Broomsticks (Can Witches Really Fly?)

Witches riding brooms - the ultimate stereotype, isn't it? People have seen this image so many times that they've simply come to accept it and don't even think to question its historical background or verity. So, thanks to pop culture, this image has become synonymous with witches. And to be honest, I don't even mind it that much; I actually find it cute. Despite this, I still believe that the historical and religious background of the broomstick and its deep connection with Paganism and witchcraft has to be explained. 

I have mentioned the broomstick in several previous posts, including the one on ritual tools and on the subject of Handfasting i.e. marriage (which can be found in the post on crossing rituals).

In this post, I'll try to explain what role the broom plays in Paganism and witchcraft (after all, this is a Pagan/Wiccan blog), explain its symbolism and uses in modern rituals, but mainly, I will try to confront the stereotype of flying witches head on.

Terminology: Broomstick/Besom

The Broom plant/shrub
(lat. cytisus scoparius)
Another common name for the broomstick is a besom (pronounced /'bi:zm/). This term was used to name any sweeping tool. The term "broomstick", on the other hand, got its name from the Scottish Broom plant (lat. cytisus scoparius) from which the broomstick's handle was made. The actual sweeping part (a.k.a. the bristles) was made up of twigs and/or leaves which were tied to one end of the handle. The besom also differs in material since the use of the broom plant wasn't mandatory; one could also make a besom out of heather or birch and the bristles could have been straw, dried herbs or any old twigs. According to some, a traditional besom broom nowadays has a hazel-wood handle (sometimes an ash handle) and birch twigs for bristles (the two are usually tied together with willow branches). The broom can be decorated with leaves and flowers and often other objects like crystals, symbols or ribbons (although the latter three are a slightly newer practice). Of course, since the two objects were similar in appearance and were used for the same purposes, the distinctions became blurred with time and the two terms started to be used interchangeably.

I won't go into detail on how modern besoms are made but I will try to put it as simply as I can. The practitioner is supposed to go into the forest and find the materials him/herself. I already noted these before so I won't repeat myself. Anyway, after finding the appropriate trees/shrubs/plants in general, the practitioner is supposed to thank them before cutting off anything and leave a gift of thanks (a small coin, crystal, rock, something of meaning to them etc.). It is very simple to make the broom itself. You can find simple instructions here. After the broom is made, it has to be consecrated and cleansed before it can be used in the circle. A very witchy tradition includes leaving the broom on a crossroads to "let out" any excess energy (often on a night of the full Moon). Of course, all of this is optional now what with so many hobby stores, markets and eBay selling broomsticks for small amounts of money. All the same, I recommend you make your own tools whenever possible since this will add to the tool's (and ritual's) energy.

Symbolism and Superstition

The broom is usually connected to women and the household (since women were and still usually are the ones who do the chores). The bond between women and their beloved brooms was so strong at one point that the broomstick was used almost as a symbol for the woman alone; it could be left standing against the door of her house when the woman of the house wasn't in (guarding it in a way), or perhaps stuck in the chimney so it could be visible from the outside if the woman lived in a cottage. This is where the myth of witches flying out of their chimneys comes from. This myth was first mentioned in a book entitled Flagellum Maleficarum by Petrus Mramor in 1460.

Francesco Parmigianino -
A Witch Riding on a Phallus
(about 1530)
But the symbolism of the broom is much deeper than this. It is essentially a fertility symbol in which the handle represents the male phallus and the bristles represent the vulva. The binding of the two parts is an obvious metaphor of sexual relations and fertility in general. This is why brooms were often used in marriage ceremonies and are used to this day in such a manner in many Pagan communities. I will elaborate on this a bit later on, but I would like to stick to the symbolism for now. This sexual symbolism of the broomstick played an important role in Pagan rites, as it still does. Fertility was celebrated because Pagans relied on the fertility of the land and were also thankful for their own fertility and the miracle of life. The broom epitomized these basic acknowledgements wonderfully. This phallic symbolism of the broomstick is more than obvious in an engraving by a Mannerist artist called Parmigianino which literally depicts a witch flying on a large phallus.

