The traditional companion of the witches was the enchanted broomstick, used for their wild and unholy flights through the night and probably to some distant Witches' Sabbat. This is one of the first images you get to see as a child and this was doubtlessly believed by the prominent rulers of Europe. The number of actual confessions of witches doing so is remarkably small. Usually confessions state that they went to the Sabbat on foot or on horseback.

Legends of witches flying on brooms goes back as far as the beginning of the Common Era. The earliest known confession of a Witch flying on a broom was in 1453, when Guillaume Edelin of St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, stated that he had done so. In 1563, Martin Tulouff of Guernsey said to have seen his aged mother straddle a broomstick and whisk up the chimney and out of the house on it, saying "Go in the name of the Devil and Lucifer over rocks and thorns". In 1598 Claudine Boban and her mother, witches of the province of Franche-Comt, in eastern France, also spoke of flying up the chimney of a stick. The belief of flying off though the chimney became firmly embedded in popular tradition, although only a few people ever mentioned doing so. It has been suggested that this idea was connected with the old custom of pushing a broom up the chimney to indicate the absence of the housewife. The Germanic Goddess Holda or Holle is also connected with the chimney.

Other indications that lead to the popular belief that witches actually flew on broomsticks can be found in an old custom of dancing with a broom between the legs, leaping high in the air. In Reginald Scot's book, The Discoveries of Witchcraft, published in 1584, we find a similar description:

"At these magickal 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, Sabbath, Sabbath'. And whiles they sing and dance, ever one hath a broom in her hand, and holdeth it up aloft." Scot quoted these descriptions of Witch rites from a French demonologist, Jean Bodin, who made observations of a kind of jumping dance, riding on staffs. These customs might have contributed to the popular picture of broomstick-riding witches through the air.

In 1665, from the confession of Julian Cox, one of the Somerset coven, mentioned "that one evening she walks out about a Mile from her own House and there came riding towards her three persons upon three Broom-staves, born up about a years and a half from the ground. Two of them she formerly knew, which was a Witch and a Wizard".

Where do these beliefs come from?

Some authors claim that the oldest known source of witches flying on broomsticks is a manuscript called Le Champion des Dames by Martin Lefranc, 1440. This might be one of the oldest images representing a hag on a broomstick, but it is certainly not the first. A wall painting from the 12th century in Schlesswig Cathedral (Germany) shows the Norse deity Frigg riding her staff.

If we really dig a bit deeper into history, we'll find that from the Roman world there are reports that mention witches flying on broomsticks as well as having used ointments, as early as the first century. They were called Straigae (Barnowl) and the Lamiae from Greek culture had similar characteristics. Later in Roman history, the goddess Diana was the leader of the Wild Hunt:
"It is also not to be omitted that some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by illusions and phantasm of demons, believe and profess themselves in the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights."

Similar beliefs existed in many parts of Europe. From Norse mythology, we know that the army of women, lead by Odin (Wodan), called the Valkyries, was said to ride through the skies on horses, collecting the souls of the dead. In continental Germanic areas, the goddess Holda or Holle was also said to lead the Wild Hunt and is connected to chimneys and witchcraft. Berchta or Perchta, another Germanic goddess, which can be identified with Holda, has similar characteristics.

Again in Celtic Traditions, the Horned God Cernunnos, and/or Herne the Hunter was leader of the Wild Hunt and the Scottish Witch Goddess Nicneven was also said to fly through the night with her followers. Eastern Europe sources also have a wealth of folklore about witches flying through the air. So flying through the air, evidently, was a deeply rooted mythological theme, associated with the free roaming of the spirit, the separation of soul and body.


The broomstick is a female and male symbol, "the rod which penetrated the bush." Its symbolism and interpretation is therefore purely sexual.

Broomstick Weddings

"To marry over the broomstick," "jump the besom", was an old-time form of marriage, in which both parties jumped over a broomstick to signify that they were joined in common-law union. Also in the Netherlands, one can still find the old saying "over de bezem trouwen" (marrying over the broomstick). At gypsy wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom jump backwards and forwards over a broomstick. A besom used to be placed before the doorway, the married couple had to jump over it without dislodging the broom, from the street into their new home. At any time within a year, this process could be reversed to dissolve the marriage by jumping backwards. All this had to take place before several witnesses.

In folk-belief, like that in Yorkshire, it was unlucky for an unmarried girl to step over a broomstick because it meant that she would be a mother before she was a wife. Light-hearted wags used to delight in putting broomsticks in the path of unsuspecting virgins.

Ritual Use

Artificial Phallus
There are hints of its use as an artificial penis or dildo. In a curious old book, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant, by Albert Barrsre and Charles Godfrey Leland (1897-1899), we are told that the slang term in those days for a dildo or artificial penis was "a broom-handle", and the female genitals were known vulgarly as "the broom". To "have a brush" was to have sexual intercourse. Noteworthy is the evidence from Witch trials mentioning the "cold hard member of the Devil himself". In 1662, Isabel Gowdie, accused of witchcraft, made a confession which could suggest that some sort of artificial phallus of horn or leather may have been used:
"His members are exceeding great and long; no man's members are so long and big as they are — (he is) a meikle, black, rough man, very cold, and I found his nature as cold within me as spring-well water. He is abler for us that way than any man can be, only he is heavy like a malt-sack, a huge nature, very cold, as ice."

Broomsticks and Ointments

That ointments used to induce astral projection has been known for a long time. Therefore the belief of witches flying away on their brooms probably has its true origin in this shamanic practice of applying narcotic herbs. There are numerous paintings, engraving and woodcuts from witches, anointing themselves, before flying off to the Sabbat. There are also quite a lot of confessions of ointments being applied to leave the body and fly off. These confessions sometimes show an unawareness that they were not actually flying, but often it is obvious that the witches knew that the ointments they used had the effects requited for leaving the body and making spiritual journeys. These practices we now call astral projection, were obviously known throughout large parts of the world, but especially worthy evidence comes from French and Italian records.

There is also a hint of use of besoms and sticks as a means to insert the witches unguent into the vagina to potentate the aphrodisiac effects and for optimal absorption and effect, while serving as an artificial penis.

The confessions of a woman named Antoine Rose, a Witch of Savoy (France) who was tortured and tried in 1477, stated that "The first time she was taken to the synagogue (Sabbat) she saw many men and women there, enjoying themselves and dancing backwards. The Devil, whose name was Robinet, was a dark man who spoke in a hoarse voice. Kissing Robinet's foot in homage, she renounced God and the Christian faith. He put his mark on her, on the little finger of her left hand, and gave her a stick, 18 inches long, and a pot of ointment. She used to smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say "Go, in the name of the Devil, go!" At once she would be carried though the air to the synagogue."

Alice Kyteler, a famous Irish Witch of the early 14th century, was supposed to have owned a staff "on which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed, after having greased it with the ointment which was found in her possession."

Book and Article Resources:

An ABC of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente, 1973
De Benedanti: Hekserij en Vruchtbaarheidsriten in de 16e & 17e Eeuw by Carlo Ginzburg, 1966, 1986
Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology, 1974
Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom by Norman Cohn, 1975, 1973
Heksen, Ketters en Inquisiteurs by Arie Zwart en Karel Braun, 1981
Practical magick in the Northern Tradition by Nigel Pennick, 1989
The History of Witchcraft by Montague Summers, London, 1927
Witchcraft, A Tradition Renewed by Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones, Phoenix Publishing, 1990
Witchcraft & Demonology by Francis X. King, 1987
Various online resources and articles

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