The Witch’s Broom

Here are the entries to date on my series about the magical broom.


Part I
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The first thing that we have to grapple with when we talk about the broom as a magical tool is that the sacred broom is not really a broom, not in the way it is commonly understood as a utensil for sweeping debris off the floor. So what is it? Is it the act of sweeping that makes the broom magical? Is it a cleaning application in the realm of etheric energies? Is it some quality in the materials sewn into the part that sweeps? Is it some quality in the handle? Does it relate to the broom’s relationship to the house? As we will see, all of these things play into the magical power of the broom.

When we talk about witches riding their brooms, the cliched expression is “riding on their broomsticks.” Yet we don’t ordinarily refer to the handle of the broom in other contexts. For example, if I wanted someone to pass a broom to me, I would say, “hand me the broom,” not “hand me the broomstick.” Magically speaking, the stick in broomstick warrants examination.

Witches in animal form on a riding pole. From a 15th century French witch-hunting manual.

In Witchcraft for Tomorrow Gardnerian priestess Doreen Valiente says,


The wand is the magical weapon of invocation; but among witches it sometimes took the form of the riding pole, upon which they performed the traditional jumping dance to make the crops grow tall. This dance was probably the origin of the idea that witches used broomsticks or staffs to fly through the air upon….

To dance over the ground with a pole or staff between the legs is an obvious phallic gesture of the old fertility rites. Hence the end of the riding pole was often carved in the shape of a phallus. This, however, marked the staff as an obvious magical object, an adjunct of the Old Religion that was dangerous to have leaning against one’s cottage wall in the times of persecution. So the phallic riding pole had its carved end disguised with a bunch of twigs and became the witch’s broomstick.



Despite (or because of) its phallic symbolism, the broom is traditionally a woman’s magical tool, although Radmir Ristic in Balkan Traditional Witchcraft says there was at one time a type of broom associated with threshing that men used. The type of wood used in the handle influences the magic. Ash, the World Tree in Germanic lore, is the most common traditional wood, but there are no hard and fast rules here.

The broom in the photograph is my own broom. It is a handmade broom given to me as a gift. Instead of a phallic tip, there is the face of a bearded man carved into the handle. The wood is mesquite, which is the tree witches in the Sonora Desert commonly use for magical implements. It is a medium sized, thorny tree with hard wood and very tiny leaves. The flowers, like the wood, are highly aromatic and attract legions of bees. The honey has a strong distinctive flavor. Mesquite produces pods that can be ground into flour or boiled to make a sweet thick beverage. Since the mesquite tree produces sweet abundance in a tough environment, it brings a life-giving, sustaining quality to the broom magic, similar to the wood from the World Tree.

My next installment of this series will discuss the “sweepy” part of the broom.


Sources

Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Translated by Michael C. Carter, Jr. Los Angeles: Pendraig Publishers, 2009.
Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1987.

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.


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.

















Part IV

Brooms made of sorgham 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 sorgham. 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.


Part V


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.



Part VI

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.