A primary means of travel for witches, enabling
them to travel at tremendous speed, according to lore.
There are different origins of the association of brooms
with witches. One is old pagan fertility rites, in which
brooms, poles and pitchforks were ridden like hobbyhorses
in fields and in dances. In some lore, witches are
afraid of horses and ride brooms. In other lore, brooms
are a natural tool for witches, in accordance with a custom
of putting a broom outside a house to indicate a
woman is away.
During the witch hysteria, the belief that witches
traveled by broom was more prevalent in continental Europe.
English witchcraft laws never specifically outlawed
flying, and brooms are mentioned only once in English
Accused witches on trial said they were able to fly
thanks to a magical ointment they rubbed on themselves
or on chairs or brooms. If they wished, they could travel
invisibly. However, not all authorities agreed that this
was possible. Jean Bodin, a 16th-century French demonologist,
maintained that only a witch’s spirit could fly, not
her physical body.
The broom was not always the “steed of the Devil.” In
early 16th-century German woodcuts, witches are shown
astride forks, sticks, shovels and demons in the form of
animals. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, witches
were more often shown riding either brooms or demonanimals.
The position of the faggot of twigs changed over
time. Initially, the faggot was held down, so that the witch
could sweep her tracks from the sky; this is the image that
has prevailed into the 20th century. But by the late 17th
century, art showed witches riding with the faggot end up.
The faggot held a candle to light the way.
According to one folklore belief, the Devil gave every
newly initiated witch a broom and flying ointment. Other
lore held that he dispensed those items only to weak
witches who needed help.
Before mounting their broomsticks, witches first had
to anoint themselves or the sticks with the flying ointment,
a concoction that often included hallucinogenic
and/or toxic ingredients. If they were inside a house,
they supposedly rose up through the chimney, though
few witches brought to trial actually acknowledged doing
that. Sorcerers as well as witches flew brooms, though
men were more often depicted riding on pitchforks.
According to lore, witches flew their brooms to sabbats,
sometimes carrying along demons or their familiars
in the shapes of animals. They also rode their brooms to
fly out to sea for storm raising. Novices sometimes fell
off. On witch festival nights such as Walpurgisnacht,
townspeople laid out hooks and scythes to kill witches
who fell off their brooms. People also rang church bells,
which had the power to ground broomsticks and knock
witches off them.
In the Salem Witch hysteria in colonial Massachusetts,
accused witch Mary Lacy confessed that she and
another accused witch Martha Carrier rode on sticks
when they attended witches’ meetings in Salem Village
(now Danvers). She said that witches from other states,
even Maine and Connecticut, would fly into the pasture
behind Reverend Samuel Parris’ house.
Witches were believed to deceive their husbands by
substituting a broom for themselves in bed so that they
could slip off and attend sabbats. Isobel Gowdie, a famous
Scottish witch of the 17th century, said her husband
never knew the difference, which might have been
more of a comment on their marriage than a confession
In Wicca and Paganism, the broom is used in rituals
and may be placed at the altar with other tools and objects.
A coven’s high priestess or maiden takes a broom to
symbolically sweep away evil, as in clearing the space for
a magic circle, and to sweep away the old and worn. In a
handfasting, the bride and groom traditionally jump over
a broom, which is similar to an old Welsh custom that
calls for newlyweds to enter their new home by stepping
over a broom.
In other folklore, it is bad luck to take one’s broom in
a move to a new home. In India, brooms are tied to ships’
sails to sweep storms out of the sky. In Chinese lore, the
Broom Goddess is the deity of fine weather, who sweeps
the skies clean.