Every morning while my coffee brews I sweep the birdseed from my patio. I have a bird feeder that sees a lot of action throughout the day and it is usually quite a mess. As I look at my metal handled, plastic bristled broom, I think of how utilitarian it appears. I am reminded of a beautiful handcrafted broom that is prominently displayed in my sister’s kitchen as a work of art. The polished wood handle has interesting twists at just the right places where hands would grip it. The straw bristles are a rich, deep maroon color, hand dyed. I love that broom and look disapprovingly at my own. What has this world come to? What exactly is the story of the broom? How has it fallen so low from a work of art to a household tool, forgotten and tucked away out of sight as an eyesore?
In ancient European homes the broom was an important tool. It was made of wood and straw and designed for the noble purpose of keeping the home and hearth clean. It was built to stand the test of time. Besom brooms were simple affairs. A bundle of twigs was tied together and then tied to a large tree branch. Because of these origins, the broom eventually became a symbol of the Tree of Life.
Early superstitions surrounding the broom resulted in the habit of hanging brooms bristle up. This was believed to create protection from evil spirits and negative energy, such as curses. I wonder if I hang my broom bristle up by the refrigerator it will ward off my getting fatter and fatter? I consider getting fatter pretty negative and evil.
As I dwell on such noble origins, I think it’s pretty mean-spirited how the broom eventually became associated with witches as their preferred mode of magical transportation. During that dark period of history when women who were a little different became targets of the witch trials and burned or lynched or drowned, many were accused of using their brooms as a clever disguise for the magic wands, concealing them in what appeared to be an innocent broom handle. Now, what was a girl to do? Every self-respecting woman had to have a broom! Woe be to the ones who were unique in personality or made an enemy out of some vindictive person who would level a false charge at them. What a nasty past involving a history of social injustice toward women.
A more romantic history of the broom is how it has been involved in marriage ceremonies. The Scottish Highlander handfasting marriage ritual involves the master of ceremony calling for the Besom. The bride and groom jump over it together or, symbolizing the threshold of their new home, the groom carries the bride over. A family member then welcomes the bride as a married woman. The couple leave the circle of loved ones and then return. This symbolizes “sweeping” out the old and “sweeping” in the new.
In the mid 1800s, southern U.S. slaves practiced an African marriage ritual similar to the Scottish handfast ritual. It was appropriately called “jumping the broom” and is still done today. The action of jumping over the broom together as a couple symbolizes two families joining together and building a new home.
I find all of this history so enriching. How sad the glorious broom has been relegated to the ignoble condition of being stowed away out of sight in a “broom closet”, a symbol today of everyday life drudgery. I, for one, really wish I could hop aboard and fly away!