Francisco de Goya -
Pretty Teacher (1797)
I would like to note right at the beginning that the oldest descriptions and depictions of witches riding broomsticks are slightly different than what we are used to today. Namely, the bristles of the broom had to be in front of the witch as is shown in Goya's famous engraving. Hollywood switched this around probably because of aesthetic reasons. It was simply more logical for the bristles which represent the female sex organ to be placed closer to the vulva. Also, other sources state that broomsticks weren't the only instruments which witches supposedly rode. Interesting variations on the topic were hobby horses. Of course, the hobby horse's head is the equivalent of the bristles of a broomstick (at least visually). Since the horse's head was always placed in the front, so were the bristles. This was probably much easier for balance too.

Doreen Valiente points out something linguistically significant. This sexual symbolism of the broom was also reflected on the English language into which the term "broom" was used in slang to refer to the female sexual organ. It goes without saying that the term "broom handle" was equally used to represent a dildo. To "have a brush", logically enough, meant "to have sex".

While we are still on the topic of sex, the broomstick could also be connected to woman-on-top sex positions (that is, if the broom is seen as a primarily phallic symbol). This position is respected among Pagans because it is thought to be empowering for women. It is for this exact same reason that it is dislike in Catholicism (in fact, Adam's first wife Lilith refused to have intercourse while lying down; she insisted on being on top. This is why God condemned her and created Eve who was a good, obedient wife). 

Of course, the symbolism isn't all sexual. It can be related to marriage and fertility of any kind, as I have previously explained. Much of this symbolism turned into superstition so, in some countries, it is bad luck to step over a broom or to drop a broom so it falls flat on the floor. It is also thought to be bad luck to bring an old broom into a new house (as the broom is a symbol of sweeping out dirt, both of a physical as well as mental and emotional nature). In some areas, it's also thought that if an unmarried woman steps over a broom that she will have a child out of wedlock.

Since the broomstick was symbolic of cleansing, it was often used as a sort of talisman for warding off evil spirits. If this was the case, it would be hanged in the hallway just in front of the door with the bristles facing towards the door itself.

Some scholars compare the broom to the arbor mundi (Tree of Life), such as the Germanic Yggdrasil (you can look up this term in the glossary). The bristles of the broom were supposed to represent its deep roots.

Of course, there are many other myths and superstitions regarding broomsticks, their magical powers and witches. The most famous one is surely the myth of covens flying on brooms to their Sabbath meetings.

"Flight Schedule" - the History behind the Myth

Witches didn't really fly on broomsticks contrary to popular beliefs and despite what many engravings, paintings, ecclesiastical texts and folk tales say. This myth has become widely accepted in modern times and, as a result, witches are almost immediately connected with brooms. An interesting fact is that these myths don't only mention witches riding on brooms, but also on pitchforks, shovels, poles and a large range of animals. The act of flying on the broom itself is called transvection.

Ulrich Molitor - De Lamiis
The earliest depiction of this myth is thought to be Ulrich Molitor's engraving called De Lamiis in which three witches are depicted riding a normal branch (not even a broom!) and have animal heads which gives an additional supernatural element to the whole scene. Earlier depictions couldn't have really existed because the earliest confession of flight was given in 1453 by Guillaume Edelin who was the Prior of St Germain-en-Laye near Paris (notice that we're dealing with a man!). The earliest mention of witches' flight at all was in 1440 in the poem "Le Champion des Dames" by the French author Martin le Franc.

It's worth noting that even before this confession and poem, the myth of witch's flight was present among the masses, but in slightly different forms. As early as the 14th century, there are mentions of a dancing mania spreading throughout Europe. The symptoms of this mania included dancing until one dropped from exhaustion, foaming from the mouth, speaking on tongues and so on. Now this didn't just occur without any trigger at all. There is a completely valid reason for this, and yes, it is connected to witches' flights. Let me elaborate on this. :)

Ergot - Deadly or Ecstatic? 

