The Witch’s Broom, part I

February 24, 2012

Helen Hwang and others at the Mago Circle have been sharing ideas about the sacred broom, and I felt inspired to do a bit of research regarding the use of this magical tool in Western witchcraft. Quickly pulling books off my shelf, I soon had a pile of information that was far too extensive for a blog post. I think I’ll stay with this topic for a few weeks, however, and approach a piece of the subject each week from a different perspective.

The first thing that we have to grapple with when we talk about the broom as a magical tool is that the sacred broom is not really a broom, not in the way it is commonly understood as a utensil for sweeping debris off the floor. So what is it? Is it the act of sweeping that makes the broom magical? Is it a cleaning application in the realm of etheric energies? Is it some quality in the materials sewn into the part that sweeps? Is it some quality in the handle? Does it relate to the broom’s relationship to the house? As we will see, all of these things play into the magical power of the broom.

When we talk about witches riding their brooms, the cliched expression is “riding on their broomsticks.” Yet we don’t ordinarily refer to the handle of the broom in other contexts. For example, if I wanted someone to pass a broom to me, I would say, “hand me the broom,” not “hand me the broomstick.” Magically speaking, the stick in broomstick warrants examination.

Witches in animal form on a riding pole. From a 15th century French witch-hunting manual.
In Witchcraft for Tomorrow Gardnerian priestess Doreen Valiente says,

The wand is the magical weapon of invocation; but among witches it sometimes took the form of the riding pole, upon which they performed the traditional jumping dance to make the crops grow tall. This dance was probably the origin of the idea that witches used broomsticks or staffs to fly through the air upon….

To dance over the ground with a pole or staff between the legs is an obvious phallic gesture of the old fertility rites. Hence the end of the riding pole was often carved in the shape of a phallus. This, however, marked the staff as an obvious magical object, an adjunct of the Old Religion that was dangerous to have leaning against one’s cottage wall in the times of persecution. So the phallic riding pole had its carved end disguised with a bunch of twigs and became the witch’s broomstick.

Despite (or because of) its phallic symbolism, the broom is traditionally a woman’s magical tool, although Radmir Ristic in Balkan Traditional Witchcraft says there was at one time a type of broom associated with threshing that men used. The type of wood used in the handle influences the magic. Ash, the World Tree in Germanic lore, is the most common traditional wood, but there are no hard and fast rules here.

The broom in the photograph is my own broom. It is a handmade broom given to me as a gift. Instead of a phallic tip, there is the face of a bearded man carved into the handle. The wood is mesquite, which is the tree witches in the Sonora Desert commonly use for magical implements. It is a medium sized, thorny tree with hard wood and very tiny leaves. The flowers, like the wood, are highly aromatic and attract legions of bees. The honey has a strong distinctive flavor. Mesquite produces pods that can be ground into flour or boiled to make a sweet thick beverage. Since the mesquite tree produces sweet abundance in a tough environment, it brings a life-giving, sustaining quality to the broom magic, similar to the wood from the World Tree.

My next installment of this series will discuss the “sweepy” part of the broom.


Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Translated by Michael C. Carter, Jr. Los Angeles: Pendraig Publishers, 2009.
Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1987.

Good Morning, Little Dove

February 17, 2012

Two Mourning Doves
Mourning Doves. Photo by R.L. Sivaprasad.

The Iseum (space of worship) chartered through me by The Fellowship of Isis is called The Temple of the Doves. Why doves? The dove is one of the feathery creatures most beloved of the goddess, and a particular favorite of a divinity close to my heart: the goddess Ishtar.

Reverence for the dove is ancient and enduring, possibly extending back to the Stone Age. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Small birds were sculpted, engraved, and painted throughout prehistory. In Minoan Crete they appear perching on shrines, pillars, and the Goddess’s head. Unfortunately, it is not possible to recognize the species of birds portrayed, except in a very few cases.” Since doves and other pigeons like to roost in large buildings, and the first building complexes were places of worship, the religious significance of the dove may have grown up around the temple. Devotees would have assumed the doves came to bring messages from the sky gods or to carry prayers back to them. These doves would not have been exclusively the subjects and messengers of any god in particular, instead serving the deity of the temple where they lived.

As we move from decayed artifacts to religious writing, the sacred role of doves becomes less obscure. Sumerian hymns refer to doves as temple inhabitants and the dove plays an important role in both the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts of the Great Flood. Doves and other pigeons were commonly sacrificed in Mesopotamia, the Levant and (to a lesser extent) Egypt. Dove sacrifice was particularly important in early Judaism, and doves are the most frequently appearing birds in the Old Testament. Doves would have been sacrificial candidates due to their value (they were used for food and fertilizer) and their easy availabilty, but their temple association was probably a key component. The demand for sacrificial doves was so high that, inconceivable as it sounds, doves and other pigeons were actually bred in large numbers for the temples.

Scholars believe that the dove association with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar came late, which fits with my surmise that doves originally served many mistresses. Astarte, who is a fertility goddess like Ishtar, had an extensive cult throughout the Levant and is unquestionably linked with doves. Today it is the dove, rather than the original lion, that goddess worshippers most often associate with Ishtar. The dove’s plump, curving features, her gurgling coos and her soft, sweet melodies carry a voluptuous aura which naturally evokes this goddess of sexual love.

