Just as cats are intricately bound up with the image of the witch, so is the broomstick. Widely believed to be the witch’s favourite mode of transport, the broomstick serves as both vehicle and tool.
Or does it? Just why is this humble household item so common among depictions of witches?
I do think the broomstick enjoyed a makeover with the Harry Potter phenomenon, turning it into a piece of sporting equipment through JK Rowling’s invention of Quidditch.
But as Halloween draws closer, and broomsticks starting quivering in anticipation, let’s have a look at the folklore around them.
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The Broomstick as Transport
Unless I’ve missed a memo or two, it’s unlikely that witches actually flew to sabbats on broomsticks. Some speculate that witches used a so-called ‘flying ointment’ to induce hallucinations or transcendental experiences. I’m pretty sure a lot of non-witches also did that in the 1960s but you don’t see them demonised by popular culture.
Anyway. Most believe that deadly nightshade, wolfsbane and henbane make up flying ointment. Each of these shockingly toxic plants could produce sensations of flying.
Over time, the belief that witches consorted with Satan mixed with the image of the old lady sweeping her floor. The broomstick became a method of transport. Perhaps someone discovered the idea of ‘flying ointment’ and took it literally. I read a book years ago (sadly, I forget which one) that claimed the witches smeared this ointment onto the broomstick itself to enable actual flight.
The Naughty Side of Broomsticks
I should note, and look away now if you’re squeamish, that there is a second link between the broomstick and flying ointment, proposed by The Atlantic.
Taking such a potent mix of hallucinogens internally causes a whole range of unpleasant side effects, including nausea and vomiting. Absorbing them through the skin gave the best experience and skipped these side effects.
The armpits and the genitals proved to be the best places to apply the ointment to get the strongest results. You can work out for yourself why the handle of the broom might make a good applicator for such ointment.
The first known reference to flying broomsticks comes from a confession made by a male witch in 1453. Guillaume Edelin made the confession under torture so I doubt its veracity.
The Broomstick Around the House
Broomsticks were more commonly used around the house. Some modern witches still use broomsticks to cleanse their ritual spaces, sweeping away negativity before they cast their circle.
As a result, there are several broomstick superstitions around cleaning.
- Don’t use a brand new broom to sweep dirt out of the house. Sweep something in from outside first.
- Likewise, clean indoors before you use a broom to sweep outside.
- Need to sweep under someone’s feet? Tell them you’ll dance at their wedding, or you’ll pass on bad luck.
- Don’t sweep after sunset. You might sweep away happiness or annoy a wandering soul.
- If you move house, leave the old broom in your old house because brooms get attached to houses. Buy a new one in your new home. (Apparently, this only applies to brooms used for cleaning. Those used for magical purposes are quite happy to move house).
I can’t find anything to suggest these same superstitions apply to vacuum cleaners so you should be okay with your Dyson.
The Broomstick As Protection
Yet despite their negative connotations as the best way to travel for witches, the broomstick also acts as a protection device around the home.
- Cross a broomstick and a spade outside your front door to protect against lightning strikes.
- Put a small broom under the pillows of children to protect them while they sleep.
- Hang a broomstick on the bedroom door to sweep away nightmares.
- Cross two brooms and hang them on the door to guard the house.
- Put a broomstick across a doorway if you want to speak to the dearly departed. They’ll be able to communicate as long as you leave the broom where it is.
- Lay a broom across the doorway to keep evil out.
Hopefully, you’re starting to realise just why so many people would have broomsticks around their house. I assume the ‘cleaning’ properties of the broom lend themselves to the idea of ‘sweeping away’ anything negative.
I also hope you’ve noticed the fundamental problem with the idea of witches using broomsticks. If witches were considered evil in days gone by…and a broom across the doorway kept out evil…why would witches ride them through the night sky?
Jumping the Broom
Broomsticks also feature within some marriage customs.
According to Alan Dundes, it was a Welsh gypsy tradition for couples to jump over a broom placed in a doorway to get married (1996: 327). If they wanted to end the marriage, they jumped backwards over the broom and out of the house. As long as the same witnesses were present, the marriage was considered dissolved.
It reflected a belief in the southern Tyrol region that newly married couples had to step over a broomstick when they first entered their home together (Dundes 1996: 327). For Dundes, it reflected the belief that stepping over a broomstick warded off evil demons.
In 18th century England, a ‘broomstick marriage’ referred to a ceremony of doubtful validity. That said, no actual proof exists of people jumping over broomsticks as a form of civil marriage. The term meant ‘sham marriage’ but it’s possible that later generations took the term literally.
A reference to such a marriage pops up in Great Expectations, so it’s likely that contemporary readers recognised it as an informal agreement between a couple.
Jumping the broom also appeared in the 1840s and 1850s, where slaves used it as a marriage ceremony if they weren’t legally allowed to marry. The custom saw a resurgence after the publication of Roots in 1976. Dundes points out there isn’t much evidence for the custom in African societies, seeing it instead as an antebellum custom (1996: 326).
The association between brooms and witches saw ‘jumping the broom’ adopted as a wedding custom by some Wiccans.
Yet in Yorkshire, young girls watched where they put their feet. If they stepped over a broom, they’d become a mother before they became a wife.
Do you know any broomstick customs I haven’t covered here?
The popularity of religions like Wicca have rehabilitated the broomstick. Some might still associate the broom with ‘evil’ witches like the Wicked Witch of the West. But Rowling’s decision to turn it into sports equipment for Quidditch see hundreds of kids every year take ‘flying lessons’ at Harry Potter days.
Question is…what do you use your broom for? Let me know below!
Campanelli, Pauline (2014), Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Campanelli, Pauline (1988), Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Dundes, Alan (1996), ‘”Jumping the Broom”: On the Origin and Meaning of an African American Wedding Custom’, The Journal of American Folklore, 109: 433, pp. 324-329.
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