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Superstitions About Witches and Broomsticks

Superstitions About Witches and Broomsticks

by Mary-Anne Alvaro

We celebrate Halloween with some curious history about witches and their brooms…

First About Their Brooms

Well, it isn’t too far away from Halloween – when thoughts can turn to witches and goblins . My thoughts, of course, turn to the witch’s props – the broom to be more specific. You’d think the superstitions surrounding brooms would have lots to do with witches, but that just goes to show that sometimes what we think would be logical just doesn’t apply.What does our regular source book (see below) say about brooms? As can be expected, there are variations of good luck and bad luck, depending on what you do with it – but, mostly bad luck (what else is new!).Our first entries speak to buying brooms – yes – buying brooms.

There is a curious superstition that it is unlucky to buy brooms in May: “Brooms bought in May, sweep the family away.” Or put another way “Never buy a brush in May – you’ll sweep one of the family away.”

In 1949 a Mr. Cyril Foster proprietor of a village store in Moorswater was quoted as saying “For the whole month, we never sell a single brush. Women here will consider it is as good as murder to buy one.”

This particular superstition applies to both May and Christmastime as well. In 1953, a young girl is quoted as telling this story; “My great great grandmother thought it unlucky to buy a broom in the twelve days of Christmas. She bought one once and made up her mind that she would not live to see another Christmas day; but she lived many years after that.” Couldn’t be that serious then, could it…?

In 1974 – “My family are demanding to know why I will not buy brushes and brooms during the month of May. My grandmother said it was unlucky, and nothing would induce me to buy them even now, and she has been dead for thirty-four years.” Yes, that was 1974!

In 1982, credited only as student, “It is now thought in some places that it is unlucky to purchase brooms or brushes in May. Apparently buying a toothbrush can also fall into this category!”

So, unlucky – yes, but there are other things you can do with brooms to bring on some bad luck. “It is unlucky to sweep a table with a broom”.

From the corporal punishment sectors – – (1882) “If a child be whipped with a branch of green broom, he will never grow any more” “I am told of a boy born at Wrenthall whose stunted growth is attributed to his having been beaten with ‘brum’ in early childhood.” Oh good grief!

Oddly, there is only one direct reference to the broom as it would relate to the witch. (1873) “Persons are advised to lay a broom across the doorway when any suspected person is coming in…The witch will make excuse and pass along the road.”

More Strange Beliefs About Brooms…

Now, here’s a collection of various superstition bric a brac, as it relates to the broom.

(1830) “If you set the broom in a corner, you will surely have strangers come to the house.” (1912) “It is said that if the handle come off the broom when sweeping, the servant will not get her wages.” (That I can see…probably had to pay for the broken broom!) (1923) “You must never rest the sweeping brush on the bristles as it’s very unlucky. If you stick the brush on its handle, it’s very lucky” (I tried this …it’s not so easy to do.) Now, I like to save the weird ones for last and this is no exception. In this bit of stuff, we learn it can be either a broom or a cow (which these verses refer to as a besom). Yes, that’s right a broom or a cow (because they are so very similar right?) Here we go:

“A broom or cow (besom) is thrown after curlers (curling players), when they leave a house; this is shaning then good luck (or breaking the spell of witchcraft).”

(1885) “When the men were going to the herring fishing for the first time, one of the women of the house used to throw the besom after them. The same thing was done, when a new net was taken out of the house.” “A woman threw the besom after him (the unsuccessful fisherman). That night a good fishing was made. (What do you think – did they sweep the fish off their feet?)

So that’s the (short) story on brooms – less witchy than we might have suspected, but still related to the good luck bad luck concepts those ancient Great Britainers seemed to love so much. It seems very little was left unassigned as bringing luck, good or bad. Considering some of the darker ages these folks had endured, they probably had to look for something or someone to blame.

Our source, once again, is “A Dictionary of Superstitions” Oxford press, edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem

Here are some superstitions about brooms submitted by our visitors:

Under broom superstitions you listed the superstition, “You must never rest the sweeping brush on the bristles as it’s very unlucky. If you stick the brush on its handle, it’s very lucky” As a broom maker I can give you the origin of this superstition. Before we started making brooms flat, they were round (called beasoms). If a besom is left standing on its bristles the weight of the broom will cause the bristles to curve. This makes the broom harder to use and shortens the life of the broom. So brooms were either propped up on the handle or hung from a hook to protect the bristles.

