To be a modern practitioner of whatever form of witchcraft you seek to practice requires a plethora of magical objects and specially sanctified tools. So much so you’d jangle and creak as you walk down the street in your overflowing robes. It’s a case of witchcraft tools vs folk practitioner tools. What is practical and what is ceremonial is always a great debate to have. You might also want to check out the difference between folk magic and witchcraft here.
There is always a lot of discussion around the tools used in folk magic practices, well, in some of the conversations I have. The opinions range from a prescriptive list of ‘must do’s’ and ‘thou shalt always have this present’, to people who have more of a bare bones approach to their practice and use what is around them. I for one, don’t claim to be a witch if I claimed any title it would be a folk practitioner. I think it’s wise to delineate my bias at an early stage.
Why ? Well, we have grown up with this myth that broomsticks, athames, crystals, robes or nudity, skulls and bones are synonymous with witchcraft. However, this is not really the case in folk magic practices. These tools are, if seldom, mentioned in the trials of folk magic practitioners that we have access to and aren’t really present in the folk magic of other European places outside of Scotland.
In writing this, I hope to explore our understanding of where some of these ideas come from and how, in fact, they might not be as synonymous as people think they are to practising folk magic in Scotland or for that matter witchcraft.
Please be aware this is a discussion on the historical use of folk “tools” in practice and not meant to be a definitive yes this is the “the-only-way-one-way” conversation. I think it’s healthy for people to think about where their tools and their use originate. I hope this will help people to discuss some of the ideas that have been taken for granted as “the way things are”. We make educated comparisons about these things. It’s healthy to question.
Another caveat if you will. The witch trials don’t speak of religion, except the devil and Christianity. There is only a vague mention of a Christsonday and the queen of Elphame. There are, however, many mentions of the sidhe/sith and fairy folk or ancestor that allowed the healers to practice. You can read about why these often overlook representations are important here and here. We also have a project bringing back some of the historic charms for use in the modern day that you can read about here.
Why were they so important?
The items under discussion would have been scarce. Due to this, they would have held extra importance to those who owned and used them. For instance, inventories for entire households often fit on one piece of paper. (An example of this is available in the Book the Blacksmiths House, by Joy James.) The inference here is that tools were valuable but also held in special regard and not to be treated lightly. But they weren’t singular tools used for solely one purpose. They had both a domestic function and an otherworldly association. This may demonstrate how linked people’s thinking between the magical and mundane world is in this regard.
Reinforcing this idea, associations of magical links existed between the owner and the tool. For instance, when a Northumbrian reaper cut his hand on a sickle, the tool was cleaned and polished to help mend the wound. Similarly, if an injury was caused by a rusty nail, it was taken to the blacksmith’s for the rust to be removed. It was then polished carefully every day before sunrise and after sunset until the wound healed (Derbyshire folklore, John N Merril). Another similar Scottish example found in the witchcraft trials where a person had their shirt washed they were wearing and the water discarded to cure them of an illness. The link between the people, their tools and items of clothing was strong enough for the contagious magic to be worked. Today items and tools are in abundance and perhaps an attachment to tools very different, but the frame of mind at this time was something to think about in regards the following discussion.
We are looking at tools that used in and around the 16th century onwards and its connotation to folk practice and perhaps witchcraft today. To look at these ideas I am drawing on a literature which I have provided links to where possible. I am using as a primary reference the Scottish Survey of witchcraft which is freely available to use as a source of comparison. I appreciate not everything written in these records is exact and free from bias but it is a valuable source of information when taken with a pinch of salt. (For more discussion on this premise of using witch trials as evidence it would be useful to explore the work of Emma Wilby and Carlo Ginzberg.)
Broomsticks witchcraft tools
In various discussions I have had I’ve been lambasted by some folk of a Traditional Witchcraft bent and other persuasions for suggesting the use of the broom in Scottish magic isn’t something that people used as is manifest today. It’s funny something so synonymous isn’t necessarily accurate and I can see why they get angry, its almost like breaking up a cross in front of them, but there is no evidence in the Scottish Witch trials for the use of the broom at all.
