In 1948, when I was a freshman at Hunter College in New York City, I took a course in American History under a woman professor whose special field of interest was the witch trials of Salem Village, Mass. I wish I could remember her name, but I don’t. She was an early feminist, had I but had the good sense to recognize it. Several of us took advantage of her expertise, feigning interest for our own dubious ends. We were part of the college’s varsity drama group, which consumed a considerable part of almost every day that semester. So, when we had not allotted sufficient time to complete the required three hours of library work needed to prepare for each class session, we masked our ignorance by turning the discussion to the witch trials. Thus at a rather early age I learned a considerable amount about this infamous part of our country’s history, but for all the wrong reasons.
I had mixed feelings about the 300th observance of the Salem trials five years ago. While it was, for some, a time of soul-searching on the status of women, one of the detractors of the event noted that Salem “must be the only town in America that has built a major tourist industry around the abuse of women.” The logo of the Salem police force is a witch on a broomstick; the high school’s athletic teams are termed “The Salem Witches.” At the Salem Witch Museum a haunted house, in which a Vincent Price-ish atmosphere pervades, a presentation emphasizes hysteria, rather than repression, as the root cause of the witch hunts. And the museum’s gift shop features witch travel mugs, piggy banks, dolls and T-shirts. Local bars offer a witches’ brew of Kahlua and Irish Cream. It’s a circus. Only a new memorial garden seems to take seriously what happened there over 300 years ago.
Hysteria did, of course, play a role in the deaths of fourteen women and six men - and the imprisonment of at least 150 others - during that dark summer of 1692. Ironically, the Salem round of witch hunts began in the kitchen of a Puritan parsonage belonging to the Rev. Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece came regularly to have their fortunes told by Tituba, his West Indian domestic slave. Word of these seances spread, and soon young women from Salem Town, some eight miles away, were also coming to hear hints about the men they were going to marry. No one knew the reason for sure, but two of the youngest girls began to have severe seizures - and the rest soon followed. The symptoms also proliferated: there were intermittent spells of blindness and deafness, loss of speech and appetite, amnesia, hallucinations and even stigmata - actual bruises and welts which the young women claimed were caused by specters only they could see. Salem’s physician, Dr. William Griggs, advised the minister that the “evil hand of Satan” was upon the girls.
When questioned as to their tormentors, the girls accused the “pagan” slave Tituba, Sarah Good (a beggar woman) and Sarah Osborne, who was said to have lived with her second husband before they were married. The women were arrested as witches, but the girls’ afflictions did not stop. So there were more accusations; more arrests, including five year old Dorcas Good, for whom special child-size chains had to be fashioned. Those who confessed to being witches and named co-conspirators were usually spared; those who proclaimed their innocence were hanged. Fields lay fallow that summer and fall as the townspeople gathered, transfixed, at the court house to witness the spectacle.
Salem Village was a town in torment 305 years ago. A new Massachusetts charter urged by Anglicans had been enacted that year, which imperiled the original Puritan theocracy. For the first time, non-Puritans were allowed a role in government. Quaker immigrants could no longer be hung or charged with heresy and deported just for believing women equal to men. The village chafed under taxes imposed by Salem Town. Aided and abetted by the French, some Indians took up arms against the settlers. Yet, while their power base was eroding, the restrictive patriarchal Puritan values persisted.
Women were considered morally inferior and sexually depraved, and any woman without male supervision was suspect. Showing affection even to a pet was considered eccentric, and women were arrested as unseemly or disorderly just for their manner of walk or for wearing silk clothing considered above their station. The town had fired three ministers in rapid succession, and even Rev. Parris’ settlement was insecure. Prior to his calling, he had failed as a businessman, and his insistence that the parsonage be deeded to him in perpetuity was resented by many.
So the situation was ripe for rebellion and scapegoating - ripe for excesses. Even when one of the original afflicted girls admitted she had joined in the fray just for fun, it did not stop. Not until many so-called “respectable” women, including his wife, had been accused did Massachusetts Governor Phips put an end to the executions Even then some of the accused, who were too poor to pay fines levied for their imprisonment, languished in jail for years. And it was not until 1954 the Commonwealth exonerated those executed! While some of Boston’s ministers had preached against the witch trials, the noted cleric Cotton Mather rushed into print in their defense, accusing old hags of conspiring with Satan to destroy “that one commonwealth on Earth founded in accordance with God’s law.”
Where did all this hatred and misogyny come from? The word “witch” is derived from the word “wit” - to know. Thus witchcraft meant the art of knowing. Since the 15th century the term has been applied exclusively to those who foretold the future or worked magic. The word “devil” is a diminutive of divine - a little god. As Christianity spread across Europe, the pagan gods and goddesses were considered devils, and those pagans involved in soothsaying were thus considered demonic, in contrast to the legitimate prophets of the dominant religion.
