Don't Be Such a Basic Witch
The Old Hag Profile
If someone asked you to describe a witch, it's likely that your description would be similar to most others. It'd probably be something along the lines of an ugly old woman, a pointy hat and nose to match, with a wart or long fingernails, generally out to get people. Most likely someone you wouldn't want to come across in your everyday life and someone Dorothy wouldn't want to ever see again.
Witchcraft dates back to around 300 CE and originally was not gendered (Lucas). It was simply a term to describe the crafts of the wise, such as healing and medicinal practices. That is, as long as their magic worked. If it was to fail or cause harm, their community would likely turn against them. Also, as the church in Europe began to expand, witchcraft was condemned as being an act against Gods people and God Himself. However, knowing this doesn't quite explain where the gender split profile began.
We know now that 75% of the accused in Europe and 80% of the accused in America were women (Lucas), so it’s not surprising that we would make a gender assumption when we hear the word “witch.” So why such high female numbers? In todays world, we would probably be quick to assume that the accusations are based solely on sexist agendas, but to understand the true reasoning it’s important to step out of our modern worlds views.
Back before our technological advances, our understanding of disease and chemistry, and before research and hospitals made life processes such as childbirth an almost certain success, every beginning medicinal remedy was pretty much a shot in the dark. One reason why women were likely to be pegged more heavily with the accusations is due to the lines of work their time period allowed them to take part in. Most women were in charge of collecting herbs for medicinal purposes and of course, cooking (Lucas). Therefore, knowledge of what plants were and how they did or didn't work came easily to most females as they grew older. As women used this knowledge of herbs to heal the ill, it's likely that on occasion their remedies fail. Not surprisingly, communities didn't take to these harmful practices well and frequently threw that women under the bus for witchcraft.
Witches communing with the devil and sacrificing a baby
Another job that led to the condemnation of females was one known as lying-in-maid. The occupation was typically taken by older women who no longer had families of their own to take care of because they would be brought in to live and take care of a woman and her newborn baby. Because giving birth was more dangerous and brutal in those days, a woman would likely be on bed rest for many days, therefore needing someone to do the usual chores of a wife and mother (Lucas). Naturally, newborns made connections with the lying-in-maids and as witch accusations were on the rise, jealous mothers were able to make vicious claims against these older women simply to get rid of them. You know, because witches obviously take and kill newborns to be able to fly.
It wasn't just the hobbies of women that raised suspicions against them, but simply the beliefs of the church that governed Europe at the time. Biblically, it was Eve who was tempted by the serpent to eat fruit off of the forbidden tree; therefore it must be women who have communed with the Devil. Women are the bearers of children; therefore it must be women who hold the most power on this earth. They also have much more access to perceived powerful substances such as blood, milk, placenta, and umbilical cord; and, because of procreation, mans high-powered genitalia (Lucas). To the Catholic and Protestant churches of the time, women were inherently dangerous and inherently evil, however "necessary" they may be to life (Lucas).
In modern times, we fight for equality in the outlook of women and men, and that fight generally transcends whatever religious belief someone may have. But in these times, a crisis is a crisis and the psychological need for a scapegoat definitely played a role as much if not more then as it does now. It's an obvious assumption too that men who believed such things about women were likely to fear losing whatever control or power they had over their communities. Therefore, a woman who was outspoken or stepped out against the stigmas against them wouldn't be favorable to society (Lucas). With witchcraft accusations and executions as a means to rid themselves of these problem women, men could easily turn a woman's projected beliefs into devilish constructs.
Now, while there are all of these pieces of historical evidence that back up the profile our society has created, not every witch fits the bill. There were men accused as well, most likely because of their connection to female witches (Lucas), but you can see why our perspective of witches tends to be feminine. There's a reason for such a stereotype and that's a big reason for our need to throw out our hold on the modern outlook of gender roles and hopes of equality. People in the 4th-17th centuries (and beyond) were not looking to level sex/gender playing fields.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?" History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 12 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Folk Magic & Christianity." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 17 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Witchcraft in Germany." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 19 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
Don't Worry, We'll Save You
Spanish Inquisition torture
The Church Will Do the Trick
It's really interesting to cross the history and growth of the Catholic and Protestant churches with the growing demonization and convictions of witches. It's no surprise that the Church played a major role in providing "justice" for the communities in which they thrive, but the extent of their reigns in these times truly created the perfect storm for persecuting incredibly massive numbers all throughout Europe.
