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About Brooms And Broom Dancing

Updated on November 4, 2011

Starting With A Broomstick

I think when people think of a broomstick it is often not as a sweeping tool but as transport for a witch or a Harry Potter character, a means to cast magic spell, or something to do a vigorous dance with.

A witch on a broomstick may be the first image of a broom a child may have today before even seeing a broom sweep, in these days of vacuum cleaners.

Later the joy of a broom dance may be discovered and awed, and even tried out.

The broom as a symbol of fertility, the rod bonded by the bush? Well that's another thing, the start of its tradition and invention, and I think that's where this lens may well start too ...

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Witches And Their Broomsticks

Very few witches I have met have ever confessed to riding on a broomstick. Many do ride horses though. Some say its the wealthy witches that ride horses and those in poverty have to stick with brooms.

I once read of a confession of broomstick riding by Guillaume Edelin,

a witch of St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris in 1453.

During 1598 Claudine Boban and her mother, witches of the province of Franche-Comt, to the east of France, admitted to flying up the chimney on a stick but where they went from the top of the chimney is unknown. It has been suggested that this story came from an old custom of pushing a broom up the chimney by men to let mistresses and potential mistresses know that his wife, and maybe daughters, are not in the house and will not be returning for awhile.

Another other idea of witches on a broomstick probably comes from highly imaginative, possibly intoxicated, observers of broom dancers. The most skilled of broomstick dancers can leep over broomsticks quite high in the air.

During the early days of printing, in the 1580s, some very imaginative works were printed that would be known to sell and pay for the printing presses of this new industry. A Reginald Scot had a book published called, The Discoverie of Witchcraft", and in this was written ...

"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'

And whiles they sing and dance,

ever one hath a broom in her hand,

and holdeth it up aloft."

So lets go back to more visions of witches on broomsticks ...

There's a wall painting, somewhere, from the 12th century in Schlesswig Cathedral, Germany, that depicts a Norse mythology character called Frigg riding a staff, not a broom.

In Roman mythology the moon goddess Diana, the leader of the Wild Hunt, is told of riding a broom or a staff made from willow..

Within Norse mythology, Odin, or Wodan, is told of leading a group of warrior women called "Valkyries", who are told as riding through the skies on horses, collecting the souls of the dead, which seems like a clue to later broomstick traditions.

In our own Celtic traditions here we have the horned god Cernunnos, sometimes told of as being the Green Man or Herne the Hunter, the leader of the Wild Hunt also riding on staffs made of oak or elm

So, it seems, flying through the air on the broom, a branch, or a staff of wood has become a deeply rooted mythology story theme where tales tell us of the free roaming of the spirit when there is separation of the soul from the body.

Note these stories do feature both men and women and the broom itself a symbol of the rod penetrating the bush.

With that in mind seems more Beltaine in symbolism than Samhain, though it is at this time of year leaves have fallen and branches to tie to a rod is easier and more practical to gather.

To Have A Brush : The Mating Game

Ok, lets get bolder with this and actually much closer to the broomstick symbolism. Within an old Dictionary of Slang by Albert BarrSre and Charles Godfrey Leland, that came out in 1897, it tells of the slang for penis, in those days, was a "broom-handle", and slang for vagina, was "the broom". To "have a brush" was to have sexual intercourse. This direct cold lust based slang is summing up thousands of years of the broomstick symbolism in tradition, but as Squidoo is a family channel there's little more I can say about this :-) .

I remember in childhood days in Yorkshire being told, when I knocked over a broom, that I was lucky that a young girl did not cross over it while it was laying flat because she would be become a mother before she became a wife.

Maybe not good teaching for a young boy as in teen years I still wondered what would happen if I threw down broomsticks in the path of approaching unsuspecting virgins.

Broomsticks and Ointments?

There are many paintings and engravings portraying witches, anointing themselves with oil or ointment before flying off somewhere.

Herbs and ointments were created by shamans, as told through many stories, and they used them to induce visions and astral projection. The belief of witches flying away on their brooms after using these shaman potions and creations is not surprising, but witches truly do have to be very wise about their plant biology.

Astral projection? - some may ask.

This is the skill of leaving the body and making spiritual journeys, which some shamanic potions and ointments are said to induce, but don't try this stuff at home, of course.

There is another side to the witch, broomstick and ointment mythology that is very tough to word up with my attempt here to create a family friendly Squidoo Lens. Perhaps this is best left to the adult imagination through a visualization of the broomstick and the broom bush mythology and the use of ointment to create a magical ride on the broomstick. I think I will cut this off there :-)

How did witches apply these shamanic ointments?