Up to the 15th century (when the Witch trials began), bread consumed by the majority of people was made from rye and not wheat like the one we are used to. The problem with rye was that it often got contaminated by a disease called ergot, which is a type of fungus. Rye was also much more easily cultivated than wheat and thus easier and cheaper to obtain. But even if you didn't eat rye in this period, you weren't safe because ergot could easily affect other grains as well (including wheat). The disease which it caused was named ergotism, but the cause itself wasn't discovered until about 1670 by Dr Thuillier. It was precisely ergotism and its hallucinogenic effects which could have caused this above mentioned "dancing mania".

Jean Francois Badoureau - Hysterical
Epilepsy (cca. 1876)
You can find a detailed history of ergot here, but I will simplify things for you. Basically, this fungus replaced rye grains. It was relatively similar in color and was so frequent that people didn't even notice the difference. Surely, it didn't take long for people to discover the symptoms that this fungi had and to learn to manipulate them. In larger doses, ergot was deadly (an obvious enough symptom), but people soon discovered that in small doses and if consumed correctly, ergot could be used as a drug, and a very powerful hallucinogenic one at that. Even when consumed orally in small doses, ergot could be deadly, but people obviously liked experimenting with drugs even back then and soon discovered that, when consumed through the skin, it produced powerful hallucinations but without any bad side-effects such as nausea, vomiting and skin irritations (and in worst-case scenarios - death). Other symptoms included convulsions (which were often labeled as demonic possessions and similar phenomena) and even gangrenous symptoms.

It just so happens that the skin areas of the human body most sensitive to these drugs were the armpits and, for women, the genitals (some also include the soles of the feet and the forehead). The armpits were especially receptive because of the many sweat glands which humans have there, and the female genitalia was even more receptive because of the mucus membranes which are very thin. When applied to these areas, the drug would soon enter the blood stream and "do its job". 

Women were especially sensitive to this drug because of the aforementioned reason. This is partly why men were not depicted as witches (or accused as such) even half as much as women. Obviously women found it useful to rub the drugs onto their genitals using an instrument which was usually - a broomstick handle! Now imagine a woman doing this...doesn't it somewhat remind you of the many pictures of flying witches? 

Of course, ergot couldn't simply be applied by rubbing rye on yourself. Like any drug, it had to be processed. This is how "flying ointments" came to be.

Flying Ointment

The most frequent depictions of witches are those in which they are riding broomsticks or rubbing something on themselves (or even being rubbed by someone else). It was supposed that they rubbed flying ointment to enable them to fly to their coven's meeting place. Folk stories (and sometimes even ecclesiastical documents) claim that that the main ingredient of this ointment was fat boiled off unbaptized babies, which wasn't even close to the truth. If anything was used, it was probably pig fat, as is used today for the base/carrier of many ointments and often even for culinary purposes. 

Other ingredients were basically hallucinogenic plants such as aconite (a.k.a. monkshood, wolfsbane), hemlock (a.k.a. cowbane) and belladonna (a.k.a. nightshade). Some sources add Jimsonweed (lat. Datura stramonium) and mandrake, Of course, we can't forget ergot. Many supposed recipes exist for preparing this flying ointment. The following ones can be found in The Witch Book written by Raymond Buckland.

Warning: I do not recommend trying to make the ointments or using them. The ingredients are dangerous and may cause severe side-effects. The following information is intended only for informative purposes.

One recipe from Gardner's Book of Shadows states that the ingredients needed are:
  • 100g lard
  • 5g hashish
  • a handful of hemp flower
  • a handful of poppy flower
  • a pinch of powdered hellbore root
  • a pinch of grounded sunflower seeds
The instructions say: "To be rubbed into the skin behind the ears, on the neck along the line of the carotid arteries, in the armpits, to the left of the sympathetic nerve, in the back of the knees, on the soles of the feet, and in the bend of the arms."

Another recipe recommends the following ingredients:
  • 3g annamthol
  • 50g extract of opium
  • 30g extract of betel
  • 6g cinquefoil
  • 15g henbane
  • 15g belladonna
  • 15g hemlock, ordinary
  • 250g Indian Hemp (Cannabis Indica)
  • 5g cantharides
  • Gum tragacanth
  • Powdered sugar
The ingredients should be mixed with oil (e.g. pure olive oil) or mixed in with cream (e.g. lanoline) and applied only externally!

