A witch wearing a black cloak and pointy black hat, riding on a broomstick in front of a full moon; it's an iconic image that many people think of when they hear the word witch. But why broomsticks, or besom's as they are also called ?
According to Doreen Valiente in her book Witchcraft For Tomorrow : 'Witches used to perform a traditional jumping dance by riding a pole around the fields to make the crops grow tall. Dancing around with a pole between the legs is an obvious phallic gesture of the old fertility rites. Hence the end of a riding pole was often carved in the shape of a phallus. This, however marked the staff as a magical object, an adjunct of the Old Religion that it was dangerous to have leaning against one's cottage wall in the times of persecution. So the phallic riding pole had its carved end disguised with a bunch of twigs and became the witches broomstick.'
Another theory is they were a Shamanic tool for soul-journeying when used in conjunction with flying ointments. These were homemade ointments which contained psychoactive plants including Henbane, Belladonna, Opium and Water Hemlock. They were absorbed through the skins sweat glands rather than ingested as most of these plants are poisonous, and could be applied with the carved end of the riding pole into certain orifices! again connecting the broom to fertility.
Traditonally a besom/broom is made from a staff of oak or ash and a bunch of birch twigs tied around one end, secured by a binding made from willow.
The broomstick or besom has been used in magical practises since ancient times and has many other uses besides being a tool for house cleaning.
In ancient Greece and Anatolia, brooms were the professional emblem of midwifery. As well as delivering the baby the midwives were expected to keep the room free of malevolent spirits, which was done by symbolically sweeping the room.
Broom's weren't only used by women, In Europe Santa Claus's dark helper Krampus is often pictured carrying a type of switch or broom. A short version or switch was often seen being held by Herne, Faunus and other horned gods.
The broom is an emblem of the Aztec midwife goddess Tlazolteotl. Baba Yaga the Slavic goddess who flies in a mortar steering with a pestle, uses a broom to sweep away her traces in the sky.
In Yorkshire in the past, it was believed that it was unlucky for an unmarried girl to step over a broomstick, because it meant she would be a mother before she became a wife.
Some African tribes believe that men should leave the house while women are sweeping. Because if they are accidently struck by the broom, it could render them impotent - unless they take the broom and bang it 3 times against the wall.
Witches today mainly use a besom, or broom for symbolically sweeping a ceremonial area before a ritual. It clears the area of any negative energies. It can be used to symbolically sweep your home if you feel you need to get rid of any negative energies and to protect the home. Brooms can also be used in purification and protection magic. In some practises someone who wishes you harm can do so through your footprints. An old spell suggests using a broom to sweep them away to stop any malevolent foot-track magic being worked against you, although I dont think it would be very practical to carry one with you constantly !
Jumping the broomstick once indicated a marriage not consecrated by the church. This tradition has regained popularity among the pagan community and is often performed during Handfastings to signify the couples pledge.
'Out of the broom closet' is a term used by witches today meaning that they have announced to their friends and family that they are a witch.
Broomsticks are often placed beside doors ( bristles up) to keep away unwanted guests.
In recent years the broomstick has evolved into a symbol of Witchcraft and many witches display them as a badge of pride in their homes.
Witchcraft for tomorrow - Doreen Valiente
The element encyclopedia of witchcraft - Judika Illes
Grimoire of a Kitchen Witch - Rachel Patterson
An ABC of witchcraft past and present - Doreen Valiente