Another common broom superstition from, from my childhood home in West Virginia , is if you move to a new house buy a new broom. Bringing the old broom to your new home is believed to bring bad luck. Mark Anderson

It is said that putting a broom behind the main entrance upside down (bristles up) will make unwanted guests want to leave sooner. So whenever someone tells you that they are coming and all you want is to be alone you know what to do. Care

I can think of a few times when I would have glad put the broom at the front door to keep a few folks away so I could get me work done… Lotsa LLLove, Danielle

OF WITCHES AND WOMEN

I went looking for some specific superstitions related to the subject of witches. Oddly, for a culture that practically invented the warted witch image, I did not find particular entries under the heading of “witches”. Interesting, I thought, that is until I found the heading called “Women”. Of course – ALL women are witches! Wait until you read these – not a single good thing from that most influential of British ancient culture.

It starts with an entry credited to 1587, but in that strange old English that no one understands anymore. It is summed up in 1703 from something called “Western Islands of Scotland” “The Natives….retain an ancient Custom of sending a Man very early to cross Barvas river, every first day of May, to prevent any Females crossing it first; for that they say would hinder the Salmon from coming into the River all the year round.” (1775) – “It is held that…if any woman crosses the water to the opposite Island, the herrings will desert the coast.”

In a previous piece on the superstitions surrounding New Years, we found entries related to the bad luck associated with having a woman be the “first foot” that crossed the threshold or the first person seen on New Years day. Well, in keeping with the pre-feminism inclinations towards the “all women are witches” theory of life, we find that meeting a woman first on ANY day, especially an old woman (heaven forbid! Some parts of our culture I guess haven’t changed) was definitely bad luck.

“A strange tale comes to us from Cefn (Denbigh.) A woman is employed as a messenger at one of the collieries…and meets…great numbers of colliers going to their work. Some of them consider it a bad omen to meet a woman first thing in the morning, and …waited upon the manager and declared that they should remain at home unless the woman was dismissed.” Same year, “If a fisherman happens to meet a female first on leaving his cottage to put out to sea, he will turn back again, as he firmly believes that all his luck would be spoiled for the day.” You know, I’m sure this had to exclude their wives – after all who else to make breakfast for these fearless fisherman but the woman sentenced to their care and maintenance.

Alas, there was no solidarity between the women folk either. From 1883 comes this “If on putting her head out of doors the first time in the morning she saw one of her own sex, she would shut herself within doors for the day.” I wonder if in the interest of the greater society, women were supposed to sleep until noon in those days. Ah…the occasional merit of being this “bad luck” sex.

Now, just in case it wasn’t bad enough to have woman seen first thing in the morning, an entry dated 1909 tells us that “it is bad to meet an old woman early in the morning, Or to pass between two old women in the forenoon.”

Just wait…the variations got even better as this century progressed. 1952 a boy, 12 reports “If you see a lady driver you cross your fingers and wait till you see a dog and then uncross them.” I know, I know….don’t ask me!

“A miner in first shift would return home if he met a woman before he got to the lamp cabin (and) some still do.”

(1968) The men didn’t like to see a woman when they were going fishing; Mrs. Stonehouse, she was allus up early and out at the tap and if they saw her they’d say ‘It’s no use to go to work today.’ ” I say, Right On Mrs. Stonehouse, – I hope she did it on purpose!I thought you might find this one cute, – has all the symbolism of the old witch.

From 1813, “In Northumberland, I found a reputed witch in a lonely cottage…where the parish had placed her, to keep her out of the way…I was told….that everybody was afraid of her cat, and that she herself was thought to have the evil eye, and that it was accounted danger to meet her in a morning.”

So, although there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut definition of what exactly a witch is (although based on the above, to these folks just being a woman was witchy enough), there do seem to be many remedies should one encounter a witch. There are tricks to smoking a witch out too. Amber, bread, a twig of the ashe tree, vervain and even virgins seem to work to protect against witches – apparently they can’t handle those things. It seems that for many of life’s activities, some part of “in case you’re dealing with a witch…” was noted. Apparently witches did not limit themselves to just one activity, (casting evil spells) so these allowances were made to cover any number of different activities. Here’s a short list of lesser known witch superstitions.

“If a thing is bewitched, burn it, and immediately afterwards the witch will come to borrow something of you. If you give what she asks, she will go free; if you refuse it, she will burn, and a mark will be on her body the next day.”