For instance, the Spanish Inquisition went into effect to purge Spain of Jews and Muslims under Pope Sixtus IV. During this purge, all heretics became targets of widespread persecution and often, execution by burning. As Pope Sixtus IV called for greater restraint, the Inquisition slipped from his hands only to get more and more brutal. In 1483, many inquisitors were appointed to areas of Spain including the infamous Tomás de Torquemada. Torquemada was a big fan of torture and made no excuses for those Jews or Muslims who had converted to Catholicism. These "conversos" were viewed to still have the hearts of heretics.
The next papal supreme, Pope Innocent VIII, came in with a burning fire (if you will). It wasn't just about purging the country for him, as exile of the heretics wasn't good enough. Any Jews that fled were to be brought back and put on trial. Crossing the histories here is where things get a bit too convenient for the Church. Considering it was generally Jewish families that owned the large plots of land, the Churches acquired a great deal of their land and money from executing roughly 4,000-8,000 of them. And it wasn't just executing, but also publicly humiliating them with flogging, then burning them on a stake at a big Sunday festival known as "Auto de Fé" which translates to "Act of Faith," but which I like to call the "Sunday torture fest." People were practically mandated to attend to watch which, also how convenient for the Church, provided a pretty good display of their power.
A little later in Germany in 1556, the instability of the countries religion was the reason for the growing executions of witches. The individual princes chose the religions of the land they ruled so the shifts between Catholic and Protestant "correctness" led to heavy accusations against people of the conflicting religions. With the stabilization of the Church, when the Prince-Bishops came to charge the numbers increased exponentially. Bishop Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen executed 300 witches, then Bishop Johann Georg II executed 600 witches (including a Chancellor and his family because he basically told Georg to chill), then Bishop Phillipp Adolf executed 900 witches (including a child as young as 7-years-old).
The most intriguing part of the church being in charge of the trials and executions of witches is their ability to place their guilt elsewhere. Especially within the realm of torture, they believe that they're doing right by God. These non-believers, heretics, and witches–they're in dealings with the devil and need to confess their sins. Under the Church, torture creates a cathartic experience with God in which the confession saves their soul. Of course, they're still going to be killed in the end (not via torture) but at least the Church doesn't have to hold the guilt of the heretics' damnation. It was truly believed that they were doing good for the accused.
A pretty profound and recognizable movement of the Church into the justice system happened in Scandinavia. Originally, groups of men called Ping's took care of the community and the needs of the people such as deciding punishments for crimes or changes in the community. Magic was occasionally frowned upon and generally only became a serious trial if death occurred due to the magical practices resulting in exile or fines. Soon enough though, the Church sort of realized this big hunk of land they'd missed and they began moving in. As soon as that happened, witchcraft (or as it was known in Scandinavia "Trolldómr") was all looked at as a crime against God and against His peoples given free will.
In Denmark in 1540, Lutheran Bishop Peter Palladius arrived to inform the people that they were trying witches all wrong and that they were to be hunted and persecuted. Conveniently enough, under the umbrella of witches fell Catholics as well.
In Norway, however, it was the Lutheran clergy members that were charged for destroying holy relics. But eventually because they were clergy members, they couldn't be targeted directly so their wives became the brunt of the accusations.
With all of these countries in the late 1500's and early 1600's being so heavily patrolled and controlled by religious systems, witchcraft was easily looked at as the devils work. It meant that people could put their hatred and hurt on a power they couldn't see but that they trusted reigned via bishops. It was just a manmade crime against a non-human power, and the Church was going to do everything they could to save their people from it.
It wasn't until around 1558 that the actual definition of witchcraft in Scottland fit the mold of the rest of the world. The fifth year of Queen Elizabeth's reign was when the statute pushed the persecution of witches to the ecclesiastic court and witchcraft became a heretical offense for having relations with the devil. So the issue of witchcraft was entrusted to the churches courts.
One of the major reasons for a woman to seek out the help of Satan in 16th and 17th century England was actually for what would seem to be a more just cause. It was said to have been for seeking help with fertility or in fearing for their children's well-being.
There were of course those accused that were believe to be seeking power, a voice, or revenge. Pretty typical.
Shakespears Scottish Witches
Also during these witchy times, if a woman were to own a cat, it made her even more likely to be deemed a witch. Often during the Tudor period, cats were actually taken and burned for fear that they were linked to witchcraft and would attract evil.
