Witches & Broomsticks ñ Use & History

BROOMSTICKS & BESOMS

Witches & Broomsticks ñ Use & History

The BroomstickÖ

The traditional companion of the witches was the enchanted broomstick, used for
their wild and unholy flights through the night and probably to some distant
Witches’ Sabbat. This is one of the first images you get to see as a child and
this was doubtlessly believed by the prominent rulers of Europe. The number of
actual confessions of witches doing so is remarkably small. Usually confessions
state that they went to the Sabbat on foot or on horseback.

Legends of witches flying on brooms goes back as far as the beginning of the
Common Era. The earliest known confession of a Witch flying on a broom was in
1453, when Guillaume Edelin of St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, stated that he
had done so. In 1563, Martin Tulouff of Guernsey said to have seen his aged
mother straddle a broomstick and whisk up the chimney and out of the house on
it, saying “Go in the name of the Devil and Lucifer over rocks and thorns”. In
1598 Claudine Boban and her mother, witches of the province of Franche-Comt, in
eastern France, also spoke of flying up the chimney of a stick. The belief of
flying off though the chimney became firmly embedded in popular tradition,
although only a few people ever mentioned doing so. It has been suggested that
this idea was connected with the old custom of pushing a broom up the chimney to
indicate the absence of the housewife. The Germanic Goddess Holda or Holle is
also connected with the chimney.

Other indications that lead to the popular belief that witches actually flew on
broomsticks can be found in an old custom of dancing with a broom between the
legs, leaping high in the air. In Reginald Scot’s book, The Discoverie of
Witchcraft, published in 1584, we find a similar description:

“At these magical assemblies, the witches never failed to dance; and in their
dance they sing these words, ‘Har, har, divell divell, dance here dance here,
plaie here plaie here, Sabbath, Sabbath’. And whiles they sing and dance, ever
one hath a broom in her hand, and holdeth it up aloft.” Scot quoted these
descriptions of Witch rites from a French demonologist, Jean Bodin, who made
observations of a kind of jumping dance, riding on staffs. These customs might
have contributed to the popular picture of broomstick-riding witches through the
air.

In 1665, from the confession of Julian Cox, one of the Somerset coven, mentioned
“that one evening she walks out about a Mile from her own House and there came
riding towards her three persons upon three Broom-staves, born up about a years
and a half from the ground. Two of them she formerly knew, which was a Witch and
a Wizard”.

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Where do these beliefs come from?

Some authors claim that the oldest known source of witches flying on broomsticks
is a manuscript called Le Champion des Dames by Martin Lefranc, 1440. This might
be one of the oldest images representing a hag on a broomstick, but it is
certainly not the first. A wall painting from the 12th century in Schlesswig
Cathedral (Germany) shows the Norse deity Frigg riding her staff.

If we really dig a bit deeper into history, we’ll find that from the Roman world
there are reports that mention witches flying on broomsticks as well as having
used ointments, as early as the first century. They were called Straigae
(Barnowl) and the Lamiae from Greek culture had similar characteristics. Later
in Roman history, the goddess Diana was the leader of the Wild Hunt:

“It is also not to be omitted that some wicked women, perverted by the Devil,
seduced by illusions and phantasm of demons, believe and profess themselves in
the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of
pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of
the night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of
their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights”. (See:
Canon Episcopi).

Similar beliefs existed in many parts of Europe. From Norse mythology, we know
that the army of women, lead by Odin (Wodan), called the Valkyries, was said to
ride through the skies on horses, collecting the souls of the dead. In
continental Germanic areas, the goddess Holda or Holle was also said to lead the
Wild Hunt and is connected to chimneys and witchcraft. Berchta or Perchta,
another Germanic goddess, which can be identified with Holda, has similar
characteristics.

Again in Celtic Traditions, the Horned God Cernunnos, and/or Herne the Hunter
was leader of the Wild Hunt and the Scottish Witch Goddess Nicneven was also
said to fly through the night with her followers. Eastern Europe sources also
have a wealth of folklore about witches flying through the air. So flying
through the air, evidently, was a deeply rooted mythological theme, associated
with the free roaming of the spirit, the separation of soul and body.

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Symbolism

The broomstick is a female and male symbol, “the rod which penetrated the bush”.
Its symbolism and interpretation is therefore purely sexual.

