Category Archives: Magical Tools

Key of Magic

keykey
I’ve always thought that witchcraft is the best path for spiritual materialists, because we get to play with so many toys (only we call them tools). I have assembled most of the common implements of magic such as broom, cauldron, crystal ball, wand, athame, white handled knife, girdle, sword, chalice, pentacle necklace, and holey stone. I have materials to make a scrying mirror and staff, but have never gotten around to it. Still, I think the typical discussion of witch tools has some glaring omissions. One important tool seldom mentioned is the comb. Another is the distaff. At one point I speculated that our magical arsenal should be updated to include the key, such an important part of everyday life and filled with so much spiritual symbolism. Naturally when I began to research the subject I found that actual keys, as well as symbolic ones, have long held an important place in Pagan magic.

Boar head key

Boar head key

The earliest locking mechanisms date back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it is speculated that they were originally contrived to guard the treasures in the temples. It was not until the Roman Empire that anything resembling the modern key arrived. There are two important deities that are often pictured holding keys: the Roman god Janus and the continental Celtic triple goddess The Matrones. Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects:

Keys had so many occult connotations that medieval magicians made great use of real keys as magic tools whenever any sort of opening, releasing, or letting go was wanted. Iron keys were buried with the dead in Ionia, to unlock the gates of the underworld. Germans kept a key in a baby’s cradle so the fairies would not be able to seize and kidnap the child.

Key with image of goddess Minerva.

Key with image of Roman goddess Minerva.

I often use keys in my magical practice. I prefer a blank key that you can get at a hardware or hobby craft store, though I have cleaned and recycled a few. That way it’s not holding old vibrations and not fitted for a specific lock. Charge it like you would any other magical tool. You already know how to use it.


Sources

Bourg, Rain. “History of Keys.” Historical Keys.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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Relearning to See

quackenbush
This isn’t so much a review of Thomas R. Quakenbush’s book Relearning to See, considered one of the best books explaining what is called the “Bates Method,” as it is an exploration of how the principles of natural vision have changed my thinking and my life. Although most people will elect to go the route of glasses and surgery to correct vision problems, and a few lucky people have perfect vision without considering the issue, I think these insights have implications beyond correcting eyesight, implications especially for the magical practitioner.

I first decided to use natural vision methods over twenty-five years ago, when I was at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I was camping out at the festival with several thousand women, and I rolled over my glasses in the tent while I was asleep, breaking them beyond repair. I was a day’s drive away from home, and my girlfriend did not know how to drive, so I had no idea how we would be able to get home. I was in a bit of a panic. In the end, some women scrounged up materials and pieced the glasses together so that they could stay on my nose long enough for the drive – but that was the turning point. I saw that my life was hanging by a thread, depending on these implements to interface with the world, and I vowed that I would find a way to emancipate myself from the tyranny of eyeglasses. I had never heard of “natural vision,” and I didn’t know anyone who had successfully thrown away their glasses, but I was determined to be free.

Looking back, I can see that it was no coincidence that my commitment to better vision began here, just as it was no coincidence that my vision problems started in my first year of college. That year I began complaining of headaches, and my mother made an appointment for me at the “Vision Clinic,” as it was misnamed. It should have been called the “Adjusts to Poor Vision Clinic.” Sure enough, my eyesight had deteriorated. The explanation given was that I was spending long hours hunched over books, often under the glaring light of the library, and this was putting a strain on my eyes. I don’t dispute this explanation, and William H. Bates himself says that eyestrain is a big culprit in poor vision, but this is a surface explanation, like saying your car got dented because something hit it. What happened?

College is a period of indoctrination as much as a period of learning. The biases, prejudices and imperatives of Western civilization bombard the young mind, as the institution struggles against itself to teach that mind how to think while dictating to it what to think. Especially for a woman, the incongruities are fierce. I took what amounted to a minor in English literature, and in all those classes read exactly one book written by a woman. The thing that bothers me most about that is that I didn’t “see” it. I majored in economics, and it was never mentioned that most wealth is in the hands of men and poverty disproportionately affects women. What bothers me now is that I didn’t “see” it. For a woman higher education is a period of great strain, one she survives by turning a blind eye, or at least a myopic one, to what is going on.