I don't like cats, you can't trust them. I can understand their fear. Kings and Queens didn't even keep cats as pets. For a brief overview of Tudor-time witchcraft check out: http://thetudorenthusiast.weebly.com/my-tudor-blog/witchcraft-in-16th-17th-century-england
King James VI being King James VI
Speaking of cowardly kings, King James VI of Scottland (later Kind James I of England) was known to be a pretty paranoid guy when it came to witchcraft. Following the Christian view of witchcraft, it was believed in this time that if one witch was found, it was unlikely that she was acting alone, so there must have been many nearby in league with the devil.
With that being the case of the time, and with James reportedly having a genuine fear of being violently killed, it makes sense that there were supposedly three hundred witches being accused of having plots to kill him. It's thought that over one hundred of these witches went to trial and a large number of them were executed, but it wasn't fully recorded.
James was so into the witch hunts that he decided to sit in on the interrogations himself. It is said that when the accused were being tortured, he looked on with delight.
Once James became King of England, he was determined to amp up the witch accusations that seemed to fall short under Elizabeths reign.
Much like modern day politics, James used the media to persuade England of the witches among them and that justice was being done in their trials. But the people were growing skeptical. In the last nine years of James' life only five people were hanged for witchcraft. The great witch hunting King was losing his grip on the Kingdom of Darkness.
Not All Witches Were B****es
Though many of the early witchcraft accusations often ended in humiliating deaths, some countries and some different time periods experienced some pretty radical changes from the "Burn her at the stake!" states of mind.
In the 18th century, Russia experienced a dramatic shift from Peter I to Catherine II. Peter I governed by the Military Statute of 1716 that stated witchcraft and any occult practices were forbidden and punishable by death. When Catherine II was in charge, however, she governed by what I like to call common sense. First, she stated that witchcraft should be handled as a crime of fraud. To her, it was obvious that no one was truly using magic, they were therefore lying about their medical practices and powers. In 1775 she put "courts of conscience" (sovestnye sudy) into play. These courts treated witchcraft with cases such as juvenile offenders, criminally insane and the possessed.
Knowing the excuses made by the Church to accuse and kill so many in past decades in other countries, Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was a surprisingly enlightened ruler. It's easy for us to look at all other countries and statements from them damning witches as heretics and say that they're crazy and spiteful. Catherine II deciding to finally see witchcraft as fraud seems to deserve a round of applause.
Another area that didn't quite punish witchcraft so heavily was Italy. To me, this was surprising considering the strength of Catholicism in Italian roots. And it's not to say that part isn't true, considering that witchcraft allegations started in the middle of the 16th century due to Protestantism threatening the Catholic Church. However, local tribunals saw the cases before the Holy Office and were sort of left with the decision to involve the Holy Office or not. The Venetian Inquisition was in full effect during these times out to get heretics, but most local tribunals were unsure whether to classify witchcraft as heresy (which is much different than other countries we've looked at). With this being the case, witches could only be found guilty of heresy if their craft included the devil and abuse of the sacraments, which was not normal for most Italian witches.
Another reason for few charges of witchcraft in Italy was that there simply weren't enough judges in the local tribunals. Considering the complications involved in sending witchcraft trials to the Holy Office and knowing if it'd be worth it, it wasn't exactly worth the lower courts time either. There were more pressing matters than someone with too many seeds and powders in their kitchen.
But it wasn't just the laws that made it easier for witches to get by. The traditions behind witchcraft in Italy, Sicily especially, distanced the people from the negative perceptions other countries had towards witches. "Donna di fuora," or "the lady from outside," was commonly used to reference witches and fairies. It was believed that the witches, who were mostly cunningfolk and healers, learned their craft from the fairies of the woods that used the power of nature to practice their magic.
Magical power from nature generally meant that it was used for the better. There would occasionally be mischievous spells cast or what I think more of as pranks, but no "maleficío" (or magic resulting in purposeful death) was ever recorded so the cases against witches or fairies were few and far between anyway. In fact, between the years of 1579-1651 the Holy Office only had 65 people accused. It's even said that the interrogations of these people often consisted of the accused becoming confused on what they even did wrong in the first place. The Holy Office couldn't really pin them with murder or anything so the witches were sort of left questioning, "Wait, what am I in trouble for? Using nature is wrong?" and basically the Holy Office just decided to leave them alone.