The early Christian sects, who worshipped a feminine form of wisdom they called Sophia, linked Sophia with the white dove, also one of Aphrodite’s many animal totems. Recognition of Sophia withered under patriarchal Christianity, though her worship has been revived in some of the more liberal churches. Her dove emblem continues as the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Doves have always been close personal friends of mine. As a child, I would sit in my room listening to the mourning doves on the wires outside my window, and it felt like they were speaking to my heart. Even today, I think their music is one of the most beautiful and soothing sounds in nature.


Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
MacKenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915. Sacred Texts.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

More information about the pigeon family here.

It’s Witchcraft

February 12, 2012

Ol’ Blue Eyes Sinatra

Song by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh

It’s such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn’t switch
Cause there’s no nicer witch than you

The Divine Woodpecker

February 10, 2012

Gilded Flicker
Gilded Flicker. Photo by Glenn Seplak.

One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.

When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.

Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.

Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.

Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.

After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).

The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.

We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?

We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?

Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.


Robert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.

Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.

Sometimes the Monkeys Win One

February 9, 2012

A chuckle for those who haven’t seen it yet. Vermont correctional inmates pull an adolescent prank. As a social worker I’ve encountered my share of game players, as well as professionals who became distraught each and every time they were outfoxed. Myself I try not to take it personally and to say, “Oh well, another alcoholic/addict/sociopath tricked me. Isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

Sorting Through the Games

February 3, 2012

Lovers' Tarot Card
Lovers' trump from Visconti tarot, Italy circa 1445. Photo courtesy of Cary collection of playing cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

My very old-fashioned family of origin would casually tell fortunes as they indulged in their passion for card playing. Actually, they called it “what the cards were saying,” and it was based on the patterns that emerged during the game. During my very first game of euchre, my great-grandmother drew cards that disconcerted her and my mother. “I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything,” my mother insisted, though she later voiced apprehension in the car on the way home while my father tried to reassure her. Meanwhile my grandmother, having received a portent that the end was nigh, became nostalgic and sorted through an old box of keepsakes, trying on the wedding ring she no longer wore. We know this because the ring was on her finger and the contents of the box were spread on the bed beside her when she was found the next morning, dead from an unsuspected heart problem. Of course my mother suffered self-recriminations later, having recognized and explained away the signs. I’m not sure that anything could have been done. There is a place in the hospital for people who have received a death message in a euchre spread, but it’s not on the cardiac floor.

Euchre is a game which evolved, like so many others, from the French triomphe: the tarot. While today the tarot is usually associated with divination or instruction, it was once a form of entertainment. The tarot cards, in turn, developed from sets of cards introduced by Arabs into Italy and Spain in the fourteenth century. These Arabic cards had ten numbered cards in four suits–sticks, swords, coins and cups–along with three decorative cards for each suit. These cards were much like the ordinary playing cards we have today.

Conventional wisdom tells us the tarot continued solely as a game for centuries and only much later became a form of divination. This is highly implausible. In the medieval and early modern mind, the world was not divided into discrete categories of meaning and non-meaning. Everything had meaning; and pictures, whether well or badly drawn, were highly symbolic in their content. In a world where God (or the devil) spoke continually, divination could not be delegated to a separate sphere of life. Whatever the four suits meant to the Arabs (and they undoubtedly meant something), the suits in the card deck, the numbers on the cards, and the king, queen, knight and knave all held significance in the mind of the European player. With the introduction of the “trumps” — the major arcana — deeper and more complex meanings could be garnered. Divination would naturally be occurring in the course of a game because meaninglessness and triviality had not yet been invented.

Yet this is not the only reason for supposing the cards were fraught with divinatory meaning from the first time they were shuffled. When historians describe tarot as a “game” this is actually a euphemism for gambling. Early card games — not just the tarot — were a channel for gambling passions. Anyone who has known a gambler knows the extreme significance placed on the elements of the game. Eventually everything
surrounding the bet becomes so steeped in meaning that life outside the gambling arena takes on a comparative sense of unreality. In this regard it is interesting that in China, where the very earliest playing cards have been documented, passion for gambling is longstanding and integral to traditional culture, while divinatory insight is complex, preoccupying and pervasive. Gamblers have no corner on the market for superstition, but to suppose that tarot cards were used for centuries in gambling before they were used for divination stretches credibility.

Several German keys for divination with playing cards appeared between 1505 in 1543, and an Italian system appeared in 1540. These books are usually not considered relevant to tarot divination because they refer to ordinary playing cards. Around 1750 the first written summary of divinatory meanings for the major arcana appeared. This is the sole basis for the common assertion that tarot card divination did not exist for the three centuries following development of the tarot. Why a written manual so late in the game? One explanation is that during the eighteenth century a broad array of sciences were being systematized and recorded, many for the first time. We would expect a tarot key to appear during this time, and the absence of an earlier one does not preclude the existence of tarot divination before this time. Indeed, it says very little one way or the other.

Playing cards and tarot are not much different in origin and early usage, and divination does not occupy a separate, contained sphere of life. It is plausible and consistent with the few available facts to assume that tarot cards were used for divination from the beginning.


Rita Aero. Things Chinese. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1980.
International Playing Card Society, History of Playing Cards
Jean-Claude Flornoy, Tarot History and Tarot Divination
Mary K. Greer, Lola Lucas, K. Frank Jensen, Timeline of the Occult and Divinatory Tarot
Paul Huson. Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2004.
Robert Swiryn. The Secrets of the Tarot. Kapaa, HI: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.
Tarotpedia, Francesco Marcoloni
Trionfi, Oldest Evidence for Divination with Cards