B is for Besom: my second Pagan Blog Project entry.
In modern witchcraft the witches brooms used for ceremonial rather than mundane purposes are referred to as besoms. These are not brooms used for tidying up, but for many ceremonial purposes in magic and Pagan rituals. Besoms may be used during Samhain rites, fertility rites (as a phallic symbol, but also as a symbol of masculine and feminine unity), and during marriage ceremonies. In the most basic sense, the besom represents the element Air and is used to open and close circles by cleansing the energy. To open or close a circle with a broom, walk the edges of the circle invoking the element of Air or protection or cleansing as one would with a ritual incense. In this case, the besom may be used with or in place of incense and is a protective force. During other ceremonies like marriages, the broom may be jumped over. This is also an African American tradition originating during slavery. The broom as a symbol of fertility comes from the phallic staff representing the masculine surrounded by the broom grasses (feminine). Finally, the broom may be hung over doorways for protection. It is believed that the broom will clear out negative entities and energy from the household. Besoms have many uses in modern traditions.
It is traditional that the witch make his or her own besom however, it is easy to purchase a broom for this use. In English traditions, witches brooms are made from Ash, Birch, and Willow. The ash wood staff represents the World Tree, the element Earth, and travel. Birch makes up the brush representing Air, and willow binding represents the element Water. Besoms used for ceremonial purposes may also be decorated with runes, magickal symbols, or other decorations. Traditional composition of the besom is ash, birch, and willow but a besom may be made out of any woods or other materials a particular witch feels drawn to. As with any other matter in magick, it is important to follow your instincts.
In Western folklore, Witches ride though the night on broomsticks. The witch with her broom is a common symbol in many countries and across traditions. Most recently, this tradition has been portrayed by the Harry Potter series of books and films. However, not all witches fly though the night on broomsticks: staffs and pitchforks have also been utilized by both male and female witches. (The broom has been most commonly associated with female witches.) In some Eastern and Central European traditions, Baba Yaga flies through the night on a mortar steering by pestle. This proves that brooms are not the only flying accessory for witches.
Why are witches associated with brooms anyway? There are many theories that speculate about the origins of the association between witches and brooms. The first, and one that I feel may be most likely, has to do with flying ointments. This theory gets to the root of both the flying and the brooms. According to an ethnobotany course I took at university, traditional flying ointments made of many toxic plants and a fat were applied with a phallic object – like the broomstick. When applied internally to sensitive tissues, powerful hallucinations of flying resulted. The idea of mixing a potent herbal salve to hallucinate seems to help explain Baba Yaga over there as well. She seems to have decided not to dirty another tool and can go from mixing to application – with age comes wisdom. This is one way to explain the myth of witches riding on brooms. The second theory is a little less interesting. It’s pretty simple: binding twigs around a staff or wand was a simple way to hide a magickal tool. Brooms were found in every household so what better way to hide your contraband than in plain sight? Finally, the last theory comes from folklore. Allegedly, peasants in Europe went into the fields, sometimes at night during a full moon, and danced and jumped with brooms to stimulate crops to grow. This perpetuates the idea that there an ancient fertility cult that survived the Christian conversion of Europe. While it is true many Pagan practices survived during Christian times, the existence of a fertility cult worshiping old gods or practicing a form of Witchcraft is unlikely. No proof of this exists, and as such, I find this explanation to be the least likely. These gatherings sound extremely similar to what is alleged to have happened during Witches Sabbats – which are also not likely to have actually occurred.
There are a few more interesting beliefs in folklore about brooms. One English superstition states that it is unlucky to store a broom with the bristles down. I’m not sure about unlucky but storing a broom resting on its bristles will eventually lead to the bending of bristles and shorten the life of your broom. While it may be “lucky” to set a broom on top of it’s staff, I find this basically impossible. It’s much easier to hang a broom, bristle side down. (I’ll take my chances with the luck.) Another English superstition states that placing a broom in a corner means a stranger will visit. This sounds a little like “of course someone is going to come around to get a first impression when you’re least prepared”… Sorry to rain on anyone’s parade. In the American Appalachian region, it’s said that placing a broom with bristles up at the door will get rid of unwanted visitors. I’m not sure how this works other than if you see that, now you know, you’re being asked to leave! Also it’s considered unlucky to move house with a broom: a new broom should be bought for the new house. Personally, I always follow this one. In a way, you don’t want to bring the old place’s mojo with you to the new place anymore than necessary and you especially may not want to be dragging around your old home’s dirt. That’s just gross. So moral of the story, buy a new broom when you move house – it’s good luck and good housekeeping.
Personally, I have a thing for the accessories of witchcraft and theatrical rituals. As a result, I have plenty of tools and toys. I will promise that these are not necessary for real magick, but they are fun. I use my broom often. When I first began practicing the craft, I hid my practice in plain sight. My first broom was a wall hanging broom made of cinnamon. This was used to “sweep” the air to clean thoughts and then hung on the wall. In addition to use in ritual, I would decorate the broom according to seasons. Decorative brooms hung over doorways are a witchy decor item that can be changed out much like a seasonal wreath. This practice allows you to be both flaming and closeted at the same time. For the normal folks, it might be an odd piece of decor but nothing special and to other pagans or witches it’s clearly a sign you might be one of us.
As I moved out of my parents’ house, I was able to purchase my very first real besom that was more than just a decoration. This broom actually sweeps on the ground – but only for rituals – as a mediation to clear away feelings and grounding. There is a practical and spiritual side to this – the practical being I physically clean up any ritual elements left on the ground. The spiritual being the act of sweeping as a grounding mechanism – a way to return to the mundane world. Brooms or Besoms for grounding, cleaning, and riding are an iconic part of the Western Witchcraft tradition, I expect over time their use and history will continue to evolve in the Craft.