All this to say that in the history of witchcraft, there really were good and bad witches. But as we've seen, even the good were prosecuted as bad in other countries. In Russia after Catherine the Great and in Italy for many years, however, witches were looked at for being exactly who I think we would consider them to be today. Either lunatics who deserved to be tried as insane, or hippies who maybe just made a couple herbal mistakes here and there.
But Some Were
Puritan women gossiping as per usual
Leave the B****craft to the Americans
In the last post, I argued for the acceptance of some magic as purely for good. That it could be lighthearted, healing, and for the benefit of not just the witch but of others. I also talked about the more positive and accepting states of mind around witchcraft, or that some areas didn't even believe it to be a possible phenomenon.
That's not quite how the cookies crumbled within the newly founded colonies of the new and growing America. But honestly, who is surprised?
Witchcraft was able to take hold in the colonies (specifically Virginia) because of the peoples beliefs about the Native Americans. To the Europeans, the Indians were savage, barbaric, and basically flat out psychopaths for coming in and attacking them full force. According to their popular belief, the Devil resided where he found the greatest amount of these things. So basically these Europeans in Virginia were moving right in with the Devil; and where the Devil is, witchcraft must be also.
The importance of this information is that whether or not these colonists truly believed their citizens were practicing witchcraft with the devilish Indians, the possibility of it was a good enough reason for Virginians to slander and criticize people without having to simply admit that they didn't get along. Accusing someone of being a witch was a lot like calling them a "B word" today, it's defaming and political.
In colonial Virginia, there was a pretty uneven ratio of women to men going from 1 female for every 6 males to 1 female for every 3 males. With this, the men definitely dominated the political front and they really didn't have to listen to the women if they didn't want to. But also, they needed the women to stay around and living because there were so few of them.
These demographics play heavily into the witchcraft accusations too. First of all, in their gossip and testimonies, the women gained their voice. Not having the same power as the men was likely getting to them. Secondly, women could lash out at each other going to the courts with endless claims of witchcraft or being defamed by someone in this way, and pretty much nothing happened. And so they did...
This is until the courts were so fed up with their catfights, considering the "witchcraft" never actually had evidence that wasn't circumstantial, that they put a new order into place. This 1655 order said that, "any person who with scandless speeches termed women to be witches had to prove with oath and witnesses or be fined 1,000 pounds of tobacco."
It's pretty hilarious that after seeing so many countries treating witches so horribly and rarely questioning a single accusation just going straight into torture and execution, these Europeans in Virginia are so desperate to keep their society stable and growing they start to fine the people who stir up the trouble in the first place. They are not willing to waste their time with unjustifiable issues. Of course, this is probably what the other countries should have done, but even so, it's very different.
And even this didn't help! The women continued to fire shots and spit their gossip, then they would just pay the fines the court assigned them. Another pretty hilarious piece of this Virginian women way of life; real life Mean Girls.
So they made an adjustment to the order in 1662. This basically said that husbands were not responsible for paying the fines of their wives, and if it was refused to be payed the woman would be dunked into water two times for every 500 pounds of tobacco owed. Basically their government was just yelling at them to STOP SLANDERING EVERYONE.
Now they're dunking the accusers! Can you imagine if the Germans or the Spanish Inquisition heard about this? They would have a cow.
Of course to us being dipped into some water isn't that big of a deal but these people had never been fully submerged into water basically ever. Especially not with all their fabulous, heavy layers of clothing on. No one knew how to swim; no one was taught how to blow bubbles underwater. So this sort of seemed to take care of the problem.
Overall, only 10 cases made it to trial, 2 being men, and no one was ever executed for being a witch. Not a single one.
Foreshadowing for Salem
Preaching to the Indians (before they started killing them of course)
It's pretty easy nowadays to make fun of the events that occurred in Salem thinking it would take some pretty wacky people to get lost in such a mess, especially a mess of witchcraft and especially in America.
But the years leading up to the Salem witchcraft trials were what historians like to call the "perfect storm." Everything that happened after 1692 could have likely been avoided had Salem been missing even just one of the puzzle pieces. Other towns did experience some of the same issues, but not all at once; not like Salem.
First, there was Metacomet's War or King Phillip's War with the Wampanoag Indians. There had been some angst between the groups for a couple different reasons. Because of the close proximity they were in, many of the Indians were sick or dying from the diseases the Europeans brought with them to America. Also, there was an issue with the colonists pigs eating the Indians crops, but if they killed the pigs, the colonists would get very upset. Religion obviously played a role too, as colonists hoped to convert many of the Indians to their ways but the Wampanoags were not having it.