Yet paganism, while it retreated primarily to rural areas, obstinately refused to die out until the 18th century, and still lingers on today in parts of France and Italy, where ancient beliefs are as entwined with the official Catholicism as they are in the West Indies and some parts of Central and South America. In pagan agricultural areas, fertility rites were considered the most crucial. Witches’ covens consisted of thirteen members: a devil or leader, who was said to appear as an animal or to dress unobtrusively in black, and twelve followers. (The analogy to Jesus and the apostles is unmistakable.) These covens met yearly at witches’ Sabbaths, with the dawn-to-dusk May and November gatherings the most important.
By the 15th century, paganism was too prominent to be permitted. The nobles sought to find scapegoats for war and plagues, and blamed witches. The rising medical profession felt threatened by midwives and female healers. Most important, Christianity felt extreme discomfort from the pagan competition. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII launched a Holy Inquisition against witches: those who, through incantation, spells and charms, caused blight, famine, disease, stillbirth and infertility. Of the thousands accused and subsequently burned at the stake, 85 percent were women - not unusual since women were considered by the church to be innately disposed to evil, driven by infidelity, ambition and lust.
If a man sinned, he was often considered to have been unduly influenced by a woman - latter day Adams. In one early New England witchcraft trial, Lydia Gilbert was held to be responsible for the death of a man by means of another man’s gun. Many of those branded in Salem were of similar persuasion: strong women who were considered to have committed crimes against their God-given station. Some were engaged in business; some were considered to be nasty scolds. Some did not attend church; some stood to inherit property. God forbid. These women frightened people, and fear breeds scapegoating and witch hunts.
If Salem had been the end of it, the witch trials would stand only as a matter or mere historical curiosity. But the witch hunts only went underground, to emerge again in places fraught with fear and fanaticism. Witchcraft has recently reclaimed criminal status in some third world countries. Scores of women have been executed as witches in West Bengal and eastern India in the past 15 years. In Africa, Benin has made the practice of witchcraft punishable by death or hard labor, and a few years ago a family in Venda was burned out by a crowd accusing the parents of sorcery. Witches, fortune tellers and natural healers were banned in Ecuador in 1989.
In this country, pro-choice advocates, homosexuals and sex educators have not been the only targets of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-wing anti-feminist troops. In 1985 her parent groups in at least twenty states also demanded that parental permission be required for classroom discussions on witchcraft and eastern mysticism. One such group charged in a lawsuit than an elementary school text taught witchcraft along with situational ethics, evolution, secular humanism and disrespect for parental authority and traditional role models. More recent attacks have tried to suppress Hawthorn’s classic, “The Scarlet Letter,” and “The Wizard of Oz” because it portrayed Glinda as a good witch.
Also in 1985 Jesse Helms introduced an amendment to the Treasury and Post Office appropriations bill which would have denied tax exempt status to any group interested in promoting either Satanism or witchcraft. Had the ACLU not intervened, that provision would have directly affected us: paganism is the fastest growing theological segment of the UUA. And a good many of our pagan sisters and brothers openly call themselves witches - persons whose adherence to feminist values leads them back to reclaim the ages old power of the Dianic religion, rooted in the cycles of nature.
Hysteria was behind the internment of Japanese Americans during W.W.II. Hysteria was behind the dark days of McCarthyism. A few years ago we watched Ted Kennedy and his liberal colleagues sit mute as Anita Hill was savaged by Republican senators, casting her in the role of bitch witch. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was defamed merely for presenting herself as a strong person in her own right - wanting more from her role than just pouring tea and making cookies. It’s just possible that Janet Reno is out of her depth in the Beltway climate. But she is first and foremost a person of integrity. I wonder if the political charactertures would be quite as cruel if she were a man. My own daughter (now an attorney) was once denounced as dangerous by the principal of the parochial school she attended: her crime was that she thought for herself and influenced others. And twice, prior to entering ministry, I heard that my male employer felt threatened by me because I had too many ideas. The sting from that was removed last year when, after a Sunday service, a pagan member of the Nashville congregation rushed up to me and proclaimed, “Oh, Anne, you’ve become a crone!”
I believe that we owe it to all those in centuries past and present who have suffered unjust persecution, as well as to our still-innocent children, to work for a world where the fearful witch hunt mentality is finally banished. A world where we are strengthened by diversity; by persons of other cultures and religious persuasions. A world that welcomes both strong men and strong women. A world that acknowledges how much we can learn and benefit from those we have formerly termed “other.” A world in which we can understand the witches’ Sabbath as a time of healing and wholeness. So may we smile just a little more kindly on the young witches who come to our doors Friday night; may misogyny come to be only a dimly remembered trait from the past. Amen...so be it.