Originally from 1486 – “That detestable race {witches} cannot injure with their witchcraft…those who by the carrying of blessed candles on the Day of the Purification of Our Lady…thus fortify themselves…so that the powers of devils are diminished…”

From among the grosser entries of the same year – “When an animal has been killed by witchcraft, and they wish to find out the witch, or to make certain whether its death was natural or due to witchcraft, they go to the place where dead animals are skinned, and drag its intestines along the ground up to their house; not into the house by the main door, but over the threshold of the back entrance into the kitchen; and then they make a fire and put the intestines over it on a hurdle. Then…just as the intestines get hot and burn, so are the intestines of the witch afflicted with burning pains.”

Nasty.Salt is a big one – from 1832, Gents Mag. “To neutralize the evil influence of witchcraft…when good housewives put their cream into the churn, they sometimes cast a handful of salt into the fire.” (1838) “He had standing regularly by his fireside a sack-bag of salt and of this he frequently took a handful, with a few horsenail stumps, and crooked pins, and casting them into the fire together, prayed to the Lord to torment all witches and wizards in the neigbourhood.” Wizards too?…equal opportunity torment.

One of the yuckiest ones, at least in terms of witch detection, comes from 1648 (that olde english again) “Another to bring in the Witch. To house the hag, you must doe this; Commix with meale a little Pisse of him bewicht; then forthwith make A little Wafer or a Cake: And this rawly bak’t will bring The old hag in. No surer thing.” I told you it was yuck. This next entry is a story told – one the teller seems to take extremely seriously. From 1681 comes this:

“He advised him to take a Bottle, and put his Wife’s Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up, and set the Bottle to the fire. The Man followed the prescription…but at last..the Cork bounced out, and the Urine, Pins, Nails and Needles all flew up…and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still. Not long after, the Old Man came to the house again, and inquired…how his Wife did…Ha, quoth he…now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure. Take your Wife’s Urine as before, and cork it in a Bottle with Nails, Pins and Needles, and bury it in the Earth .The Man did accordingly. And his Wife began to mend…and in a competent time was finely well recovered. But there came a Woman from a Town some miles off to their house, with a lamentable Out-cry, that they had killed her Husband…that…Husband was a Wizzard and had bewitched this Mans Wife”

.(1787) “Some hair, the parings of the nails, and urine, of any person bewitched…being put into a stone bottle with crooked nails, corked closed, and tied down with wire, and hung up the chimney, will cause the Witch to suffer the most acute torments imaginable, till the bottle is uncorked, and the mixture dispersed; insomuch that they will even risk a detection, by coming to the house, and attempting to pull down the bottle.”

They could get right vicious in this hunt for witches to blame for every ill imaginable. A 1955 publication speaking to how frequently these witch-bottles were found in digs says this: “It is significant that in addition to such ingredients as nails or human hair, commonly found in later witch-bottles, at least two of the London jugs contained a recognizable representation of a human heart, carefully cut from a piece of cloth or felt, and pierced with bent pins.” A little voodoo maybe (to borrow from another culture).

And finally, this sounds mean (poor cow) but from 1971:

“A witch story my father told me. A farmer near Torrington kept losing his calves (stillborn). He went to a white witch, and she told the farmer to hang a calf over the fire on the chimney crook, slowly burning, it, also to sneak into the witches house, and catch three fleas from her bed, put them in a bottle and cork them in. The witch after four or five days would have to pass his window and look in the room. The spell would be over then because so long as the fleas were corked up in a bottle (and the calf burning slowly) the witch would never ‘beable’ (spend a penny) until she showed up and broke the spell.”

Oh of all the things. So folks, these are a smattering of some of the lesser known superstitions as they apply to witches and women. I left out the regular old ones – witches turning into cats, unable to pass through a cross and the various herbal remedies to keep a witch away. It is interesting though, because deeper study of the superstitions surrounding witches is suspiciously reflective of the general thinking surrounding women themselves. I mean really – an entire sex that speaks to bad luck? I can hear every male that has ever gone through PMS with a woman saying “yeah – so – what’s your point?” Women, we just have so much power now don’t we? Obviously enough to scare the pants off these medieval folks.. I say more power to our bewitchingly wonderful selves – we’ll just shy away from accepting any funny smelling cake!

Until next time….

As usual, the source for this information is A Dictionary of Superstitions, Edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem and published by Oxford Press.

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