A clue comes to us from writings about Alice Kyteler, an Irish Witch of the early 14th century, I do not know her original gaelic name. These writings describe to us about what happened when her broom staff was covered in ointment

"she ambled and galloped through thick and thin".

From fifteenth-century writings about Jordanes de Bergamo it says

"they anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places."

So how did the witches fly on their broomsticks?

The hallucinogenic formula ointments of the witches are said to have caused sleep, or a deep awakened meditation with very clear visions of flying and maybe dancing. There are writings of tales told by shamans describing how each part of their body seemed to be going off on its own journey as well as feeling all kinds of sensations of soaring and flying.

Being a family viewing lens I cannot tell you any more deeper details of broomsticks and ointments.

To learn more I suggest you indulge in John Mann's book that I will link you to below. His book, "Murder, Magic, and Medicine," is a superb herbal and alchemy pharmacology introduction. John Mann has been hosting a BBC Radio 4 series in the UK under the same title as his book.

Murder, Magic, and Medicine
Murder, Magic, and Medicine
Do click the title link above as Amazon usually have some much lower priced used copies available.

Broomstick At Weddings

For the bride and groom to jump the besom, a broom, used to be important in a lot of marriage ceremonies around the world. The broom has been used in various ways during wedding ceremonies and is now enjoying a rapid revival as a wedding symbol and ritual.

One is placing a broom before the doorway of a married couple's new home. The newlyweds had to jump over it into their home without kicking, landing on or moving the broom.

Some even dissolve marriages by jumping backwards over the same broom back into the street, and do this before several witnesses.

Afro-American weddings are now often considered incomplete without the broom present, for jumping-the-broom, as mentioned above.

During the days of slavery the blacks, the negro people, were not allowed to marry inside the churches. Instead a broom was laid across before an open air alter and the couple was declared married once they jumped over it.

Up until the late 1970s this tradition had largely vanished from African American weddings as it was too much of a reminder of slavery days.

When the "Roots" television drama aired in 1977 the custom of jumping-the-broom became a revival and requests by wedding couples around the world has been inspired by this.

African-Americans marrying today and jumping-the-broom ritual now regard this ritual as a way of honouring their ancestors rather than as a reminder of the times of slavery.

Africa and the culture of African Americans is probably not the origin of the jumping-the-broom tradition, though. There are reports of earlier gypsy and other nomadic cultures using this tradition.

Today, if a broom is used for jumping over, and for brushing over the heads of the couple being married, it is is kept as a keepsake. Of ten this is because the wedding broom is a symbol of the vows and bonds of the marriage. In times passed this wedding broom was a symbol for the wife's commitment to household chores, but it also symbolized that whoever held the rod of the broom was also the actual ruler of the home.

Sometimes, it was said that whoever jumped the highest over the broom was the head of the family, and in a majority of jumps it was the man who jumped the highest.

A form of jumping-the-broom wedding, priodas coes ysgub, has become tradition in Wales since at least the 16th century and the origins of this are unknown. Some claim it was picked up by the Welsh by Romani gypsies that moved into the country, and some say the Romanis picked up the tradition from the Welsh and spread it around Scotland and England?

One difference, in Wales, is that the broom brush section of the broom would be flowering branches from the shrub we now call "broom".

Another difference with the Welsh ceremonies is that the jumping broom was not placed on the ground but placed at an angle. This Welsh tradition is the one that has now spread around the world when coupled jump over the broom into their new home. The groom always jumps first, though maybe today, with the quest towards equality, other agreements are made such as tossing a coin to see who goes first.

Another interesting wedding custom with a broom is the Jewish Mazhinka dance. This is performed at the wedding of the last child in the family to be married. At this dance, the mother of the child dances with a broom to symbolically "sweep out" their home that has now become an empty nest as all children have flown.

Origins Of Broom Dancing?

There's a few speculations about this, and that's really all they are, speculations.

As with many traditional dances, dramas, rituals and celebration habits we expect a deep hidden mythology that has surfaced as a broom dance, but that may not be so.

The traditions of the broom as a fertility merging of the staff pole to the broom to be able to brush may have a connection to broom dancing. Most broom dancers do tend to be danced by men as a "show off" performance to attract women with their fitness, moves and agility. If a man fails to attract a women to dance with him at a gathering he may break into a broom dance just like single men not so long ago would break out into break dancing in clubs.

There is another tale of broom dance originating from travelling gypsies who would dance around brooms and garden tools they were selling in a market place to bring attention to their wares. This dance by gypsies may also have been to enchant potential shoppers in believing that their dances wove blessed good luck and good health charms into the wares they sold.

