The stereotypic witch is the deluded worshipper of Satan, working her evil in remote congregations she accesses by flying on her broomstick. She has a huge larger-than-life nose with larger-than-life warts, and one of her greatest sins is the fashion mistake of that ridiculous cone hat. She is a misguided dupe who will, of course, meet with a sorry end as the forces of good prevail.Curiously enough, there are parts of this stereotype with a basis in reality. The most interesting of these is the flight on the broom.Broom flight came relatively late in the Christian understanding of witchcraft. Medieval writings such as the 906 Canon Episcopi talk about the idea of pagans shapeshifting into animals in order to go places and do things, though the texts make clear that the error is not in doing these things but in believing that they happen. A clerical reference to witches on broomsticks appears in 1440 in Martin Le Franc’s Defender of the Ladies. In this essay Le Franc takes exception to the belief that women are more likely than men to do the Devil’s bidding, arguing that this belief is based on fanstastic assumptions like broom travel. He discusses the confession of a sixteen year old girl at a trial and concludes that “There are no broomsticks or rods by which anyone could fly. But when the devil can fool the mind, they think they fly….” Again, the error is not in the act of flying, but in believing that flight is possible. Since theology around Satan and witchcraft solidified by the thirteenth century, and witch flight continued to be suspect within this paradigm, it is likely that the idea of witches flying on brooms arose not out of Christian cosmology but pagan belief. Eventually broomstick flying did become stock in the witch hunter’s lore, though witch prosecutors like Matthew Hopkins lamented that the belief cheapened the discipline. The need for prosecutors at actual trials to establish a modus operandi may explain why the scenario of the witch flying on her broomstick was accepted outside of more erudite theological circles. The scenario explained how the witches (many of whom were elderly) were getting to their sabbats in the wilderness undetected, and it allowed the testimony of victims and witnesses, who often insisted on dragging in broom flight, to be admitted in full.So how did people get the idea that witches were flying on brooms (or staves or animals)? The simple answer, which we’ll get to eventually, is that they really were flying. Another point to consider is the relationship between the priestess and her goddess. While the monotheistic religions (and many pagan religions as well) place a wide distance between the greatest priest/priestess and the deity, in many pagan religions a priestess can become endowed over time with the qualities of her deity. Christian theologians may have furthered this conflation between goddess and priestess by their emphatic portrayal of goddesses (whom they categorically referred to as “demons”) as the mundane part of their divine/worldly dichotomy. Sometimes in Christianized folklore the goddess even becomes a witch.We know from myth and art that goddesses are always flying around, often with staves, distaffs or brooms, or on the backs of animals. The germanic giantess Hyrrokkin rides on the back of a wolf, and witnesses in a witch trial from Switzerland testified that the accused was seen flying on a wolf. More often the goddess is shown carrying a staff or a distaff as she flies, with or without animal support. While today the broom is the stock image, medieval and Renaissance witches were often portrayed flying on staves or distaffs. The Russian Baba Yaga, who has counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, definitely has a flying broom association. Baba Yaga is described as a witch, but her awesome powers are goddess-like. She rides through the sky at night in a mortar, using the pestle as an oar to steer. With her broom she sweeps the tracks away as she rides. Baba Yaga is an ancient crone with a huge nose almost touching her chin. She or harvest crone goddesses like her probably influenced the broomstick witch stereotype.SourcesGuerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.Still to come: What if they really were flying?
Spring Equinox comes on March 20th this year. I count the holiday as the day when the sun first rises in the sign of Aries. I saw an advertisement on an occult website recently urging people to buy now and be ready for the solstice. That would be quite a head start indeed: Summer Solstice is June 21st. Remember, equinoxes are equal; solstices are solar extremes.Spring Equinox is the celebration of the youth in all of us. In one way of looking at things, we are born, we mature, we grow steadily older until we become decrepit (but wise), and then we die. In another view, we are born, we mature, we grow old, we become young again, we grow old, and then we are young again.Featured spring goddess this year is the lovely Norse Idunn, who keeps the gods of Asgard forever young with the magic red berries she keeps in a special box. There is debate over what kind of berries these are. Some call them “Idunn’s apples.” Others say they come from the Rowan tree. Still others believe they are the same berries women pluck from the tree on the Hill of Healing to aid childbirth. Myself, I think they are cherry cordials.To regain a sense of newness, wonder and enthusiasm, include some red sweets in your spring ritual. They could be red jelly beans or strawberries or raspberries–just about anything red besides pomegranates, which are a death fruit. Ask Idunn to bless your berries with the spirit of youth. Idunn is a generous goddess, so share your magic berries with others as well as partaking of them yourself.
