Lessons from the Salem Witch Trials are still very much with us today


Hatred of the “other” plays out with tragic consequences all around us, and more often than not, the victims are women. What is it’s opposite?

The relevance of the Salem Witch Trials, a period of mass hysteria in the early days of the New England colonies, continues to the present day.  Witch hunts have become common parlance, and indeed, we are watching one unfold as the “devout” Taliban conducts one against their own people.  It is appropriate to think of a witch hunt in both instances as an act of terrorism conducted against one’s own kin.  It shares the common thread of disdain for the “other”—an unwillingness to accept difference.

This type of hate for the “other” often spirals out of control, and becomes a mass hysteria—and unfortunately our recent history is just as bloody as our past.  The Nazi pogroms, the Armenian Genocide, Hutu v. Tutsi in Rwanda, the slaughter of the Bosnian Muslims.  

People hate the “other”.  Hatred of the “other” was indeed what sparked the Salem witch trials, and not coincidentally, the majority of the victims were empowered women, though some men who were seen as their abettors were also executed.  Understanding why we consider “other” a person with different beliefs, talents, practices, skin colour, religion, is a great mystery.  But the visceral hate the “other” can generate is beyond the pale—an apt description.  The expression “beyond the pale” originated in relation to the world outside of the pale, a fortified fence encircling a village or homestead. In other words, from the land beyond where my kin come from.  “Beyond the pale” is the essence of the “other”.

In contrast, “hospitality” is defined as the original opening up towards the “other” (towards all things different). Interestingly, femininity denotes this welcoming overture, opening to, and as such is associated with giving.  The act of giving then, is an expression of femininity.  Of course, the ultimate symbol of hospitality is the home, a womb in which we live, furnish, and welcome others to.  In the end, then hatred of the “other” could be recast as something directed against a person or people we would not want in our homes.  And if you start with something so “close to home” you can see how easy it becomes for the seeds of hate to find fertile ground in any heart.

I think these metaphors are apt, too, because the witch hysteria took place within the context of small villages.  You could almost describe them as exorcisms.  The hysteria was laced with a fear about a cancer eating away at society, in turn fed by fanatic beliefs about morality, but also about change, fear of change, and the perceived corrosion of that morality.

But in almost all cases, not just in Salem, but wherever we are in time, wherever we are in place, the vast majority of the victims are women?  Why is it that we become more easily afraid of women?  Why are so many societies threatened by women?  To be a women with an independent mind and opinions in some cultures even today can result in a death sentence, and certainly opprobrium.

And I ask you this.  Are outspoken women, independent women, strong women born that way or are they made?  If you ascribe to my view on parenting and child development, the environment chips away, chisels off, but largely does to reveal the true nature.  [I do not include trauma or abuse in this, which most definitely has the ability to redirect our development].  We as parents are custodians of our children, we are not there to mold and shape them.  To answer my own question, yes, I believe strong women are born that way and the lucky ones are allowed to continue to develop that way, whereas social pressure and life may thwart this natural course for others.

Political Context for Salem

Salem was a village with many internal political issues.  Land disputes were rife, grazing rights, church favours, and for various reasons, the villagers struggled to find common ground and an ability to compromise.  

That sounds an awful lot like partisan politics and an inability to understand or empathise with the neighbour.  The seeds of hate are sown in uncivil discourse.

Religious Context for Salem

There were significant changes afoot from a religious standpoint too.  True, the colonies were established in part by protestants wishing to escape Catholic persecution and to be able to express their piety without discrimination.  And indeed, we had just seen a change in rule in England from the Catholic King James II to the Protestant William and Mary, who co-ruled.  Cotton Mather and his father Increase were vocal and strident in their views, and both had published treatises on witchcraft.  They believed and preached that denial of demons and witches was tantamount to denying God.

Certainly the internal struggles that Islam is having today might be said to mirror some of these issues, but so too the evangelical branch of Christianity and the others.

Gender Context of Salem

4/5 of people accused of witchcraft were women.  Not surprising considering that Puritans believed that women were weak and more corruptible than men, ie. more likely to fall under the sway of Satan.  Given that the accusation of being a witch required no true evidence, one can imagine any kind of trigger (“she’s prettier than me”, “she made eyes at my husband”, “she has things that I want for myself”, “she spurned my advances”, “she lives alone,”) and women who did not conform to the norms of Puritan society, ie. were unmarried and without children, were far more likely to be accused.

Now, it is thought that the origins of the Salem witch hunt was a family feud, but it was paired with reported “possessions” where people were exhibiting symptoms like those of epileptic fits.  There was also a strong link between being less economically well-off and being accused.  Ditto if you were not an active member of church.  One of the accused was a West-Indian slave said to be spreading stories about female sexuality.

In all cases, the women were disadvantaged, forced to defend themselves, and could be regarded as outcasts—the “other”.  But after these easy targets, some upstanding citizens were also accused…members of the congregation, members of prominent families.  Not just accused in the end, but like the others before them, put to death.

At peak, 62 people in Salem were held in custody accused of witchcraft.  One prominent woman was jailed for the trivial reason that she wore unusual clothes (black with a cut that was different than the norm).  Most of these people were hanged, though some were “pressed with stones” a particularly cruel torture in which the body was crushed by progressively more weight in hopes to extract a confession.

