km or descend when needed, but they must obviously not be seen. Their cruising speed is 50 km/h.
  • There's no spells to improve night vision; they have regular human eyes.
  • They don't fly when it is extremely misty.
  • The witches may not always personally know the route well, but they can produce their own maps if needed.

Do they absolutely need some sort of ground infrastructure of their own (always-burning torches, etc.) to navigate, let's say from Prague to Passau? Or are there enough natural or man-made features in the medieval countryside that one can see in the darkest nights? I am personally disinclined to give them ground infrastructure but also to have regular witch downtime once a month.

I have considered that rivers and brooks reflecting the stars might do, but I am not sure. The hardest part for me in this light-polluted country I'm living in is to just picture how dark such a night would be, which long-exposure photographs cannot accurately capture.

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  • $\begingroup$ Major towns could perhaps have a night watch, who might keep a lamp lit, or a fire if it's cold (in the latter case snow is also a good reflector, as is a little mist in the valleys) $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ Starlight is quite enough to see the ground by, if there are no clouds and most impotant if there are no sources of bright light to ruin one's nightvision. On a truly overcast night the ground is invisible. (although swamps and ocean shores are quite clearly visible) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Oct 8 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Might not be the focus but I wonder how irregular does your sun rise and set to make it untimely ;) $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 0:31

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The human eye is remarkably sensitive. As one who has worked in photographic darkrooms for many years, as well as doing dark-site hobby astronomy, I have experience with this.

First, when fully dark adapted, a healthy, well-nourished human can see light levels that are astonishingly low. Even beyond sixty years of age, and nineteen years after a diagnosis with diabetes (known to be harmful to vision) I can still see the outline of my hand in front of a white door in my darkroom, either by light coming through the door from the lit room beyond, or by light coming through the window cover (fairly thick plywood, painted flat black on the outside) from the daylight exterior. This is a light level low enough not to fog even fast film in a handling time measured in multiple minutes: photographically, it's total darkness.

Second, my experience in the late 1990s was that, after twenty minutes or so in the dark, I could easily navigate on foot between telescopes and vehicles and people, solely by the light of a clear, starry sky. In fact, I've read that starlight alone, on a clear night, is too bright for the eye to fully dark-adapt; that is, there is sensitivity left on the table with starlight only.

On that basis, I would expect that if your broom pilot is fairly young, in good health, and has sufficient vitamin A in his/her diet, they'll be able to see well enough on clear night, even if completely moonless, to recognize major landforms like rivers and mountains (and dark cities), and avoid collision with obstacles if they don't fly faster than a brisk walk (go faster, and collision avoidance becomes a bigger challenge because of the difficulty of identifying what you're almost seeing).

Of course, for a familiar route, one would know how high to fly to made obstacle avoidance unnecessary, and can then fly at any convenient or possible speed. Mountains would be landmarks, not obstacles, for the most part and even today very few human-built structures exceed 300 m above ground height -- which is still pretty low for flight cross country.

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    $\begingroup$ Most of us of course never get the chance to become that dark-adapted. Light pollution will take care of that. It's a long time since I've hiked by starlight on a broad forest path - the line of the path was easy by looking up but feet had to be placed gently. Them some !#*? turned on a torch. It takes tens of minutes to get to that state (longer still for what this answer talks about) and a second to lose it. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ The other thing, from a career in laser darkrooms, is that you get used to obtaining information from very small/faint visual cues - the faintest light from an LED covered in opaque tape or a fire behind closed shutters with a crack between them (combined with stars) will allow navigation with familiarity. Even without personal knowledge, the hints of town/farm light could be sufficient to follow a description $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Single-photon sensitivity (sort of - a few photons anyway) and you can apparently see a candle at 2.6km (over 1.5 miles, paper on Arxiv) may be of interest to astronomers because the conclusion is reached by comparison to star magnitudes). They're rather cautious in their conclusions so you could go further, especially if your witches have unusually good but mundane night vision. No mention in the paper of dark adaptation but it can be assumed from their star observation comparison $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ Even for unfamiliar routes they can fly high enough to make obstacle avoidance unnecessary as long as they have a map with minimum safe altitude marked. Study in advance, though dim red light might allow even reading it in flight without compromising night vision too much. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Oct 11 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisH A good gravel path I would agree with you. When I picture "gravel path" I'm thinking more of what I generally encounter in the wilderness, the gravel is large enough you need to be aware of your footing and I would not want to do that by starlight. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:38
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For short trips in familiar areas, night vision and ad hoc lights will suffice, see @ZeissIkon 's answer. For longer trips:

Homing pigeons!

Pigeon post has been a thing since Old Egypt, and was used in the middle ages.

