Broom or Besom Symbolism and Meaning - How Did Brooms Become Associated with Witches?
Broom or Besom Symbolism and Meaning - How Did Brooms Become Associated with Witches?
Around Halloween, we often see silly pictures of witches flying on broomsticks. The drawings are so familiar that we don't even question them anymore, but if you stop to think about them, they are a rather strange image. Where did the idea of these magical, mischievous, flying women come from? There is a rather interesting theory as to their origins.
But first, a little history. The first reference to witches riding on brooms goes back to the year 1453, when a clergyman (yes, a man) named Guillaume Edelin confessed to making a pact with the Devil and flying to the Sabbath on a broomstick. The idea of a "flying ointment", a cream or salve that allowed witches to "fly", also dates back to around this time.
Boredom, Bread, and Broomsticks
Centuries ago, women didn't have the choices they have today and were generally considered second-class citizens. Rarely did they have a job outside the home and when they did, they often had to hold several jobs just to make the same amount of money as a man.
For many women, their main duties consisted of taking care of the children, looking after the home, working in the yard, taking care of the animals, and doing all the housework and cooking. Women were also expected to tend to their husband's needs at all times. Keeping the home clean was a constant chore, but also necessary, because dirt could attract rodents which could sometimes bring with them deadly diseases. As you might imagine, life must have felt rather tedious and oppressive.
It is thought that the drudgery of daily life for women, along with two everyday household items, broomsticks and bread, came together in a rather unexpected way to create the idea of flying witches.
In the Middle Ages, bread was often made out of rye, which could sometimes become infected with a type of fungus called ergot. Eaten in large quantities, it could cause death, but in smaller quantities, it would produce hallucinations.
Naturally, when humans come across something that adds a little excitement to their lives, they want to know more about it. People experimented not just with ergot, but also with other plants that had hallucinogenic effects.
The problem with these plants was that eating them could cause unpleasant side effects like nausea, vomiting, and skin problems. But they found that when they made an ointment out of the plants and applied it to their skin, they could have the hallucinogenic effects without the other problems. They also discovered that the places where the ointments seemed to be most easily absorbed were in the armpits and the thin mucous membranes of the genitals.
Since every woman likely had a broomstick in the house, it makes sense that it would have made an easy and convenient tool for the application of these ointments. They would apply the ointment to the end of the broomstick and use it to apply to their genitals. (It's not recommended that you try this at home.)
In a 15th-century manuscript, theologian Jordanes de Bergamo writes of how "the witches confess that...they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places..."
So how about flying? It is thought that after applying the ointment, the women would straddle the broomsticks and jump and dance around in the open fields, giving them the sensation of flying as the drugs took effect.
Clergymen of the time debated as to whether the ointments actually allowed the witches to physically fly, or if it was a delusion created by the Devil, or if it was a sort of out-of-body experience where the souls of the witches left their bodies and flew to the Sabbath.
It's not likely that the witches really went anywhere at all; the drugs probably just caused an altered state of consciousness or a transcendental experience where they believed they were somewhere else. Some herbs used at the time, like deadly nightshade, wolfsbane, and henbane, are known to produce sensations of flying.
It's also important to note that much of our knowledge today from the era of witch hunts is biased and unreliable because it was mostly written by inquisitors of the Church, clergymen, or taken from alleged witches who were tortured until they came up with a confession that satisfied their tormentors. It's more likely that many of these women just enjoyed getting high to escape the monotony of their daily lives.
Brooms as a Fertility Symbol
The broom is a traditional symbol of fertility and is said to be sacred to Goddess and God. It represents a balance of divine masculine energies (represented by the phallic handle) and feminine energies (represented by the "hairy" bristles) and is thought to promote fertility of people or land. In fact, it is said that one of the reasons why the witches may have been jumping around with broomsticks in their crop fields was to promote a good harvest.
In Ancient Rome, wise-women or sacred "midwives" made special brooms meant to sweep negative energies away from a house where a baby had just been born. These women are thought to be one of the possible precursors to the idea of witches.
The term "broomstick weddings" was used in 18th and 19th century England to refer to weddings that were not considered legal. It is also associated with a wedding ritual called "jumping the broom" that was once associated with English Gypsies, but is now most widespread amongst African Americans.
Slaves in America were not allowed to legally marry, so when they fell in love and decided they wanted to be committed to each other for life, they jumped over a broomstick and were then considered married. Modern-day African Americans still use this custom in their weddings to honor their ancestors and to remember that there was once a time when their people were less fortunate.
The broomstick wedding is a sort of metaphor for a "sweeping away" of one's old life and a new beginning. Alternatively, a broomstick on the ground has been interpreted as a line separating the old and the new, with the couple jumping over it into their new life together.
The folklorist Alan Dundes notes that it was Welsh Gypsy custom to jump over a broom placed in a doorway to get married. To get a divorce, the couple would jump backwards over the broom and out of the house.
The Symbolism and Use of Brooms in Wicca
Brooms and besoms are used for protection, to ward off evil spirits, and cleansing of ritual spaces.
Usually held a few inches above the floor, a special broom is used to cleanse a space of negative energies or "energetic clutter" before creating a magic circle. The sweeping of the actual floor is usually done with a separate utility broom prior to the energetic cleansing.
A broom can also be used as a doorway for the magic circle. Once a magic circle is drawn, the witch enters it and places the broom over the doorway to keep out unwanted energies.
Brooms and besoms, hung in houses with the bristles pointing upwards, are a way of warding off evil spirits, negative energy, and for protect the house and its people. Placed under the pillow, they are said to protect against nightmares.
They were also a tool that helped witches survive times of persecution. During the Burning Times in Europe, brooms were used to hide one of the witches' most important tools - the wand, a tool used for the summoning of certain spirits. A few ancient brooms have been found to contain hidden compartments with things like herbs, oils, feathers, and other objects thought to be used for spells or to enhance the cosmic energy of the broom.
Besoms and broomsticks are very much tied to women because for almost all of history, women have done the bulk of the housework. The word "besom" comes from the Old English "besema", which meant "woman" and "besom" has the same root word as "bosom".
The word "besom" was later replaced by "broom", which is a type of shrub used for sweeping.
Thank you for joining me on this short journey into the history and symbolism of broomsticks. Do you have a story about besoms or brooms that you'd like to share? Please let me know in the comments below!
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Meier, Allison 2016, The First Known Depiction of a Witch on a Broomstick, accessed 10/2/20, https://hyperallergic.com/332222/first-known-depiction-witch-broomstick/
Czarnecki, Mary, Working Women in the Middle Ages, accessed 9/27/20, http://mahan.wonkwang.ac.kr/link/med/feminism/work/main.html
Wikipedia, Flying Ointment, accessed 10/1/20, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_ointment
Flying witch: CC0 Public Domain
1st depiction of flying witches: Martin Le France (1410-1461) / Public domain
Witches preparing magic salve: Deutsch: unbekannter KünstlerEnglish: unknown artist / Public domain
Broomstick wedding: Public Domain
Broomstick still-life: https://www.needpix.com/photo/833206/broom-still-life-hand-broom-china-taiwan-sweep