Witches and Their Brooms: A Fascinating History

Witch flying on her broomstick

Fewer images scream “Happy Halloween” quite like the image of a witch on a broomstick. Starting in October (and sometimes even earlier), witches and their trust broomsticks show up everywhere, from your local bookstore to your favorite coffee shop.

You’re familiar with the trope, but have you ever wondered where this trope originated?

So far, historians and other scholars have yet to be able to draw a clear line from the images of witches and brooms that we know and love today. However, they have discovered some fascinating facts through their research.

Some of the most interesting stories and theories about witches and broomsticks are shared below.

Early Pagan Rituals

Anthropologists like Robin Skelton have traced some of the earliest accounts of witches and broomsticks back to early pagan rituals.

During this time, rural farmers often leaped and danced while riding poles, pitchforks, and brooms under the full moon.

This ritual was dubbed the “broomstick dance” and was meant to encourage healthy crops. Over time, people began to confuse it with stories of witches flying through the night to travel to orgies and other questionable events.

Witches were also believed to use broomsticks as vehicles for the brews that gave them the power of flight. Rumor had it that witches did not eat or drink their brews. Instead, they absorbed them through the skin on their most intimate body parts.

A 15th-century theologian, Jordanes de Bergamo, wrote that witches “anoint a staff” and “anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.”

In 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler, a wealthy Irish widow, was imprisoned for sorcery and heresy for such a crime.

Kyteler came under fire after investigators searched her home and found “a pipe of ointment” that she used to grease a broomstick “upon which she ambled and galloped” through “thick and thin.”

“a pipe of ointment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thicke and thin.”

15th-Century France

The first image of a witch riding a broomstick dates back to 1451.

Two illustrations accompanied the French poet Martin Le Franc’s manuscript titled Le Champion des Dames (or The Defender of Ladies). One drawing features a woman on a broom, and the other shows a woman on a plain white stick.

Witches illustrated in Martin Le Franc’s ‘Le Champion des Dames’ (1451) (via Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF)/Wikimedia)

Both women pictured wear headscarves that indicate they are members of the Waldensians — a 12-century Christian sect deemed heretics by the Catholic Church, partly because they allowed women to become priests.

The First Confession

One of the first real-life links between witches and brooms came from Guillaume Edelin — a man.

Edelin, a priest from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, was arrested and tried for witchcraft in 1453. He was punished for his public criticism of the church and its warnings about witches.

Edelin confessed to riding a broom while being tortured. He went on to repent for his sins but still spent the rest of his life in prison.

Modern Day Witches

Rumors and fables about witches continued for hundreds of years after Edelin’s confession. By the 18th century, much of the panic subsided.

However, the images of witches and broomsticks have persisted to this day — and they’re not showing any signs of going away!