Since I had not been inured to wearing glasses at a young age, of course I hated them, and I only wore them when reading a textbook – something that should have been instructive. When I graduated from college and began working for a large corporation, I began needing higher prescription lenses to read it all, and eventually needed glasses even to drive.

Michigan provoked the turn around. This was in the earlier days of the festival, before the rise of organized attacks that changed the timbre of the music. I had to never been in a crowd of so many women. I had to never been in a large public gathering where men were completely absent. I realized with a shock that for many years, perhaps most of my life, I had lived in heightened alert against the threat of rape, both in and outside of my house. I had never reflected on this, never even noticed it, but the absence was startling. My body was conditioned to tighten at the sound of a low voice or a rustle of leaves – but then I would remember, “I am safe here.” This is what the early days of Michigan were like.

It was also at Michigan that I met my first witch, or at least the first witch who would talk to me. I had imposed myself once on a woman who was pointed out to me at a local coffee house, who admitted to being a witch. I asked her where I could learn how to fly on a broom, and she brushed me off. But at Michigan there were lots of witches. I took a tarot class taught by Daughters of the Moon designer Fiona Morgan. I remember nothing about the class except that I felt excited to catch a glimpse of some thing totally new. Something was shifting in me. Looking back I see that my fuzzy eyesight was the distortions of patriarchy and my eyeglasses were the coping mechanism that allowed me to function. I left Michigan determined not to throw away my coping mechanism, but to dispense with the need for it altogether. The clearer vision that ensued allowed me to penetrate the occult realms.

As often happens when I write a blog post, I have discovered that I have more to say than I thought I did. I will continue the topic of acquiring clear vision in another post.

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Is Friday for Frigga or Freyja?

Frejya prizes her magic amber necklace. Amber from northern and central Europe is the fossilized resin of an extinct conifer.

Frejya prizes her magic amber necklace. Amber from northern and central Europe is the fossilized resin of an extinct conifer. Photo by Manfred Heyde.

While Frigga’s worship was prevalent in all regions of Germanic settlement, Frejya’s worship seems to have been concentrated in the Nordic countries. This supports the hypothesis that she was a latecomer to the pantheon, her relative prominence a sign that she was the principal deity of an indigenous people.

When Germanic tribes adopted the Roman calendar, the sixth day of the week, which the Romans dedicated to the goddess Venus, became Frejya’s day. Although Venus and Frejya are not terribly similar, Frejya does have the most Venusian qualities of the pantheon. Where Freyja was not the dominant goddess, the sixth day was dedicated to Frigga. The English Friday was clearly derived from Frigga, although in Scandinavian languages the name of the day probably came from Frejya.

Frejya is closely aligned with her brother the boar god Freyr, who is like his sister in many ways, aiding the harvest, bringing wealth and protecting children. While Frejya’s symbol is the vulva, Freyr’s is the phallus, and he was worshiped at a huge phallic monument. Frejya also has a lover, the god Oder, who has a tendency to wander, and Frejya will wander herself in search of him, leaving the earth cold and barren. Frejya wears a necklace of amber which she obtained from the dwarves. She also wears a cloak of falcon feathers and leather tunic and leather leggings. She has a lovely red mouth and is generous with her affection and her possessions.
The line of stars in the constellation Orion known as "Orion's Belt" has also been called Frigga's Distaff. Photo by Roberto Mura.

The line of stars in the constellation Orion known as “Orion’s Belt” has also been called “Frigga’s Distaff.” Photo by Roberto Mura.



Frigga is wife of the Germanic god Odin, who is the chief male shamanic deity. Odin obtained most of his magic by threatening and confronting various goddesses and priestesses. He is no match for Frigga, however, who can always best him in a battle of wits. Before Odin arrived on the scene, Frigga’s principal male deity was probably her son Balder. She doted so much on her son that she extracted promises from every living thing on earth never to harm him. She overlooked the poisonous mistletoe, since it is such an innocuous looking plant, and was tricked into revealing her oversight. Frigga’s loss of her son and their subsequent reunion mirrors the dormancy and regeneration of vegetation. In pre-patriarchal societies, the role of goddesses as sisters and mothers rather than wives is emphasized, since children belong to the mother’s family.

Frigga cries tears of gold when she mourns and has a great love of adornment, wearing precious jewels and a showy crown of heron feathers. She dresses in finely woven cloth. Her spinning wheel revolves in the night sky as a constellation. Frigga is a generous goddess like Frejya, but in one area she is famous for her stinginess: she usually refrains from divulging prophecy, even though she knows everything which is to come.