Broom Dancing seems to have crept into the Sean Nós culture of Ireland ceilis and sessions during the past 200 years.

Some say broom dancing arrived from the north from the planters that brought this tradition from the Scottish sword dancing.

Others say that it came into Ireland from the Cromwellian soldiers from East Anglia who danced to lure the Irish women by impressing them rather than forcing themselves on them.

How Broom Dancing came into Irish ceili and session tradition is clearly not known, especially why it suddenly become popular and widespread during the mid 19th century in Ireland and in England simultaneously.

Mid 19th century was when Celtic Romanticism was truly taking shape as a fashion. People were starting to gather more for celebration and picnics at remains at ancient sacred sites. Self appointed pseudo druids came into enterprise as organisers of such events and dances made from fragments of tradition were encouraged and performed for these events.

This was also the time when the first negro workers arrived as low paid employees for the new industrial based economies in wool and steel in England. Maybe their broom traditions slipped into this new Celtic interpretation too.

As I said at the start though, the origins of Broom Dancing is speculation. I think we would be wise to use it and embrace this dancing for what it is today. These speculations may help to motivate our purpose for doing these dances or at least being around them.

Brushing A Sacred Space

Within native, rural and aboriginal cultures all over the world broom lore always seems to represent an air element and through this used to cleanse negative energy by brushing with circular movements.

The performing priestess, priest or shaman tends to walk clockwise tracing the tracks of the broom as it swirls and brushes. Surprisingly, a broom dancer walks anti-clockwise around his, and sometimes her, broom laying on the floor?

The broom is intensly important for purififying a ritual space. While invocations, rituals, dances and sacred drama are proceeding around a fire a broom is frequently waved to chase away negative spirits, as well as thin any heavy doses of smoke that makes eyes tearful.

Through my life I have performed in many forms of folk drama, ritual plays, guising, straw boys, mummers and so forth. With most of these performance was not commenced until one of the characters, the first character entered to clear a space for the performers with a broom. The broom was not merely a weapon to push people away but a sacred tool to also chase away negativity and create a circle, not a square stage, that performance could commence within.

Brooms For Cleaning

I am not sure what came first, a broom as a fertility symbol or as a useful cleaning device?

To make a broom, find something with stiff hairs or branches, and attach to a stick to assist maneuvering with less back bending.

A small version is called a "duster" and instead of stiff hairs or branches the broom head is made from feathers of poultry and, if you are lucky, from peacocks.

Broom comes from the word 'besom', a bunch of twigs tied together, a word from Northumbria, I believe, after a word there for woman, Besema, a word that probably came over with the Angles or Saxons.

The besom of the broom, as I mentioned earlier, represents the female part of the broom while the handle is the male.

While a broom physically cleans an area it is said to spiritually or divinely drive away negative vibrations that are present.

All this information summed up here is quite obvious and known by all, but I thought I would add this little chapter to round this up just in case something has been forgotten :-)

There is some belief that a broom also brushes away, drives away, any lingering infections and threats to our health.

There is a strong belief connected to this in India. There are Indian mythology stories of the goddess Sitala with four arms, each one carrying a broom and she symbolizes the importance of brushing with a broom and general cleanliness to ward off illness.

There is also a proverb from somewhere that advises us to truly clean with a broom but never sweep the dust under a carpet, wood or stone for it will escape and surround us, haunt us and disease us again the next day.

Bardic Brooms

Poets and Writers often use brooms for imagery and metaphors in their stories.

In many stories, especially fairy tales, broomsticks are described witches travelling through the air on them, with the brush part usually behind them.

Harry Potter books have probably been the most recent to make brooms in magic popular, especially when mounted to use through a game of Quidditch.

Perhaps the most famous before Harry Potter was Fantasia where Mickey Mouse, as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, brings a broom to life to do his chores for him, but it goes wrong. This story comes from a poem by Goethe called "Der Zauberlehrling" that translated as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Do You Enjoy This Feature?

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Please feel free to say something in

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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I found those things that you couldn't really talk about here interesting I had never heard of that before, sometimes I do wonder at the originality of sayings and thoughts. It is really interesting to and maybe you can enlighten me, a lot of women were burnt at the stake etc. for being witches, but I can't remember ever reading about a warlock having to go through the same thing. I liked this lens very original

    • privresearch profile image


      8 years ago

      Interesting lens

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      8 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Vey thorough coverage of this unique topic. Nice lens

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I surely enjoyed your knowledge of the brooms. So much history around one little piece, so many ancient traditions. Thank you. I look forward to any future writings.


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