The disagreements escalated into mass guerrilla warfare from 1675 to 1676. Have of the New England towns were badly damaged and 12 were destroyed completely. One-sixteenth of New Englands military aged men were killed in the war and it caused many children to become orphans.
What's heartbreaking about these events is that the Puritans believed it was God punishing them, and every year after on this day they fasted.
Secondly, from 1677 to 1678 there was a huge smallpox epidemic.
Then of course the politics of England became a problem for the colonies. Under the rule of King James II, Massachusetts lost their charter (the ability to govern themselves) and became royally controlled by an appointed governor, Edmond Andros. Andros taxed the colonists for a church they didn't even want and became friendly with the Indians which didn't make them any happier.
Again, they thought God was punishing them.
After King James II was removed from the throne in 1688, William and Mary came to power. They went to war with France that year and the hatred was so widespread that it spilt over into the colonies. And of course the French started making Indian allies, so Massachusetts colonists were at a sever disadvantage.
This was obviously also God punishing them – enough so that the Quakers started to close in on them creating a mass hysteria for the Puritans.
Specific to Salem, the Indian, French, and Quaker feuds were not all they had to worry about. At this time there were two Salems. One being Salem Town and one being Salem Village. The town had the only church, taxed the village, and legally governed the village. In 1672, Salem Town agreed to allow Salem Village to hire a minister and raise money to build their own church and ministers house.
This change caused a split in the village. Some of the villagers wanted to stay with the town, some wanted to be separate and independent. That feud went on even as Salem Village hired its first minister, James Bayley in 1672.
And the second minister...
And the third minister – so much so that he left because it was too hostile.
The hiring of the fourth minister became it's own feud. Rev. Samuel Paris, a failed merchant, was hired in 1689. Half of the town didn't want him, especially when he started making demands like only agreeing to come if they gave him the deed to the ministers house. A few of his demands were turned down, but he came anyway.
So says the good Rev. Parris
So a broken town with broken people was set up just right for a witchy outbreak to begin.
Salems Crash & Burn
It Starts in the Minister's House
And honestly, who's surprised?
January of 1692, Samuel Parris' daughter Betty (9) and orphaned niece, Abigail (11) start exhibiting stupidly turbulent behavior. Betty is unresponsively catatonic and basically comatose while Abigail is convulsing and screaming profanities/blasphemy. The family's go-to plan for the situation was of course to fast and pray but to no avail. Meanwhile, other girls in Salem Village begin having the same sort of fits.
Plan B was to call in the doctor; Dr. William Griggs. Again, to no avail. It's not very often that a doctor will admit to finding no treatable illness. But Dr. Griggs was a silly man, and it pretty well put him out of a job. His professional opinion was that they must be possessed by an evil hand. Spooky.
Parris' South American slave, Tituba, seemed to receive the collectives finger of blame for three major reasons.
- She baked a urine cake and fed it to a dog to catch which girls were causing the issues. Not only is it gross but it's also countermagic which meant she wasn't trusting the Lord to sort everything out.
- She was named by the afflicted girls. It might just be me but if I was going to bewitch a bunch of loudmouths I'd also cast a spell to make them forget who did it.
- She confessed. Not only did she admit to knowing about witchcraft and having communicated with the devil, but she made the claim against the conspiracy of witches in Salem, pretty much setting the course for the crazy year.
While Tituba was never accused of being the ringleader or the devil herself (like the Puritans would ever give a woman that much power, HA!) she is definitely the most remembered person who did the devils bidding against the children and others.
For more on Tituba and her confessions check out http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people?group.num=all&mbio.num=mb29 and search around other documents if you feel so inclined.
"Arresting a Witch" and she is so over it which I highly respect
With Tituba, two women named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were also accused up front. Sarah Good was a homeless beggar who had a past life of wealth but lost it all in the litigation of her fathers property and death of her first husband. She pretty well fits our stereotype of the Basic Witch. Sarah Osborne on the other hand had land from her first husband that she tried to keep for herself (and new husband) instead of being passed to her two sons like society would expect (and accept). She also hadn't been to church in a year or so which of course to these Puritans was an absolute no-no.
Sarah Good and Tituba in their interrogations both accused Sarah Osborne, which didn't help her case, considering societal norms were already against her. This basically contributed to validating the further proceedings in the witchcraft trials. It allowed for more finger pointing and more scapegoating, unfortunately. And alas, the crash and burn of Salem Village.