This is by no means a complete picture of either Frejya or Frigga, but by now a picture should be emerging of two goddesses who can neither be conflated nor made entirely distinct. The best way to get to know them is to take a meditative journey to meet them face to face.

This is the final installment of this series on Frejya and Frigga. Also see an earlier post on Frigga as goddess of the birch. The following list of sources is for the entire series (seven installments).

BBC. “Boar Watching.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Wild_boar#p0087k14

BBC. “Pigs Have Evolved to Wallow in Mud.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9464000/9464994.stm

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Gyrfalcon.” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/gyrfalcon/lifehistory

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Miriam Robbins Dexter, ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.

Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2008.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Ombrello, T. “Conifer Cones.” http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/pow/conifer_cones.htm

Sullivan, Janet. “Picea Abies.” U.S. Dept of Agriculture, 1994. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/picabi/all.html

Taylor, Thomas (trans). “The Orphic Hymns.” http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html#15.

Tekiela, Stan. Trees of New York. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Boooks, 2006.

Vikernes, Varg. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia. London: Abstract Sounds, 2011.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

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The Magic Comb: A new post at Return to Mago

combmirror
I have written an article on the comb as a shamanic tool at the Return to Mago blog.

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Consecrating the Ritual Broom


To finish up the broom series, I will share some tidbits about consecrating the magical broom (also called a besom). There is no consensus about how this should be done, but many witches believe consecration is important. Carrie Moonstone says in her Witchvox article How to Make a Besom, “Once you have finished the besom, it needs to blessed and consecrated as you would with any other magickal tool. You may dedicate it to a spirit or deity of your choice and charge it with protective energies.” As Moonstone implies, the broom is not unique in this; most magical tools are consecrated in some way.

In Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli says you must first “name your broom as you would a horse.” She tells you to “anoint it with oil as you would a candle, and consecrate it in the names of the Gods:

Besom of Birch with Willow tied
Be my companion and my guide.
On ashen shaft by moonlight pale
My spirit rides the windy gale
To realms beyond both space and time
To magical lands my soul will sail
In the company of the Crone all ride
This Besom of birch with willow tied
So do I consecrate this magical Tree
As I will, so must it be!

Tess Whitehurst gives a detailed ritual for full moon consecration of a new broom (which is too long to quote here) in her book Magical Housekeeping: Simple Charms and Practical Tips for Creating a Harmonious Home. She uses frankincense, candle flame, salt and rosewater to consecrate the broom to all four elements. Christine Zimmerman gives a four-elements consecration here. Yvonne at Earth Witchery does not believe there is anything unique about the broom in this regard and advises to “Consecrate the finished broom as you would any ritual object.”

Radomir Ristic in Balkan Traditional Witchcraft maintains that “The broom itself has magical power and it does not require consecration.” I myself lean toward this point of view.


Sources

Campanelli, Pauline. The Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989.

Moonstone, Carrie. “How to Make a Besom.” At Witchvox.

Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Michael C. Carter, Jr., trans. Los Angeles: Pendraig, 2009.

Whitehurst, Tess. Magical housekeeping: Simple Charms and Practical Tips for Creating A Harmonious Home. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2010.

Zimmerman, Christine. A Pray or Ritual for a Broom Cleansing.


In honor of the last article in the witch broom series, apropos of nothing, I leave you with my favorite magic broom video.

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Hecate and the Waterway

White willow. Photo by Willow.


Throughout most of human history, the primary method of travel was via water rather than road. Even in the Ice Age, settlement patterns and artifacts reflect reliance on river trade, sometimes over long distances. Considering the primacy of early water travel, it is not surprising that the route to the afterlife is via river in many cultures.

Water is also linked with birth as well as death, since the fetus grows in a sack of liquid which opens at birth. The moist birth canal can be compared to a small waterway. Water nourishes all animal and plant life. Water is the most basic and important substance of healing.

Water has a special relationship with the moon. The full moon’s influence on the tides is the most obvious, but the moon has a subtle effect on other waterways, including the waters of the womb. While scientists scoff, midwives and others involved in obstetric care firmly believe the full moon is capable of inducing labor. “As the moon empties, so does the womb.” The moon’s reflection on slow-moving rivers and pools of fresh water magically charges the water with the moon’s life-giving energies.