A problem here is that pigeons, flying comfortably at around 100 km/h, are typically faster than broomsticks, and I see three solutions.

The standard solution is to cast a spell on your guide bird. Depending on how magic works, this could be comparatively easier than making a broomstick fly.

You could also breed slow pigeons, train normal pigeons to fly slowly, or weigh them down.

Third, you could use some other slower bird:

Ravens!

According to this paper, the wild ravens studied move at speeds up to 40 km/h, and would thus be easier to follow.

No mater what bird you use, you need to be able to follow it in the dark.

In the case of ravens, you might be able to train it to keep close enough to follow or make regular sounds. I kind of like the idea of having a screaming raven moving through the night.

Otherwise, you could tie a small bell to the leg of the bird, loud enough to follow but small enough not to draw attention from a distance. Or an enchanted light, whichever is the least conspicuous.


In any case, you would need to transport these birds from their home (the destination) to the place you are travelling from. Important witch institutions or even small guilds would have cages with birds from various nearby places (within say 400 km, one long night's travel), to use whenever someone not very familiar with the area needs to travel.

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    $\begingroup$ If you can train it you can perch it on the broomstick and use it as a pointer. Ravens would be hard to spot in the dark and corvids tend not to fly at night. Migratory birds on the other hand often do fly at night $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a solution that both works and fits the flavor of the story $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Oct 9 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ Owls would be a better choice here. Pigeons and Ravens are both diurnal birds, and they can't see well at night. Of course, I don't know if Owls have a homing instinct, so perhaps you should invent some fantasy species of nocturnal pigeon. $\endgroup$
    – Globin347
    Oct 9 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ What about bats? They're exceptionally good at flying in the dark, and would fit very well from a thematic standpoint with witches. (Yeah, it's more of a vampire-thing, but still works - both kind of Halloweeny...) $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 16:15
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This is really not that much different from flying a small plane over the less-populated parts of the western US, which I've done a number of times. On a clear night, it's quite easy once your eyes have adapted to the dark. On nights with a high overcast heavy enough to block starlight, you really want to be flying on instruments.

On the starry nights, the real problem comes not when the ground is completely dark, but when there's just one or a few ground lights, say an outdoor light at an isolated ranch or mine. You tend to get fixated on that, and can lose orientation. Not a pleasant feeling.

That lack of orientation is the real problem with any sort of flying in limited visibility. You CAN'T depend on your internal senses to report your orientation. You need external info, or instruments and training in how to use them. Look up "VFR flight into instrument conditions". Do that without proper training, and your life expectancy is about 3 minutes.

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    $\begingroup$ Related: older question over at Aviation.SE about this sort of situation (full disclosure: I asked the question). $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Oct 9 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ Magical flight that always produces lift straight up (even if you roll a bit sideways) may not create the same confusion for your sensory organs. Pitch may still be confusing. $\endgroup$ Oct 10 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Cordes: But if your magical lift just goes straight up, you won't go anywhere. So it's pretty pointless, except for admiring the view. But maybe your magic does the lifting, and you harness birds to move you around? Or your witches work out the magical equivalent of gyrocompasses and artificial horizons. Maybe based on dowsing rods? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 10 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: Magic lift goes up to maintain altitude, magic thrust goes forward to move around. Or since it's magic, maybe you just directly control your velocity, rather than thrust vs. drag. $\endgroup$ Oct 10 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, the broom magic in the story expels a force backward from the branched end. You hold the stick at a 45 degree angle to stay aloft and move forwards. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 11 at 12:06
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Ley lines.

ley lines

https://www.manchestersfinest.com/articles/myths-of-manchester-the-ley-lines-that-channel-the-citys-creativity/

Ley lines are straight, invisible energy channels in and on the Earth. Animals and witches can use them to navigate.

https://docsbay.net/called-lung-mei-or-dragon-lines-in-china-ley-lines-have-been-known-and-used-by-practitioners

...described Ley Lines as “Lines of Power,” known only to Witches (who were not portrayed particularly sympathetically) who had handed the knowledge of them down from Megalithic times. After this Ley Lines were increasingly thought of as being energetic and magical in nature..... By the ‘60s Ley Lines were equated with the Dragon Lines of Chinese Feng Shui, and perceived as energetic Meridians linking Vortices of Earth energy... Ley Lines are thought of as being currents of the Earth’s energy: you will often find them described as MAGNETIC –this is because in the older sense of the word “Magnetism” was one more term for psychic energy. The Earth’s “magnetism” is thought to react with the ANIMAL MAGNETISM of living things in a way which is unconscious and instinctual. Birds, animals, insects, and bacteria, are believed to use Ley Lines as a guide in their migrations across great distances, as presumably did early humans....This is also how we identify Ley Lines today, through an instinctive reaction manifested through clairvoyance or through DOWSING. The point where two or more Ley Lines meet is usually the site of an energy Vortex. There are thousands of such Vortices, just as the body has thousands of minor Chakras. And just as the body has a few highly developed Major Chakras some of the Earth’s Vortices are much more developed than others. Ley Lines have the same connection to the Earth’s Vortices that Meridians have to the body’s Chakras...