From that March to May 1693, 156 people were accused, 44 confessed, 30 were convicted, 20 were hanged/crushed (sorry Giles Cory), and 20 others died in prison.
The “witches” that were left come May 1693 were just sent home…and the organized witch trials of Salem came to a close.
Documents, transcripts and further images depicting the times can also be found at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html
From the Eyes of an Accuser
Supposedly Mary Walcott accusing Giles Cory, but same difference
Being Mercy Lewis
Mercy Lewis was a 19-year-old girl in the group of the afflicted in the 1692 Salem witch trials. She accused 54 people in whole.
Mercy was born in Maine to a large family; that was until the Indian violence began and her extended family was killed. Later in her life it was believed that her parents were killed by the Indians as well, right in front of her.
Orphaned, Mercy was sent to be a servant for Rev. George Burroughs. Burroughs later became known as the Black Reverend, or the ring leader of the witches. He was the second minister in Salem Village, before Parris, and after Mercy had been sent to live with Thomas and Ann Putnam in Salem Village.
Though she was a servant in the Putnam household as well, she became friends with their daughter, Ann Putnam Jr. and her cousin, Mary Walcott. Ann Putnam Jr. and Sr. were two leading figures in the witchcraft accusations, and it was speculated that Mercy joined only after they had been given so much attention for their afflictions.
However, even in her late start, they say she liked to show her leadership within the group. She spoke out, corrected the other girls for their "wrong" accusations, and is thought to have single-handedly kept Mary Easty from being freed during the trials. Along with Mary Easty, Mercy played a large role in the execution of Giles Corey, calling him a "dreadful wizzard" and Rev. George Burroughs, testifying against him in length.
Burroughs reportedly had super-human strength
In Mercy's testimony against Rev. Burroughs, she claimed that he attempted to seduce her into sleeping with him. He also tried to get her to sign the devils book, which he said made him the master of the devil himself. He brought her to the top of a tall mountain and tempted her with all the kingdoms they could see, telling Mercy they could be hers if she signed the book. When she refused, he threatened to throw her off the mountain, break her neck, and began torturing her all the more. But still, Mercy refused.
It is no secret that Mercy Lewis had a troubled childhood, and with being an orphan in these times, the prospect of her future looking any better for her was sadly slim. Historians believe this could have been her motivation to be so aggressive in the trials.
Her childhood interactions with the Indians may have also led her to believe the devil was real and acting against Salem Village. The psychological trauma the attacks may have caused for her could have definitely been enough to cause a sort of snap.
The Crucible "witches sabbath"
It's tempting to look at Mercy Lewis and the other girls and say, "Oh, they're just scared children, provoked by the adults." But Mercy was 19-years-old, she was hurt and she was bitter. Before I did my work on her I would have called her innocent too; but there is no way she'd get away with those kinds of actions now. The afflicted girls were just a killing cult that happened to get someone to listen to them.
Explaining it Away
There have been many explanations for why Salem happened in the way that it did; why it was Salem and not the other towns around. I don't believe one of them is fully correct on its own, but all of them encompass what the real deal probably was.
I'd say that one of the most well known explanation is from Boyer and Nissenbaum in their book "Salem Possessed" (1974). They're known as the fathers of the modern Salem movement.
Boyer and Nissenbaum believe that the strength of Salem's issues laid in the economic, political and social motivations of the villagers. The Salexit (my attempt at being culturally relevant in naming Salem Village's exit from Salem Town) and hiring Parris supposedly split the village directly in half, which you can see in their map which appears everywhere in Salem history. Also the fact that they had no charter pretty much sent them out of control.
John Demos wrote the book "Entertaining Satan" (1982) with the outlook of the mindset of the accusers and the social and psychological states of the villagers. To Demos, it seems important that the women are all menopausal, and the men are mostly in their 20s. These girls, that were merely children, were struggling for autonomy within the Puritan society. It was a way for their voices to be heard. Plus, to Demos, everyone needs someone to hate...it reserves proper order.
Just a bunch of girls being girls
In "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman" (1987), Carol Karlson points out the importance of Puritan society's gender roles. The afflicted girls are on the lowest rung of society and felt the need for attention. Especially the servant girls, they're not likely prospects for good husbands and the attention might be good for them. Also, the women they were accusing tended to be elderly wealthy women, like the girls didn't want them to have the land they did; it wasn't fair.
