The evil green-skinned witch flying on her magic broomstick may be a Halloween icon—and a well-worn stereotype. But the actual history behind how witches came to be associated with such an everyday household object is anything but dull.
It’s not clear exactly when the broom itself was first invented, but the act of sweeping goes back to ancient times, when people likely used bunches of thin sticks, reeds and other natural fibers to sweep aside dust or ash from a fire or hearth. As J. Bryan Lowder writes, this household task even shows up in the New Testament, which dates to the first and second centuries A.D.
The word broom comes from the actual plant, or shrub, that was used to make many early sweeping devices. It gradually replaced the Old English word besom, though both terms appear to have been used until at least the 18th century. From the beginning, brooms and besoms were associated primarily with women, and this ubiquitous household object became a powerful symbol of female domesticity.
Despite this, the first witch to confess to riding a broom or besom was a man: Guillaume Edelin. Edelin was a priest from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. He was arrested in 1453 and tried for witchcraft after publicly criticizing the church’s warnings about witches. His confession came under torture, and he eventually repented, but was still imprisoned for life.