Your witches can see or perceive the ley lines - either via innate ability or magic. Many ancient structures are sited on energy vortices and so are easy to find using the lines. Newer structures built by persons affiliated with or advised by witches are also often sited on vortices - in small part because they are easier to find but more importantly because of other benefits such sites provide.

Some things are purposefully as far away from any ley line as they can be.

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    $\begingroup$ A suitably witchy answer! :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Oct 11 at 9:30
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They can use stars to tell the North, and then the horizon line, recognizable because it gives a sharp separation between starry sky and dark ground, to recognize landmarks which can act as reference points for navigation.

Once they have the reference points, they can memorize each route as a sequence of reference points and times of flight. Time of flight can be memorized in terms of certain standard witch chants, like "Highway to heaven" or "Stairway to Hell".

If the sky is cloudy or foggy they are forced to raise above the clouds and rely on at most mountains as reference, if there are any in the surrounding. If they are flying on the lowlands they are out of luck.

But in that case they can simply break into the hut of a peasant and pull out of him the directions for the closest place.

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    $\begingroup$ Time of flight will be tricky unless there's never any wind - it implicitly assumes a fixed groundspeed and all familiar flying things (e.g. birds, planes, Superman) work on airspeed. Of course your magic could propel the broomstick against a static field to get round that $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 14:53
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Depending on how far north (or south, anyway how far from the equator) you go, you don't really get full darkness in summer. I was wild camping in the Scottish highlands recently, and most of what we'd call nighttime was twilight (example:Inverness).

On a cloudy night at Loch Ness, when the moon was obscured, I could see campfires that hadn't been put out several km away across the Loch in the middle of the night. A watchman may well keep a fire or lantern in a town; the person the witch is trying to get to could be told to light something, perhaps in a distinctive pattern (3 fires forming a triangle is a distress signal in our world)

In winter, as I commented, the reflection of starlight on snow or radiation fog (mist in valleys) would also be very helpful. Then of course you have long nights, so you 'd need it.

With experience of a place, you can orient yourself based on information from the faintest of sources of light, far less than you'd need somewhere unfamiliar. I work in research darkrooms where this can be quite apparent. It also struck me today that audible cues are important in that situation. Translated to this setting this might mean following a river by the sound of it below, then turning towards the moor where the nightjars call. Being in touch with nature to that extent fits with the context as well. Avoidance of light also fits the need to be dark-adapted.

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  • $\begingroup$ You should take a camping trip somewhere with really dark skies, and give it a try! $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 8 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Good point! And Scotland isn't that far north either. Where I'm from, in central Sweden, summer nights never go fully dark. In northern Sweden, the sun never sets, and you have a shadow in the middle of the night. $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Oct 8 at 18:54
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I think that flying on broomsticks is highly dangerous, even if done in broad daylight. Enchanting a chair or a wagon or a horse to fly would be much safer.

In recent years I have lived in bedrooms which are almost pitch dark when the lights are out, where all I can see with the lights off is blackness or very, very dark gray. But if I wake up in the middle of the night the gray is much lighter and I can see enough details to walk around.

So I deduce that my eyes become dark adapted whenever I am in the dark for a long period, whether I am awake or asleep, and whether my eylids are open or shut.

So possibly your witches might walk out into a field carrying broooms and wait around, like amateur astronomers wait around, for their eyes to dark adapt. They could put blindfolds on, or lie down, close their eyes, and take short naps, before getting on their brooms and flying away.

Or maybe your witches only travel in nights which have bright moonlight and bright starlight, and so avoid flying on dark nights and crashing into the ground. If people find dead bodies next to broken brooms and signs of crashes, they might suspect that stories about witches flying round on brooms are correct.

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Compasses were known in Europe as early as the late 12th century, and a lot earlier in China. Surely witches had the knowledge to create handy devices based on compasses that fit around a broom handle.

Otherwise, with their command of animals, they could train an animal know for its nightly navigation, and carry them in a cage on their broomstick. Perhaps every town has a (secret) outpost where witches can rent/borrow/buy an animal which knows the direction to the next town. They fly from town to town after all.