In the northern hemisphere the most ubiquitous tree along rivers is the willow. This tree produces a strong yet pliable bark that is useful for basket weaving. The birch twigs of the witch’s broom are traditionally latched to the ash handle with strips of willow bark. Dowsers generally use willow (or hazel) twigs for divining underground water sources. The willow is certainly in the top five preferred trees for magic wands, partly because it grows along riverbanks and is thus nurtured with water charged by the moon.

Willow catkin

The willow is one of the first trees to reawaken in early spring, and the fibrous blossoms (called catkins) have in bygone eras provided nourishment during this hungry time. Bees also feast on catkins as they emerge from their hives. The most important contribution of willow to humankind, however, is as a medicine. The bark of the willow tree contains an important pain relieving anti-inflammatory substance from which aspirin was originally derived. While aspirin, both synthetic and derivative, is a relatively new arrival, the use of willow bark is documented in early medical texts.

The white willow tree (Salix alba), which produces the preferred bark for pain relief, is native to Europe and western Asia. It is called a “white” willow because the underside of the leaf is covered with silky white down that gives the tree a silvery appearance. This is the tree sacred to the goddess Hecate. She is a goddess associated in classical times with death and travel, and her followers at that time were primarily healers and primarily women. It was once common for Hecate shrines and offerings to be located along roads or at crossroads. As goddess of death she became linked with the dog, while as goddess of the road she became linked with the horse, but Hecate’s worship predates the domestication of both the dog and the horse. I believe she was originally worshiped as Queen of the Waterways in the form of the willow tree. This is how she received her association with healing and with the moon. Her association with death relates to the dark waters flowing quietly back to the source.

Hecate is sometimes called a “crone goddess,” but despite her death aspect she appears as a youthful woman, reminiscent of the pliant willow which alleviates the effects of time on the body. She has dark hair, large black eyes, and luminous white skin. Like her tree she has a large, beautiful and unassuming grace.



Sources

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Plants for a Future. Salix alba.

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The Broom is Married to the House


In pagan imagery, the broom is not just a symbol of witches, but of wives. The Celtic goddess Brigid has among her many functions the charge of housekeeping, and her followers report that they often see her with broom in hand. Women used to leave their broom outside the front door when they left the house, as a signal to visitors that they were not at home. The ordinary broom used for household chores, as opposed to the witch’s ritual broom, is married to the house; when a family moves it is customary for the broom to remain at the house rather than being brought along to the new location.

Many people are familiar with the phrase “to jump the broom,” which means to get married, and this custom relates to the broom as symbol of housekeeping and mature womanhood. The custom of jumping the broom was common on the American frontier when ordained ministers were scarce. A couple might be awaiting their second child before their marriage became official within their church, and the broom served to sanction their union until then. Broomstick weddings were also common among African American slaves, who were denied “real” marriage by slaveholders and Christian authorities. The association of brooms and marriage has antecedents in so many cultures that it is impossible to trace the origin of the custom, other than to say that it almost certainly did not originate in America.

In many pagan weddings today, it is the jumping of the broom, rather than the exchange of rings or the words “I do,” that is the core part of the ceremony. The couple, holding hands or with hands fastened by ribbons, jumps over a broom lying horizontal on the ground. While in the air the spirits of the couple become joined, and when they hit the ground that union becomes sealed in the physical world. Superstitions about broom handles touching the ground suggest that in the older ceremonies the jumping broom might have been elevated or propped against something.

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The Witch’s Broom, part IV

Brooms made of sorghum fibers at a Bulgarian shop. Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov.


Let’s examine the phenomenon of flying.

Recall that Doreen Valiente attributes the belief that witches fly on brooms to the traditional riding-pole dance. Participants would stradle their staves and jump high to encourage the crops to grow tall. This agricultural fertility rite continued well into Christian times, with the phallic carved ends of the poles hidden by birch twigs when not in use – presumably to hide the practice from inquisitive eyes, but perhaps for some other purpose. We have already seen how during the persecutions witches were frequently said to be flying on staves rather than brooms. Maybe during the fertility rites they really were flying. Many of us modern-day witches have had the experience of dancing ecstatically during ritual and discovering that our feet were no longer touching the ground, that we were “dancing on air.”

