I recently helped out on a project for a local folklorist looking for information on broom lore, and wound up with easily twenty pages of notes on the topic from a wide variety of sources. I thought that today I would share a few of the commonly held beliefs regarding brooms, as well as look at some of the most unusual practices surrounding this wonderful household item.
Of course there are many instances of witches riding broomsticks in art and media, but of course brooms were only one of the preferred methods for nocturnal transportation to Sabbat rites. Other mounts included pitchforks, stangs, goats, and eggshells (and even the occasional human being fitted with a magical bridle, in the cases of alleged ‘hag-riding’) (The Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft, Bailey: 23-4). Brooms served magical folk for more than hobby-horses and transport, though. In European culture, broom magic goes back at least as far as Ancient Rome. In that culture, the broom’s sweeping function translated into a purification rite. Eli Edward Burriss notes in his Taboo, Magic, Spirits that the Romans believed a new baby and its mother were in danger of being tormented by woodland spirits—particularly one called Silvanus—and goes on to quote St. Augustine about a three-part, three-tool ritual in which several spirits were invoked to provide protection. Let’s see what the good saint himself says on the subject (from Burriss’ book, and his translation of Augustine):
‘. . . After the birth of the child, three protecting divinities are summoned lest the god Silvanus enter during the night and harass mother and child; and to give tokens of those guardian divinities three men by night surround the threshold of the house and first strike it with an ax and a pestle; then they sweep it off with a broom, that, by giving these signs of worship, the god Silvanus may be kept from entering. For trees are not cut nor pruned without iron; nor is spelt powdered without a pestle; nor is grain piled up without a broom. Now from these three objects are named three divinities: Intercidona from the intercisio of the ax; Pilumnus from the pilum; Deverra from the sweeping (verrere) of the broom; and by the protection of these divinities new-born babies are preserved against the violence of Silvanus.’ (Burriss 28)
Burriss goes on to note that the iron in several of the implements provide the expected protection from evil, but the ceremonial sweeping is what actually drives away the wicked spirit. He also notes that Sir James Frazer observed something similar in his book The Golden Bough, which included sweeping salt out of a dwelling and disposing of it in a churchyard to remove any vengeful souls of the dead from the premises (Frazer 144, Burriss 35). Charles Leland noted that Gypsies used broom straws in spells to protect a mother during childbirth (echoing St. Augustine’s writings) and also says that Romanian Gypsies would use iron and broomstraws interchangeably as protective wards placed beneath pillows at night (Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling, Leland: 47-48, 136).
In the New World, brooms retain much of their old purifying & protective power, but also begin to adopt new abilities within the new culture. African American folk practices show a strong connection to brooms and domestic bonds. African American cultural tradition (as well as other cultures) have a wedding practice of “jumping the broom” to seal the ceremony. It’s common enough that in 2011 a romantic comedy film about an African American wedding was entitled Jumping the Broom. This connection to marriage and the household also involves a number of superstitions and folk spells centered on weddings and love in association with brooms. Here’s a short collection of such beliefs:
From Harry M. Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County, Illinois
- 9614. To sweep under the feet of someone sitting on a table signifies that person will marry before the year ends.
- 9615. Do not let anyone sweep entirely around the chair on which you are sitting; you will remain single seven years longer.
- 9616. The person under whose chair you sweep will marry once say some, twice say others — soon after his or her mate dies.
- 9617. If you sweep your own feet, you will never get married.
- 9618. Whoever breaks a broom handle will soon break someone’s heart.
- 9619. For luck in love, a woman may wet the bushy part of her broom and sprinkle the water about the house.
- 9935. The significance of an engaged girl dropping a broom is as follows: if the handle points to the north, she or her fiancee will break the engagement; if to the south, she will marry him and live a happy life.
- 10129. It is very unlucky for a bride to see a broom on her wedding day before she goes to church.
From Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lindsey Thomas
- 1614. If you let some one sweep under your feet, you will never be married.
- 1615. If you sweep your feet with a broom, you will never be married.
- 1619. If the broom falls across the doorway, someone will call.
- 1620. If two people sweep a floor together, they may expect bad luck.
- 1621. If you sweep after dark, you will bring sorrow to your heart.
- 1625. If you sweep the house after the sun goes down, you may expect a man caller.
I should note that these are only a very small handful of the superstitions associated with brooms in these two texts. Hyatt’s book alone has easily five hundred individual entries featuring various examples of broom magic and lore.