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    $\begingroup$ Compasses tell direction (to some precision) but wind may drift people off their course, even if they are pointing the broomstick the right way. That's why reference points on the ground are necessary. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 8 at 14:14
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The natural way for witches to navigate would be magic. You do not want them to be able to see in the dark, but that should be more of an annoyance than a problem. Possible avenues for navigation would be:

  • Magic compasses, or other items, which can be either set to the destination itself or to magic landmarks nearby (stone circles, larch forests, etc.)
  • Magic moss, animals, etc. which glow in the present of magical makers and landmarks. (You would take with you.) This would allow witches to create "roads" where, if followed, there thingamajig will glow the brightest. (This would also give another explanation why flying in the daylight is not possible, and why flying near cities is different to rural areas.)
  • Autopilot spells for the broom. (Which could be made more complicated by the broom always taking the direct path, regardless of what is in the way.)
  • Navigation by local magic beings, à la after the fairy colony, fly right, until you see the trolls cave, ...

Bonus:

  • Although your witches have normal human sight, you might allow them to create some kind of night vision goggles using their magic.
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If bringing a lantern themself won’t due, or if using magical light is out of the question, then you could try to derive a sort of magic radar. It’s magic so you could choose how it works but they could send a magic ping which bounces off solid surfaces and returns to the witch or maybe to the broomstick or a device attached to the broomstick or held by the witch. Radar is invisible to outsiders but very useful at getting a 3D map of the land around you, or seeing other flying objects (like other witches) nearby. You could also do sonar or lidar but idk how well they would work in the witch’s situation

Edit: if you don’t want witches having radar vision or something, and if you don’t want a big tv screen stuck onto the broom sticks, then you could use magic to make a holographic 3D that hovers in front of the tip of the stick, like the maps above the sea glider in subnautica. It could appear or disappear at the witch’s whim. This could make Witch Broom sticks more than just a stick that a witch gives the power to fly if that appeals to you. If witches are some secret society in medieval Europe then there could be secret broom stick shops which sell normal broom sticks for normal people but if the witch shows some pendant or something, they can buy a magical broomstick with the newest radar and whatever magic trinkets you could think of.

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WWII night bomber pilots used to navigate based on local landmarks, things such as rivers were always reckoned to be good navigation aids because they reflected even slight amounts of ambient light from the stars. This was why cities like London were easy targets, they had rivers running right through them and the reflections were visible for miles even on cloudy nights.

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You are perhaps neglecting one of your most potent aids, your various trusty familiars and through them their reliable and extensive networks of kin folklings. Whether cat or bat or through those many other creatures you are linked to a wide flung navigational infrastructure. Recall from hot air ballooning, that sound travels as well as light and ears are as sensitive as eyes in quiet and gloomy settings (though both are jarred by an errant lightning bolt and its attendant thunders). Other senses may not help as much from on high but a keen nose may trace typical seasonal fragrances, you may well find your way by aeolian ragweed pollen perhaps requiring to suppress a sneeze that importunately gives you away (but use your allergy spells, just like you apply your stinging insect ones - whether incantation, ointment or tincture).

Wikipedia: In European folklore of the medieval and early modern periods, familiars (sometimes referred to as familiar spirits) were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches and cunning folk in their practice of magic.

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The witches may not always personally know the route well, but they can produce their own maps if needed.

This is all those ladies need, really.

It should take a lot of gall, daring and stupidity to go against a witch, no matter what.

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.
-Sir Terry Pratchett

This extends to the skies and to geography:

Granny had been introduced to broomstick flying quite late in life, and after some initial suspicion had taken to it like a bluebottle to an ancient fish-head. A problem, however, was that Granny saw every flight simply as a straight line from A to B and was unable to get alongside the idea that other users of the air might have any rights whatsoever; the flight migration patterns of an entire continent had been changed because of that simple fact. High-speed evolution among local birds had developed a generation that flew on their backs, so that they could keep a watchful eye on the skies... Granny's implicit belief that everything should get out of her way extended to other witches, very tall trees and, on occasion, mountains.
-Sir Terry Pratchett again

If a witch knows which direction to go (which she can find out with a compass, a map, or looking at signposts prior to flying) and the distance, all she needs to do is go. It might be more like a long jump than a flight, really. Makes you think about the origin of the seven league boots.

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    $\begingroup$ Lovely quote, but wind is enough to drift off course even those wise witches who keep an eye on their compass needles. Wind in the back or front alters the travel time. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 8 at 15:46
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Checkerboards or arrows

Sort of like the old Kai-Tak approach checkerboards, but placed as needed on hilltops. Use materials which alternately reflect and absorb starlight.

enter image description here

Or use "arrows" although, that might be a bit obvious.

enter image description here

Or possibly, a circle of standing stones might do the trick. Also, centuries later, people would wonder what the heck it was for!

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