Another theory about flying has to do with “flying ointments.” These had some kind of grease as a base, with extracts of hallucinogenic plants mixed in, especially belladonna. This plant reportedly gives the user the sensation of flying. Some say the ointment was applied to the labia, so that it could be more easily absorbed through the skin. It was never used internally because belladonna and similar plants are so highly toxic. In Apuleius’ second century Latin novel The Golden Ass, the sorceress applies the ointment, assumes the form of an owl, and flies away. Other accounts of eyewitnesses say the ointment users writhed or remained inert on the floor, in an unconscious state, then wakened after about an hour reporting that they had flown. Some have conjectured that the ointment may have been applied to the broom handle, the witch rubbing her genitals against the handle until she absorbed just enough to lose consciousness. (I have a difficult time accepting this explanation, as rational as it sounds from a standpoint of safer flying.)

Wild fennel growing in France. Photo by H. Zell.



With or without flying ointments, European shamans took trance journeys where they flew with broom-like implements. The Friulian benandanti were Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who flew on the backs of animals carrying bunches of fennel to wield against witches bearing stalks of sorghum. Grocery store fennel looks like celery, but the plant gets quite large and rangy in the wild. Sorgham grows in large stalks that can sweep the air like a broom. Livonian Christians of the same time period assumed wolf form to fight witches who had stolen sheafs of grain. These werewolves wielded iron whips while the witches fought back with brooms. Despite their assertions that they were good people fighting bad witches, both the Friulian and Livonian shamans were persecuted by the Inquisition.

Christian authorities frequently bemoaned the peasant superstition that witches used their brooms to change the weather. A witch reportedly would sweep the air with her broom to make it rain or to bring damaging storms that devastated neighbors’ crops. I’m not into storm magic myself, but many witches report that it’s fairly easy to raise winds and storms through magic. Theoretically it would be possible to raise enough wind to fly through the air, although it would take quite a bit of control to stay astride that broom, and there would be the issue of flying debris to contend with.

Astral projection is yet another way to fly, one that doesn’t require a broom. I’m talking about a trance state where the body is inert but the spirit is flying in the regular world, not the otherworld. I used to do a bit of window shopping this way, especially when I lived in San Francisco. It was easier than getting around on buses. One day when I was flying in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a woman walking along the sidewalk chatting to friend looked up at me and said “Oh, hello!” This is the only time this has happened to me, and I found it so disconcerting that I stopped flying for awhile. The incident proved to me that a person flying in spirit form can sometimes be noticed. Presumably, before perceptions had been distorted by modern narrow-mindedness, more people would have been able to recognize witches flying around.

So there are lots of ways those legendary witches really could have been flying: trance journeys in another world, trance journeys in this world, ecstatic dancing, drug experiences. It’s too bad they’re not here to show us all the ins and outs, but at least the art of flying is still with us.


Sources

Apuleius. The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as the Golden Ass. Robert Graves, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.

Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf. New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Morgan, Adrian. Toads and Toadstools: The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1995.

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The Witch’s Broom, part III

Witches flying on broom and staff. From manuscript border of Martin Le Franc's 1440 Defender of Ladies.


The stereotypic witch is the deluded worshipper of Satan, working her evil in remote congregations she accesses by flying on her broomstick. She has a huge larger-than-life nose with larger-than-life warts, and one of her greatest sins is the fashion mistake of that ridiculous cone hat. She is a misguided dupe who will, of course, meet with a sorry end as the forces of good prevail.

Curiously enough, there are parts of this stereotype with a basis in reality. The most interesting of these is the flight on the broom.

Broom flight came relatively late in the Christian understanding of witchcraft. Medieval writings such as the 906 Canon Episcopi talk about the idea of pagans shapeshifting into animals in order to go places and do things, though the texts make clear that the error is not in doing these things but in believing that they happen. A clerical reference to witches on broomsticks appears in 1440 in Martin Le Franc’s Defender of the Ladies. In this essay Le Franc takes exception to the belief that women are more likely than men to do the Devil’s bidding, arguing that this belief is based on fanstastic assumptions like broom travel. He discusses the confession of a sixteen year old girl at a trial and concludes that “There are no broomsticks or rods by which anyone could fly. But when the devil can fool the mind, they think they fly….” Again, the error is not in the act of flying, but in believing that flight is possible. Since theology around Satan and witchcraft solidified by the thirteenth century, and witch flight continued to be suspect within this paradigm, it is likely that the idea of witches flying on brooms arose not out of Christian cosmology but pagan belief. Eventually broomstick flying did become stock in the witch hunter’s lore, though witch prosecutors like Matthew Hopkins lamented that the belief cheapened the discipline. The need for prosecutors at actual trials to establish a modus operandi may explain why the scenario of the witch flying on her broomstick was accepted outside of more erudite theological circles. The scenario explained how the witches (many of whom were elderly) were getting to their sabbats in the wilderness undetected, and it allowed the testimony of victims and witnesses, who often insisted on dragging in broom flight, to be admitted in full.