The broom became entrenched in the image of a witch by the 16th century. Before then, witches were astride shovels, sticks, forks, hurdles, plants and demon-animals. Eventually, witches were shown more on demons in the forms of animals or on brooms. It’s this Broom image we have now in the 21st century. Carlo Ginsberg’s fantastic book (The Night Battles), mentions the Bennandanti who rode on sprigs of Sorghum (fennel), cats, hares and the like to attend the night-time battles with the “evil” strighe and stregoni. In Scotland, we also have accounts of people travelling on Swallow birds to gather alongside the Unseelie Court ( The Cult of the Seelie Wights in Scotland, Julian Goodare). Isobel Gowdie, the famous Scottish Witch used her broomstick to fool her husband by placing it in her bed whilst she was out, which is probably more of a testament to the state of their marriage than an admission of witchcraft.
So where did the idea of the broom come from and why is it so important to modern revivalist witchcraft and those stating they come from hereditary lineages?
The first mentioned use of the Broom comes from the Italian witchcraft trial records and french poetry of Martin Le Flanc (defender of the ladies, 1440) which argued against the flight on brooms. Witch prosecutors, like Matthew Hopkins, lamented the belief cheapened the discipline. (Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, Alan Charles Kors, Edward Peters). There is mention in the Salem witch trials of witches flying on sticks and again maybe a beginning of this idea in America. In the Scottish witch trials a few descriptions of accused witches shape shifting, mostly as animals or some form of an apparition, and sometimes they were said to have flown unaided. However, in Scotland they did not claim to use broomsticks—this is a Continental idea. The first mention I find of Brooms being used in any way related to the ritual of magic in Wicca or Traditional Witchcraft lore came about at the same time, (there may be earlier mentions and if you know of them please let me know).
Robert Cochrane references the Broom and Sword ritual (Genuine Witchcraft is Explained, John of Monmouth) and from Gerald Gardner Wiccan (Witchcraft Today) practices and Doreen Valiente also mentions the use of the Broom in her book (Witchcraft for Tomorrow). Both Robert Cochrane and Gerald Gardner have stated these lineages are hereditary witchcraft lines. The somewhat rocky boat is still out on this debate. It strikes me as strange the Broom as a tool is in use in these so-called “hereditary traditions” yet its history would suggest otherwise.
It could be argued, the Broom use was something inherited from a hereditary lineage but the link is spurious as we don’t see it mentioned in the 16th Century but things can and do change. It strikes me as strange the Broom as a tool is in use in these so-called “hereditary traditions” yet its history would suggest otherwise. The broom used in this way has never been mentioned in either the Scottish or English trials where we have evidence. What both of these traditions have in common, however, is Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Robert Graves the White Goddess and James George Frazer The Golden Bough as a background to their thinking and development, which has the basis for the flying on broomsticks idea embedded in them.
Broom flight can be viewed as a metaphor for spirit flight taken literally. outside of this metaphor, we have no basis it was used by folk practitioners or ritual beyond this. We have the discussion of riding poles for fertility rites in fields, but how this links again to traditional uses is a bit far removed. As I said this is up for debate but it’s an interesting point to make in considering evidence for the use of tools and how it can prove potential authenticity to a lineage. Of course, this is all in light of the information we have accessible from the Scottish Witchcraft trials but an interesting train of thought.
Where the broom does show up is in Scottish handfasting ceremonies. The bride and groom would jump over the Broom (F. Marian McNeill, The silver Bough). The broomstick is also a symbol of female domestic servitude and was once a common sight in Scotland. Used as a symbol or tell to show folks if you are home or not, by placing it by your door.
