A history of the witch and her broomstick

Besom Brooms supports Transylvanian artisans who have been using locally sourced wood to create quality, handmade wood products for over 600 years. The techniques  they use have been handed down over generations and artisans, and they continue to use these ancient methods to create broomsticks where no metal is required. In Medieval times whole villages specialised in producing wood based products, and Transylvanian rural artisans came to dominate the market as they has access to some of the richest first class raw materials which enabled them to create superior quality wood products.

In this post, Besom Brooms tells us the history of witches and how they came to be connected to these traditional broomsticks, as well as providing instructions on how to make your very own broomstick.

Petru Godja Pupaza, a wood craftsman from Maramures, Romania. Photo: Radu Lazar

Witches and brooms

The history of the the traditional broomstick is closely tied with the “Witches Broom” of “Olde” wives tales. In early Middle Ages, many clerics had thought that witches didn’t exist – it was in fact heresy to believe that they did as it attributing divine power to a human. However, by the late Middle Ages, especially after the plague, witchcraft began to be prosecuted. During the Medieval times it became common folklore in Eastern Europe that witches used the broomsticks to fly through the air and travel great distances in short periods of time. There a few different theories trying to explain the link between broomsticks and the witches of old:

  • In Medieval times a woman would let neighbours know she was absent from home by leaving a broomstick propped outside her door or popping out the top of her chimney. This led to stories that witches, who could supposedly fly, would use the broomstick to fly up chimneys and away.
  • In pagan Europe brooms were used in fertility ceremonies to encourage plentiful crops. Pagans would mount the broomsticks and ride them like horses across the fields while leaping high into the air and dancing across the land to encourage the pagan gods to bless them with a bountiful harvest.
  • Broomsticks were continually  linked with witches throughout the mid 1600’s to the mid 1700’s where witches depicted by artists riding through the night skies. This lead to the demonization of witches and the brooms which had become associated with them.

 Woodcut from a 1720 collection depicting both male and female witches flying on broomsticks. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.

According to folklore, broomsticks were provided by the Devil to witches wished to become stronger sorceresses. In fact many women were simply healers, the doctors of their time, and were often falsely accused of being involved in witchcraft.

During Medieval harvest festivals villagers would lay out sharp tools such as scythes, pitchforks and hay hooks to kill any witch who might fall off their broomstick while flying overhead. The church also got involved by ringing the church bells which were thought to have the power to knock witches from their broomsticks during flight.

 Punishments for witchcraft in 16th century Germany. Woodcut: Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508

How to make your own broomstick

Broomsticks made by Transylvanian artisans. Photo: Besom Brooms 

You can use different types of wood but you will need the following to create your own traditional broomstick:

•You will need a 4ft length of birch for the handle of the broom

•You will require thin birch branches which can be collected from your local forest

•You will need a withy to bind all the materials together

•Another requirement for the creation of your hand-made broom is clippers and an enamel bucket filled with warm water to soak the birch branches and make them more malleable.

Step 1: Place the handle on your work table then take the birch branches and line them up so they are covering about six inches of the bottom of the birch handle.

Step 2: Now take the withy strips and use them to wrap the birch branches around the birch shaft. The withy strips should have been soaked for up to twelve hours to make them suitable for wrapping. It is up to you how much of the birch branches you add to the shaft so the broomstick head is as full as you want. You need to tie the withy strips as tight as you can so the birch branches don’t fall off when using.

Step 3: Once you have the first withy strip tied securely in place you will need to add three more withy strips about two inches below the first one and so on till you have created three separate bindings.

For more information about Besom Brooms and their project with Transylvanian artisans you can visit their website or facebook page.

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