A more modern recipe reads:
  • 1 jar hand cream
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp belladonna
  • 3 drops liquid detergent
  • 2 tsp wolfbane juice
These ingredients can then be mixed with a perfume of the user's choice.

I have to stress once more that these recipes are intended ONLY for informative purposes and that anyone who wants to try them answers for their own actions. I cannot guarantee that any of the recipes are safe.

But to get back to the topic, Gerald Gardner believes that these ointments were used to preserve temperature. This was necessary as witches are believed to have performed their rituals nude and thus needed to keep warm until arriving at their meeting place (and or course stay warm during the ritual itself).

It seems to me that the previous reasons are more feasible. Indeed, the hallucinations which these hallucinogenic plants produced have been described as causing a flying sensation, as if the limbs were floating (and often the whole body as well). Let us say a few more words about this flying sensation and some metaphorical interpretations of it.

Did Witches Really Fly?

The answer to this question would be: "No, not physically". The flying was, as we have determined, a product of hallucinations caused by various hallucinogenic plants which were combined into ointments and smeared onto certain parts of the body. The first stories regarding flight date back to the early 1400s. These stories say nothing of drug consummation, but rather of dreams in which the dreamer flew. The morning-after retellings of these dreams often included descriptions of meetings in far-away places. 

The interpretation of the broomstick being an astral vehicle and the ointments being catalysts is also an important theory. Once more, this doesn't imply that witches actually flew, but astral travel is included in this theory. Astral travel marks a switch in consciousness which is often thought to lead the practitioner into other states of being/realities/dimensions. 

Astral travel and ecstasy techniques were present in Shamanic practices which supposedly preceded the ones we have been talking about up to now. It is well known that Shamans didn't use brooms to achieve these ecstatic moments, but rather rode hobby horses (as did witches). Horse riding itself was a symbol of strength, endurance and survival. Shamans were wise men whose primary duty was to travel to other world (in this case on metaphorical horseback) and bring back information and news. As Mircea Eliade, an expert on the subject of Shamanism says, this was a symbolic riding which expressed the leaving of ones body; the shaman's "mystical death". Another example such theriomorphic (animal-shaped) "vehicles" can be found in rituals of Altaic Shamans. One ritual includes a figure (a sort of a scarecrow) of a goose which is placed in front of the Shaman's tent (called a yurt). The Shaman is supposed to straddle the goose, flap his arms as if he is flying and sing songs about flight. This in itself was another ecstasy technique and very similar to the witches' "flight". It's worth noting that Shamans didn't use flying ointments for these rituals. A part of the Shamanic tradition is smoking peyote (a type of cactus which also has psychoactive effects).

Gwydion, another interesting author in the field of magic, Paganism and similar topics, claims that these depictions of witches flying were simply proof of a misunderstanding of a magical/poetic code which indicated Shamanic ecstasy and a visionary flight of the soul. Such "flights" (or better said dances and rituals) were methods of coming into contact with the Divine and achieving trance and ecstasy.

Another interpretation of this flight seems to be ritualistic and a bit more literal. According to some stories, witches used to perform fertility rituals with brooms in which they rode them as horses, danced, sung and celebrated fertility altogether. It could be possible that all the dancing and jumping in the air was confused for flight at some point or other or even that the witches, if under the influence of drugs, actually felt as if they were flying while performing these rituals. This leads us to our next topic.

Fertility rites

As I have said, Witches and Pagans have always celebrated fertility, be it human fertility or the fertility of the land. There are stories which speak of witches going into the field and ecstatically dancing on brooms/hobby horses/various other objects and jumping in the air. It was supposed that the higher you could jump, the taller the crops would grow. This was obviously a type of sympathetic magic.

Douglas Hill proposes that this was also a form of the previously mentioned psychonavigation and ecstasy techniques.