Finally, the Broom handle as a masturbatory tool covered in flying ointment and then inserted into the vagina to make the entheogenic flight occur. I find this a little spurious and ungrounded. I’m sure shoving poisonous drugs up your self would cause an effect. I’m not arguing here against the use of entheogenic compounds but the association is a too much of a useful one when accusing people of witchcraft. It also has hints of the sinister midnight watch where men watched women for supposed flights at night whilst the women were naked. Nothing will get the neighbourhood tongues wagging more than tales of Sex and Drugs, dildo assertion and pacts with the devil. Everyone would have had a broom and this would have been a convenient linkage to make for its shock value and also help to explain how people miles away “travelled” to far away places.
Crystal Balls and Mirrors – witchcraft tools
When we didn’t have electric light we needed to maximise the light that we did have available. This was especially true if you were doing detailed things like lace making or small sewing. To maximise the light from the candles people used to use “candle blocks” or “flash stools”.
A tall flash-stool or candle-block concentrated the light from a single candle and focused it on the lace pillow exactly where it was needed.
The top or hole-board was pierced in the centre to take a nozzle. This was a wooden candle socket adjustable for the height of the candle. Around the nozzle were three, four or five holes to take the cups, i.e. wooden sockets which held the glass refracting flasks.
The flask or flash, a glass globe with a long narrow neck, was filled with snow water or crushed ice – the purest water available. It was then corked and inserted into one of the cups. Here it acted as a condenser or lens concentrating and whitening the candle light. Other flasks were prepared and mounted according to how many lace makers were working together.
These items were used extensively wherever lace and detailed sewing projects were done at night. In richer households, the globes could have been made with crystal, but I can’t find any evidence of these in records. So an object that is synonymous with “scrying” was once an every day available item associated with domestic life. As you know lace making wasn’t really a province of Scotland but there are records that place Lace making at least back to 1539 (the History of Lace, Bury Palliser) so it’s safe to say they would have used similar tools for this. This kit though would have been expensive and not an everyday household item.
There is, sadly, no mention of the use of this for scrying, in the Scottish witchcraft trials. The use of glass is mentioned in the trials, but solely as a vessel to hold wine or vinegar into which eggs were dropped. Stones are mentioned but in the form of three stones used for divining called the Hill stane, Water (ebb) stane and Kirk stane which doesn’t sound much like the crystal ball used as would be suggested by today’s understanding. Other than this stones were used for malificarum, 3 up to 9 cast into seas and water. The same number of a blue colour were used to heal in south-running water.
It is probable that the use of “shew” stones originated before Dr John Dee but perhaps that it is his use of them that galvanised the idea into the modern witch mythos. If anyone has more information it would be great to hear about it.
Wool and Spinning – folk practitioner tools
Within the witchcraft trials, there is one mention of a lady attempting to bewitch a man with a spindle, rok (distaff) and forl (whorl) and use of threads for transferring illness and curing ailments.
There is a lot of evidence from old trial records and archaeological dig sites for the use of spinning and thread of various colours. There has been a dedicated post about this that you can find here with some working examples for your own folk or witchcraft praxis.
Athame definitely not folk practitioner tools
There are a few mentions of a knife being used in the Scottish Witchcraft trials. It would be safe to suggest that the Ritual knife as Athame was a creation of Gerald Gardner’s who may have taken it from the Grimoire tradition of the key of Solomon. Its use in traditional folk magic prior to the introduction of grimoires and the ability to read is incredibly doubtful for this reason.
The use of the knife occurs through the act of being drawn and walking out of a church into the graveyard, moving a knife through water to heal a person, used in midwifery where the knife was stuck between the bed and the straw to help ease child pain and finally passing a knife three times around a cow to help it with its fertility. No magic circles to be found. Interestingly the knife is mostly associated in the trials with the fertility or health of a person or animal and the passing of disease or “cutting the illness” rather than as used in Wicca tradition of casting a circle which is a definite Grimoire tradition (see Key of Solomon). Other times a similar motif is mentioned with the use of an axe to increase the fertility of those undergoing the folk magic practice.
There is a different take on the objects of folk magic practice and that of witchcraft as it stands today in the current representation in the traditions of Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft.
There’s enough information here for a series of posts which is hope to get to in good time. So next time you are sweeping or cutting or weaving think about what this tools history is in folk magic.