Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Happy Valentine's Day: Bissums, handfasting and jumping the broom
A traditional besom broom consisted of an ash stave with bristles made from birch twigs and tied on with thin pieces of willow wood. Symbolically the stave (or handle) was masculine and the brush or broom (the faggot), feminine. There is reference to the Beson Broom in the Bible :
‘… I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts.'
– Isaiah 14:23 (KJV translation)
In pagan belief the Beson Broom represents purification, protection, fertility and prosperity and were ritualistically used to sweep harmful energies away before a rite could be performed.
Handfasting, predates the Christian marriage ceremony, and was an old marriage ritual where the couple’s hands were generally bound together with a cord. The idiom “tied the knot” comes from this tradition which was still practised in some parts of Scotland and Wales, within living memory. Symbolically the person overseeing the ritual i.e. the high priestess, used the beson broom to sweep away evil prior to the ceremony. In the past handfasting was the binding of two lovers and not marriage for life. Handfasting ceremonies were frequently renewed usually at a year and a day intervals. This may account for the declaration of love we see today, in Valentine’s Day.
A beson wedding (or civil wedding) involved the couple jumping over a broomstick for good luck. In front of witnesses the man would jump the broom first, followed by his intended bride. Provided the jumps were clean and either party did not touch or knock the beson broom then the marriage was recognised and the offspring were legitimate. This kind of marriage was a partnership between spouses and the woman kept her own home and did not become the property (a shackle) of her husband. If the couple decided to divorce, they simply jumped back over the broomstick again, but this could only be done in the first year of marriage.
In the home of superstitious people, an upward pointed besom (bristles up) sat over or near a doorway, to keep evil spirits and negative energies away for the house The Idiom ‘swept (a person) off their feet’ is used to describe someone so infatuated with another as to be effortlessly carried along unquestionably with their object of affection. "To sweep," in this case, is likely to refer to a broom and its action to inexorably move things together and if a metaphorical broom sweeps you off your feet, then you have completely lost your balance (reality) and fall for someone or something (infatuation). By the same token the person may have become bewitched.
There are many associations between the bosum broom and witchcraft and in Ireland, the besom was called a "Faery's Horse". Witches riding broomsticks may have had its origins in ancient fertility rites when to encourage the crops to grow high, people would jump high in the air on brooms. It is recorded the leaping witches smeared their bodies, hands and feet with “flying ointments” made from psychoactive drugs i.e. a base of either atropa belladonna or Mandragora officinarum. Sometimes the broom was ridden with the faggot (brush) facing downward or reversed. When not used for ritual flying the beson broom ever present in the household may also have been used as a sex toy as many accused witches were spinsters or widows. By the Middle Ages the beson broom had become a symbol of anti-establishmentarianism and sensuality. This is evidenced by the word 'besom' (bissum) becoming a slang term for an easy woman or hussy. 'Bissum' was also a common Scottish noun used to describe ‘mischieviously playful little girls.’