Ritual Uses of the Broom

The earliest use of brooms in rituals was clearing the ritual space. Brooms can be used for this purpose even today, but they are usually seen more as a tool for energetic cleansing than for actual physical cleaning. In the Pagan community, they have become a symbol of cleansing, banishing, getting rid of the old (and often "dirty") and making room for the new (usually perceived as "clean"). This is why many witches prepare their ritual space by sweeping it with a broom beforehand, or mark the circle by walking around its perimeter with the broom (bristles facing towards the floor and sort of tracing the circle even though they don't actually have to even touch the floor). When doing this a visualization is also commonly included in which the practitioner envisions the broom leaving a white/blue shining line on the floor as it is led around the circle. I think that this video describes the broom's ritual use very nicely, so I recommend you have a look. :)

In this scenario, the broomstick partly replaces the athamé (as the athamé is usually used to mark the sacred circle). It can replace it in another instance as well; when entering/exiting the circle. It may occur sometimes that someone has to exit the circle (and then reenter it) during a group ritual. This person can't just step out because that would cause great energetic disbalance. When using an athame, this practitioner would draw a door on the perimeter of the circle and, after stepping out, redraw it (but in reverse; like zipping it up with the athamé). When using a broom, all that is needed to do is "sweep away" a part of the blue/white light that was visualized and then "draw it back in" after stepping out of the circle. Of course, this process should be repeated when attempting to reenter the circle.

Just as the broom used to be used as a protective symbol in the house, it can be used with this intention in the circle (to ward off any negative energies/entities). 

What with the broomstick being a fertility symbol, it is often used in marriage ceremonies which are called Handfastings. This is one of so called Crossing rituals which mark a turning point in the person's life. In this case, it is the beginning of a new chapter with a loving partner. To symbolize the union itself, the young couple jumps over a broom (often while holding hands). Some see this as a fertility rite in itself because, by doing so, the couple practically asks for the marriage to be fruitful (i.e. for them to have children). This tradition has survived even to this day (even outside of Pagan communities). For example, young couples in Wales often enter their new home by jumping over a broom which is placed on the threshold (although they must not touch it or else the marriage will not be seen as valid). The opposite of a Handfasting is a Handparting ceremony. Marriage isn't seen as irreversible in Paganism (in fact, the couple vow to stay together as long as they love each other, not until "death do us part"). In order to annul the marriage, the couple has to jump/step backwards over a broom. 

Nowadays, the broomstick's primary use for rubbing ointments onto the skin is long gone because much safer and simpler methods of achieving transic states have been discovered. I have to emphasize that using drugs in modern times has become a very rare practice in Paganism, even though drugs as such have been used in many many cultures and ages of humanity to achieve enlightening states and  help the practitioner on their path towards the Divine. So you don't have to worry about anyone trying to make you use drugs during rituals; no one is forced to do anything!

If I were to sum up this whole post and answer the question I put as its title, I would say the following: Witches cannot rally fly. Even though some perceived their activities as flying, what probably happened in reality was that the witches gathered to celebrate a festival (often centered around fertility) on the night of a full Moon in the middle of a field. They would cast a circle, smear ointment onto a broom or hobby horse and ride it until the ointment got into their blood flow. Once they achieved an ecstatic stage, they would dance and sing and raise the energy of the ritual until at a peak and, in the process, achieve a spiritual uplifting and astral projection.

And there you have it. Hopefully you learnt something new and interesting because I definitely did while doing my research. :) 
This was my third post for the Pagan Blog Project and the next one isn't far away. So until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

3 komentara:

  1. Obožavam tvoj blog, ali molim te, uskoro napravi prijevod ovog posta za mene neukog :D

    1. Hahaha, naravno :) isti sam dan počela pisat prijevod, a planiram ga dovršiti danas ili sutra najkasnije. Sve postove inače pišem prvo na hrvatskom, ali ove u ciklusu "Pagan Blog Project" moram prvo na engleskom jer je internacionalni projekt pa ih tek onda prevodim na hrvatski. Nemoj zamjeriti. :)
      I hvala puno na komplimentu! :D

    2. Evo dragi čitatelju, za tebe sam požurila s prijevodom :)