Aphrodite riding a swan or goose, carrying staff or distaff. By Achilles the Painter, 450 bce. University of Haifa Library.



So how did people get the idea that witches were flying on brooms (or staves or animals)? The simple answer, which we’ll get to eventually, is that they really were flying. Another point to consider is the relationship between the priestess and her goddess. While the monotheistic religions (and many pagan religions as well) place a wide distance between the greatest priest/priestess and the deity, in many pagan religions a priestess can become endowed over time with the qualities of her deity. Christian theologians may have furthered this conflation between goddess and priestess by their emphatic portrayal of goddesses (whom they categorically referred to as “demons”) as the mundane part of their divine/worldly dichotomy. Sometimes in Christianized folklore the goddess even becomes a witch.

We know from myth and art that goddesses are always flying around, often with staves, distaffs or brooms, or on the backs of animals. The germanic giantess Hyrrokkin rides on the back of a wolf, and witnesses in a witch trial from Switzerland testified that the accused was seen flying on a wolf. More often the goddess is shown carrying a staff or a distaff as she flies, with or without animal support. While today the broom is the stock image, medieval and Renaissance witches were often portrayed flying on staves or distaffs. The Russian Baba Yaga, who has counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, definitely has a flying broom association. Baba Yaga is described as a witch, but her awesome powers are goddess-like. She rides through the sky at night in a mortar, using the pestle as an oar to steer. With her broom she sweeps the tracks away as she rides. Baba Yaga is an ancient crone with a huge nose almost touching her chin. She or harvest crone goddesses like her probably influenced the broomstick witch stereotype.

Flying witch with distaff on indeterminate animal doing weather magic. From Albrecht Durer's early 16th century engraving Witch Riding. Thought to be inspired by a cameo of Aphrodite Pandemos.


Sources

Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.

Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.


Still to come: What if they really were flying?

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The Witch’s Broom, part II

Birch bundles for making "besoms"--traditional witch brooms. Photo by Colin Grice.


Last week I talked about the handle of the broom, which is usually made of ash. Ash wood represents Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Germanic lore, and symbolizes nourishment, health and all-around good luck.

The brush part of the broom is traditionally made with birch twigs. Birch is a tree of purification, also associated with death and ancestors. Gentle flagellation with birch twigs is used in some purification rituals to drive pollution out of the body. In old-style Swedish saunas, people emerge from the heat, roll in the snow, then are lightly beaten with birch twigs. The sauna is still used for physical purification, but it was once used for spiritual and emotional cleansing as well.

The broom is used at the very beginning of ritual to cleanse the energies in the area of worship. The broom does not sweep or touch the floor but is held above the head with two hands as the priestess walks the perimeter of the ceremonial space. Since it drives away impure energies, the broom can be used as a guardian for the doorway to a ritual space. The broom may also be used in more aggressive banishing rituals to drive out negativity. Routine purification for ritual preparation is done with feathers or fans, but the broom may be passed over the body in situations requiring more extreme cleansing, such as disease or trauma. The broom was used in purification ceremonies following childbirth back when infant and maternal mortality was higher due to bacterial infections.

The birch twigs are bound to the traditional witch broom with strips of willow bark. White willow bark is a widely used anodyne, from which aspirin was originally synthesized. Willow is sacred to Hecate, a patron goddess of witches, and is associated with water and the moon.

In folklore there are many taboos about brooms. I view these taboos as a reminder of the power of the broom, a power that must be wielded with caution.

Still to come: Marriage and the Broom plus Astral Travel.


Sources:

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1990.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Welllingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.

Grimassi, Raven. Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2011.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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