A broom is a primary means of travel for witches, enabling them to travel at tremendous speed, according to lore.
There are different origins of the association of brooms with witches. One is old pagan fertility rites, in which brooms, poles and pitchforks were ridden like hobby-horses in fields and in dances. In some lore, witches are afraid of horses and ride brooms. In other lore, brooms are a natural tool for witches, in accordance with a custom of putting a broom outside a house to indicate a woman is away.
During the witch hysteria, the belief that witches traveled by broom was more prevalent in continental Europe. English witchcraft laws never specifically outlawed flying, and brooms are mentioned only once in English witch trials.
Accused witches on trial said they were able to fly thanks to a magical ointment they rubbed on themselves or on chairs or brooms. If they wished, they could travel invisibly. However, not all authorities agreed that this was possible. Jean Bodin, a 16th-century French Demonologist, maintained that only a witch’s spirit could fly, not her physical body.
The broom was not always the “steed of the Devil.” In early 16th-century German woodcuts, witches are shown astride forks, sticks, shovels and Demons in the form of animals. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, witches were more often shown riding either brooms or Demon– animals. The position of the faggot of twigs changed over time. Initially, the faggot was held down, so that the witch could sweep her tracks from the sky; this is the image that has prevailed into the 20th century. But by the late 17th century, art showed witches riding with the faggot end up. The faggot held a candle to light the way.
According to one folklore belief, the Devil gave every newly initiated witch a broom and flying ointment. Oth- er lore held that he dispensed those items only to weak witches who needed help.
Before mounting their broomsticks, witches first had to anoint themselves or the sticks with the flying ointment, a concoction that often included hallucinogenic and/or toxic ingredients. If they were inside a house, they supposedly rose up through the chimney, though few witches brought to trial actually acknowledged doing that. Sorcerers as well as witches flew brooms, though men were more often depicted riding on pitchforks.
According to lore, witches flew their brooms to Sabbats, sometimes carrying along Demons or their FamiliarS in the shapes of animals. They also rode their brooms to fly out to sea for storm raising. Novices sometimes fell off. On witch festival nights such as Walpurgisnacht, townspeople laid out hooks and scythes to kill witches who fell off their brooms. People also rang church bells, which had the power to ground broomsticks and knock witches off them.
In the Salem Witch hysteria in colonial Massachusetts, accused witch Mary Lacy confessed that she and another accused witch Martha Carrier rode on sticks when they attended witches’ meetings in Salem Village (now Danvers). She said that witches from other states, even Maine and Connecticut, would fly into the pasture behind Reverend Samuel Parris’ house.
Witches were believed to deceive their husbands by substituting a broom for themselves in bed so that they could slip off and attend sabbats. Isobel Gowdie, a famous Scottish witch of the 17th century, said her hus- band never knew the difference, which might have been more of a comment on their marriage than a confession of witchcraft.
In Wicca and Paganism, the broom is used in rituals and may be placed at the altar with other tools and objects. A coven’s high priestess or maiden takes a broom to symbolically sweep away evil, as in clearing the space for a Magic CIRCLE, and to sweep away the old and worn. In a handfasting, the bride and groom traditionally jump over a broom, which is similar to an old Welsh custom that calls for newlyweds to enter their new home by stepping over a broom.
In other folklore, it is bad luck to take one’s broom in a move to a new home. In India, brooms are tied to ships’ sails to sweep storms out of the sky. In Chinese lore, the Broom Goddess is the deity of fine weather, who sweeps the skies clean.
- Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1986.
- Cahill, Robert Ellis. Strange Superstitions. Danvers, Mass.: Old Saltbox Publishing, 1990.
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