To be accused of witchcraft and executed for such also meant that your property was confiscated and that you were excommunicated.  In all cases, there was no proof, and all died proclaiming their innocence or refusing to testify at all (this was in the belief that their goods would not be confiscated).  What can be said is that mob rule was both judge and jury.  Had the accused ever done something so benign as fortune-telling (the day’s equivalent of reading your horoscope), or had pots of ointments around their homes, they were most certainly going to be convicted.

You should see our home!  There are pots and potions and lotions everywhere.

Medical context

It is now thought that the “possessions” witnessed were the effects of mould on rye bread—ergotism, though there is no way to prove this definitively.  But the effects are similar to those described by eyewitnesses.

What we do know is that women who were different were put to death largely on the say-so of fellow citizens.  The arguments hinged on virtue and sin.

I am struck about the parallels with the way that women’s bodies and minds, women’s “virtue” is policed still today.  Kink-shaming is another form of it.  We haven’t changed as much as we think.

Modern Witchcraft and Spirituality

In any city today, in most corners of the world, you will find shops that cater to “witches”.  They may sell herbs and spices, or even “natural medicines”.  Many alternative therapies have their origins in mysticism and spirituality.  This is surprising, given how science driven we are—and to think that any of this would have landed you in jail during the trials, and quite possibly a death sentence.  Perhaps the most important drug known to man, aspirin, was born from the “labs” of witches and herbalists.

Around many corners of the world, people accused of being witches are still being put to death…Indeed, it is happening in greater numbers today than it did at the height of the witch hysteria in Europe and Colonial America.  Throughout Africa, parts of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, India, and Indonesia have all had recent and numerous cases of death sentences for those accused of witchcraft.  It is barbaric and cowardly.  You guessed it, 75%+ of the victims are women.  The most common accusation?  That she cast a spell which resulted in a man’s impotence.

Love thy Witch

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by spells and potions, mysticism, nature and the natural world.  I love witches and witchcraft, I love their history, I love the druids, and have done since I first heard of them.  Books of such, of wizards and witches, sorcerers and sorceresses, of magical worlds were my fellow travellers for many years growing up.  Indeed, my love of reading was born that way.  Japanese Fairy Tales, The EarthSea Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. What all of this amounts to, and we find it in cultures all around the world, is being more in tune with nature.  Indeed, being in touch with nature seems to be the common thread that unites all magic.

I asked in a recent post whether faith was genetic. [You can read about that here].  But I ask the same in relation to being in tune with the natural world around you.  Is this something that is not just learned behaviour, but could there be a genetic basis to the spirituality that goes hand in hand with what we call witchcraft today?

Several of the accused at Salem were ancestors of mine.  At least one of those who was put to death is a direct matrilineal ancestor.  Was she a witch?  Who knows. But she was a figure in the community, and one who had aroused the hate of her neighbours.  Just as how personal her death remains is carried in one of the objects of hers still in my families possession: a mortar and pestle.

When I contemplate my known ancestry, there are an inordinate number of ministers (way beyond what should be allowed for ministry as a profession)—my gene pool has been preaching for a long time—or feeling the calling of a greater power.  Just as numerous as the ministers are the empowered women whose stories ring out to this day.  Can I interpret the high incidence of strong women in my ancestry as a suggestion that a preference for such is genetic.  That some men are predisposed to like strong women, are not threatened by them and seek them out?  I like to think so.  And though her life ended in a horrible injustice, I am comforted by the presence of a witch’s genes inside me…

A number of my cousins are sympathetic to the natural world, to female power, and are themselves mystical people.  Together we went to visit the museum in Salem, Mass. dedicated to the witch trials.  It was a powerful and moving visit.  It was even more so to visit the purported location of some of her execution.  This is quite possibly purely psychosomatic, but it didn’t feel that way.  When you are open to the world around you, who is to say you cannot feel spirits?

So many of us believe in a patriarchal God, and that model has come to dominate Western culture—any other God or Gods were driven out as threatening.  But God resides in the heart and the mind, and an openness to God starts with self.  What if your God is a God of the natural world, a spirit God, a female God, or better still a non-binary God [written about here, and seems to me to be the only possibility]?

I had a quasi-religious experience the other day when I had a post on Twitter liked by two women whom I revere for their connections with the natural world and how in touch they are with feelings, emotions and matters of a spiritual nature.  They are woodland sprites to me.   I had already been dreaming of the two of them together in my dreams, walking with my spirit, teaching me things, being Mothers to me.  And each time it happened I awoke feeling so alive and energised.  How we believe and what we believe is certainly personal.  Belief itself is both spiritual and healing.

You may guess that I also believe that all of this is genetic: how open we are to the spirit world, whether we believe in it at all, how ready we are to respect and love those around us.  What am I saying?  I am saying that I was born connected to the spirit world.  I was born with witches’ blood coursing in my veins (the blood of generations of strong women).  And yes, I look to women who carry this magic within them, both confidence but also naturalness, and I see in it a very powerful spirituality, a very powerful expression of femininity.  And when I think again on femininity as a form of hospitality, of giving, it is no wonder I love it so much.

To love a woman is to want to come home.

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