Women didn't hold much weight in society, but they could sure cause some ruckus.
...in the Devil's snare...
In Mary Beth Norton's "In the Devils Snare" (2002), she makes the connection between the Indian wars and their impact on the colonists. To her, the witchcraft accusations are all surrounded by the anger toward the Indians. The individual families in the witchcraft trials seemed to all have connections back to the Indian wars.
Other random explanations are:
- Ergot poisoning–a convulsive food poisoning from rye, with affects like that of LSD. But usually it comes about in summer, which is not when the witchcraft started, and it's not something thats quick to spread.
- Encephalitis–inflammation of the brain, causing confusion, delirium and other symptoms.
- Lyme disease–caused by bacteria carried by ticks resulting in flu-like symptoms. But ticks aren't really around during the winter when the fits started.
- Weather–severe cold and being cooped up in their small houses could have just started their mania, which is actually pretty probable.
Like I said, a pretty good mixture of these explanations probably fit the bill more than one standing alone. I don't think that we'll ever really know which it was, even if new information was suddenly released. Too much was at play. Hopefully we will just never see the "perfect storm" brew again.
[Other] Wicked Witches of the West
Swimming the witch, Elizabeth Clawson
Salem Village was not the only place in the colonial world that had witchcraft accusations, though it definitely seems like it was considering it's the only one you hear about pretty much ever. As explained in Richard Godbeer's "Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692," there was another witchy outbreak in the very same year.
In Stamford, Connecticut, there was a 17-year-old girl named Kate Branch started having fits much like the afflicted girls of Salem.
Interestingly enough, Kate was a servant and an orphan. This fits into the same type of position that so many of the girls in Salem were in. Like Mercy Lewis she would have had no dowry for a marriage, no land, and no real positive future to look forward to. She would have had no voice and no way to speak her opinions in a way for people to listen.
Kate slowly started accusing many woman as witches, causing her pain and fright. Two of the women, Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough, were put on trial for their "crimes" and eventually acquitted (even though in the water test of Clawson, she floated...)
The difference between what happened in Salem and what happened in Stamford is that the people of Stamford did not automatically jump on the witchcraft train. There was a sense of skepticism and a serious concern of how to prove witchcraft in the court if it was truly causing her afflictions.
The magistrate of the trials was William Jones, who held strongly to different rules for conviction than that of the courts in Salem such as:
- the rejection of spectral evidence
- needing two reliable witnesses for any piece of evidence
- the prosecutable offense is focused around a covenant with the Devil
The community of Stamford, Connecticut was cautious, sort of like the Italian government was during their 16th century witch trials. It did not seem worth it to take someone to court for something that would not ever be provable.
Another piece of Kate Branch's problem (or the courts problem) of not getting witches charged is that her afflictions did not spread like the girls of Salem. While Salem started small in Rev. Parris' home and spread to the Putnams, Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, etc., Kate was the only one in the area exhibiting these symptoms. It didn't make sense to accuse based on one girls finger pointing.
So Stamford's witchcraft scare isn't quite as entertaining, but I do think it's helpful in seeing another side of Salems issues. It allows us to see, again, that Salem was the perfect storm. Not one thing caused it to happen the way it did, everything fit into place.
You can find Godbeer's book and read up on the story here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/982464.Escaping_Salem
"So do you know any spells?"
It’s pretty clear that the Salem Village hullaballoo is still bewitching to us (see what I did there) in modern day culture considering the reaction I get every time I mention that I’m in a witchcraft class. It never fails; everyone has something to say, usually peppered with inaccuracies, and if not they just think I’m learning spells. Not to mention the not so subtle glances or knee pats I get every time our pastor makes a reference to demonic possessions or witchcraft. It’s all fun and games with my friends but what happened in Salem happened to real people and that’s what I think our culture and the entertainment industry forgets about.
There are probably a lot of different reasons for a lot of different people for why the Salem trials are relevant.
Some people like the scary witchy movies. I can’t say that I am too fond of them but the most recent one I’ve seen came out in 2015 and is called “The Witch”; and apparently the original title was, “The VVitch: A New-England Folktale.”
This movie, while scaring the pants off of my friends, actually portrayed some incredibly important details of how the outbreaks in Salem were so rationalized and almost even warranted. It’s follows the story of a strong Puritan family on a farm in the 1630’s whose new born baby is taken right our from under them, whose crops are failing and whose big black goat (Black Phillip) turns out to actually be the devil or a demon of some sort later taking the oldest daughter naked into the woods to join a witch coven.
