In folklore, witches use brooms or besoms (brooms made of bundled twigs) to fly through the air at high speed. In Renaissance and medieval times, the belief that witches traveled by broom was more prevalent on the European continent than in the British Isles. Only once are brooms mentioned in English witch trials. Nonetheless, the image of a witch riding a broomstick has become a popular cultural stereotype. Several theories explain this association of brooms with witches:
– Brooms are a symbol of female domesticity. Centuries ago, a woman would push her broom up the chimney or prop it outside the door to show to callers and neighbors that she was out of the house. From there, it was an easy step to believe that witches, who purportedly could fly, would use their most common tool and soar up the chimney on it.
– Many flying potions contained hallucinogenic ingredients. If a broomstick was rubbed with such potions and used for riding or masturbatory purposes, a sensation of flight would result.
– The benandanti used stalks of sorghum in their battles against evil witches. Sorghum is a type of millet identified with brooms.
– The association between witches and brooms goes back to ancient times, when pagans performed fertility rites to induce their crops to grow high. These people mounted pitchforks, poles, and brooms, and rode them like horses in the fields, leaping high into the air and dancing.
– The correlation between brooms and witches is not noticeable until the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Before then, witches were depicted astride shovels, sticks, forks, hurdles, and demon-animals. Eventually, witches were shown more on either demons in the forms of animals or on brooms.
At first, the brush end of a broom (or faggot), was pointed downwards so the witch could ‘sweep her tracks from the sky.’ This is the stereotypical image we still see on the verge of the 21st century. Nevertheless, by the end of the 17th century, the reverse was true. Witches often rode with the faggot-end up, with a candle in the faggot to light the way.
In some lore, the Devil dispensed brooms and flying ointment to weak witches who needed help. In other tales, all newly initiated witches were presented with the broom and ointment. If the witch was inside a house, she theoretically rose through the chimney, although in court, few witches ever acknowledged doing such a thing. Sorcerers flew on brooms as well as witches, but men were more often shown riding pitchforks.
According to lore, witches flew their brooms to the sabbats, sometimes carrying along demons or their familiars in the shapes of animals. They also rode their brooms to fly out to sea in order to raise up storms. On witch festival nights such as Walpurgisnacht, townspeople laid out hooks and scythes to kill any witches who fell off their brooms. The also rang church bells, which had the power to ground broomsticks and knock witches off them.
A famous Scottish witch of the 17th century, Isobel Gowdie, claimed to have used her broom for an atypical reason. Instead of using it for traveling, she used it to deceive her husband. Before going to a sabbat, Isobel substituted her broom for herself in bed. She said he never knew the difference, which might have been more of a comment on their marriage than a confession of witchcraft).