I am taking a break from the broom this week. In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to post something about American women’s political history as it relates to worship.Women have not always been women. We’ve been (among other things) wenches, maidens, girls, damsels and, of course, ladies. These words have usually referred to status as well as gender, but whatever her status, the definition of the word and the word itself was one in which the poor wench had no voice.Abigail Adams, first lady to the second president of the United States, addressed the topic of women’s voices in 1776, as the principles of the new nation were being formed. In a letter to her husband she admonished, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” The use of “ladies” in such a strongly worded feminist statement sounds jarring, but “lady” was the word in vogue at the time. “Woman” was impolite or dehumanizing, implying low status, referring to bodies and therefore vaguely acknowledging sex. “Lady” was the genteel, civilized, respectable, well-mannered ideal.Seventy-five years later, the first wave of American feminists rejected the word “lady” as a construct imposed by men, affirming instead the word “woman.” This took the definition of the female sex away from the realm of behavior, putting it back on the body and enabling women to do unladylike things. Even labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones, who had her own disagreements with feminists, got the importance of this when she admonished young women, “No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike. God almighty made women, and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.”In the second wave of feminism, beginning in the late 1960’s, women reaffirmed themselves as women, pushing back against the “lady” and “girl” monikers and celebrating the being and the body that God almighty made, only this time we called her “Goddess.” “Lady” was increasingly being limited to a polite means of addressing a female stranger (although “gentleman” was rarely used in this context). “Hey lady! Zip up your purse–you’re in New York!” a man yelled at me once. The upper class connotations of “lady” had long been a point of discomfort in a society that rejected the idea of class in principle, if not in practice. The word “lady” continued to be embraced by conservative women as an affirmation of the old male-imposed ideals or even as a code word for anti-feminist. The eighties street theatre group “Ladies Against Women” parodied these anti-feminist ladies.For all its baggage of snobbery and oppression, the word “lady” remains ensconced in certain pagan traditions, particularly those that are an offshoot of British traditional witchcraft. The most conservative traditions worship a “Lord and Lady,” not a “God and Goddess,” and the high priestess may be addressed in circle as “lady.” A woman who has completed the highest level of training may also be addressed as lady. Once in awhile, a high priestess will publish a book under a pen name of Lady SomethingOrOther, but the title is not used outside of Craft business.Hungarian-born Dianic leader Z Budapest tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dianic priestesses to accept the word “lady” in sacred context, arguing that the word originally meant “maker of the loaf” and has not always been a label of oppression. In feminist circles, resistance was too high to continue this traditional form of reference. For Dianics the word “woman” continues to be preferred, a way of affirming that we are not to be defined by outside forces.
Last week I talked about the handle of the broom, which is usually made of ash. Ash wood represents Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Germanic lore, and symbolizes nourishment, health and all-around good luck.The brush part of the broom is traditionally made with birch twigs. Birch is a tree of purification, also associated with death and ancestors. Gentle flagellation with birch twigs is used in some purification rituals to drive pollution out of the body. In old-style Swedish saunas, people emerge from the heat, roll in the snow, then are lightly beaten with birch twigs. The sauna is still used for physical purification, but it was once used for spiritual and emotional cleansing as well.The broom is used at the very beginning of ritual to cleanse the energies in the area of worship. The broom does not sweep or touch the floor but is held above the head with two hands as the priestess walks the perimeter of the ceremonial space. Since it drives away impure energies, the broom can be used as a guardian for the doorway to a ritual space. The broom may also be used in more aggressive banishing rituals to drive out negativity. Routine purification for ritual preparation is done with feathers or fans, but the broom may be passed over the body in situations requiring more extreme cleansing, such as disease or trauma. The broom was used in purification ceremonies following childbirth back when infant and maternal mortality was higher due to bacterial infections.The birch twigs are bound to the traditional witch broom with strips of willow bark. White willow bark is a widely used anodyne, from which aspirin was originally synthesized. Willow is sacred to Hecate, a patron goddess of witches, and is associated with water and the moon.In folklore there are many taboos about brooms. I view these taboos as a reminder of the power of the broom, a power that must be wielded with caution.Still to come: Marriage and the Broom plus Astral Travel.Sources:Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1990.Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Welllingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.Grimassi, Raven. Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2011.Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.