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Broomstick Weddings

“To marry over the broomstick,” “jump the besom”, was an old-time form of
marriage, in which both parties jumped over a broomstick to signify that they
were joined in common-law union. Also in the Netherlands, one can still find the
old saying “over de bezem trouwen” (marrying over the broomstick). At gypsy
wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom jump backwards and forwards over a
broomstick. A besom used to be placed before the doorway, the married couple
had to jump over it without dislodging the broom, from the street into their new
home. At any time within a year, this process could be reversed to dissolve the
marriage by jumping backwards. All this had to take place before several
witnesses.

In folk-belief, like that in Yorkshire, it was unlucky for an unmarried girl to
step over a broomstick because it meant that she would be a mother before she
was a wife. Light-hearted wags used to delight in putting broomsticks in the
path of unsuspecting virgins.

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RITUAL USE

Artificial Phallus

There are hints of its use as an artificial penis or dildo. In a curious old
book, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant, by Albert BarrSre and Charles
Godfrey Leland (1897-1899), we are told that the slang term in those days for a
dildo or artificial penis was “a broom-handle”, and the female genitals were
known vulgarly as “the broom”. To “have a brush” was to have sexual
intercourse. Noteworthy is the evidence from Witch trials mentioning the “cold
hard member of the Devil himself”. In 1662, Isabel Gowdie, accused of
witchcraft, made a confession which could suggest that some sort of artificial
phallus of horn or leather may have been used:

“His members are exceeding great and long; no man’s members are so long and big
as they areÖ.(he is) a meikle, black, rough man, very cold, and I found his
nature as cold within me as spring-well waterÖHe is abler for us that way than
any man can be, only he is heavy like a malt-sack, a huge nature, very cold, as
ice.”

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Broomsticks and Ointments

That ointments used to induce astral projection has been known for a long time.
Therefore the belief of witches flying away on their brooms probably has its
true origin in this shamanic practice of applying narcotic herbs. There are
numerous paintings, engraving and woodcuts from witches, anointing themselves,
before flying off to the Sabbat. There are also quite a lot of confessions of
ointments being applied to leave the body and fly off. These confessions
sometimes show an unawareness that they were not actually flying, but often it
is obvious that the witches knew that the ointments they used had the effects
requited for leaving the body and making spiritual journeys. These practices we
now call astral projection, were obviously known throughout large parts of the
world, but especially worthy evidence comes from French and Italian records.

There is also a hint of use of besoms and sticks as a means to insert the
witches unguent into the vagina to potentate the aphrodisiac effects and for
optimal absorption and effect, while serving as an artificial penis.

The confessions of a woman named Antoine Rose, a Witch of Savoy (France) who was
tortured and tried in 1477, stated that “The first time she was taken to the
synagogue (Sabbat) she saw many men and women there, enjoying themselves and
dancing backwards. The Devil, whose name was Robinet, was a dark man who spoke
in a hoarse voice. Kissing Robinet’s foot in homage, she renounced God and the
Christian faith. He put his mark on her, on the little finger of her left hand,
and gave her a stick, 18 inches long, and a pot of ointment. She used to smear
the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say “Go, in the name of
the Devil, go!” At once she would be carried though the air to the synagogue.”

Alice Kyteler, a famous Irish Witch of the early 14th century, was supposed to
have owned a staff “on which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin,
when and in what manner she listed, after having greased it with the ointment
which was found in her possession.”

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Book and Article Resources:

An ABC of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente, 1973. De Benedanti: Hekserij en
Vruchtbaarheidsriten in de 16e & 17e Eeuw by Carlo Ginzburg, 1966, 1986.
Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology, 1974. Europe’s Inner Demons: The
Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom by Norman Cohn, 1975, 1973.
Heksen, Ketters en Inquisiteurs by Arie Zwart en Karel Braun, 1981. Practical
Magic in the Northern Traditon by Nigel Pennick, 1989. The History of Witchcraft
by Montague Summers, London, 1927. Witchcraft, A Tradition Renewed by Doreen
Valiente and Evan Jones, Phoenix Publishing, 1990. Witchcraft & Demonology by
Francis X. King, 1987, and various online resources and articlesÖ

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