All of those things we’ve addressed in the history of Salem and witchcraft as the beliefs of these people. Especially with the radical religious beliefs, absolutely no knowledge of what may be in the woods or in the dark, the crops failing (must be witchcraft), a young girl being drawn in and yes, Black Phillip (the terrifying goat).
Least favorite movie character probably ever.
The only bad part about this movie is that people are too terrified to realize so much of these things were real to the people New-England in these time periods. They didn’t have explanations; they only had religion and their own word against another’s.
Some people like the funny adventure witchcraft movies. I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and my two favorite Disney movies are Halloween Town and Hocus Pocus. What’s sad is that Hocus Pocus might be the only one that even alludes to the real misfortunes of Salem’s history. The witches that come back from the dead were hung during the outbreaks which is surprisingly accurate considering everyone thinks witches were burned here, and they also feed on young children which is not a newly occurring belief about witches, it was believed in the 1600’s too. Not to mention the black cat named Salem. The witches in Hocus Pocus also stick with the stereotype of old and quite ugly.
These movies are entertaining of course, but they do romanticize the whole life of a “witch.” Witchcraft and specifically Salem’s history have been made laughable and we can all get a kick out of what a radical belief system the Puritans of Salem Village had. But when you look at our culture and society today, at how carefree we’ve become, it’s not fair to forget how inherently violent and judgmental we still are as well. It’s easy for us to make movies about the 1690’s and how crazy “those people” were because it takes us away from how stinking crazy we are now. Those Puritans from over 300 years ago cannot defend themselves, but by golly we can sure defend ourselves by ignoring our circumstances that in a lot of ways parallel how the outbreaks of Salem took hold in the first place. I think in a lot of instances, Salem still fascinates us today because it’s a story of judgment, betrayal, and segregation that is not our own.
Syncretism of the South
Santería of Latin America
Santería, or "worship of saints" originally started in Cuba when West African religions of former slaves or escaped slaves merged with Catholicism of the Spanish communities. Therefore, there are some interesting crossovers in the syncretic practice of Santería.
The predominantly Catholic botanicas of Cuba evolved into Santería supply shops, selling things that herbs, bats blood, grave dust, and many different statuaries that could be used on a Santería altar.
The Catholic links can also be seen within the imagery used for Santería deities, or Orisha, which originated from African religion. For instance, the deity Ogun is often portrayed as St. Peter holding the keys of heaven; Obatala is St. Mercedes in white; Shangó, who is the god of fire and stone, is syncretized with St. Barbara; and Oshun is typically Our Lady.
And for fun, another portrayal of Oshun comes in the form of our very own Queen B and her baby bump.
Thanks Beyoncé for ruining my black and white theme
Practitioners of Santería form a society under the Regla de Ocha, or Rule of the Orisha. This society is typically pretty secretive because they do practice ritual sacrifice, and not many people take to that well. It's better to be under cover, and having syncretized with the Catholic Saints and being very secret with their practices, it's not hard for them to do so. Their practice of divination, however, is something that we know takes place. Santeria cast sea shells and coconut shells and read them, along with having 8 Santeria coins they read.
Vodou [not Voodoo]
Vodou, which means "spirit", is another heavily syncretized religious practice with it's roots in African religions of Fon, Kongo and Yoruba mixed slightly with the Catholicism of the new world. The slaves in Haiti were not instructed much on Catholicism, so it's presence isn't quite as heavy as in Santería.
A high priestess invoking the Lwa
The deities, or Lwa, of Vodou are divided into 2 groups. The Rada are the benevolent and creative spirits from the African roots. The Petro are the more aggressive and dark spirits of the New World (Haiti) and don't appear in African Vodou practices.
Like in Santería, the Lwa have been covered by the Catholic Saints. Damballah, the Rada serpent deity who is the keeper of wisdom and controls rain, is portrayed as St. Patrick with snakes at his feet; Agwe, the god of the sea and ships, is depicted as St. Ulrich holding a fish; and Lasirén, patron saint of music (who's also a mermaid), is St. Martha with a dragon at her feet.
It's interesting that these two religious practices, which are in line with witchcraft practices because of the ability to ask the saints to work on their behalf, evolved so similarly but are separate practices with separate structures. I think it goes to show how syncretic religions as a whole can be so interesting and complex.
People and their beliefs are so cool.