Need an easy, last-minute Halloween costume? Grab an old broom out of the closet (cobwebs are an added bonus), put on a pointy hat, et voilà: you are now a witch!
The roots of this classic Halloween ensemble can be traced centuries into the past, with the earliest known depiction of witches appearing in French poet Martin Le Franc’s 1451 manuscript Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies).
In the illustration, two women straddle brooms suspended in midair and “wear headscarves that identify them as Waldensians, members of a Christian sect founded in the 12th century who were branded as heretics by the Catholic Church,” as writer Sarah Pruitt explains. Though their headgear is a far cry from the black hats we’ve come to associate with witches, the brooms jutting out from between their legs are instantly recognizable.
Anthropologist Robin Skelton argues the connection between witches and brooms began with the practice of “broom dances,” or pagan fertility rituals used by rural European farmers during the Middle Ages to encourage crop growth. During the “dance,” farmers would jump over brooms, pitchforks, or poles under the full moon — a clear prelude to later stories of witches jumping onto brooms and flying into the night.
There are more histories tied to your everyday house broom than you may realize, as many contemporary broom makers will tell you. Broom folklore — broomlore, if you will — encompasses a variety of broom-related legends and practices. You might have heard that if you sweep near someone else’s feet, then they’ll never marry; that evil spirits can be kept at bay with an upside-down broom at your door; or that taking an old broom to a new house will bring your old bad luck with you.
“I’m sure a broommaker made that [last] one up,” admits John Alexander of Grayson County, Virginia. (It’s not a bad marketing plan, after all.)
After picking up the craft as a student at Berea College, John spent most of his adult life making brooms. Today, he teaches classes on broom making to folks of all ages. He plans to use his Tradition Bearer Fellowship, awarded by the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team, to expand the number of schools he works with in Southwest Virginia.
“The students really work together,” he shared. “It’s a lot of fun. The older ones will say, ‘I remember so and so making a broom,’ and it’s fun to reintroduce it.”
This mentoring of younger artists is essential to the survival of any craft. Even with YouTube and endless Google results, it can be difficult to learn a traditional craft without a master craftsman to guide you — a realization Erin Simons of Wytheville came to after hours of scouring the internet turned up few resources on broom making. Her search eventually led her to John, who mentored her through the process of crafting her first broom. Now a skilled broom maker, Erin is developing her personal style and growing her business Laurel Ridge Studios.
Erin says she enjoys a broom’s innate balance as both a piece of art and a functional tool for keeping a home clean. While her pieces integrate twine and broom corn dyed bright colors, they are also built to last — and for many years longer than your average plastic broom.
She also points out that the crafting process itself is full of lore, as one works through numerical choices. A broom maker may decide to take seven revolutions (lucky) or thirteen (unlucky) as they twine around the base of their brooms. Erin, however, tends to stick with nine.
Some broom styles are named for their use, others for their appearance or even the symbols contained within. Erin worked on a “wedding broom” during the Richmond Folk Festival, a larger-than-average piece with two distinct sections. This style of broom separates into two branches at the base and is then sewn back together into one union. The literal union of the broom corn as it intertwines at the end materializes a couple’s new union.
Weddings are the source of a great deal of broom folklore, as a couple might be “swept off their feet”’ and decide to tie the knot, or celebrate by “jumping the broom,” a medieval European wedding tradition that took hold among enslaved African Americans in the Antebellum South. Since marriages between enslaved people were not recognized by law, a public ceremony involving the couple leaping over a broomstick was the true sign of their union. It was a form of innovation and resistance, historian Tyler D. Parry explains:
“Using the resources available to them, African Americans had to be innovative with practices that, on the surface, appeared to lack any meaningful qualities. Enslaved communities stretching throughout Appalachia and into the Bayous of Louisiana and eastern Texas all injected meaning into the broomstick ritual by adding their own creative novelties,” (Parry, 50).
A 2022 New York Times article includes stories from contemporary Black couples still finding deep meaning in the tradition. “Jumping the broom was the most transcendental experience of my life. I felt as if I was lifted by the ancestors as we took this grand leap of faith witnessed by our friends, family and community,” recounted Julius Crowe Hampton of Oakland, California, who jumped the broom with his spouse Abram Jackson on July 24, 2021.
Today, the broom can also more broadly represent couples sweeping out the old and welcoming a new life in marriage. “They usually say that whoever jumps higher becomes head of the household,” Erin added.
The next time you grab your broom, take a moment to consider just how long people have been making, using, and mythologizing this household cleaning tool.