Of course, the broom’s protective power and its association with witches also become increasingly complex in the New World. Many sources (Hyatt, Thomas, Randolph, Puckett, etc.) all say that witches will not cross over a broom, and so it can be a powerful protective charm to put one across your doorway. Similarly, one could reverse a jinx or witchcraft by stepping backwards over a broom. Brooms can also be a component of spells to reverse the evil eye, according to curandero lore:
A treatment for mal ojo (the evil eye) – “She got some kind of herb from the garden. I don’t know what kind it was. She made signs of the cross with the herb by his head and all over his body, and his feet. All this time she was saying something in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand what it was. Then she turned him over and did the same thing on the other side. She got an egg and did the same thing with the egg, holding the egg and making signs of the cross all the way down his body and across. She told me to get a cup with some water. She cracked open the egg and put it in the water in the cup. Then she had me get a broom straw, which she cut, and made a little sign of the cross that she put on top of the egg. She told me to put the egg under his crib at night while he slept, under his head, and the next day he would be O.K. I looked at the egg the next day, and, my God, it was cooked! I was so surprised! The yolk and the white were hard and cooked like a hard-boiled egg. She told me to bring the egg to her and she could tell if it was a man or woman who had done it. If the cross went one way it was a male, and if it went the other way it was a female” (“Mexican American Folk Disease,” Keith Neighbors, Western Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1969): 254).
Here again we have a connection to magical protection, especially for children, much as we saw in the European lore. Brooms can also cure physical ailments, like warts, as well.
One of the most interesting themes in broom lore has to do with relocating a household. If one is moving, for example, one should not take the old broom along. Likewise, when you are moving, you should break your old broom and burn it before leaving the house. The superstitious believe that a new broom should be one for the first things you bring into a new home:
- 11288. You will be lucky, if before moving out of the old house you send a broom and a loaf of bread to your new home.
- 11289. To have luck in the new house, take in the broom and a loaf of bread before anything else; the broom first, the bread next. Then sweep with the broom.
- 11290. A broom and a dish pan should be the first things taken into your new home for luck.
- 11291. A broom and a dish towel should be the first things taken into your new home for luck.
- 11292. The woman who takes a broom and a dust pan into her new home first will always be lucky there. (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt)
A number of superstitions also note that the first thing a person does in his or her new home should be to sweep it with a broom, then throw the ashes out the door to ensure that all bad luck is swept clean of the house before anyone sleeps there. Likewise, a new home can be blessed with good luck by throwing a broom over it.
While there’s much, much more that could be said on the topic of brooms, I’ll finish up today with a small grab-bag of the more unusual beliefs and practices involving these wonderful magical tools:
- If a bunch of straw comes out of a broom when sweeping, name it and place it over the door, and the person named will call (“Kentucky Folk-lore,” Sadie F. Price, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 14, No. 52 (Jan. – Mar., 1901), 34).
- 12368. If you sweep on New Year’s Day, your house will be dirty all year; but if you leave the dirt in a pile on the floor until the next day, clean all year.
- 12369. To sweep on Monday causes bad luck; all week say some.
- 12370. The bad luck that comes from sweeping on Monday can be warded off by keeping the dirt in the house until the following day.
- 12371. The bad luck that comes from sweeping on Monday can be warded off by sprinkling salt over the dirt and burning it.
- 12372. Sweep on Monday and you are sweeping away all your company that week. (previous five from Hyatt)
- To draw your enemies to you (so that you may know who they are), clean out your stove, all the time keeping your wish in your mind, but don’t speak it. Then break a stick into four pieces, all of them the Same length, and pin them together in the middle like this and set them afire in the middle. Then go to the four corners of the room, with your wish in your heart and mind, (but don’t say it), and sprinkle salt. Then, when you see your enemies coming, go outside your door and throw your broom down careless and step over it into the house and talk to them across it and they can’t come in, but they can’t help from coming to your gate. (“Hoodoo in America,” Hurston: 393).
- It is bad luck to sweep the dirt out of a house at night; sweep it up into a corner and sweep out in the daytime. If obliged to sweep it out at night, take a coal of fire and throw it first in front of you (“Superstitions & Beliefs of Central Georgia,” Roland Steiner, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 12, No. 47 (Oct. – Dec., 1899), pp. 261-271).
- To make a guest leave, place a broom upside down behind the door (Puckett 317).
- If a very young child, without being told, picks up a broom and starts sweeping the house, you might as well prepare for a visitor, the idea apparently being that an innocent child can see things in the future that grown-ups cannot, and knows that the house must be tidied up for the company. (Puckett 444).
And just for fun, you should listen to blues legend Robert Johnson singing “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”
Some of our own NWW posts which have featured other broom lore:
So there’s my brief take on magical brooms. The short, sweet version is that they’re not just for riding up to unholy Sabbats upon anymore. I hope this information is useful to you! Until next time, thanks for reading!