The Best New Book about the Salem Witch Trials

Wouldn’t you like to live in an enchanted world, where everything in nature brought messages from gods and spirits?

The New England Puritans did so, but with a smaller cast of characters: their God and their Devil.

But there were lots of messages all the same:

If your cow died, if lightning struck your house, if your nine-year-old niece arched her back and babbled hysterically, complaining of “bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents,'” it meant something.

Either God was testing you or the Devil was trying to topple the pious colony of New England. To quote the Puritan clergyman and prolific author Cotton Mather, “I am a man greatly assaulted by Satan. Is it because I have done so much against that enemy?”

The quotes are from Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem.

I had read her biography Cleopatra: A Life earlier and was impressed. When I saw that she had tackled the Salem witch trials, I knew that I had a good read ahead of me.

Books on Salem history at the Athenaeum.

I wonder if more books have been written about the 1692 Salem witch trials than any other, starting within weeks of the final executions and continuing up until today. These are some of the Salem-history books at the Salem Athenaeum (a private library) — the top shelf is all witch-trial books, and I can think of some that are missing or were checked out.

If you are going to read just one book though, make it Stacy Schiff’s. It is grounded in research, but it reads like a novel, while performing the historian’s essential task, which is to show you that no one explanation covers what happened that year in today’s Salem, Danvers, and Andover.

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England, food poisoning, a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria, fraud, taxes, conspiracy, political instability, trauma induced by Indian attacks, and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. . . . .The irresistible locked-room mystery of the matter is what keeps us coming back to it.

Unlike some accounts, Schiff’s continues past the end of the trials themselves, noting how the end of the witchcraft panic, though it diminished the social position of the Puritan church, did not change the theology about the Devil and witchcraft. The Devil was still out there. New England remained “enchanted,” at least in the sociological sense.

The year 1692 disappeared from some official chronicles as well as important individuals’ journals, which makes historians’ job harder. One thing we can say: it damaged but did not break the prestige of the Puritan clergy, who had thought of themselves, in effect, as the rulers of the people — only to see George Burroughs, a former Salem village minister, sent to the hanging tree himself.

Our Salem Film Festival

Prompted by J. W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, M. and I held a little Salem film festival. (We skipped The Lords of Salem.)

In order of creation, we watched these three movies:  Three Sovereigns for Sarah (1985), Hocus Pocus (1993), and The VVitch (2015).

(This looks like a bootleg copy, but I wanted this scene. Sorry about the quality.)

Three Sovereigns for Sarah, a three-part PBS documentary, is well-done, using authentic trial testimony in spots. Vanessa Redgrave, playing accused witch Sarah Cloyse, just dominates it — although she has some competition from the young actresses playing the “afflicted” girls. 1)Sarah Cloyce is depicted . . . differently . . . by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am coming to that.

A historical consultant told Ocker, “We had a lot more power on the production than historians usually have on commercial things.” They were even able to nix Alexander Scourby’s casting as a judge, because Scourby would not shave his beard, which was historically inappropriate. Clean-shaven Patrick McGoohan replaced him.

The church meeting house where the Rev. Samuel Parrish holds forth was built for the movie, and like all 17th-century buildings, included recessed fluorescent lighting. OK, that’s a joke. But compared to the moody available-light shooting in The VVitch, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is lit like a TV soap opera, giving a sort of “witchcraft under the microscope” vibe.

On the plus side, it gives you the feel of what happened. And guess what — no one is hung for being an herbalist or a healer. That is romantic mush that started in the 1960s and 1970s. It may make you feel good, but it is not about what happened in 1692 in America — or elsewhere.

Importantly, the film gives Sarah Cloyce a speech in which she explains how neatly the witchcraft accusations matched property disputes in Salem Village. In other words, adults were feeding suggestions to the “afflicted” girls about whom to denounce. That is usually the way it works in “children’s crusades.”

BEELEEVE THE CHILDREN!

Of Hocus Pocus (1993), Ocker observes,

The witches are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Nijimy in, if not exactly career-defining roles, roles that will probably outlast anything they’ve ever done. There are entire generations of people who know Hocus Pocus, but have no idea about wind, wings, sex, city, hair, or spray.

Yes, but it’s Disney (kids win, witches lose). That is probably why I had no interest in it in 1993, and besides, I had student papers to grade. And Sex and the City will be Parker’s role that I remember.

If Three Sovereigns for Sarah presents a documentary-style take on the 1692 witchcraft panic, The VVitch gives us the imagined European witchcraft of the 16th–17th centuries transplanted to New England, where tiny cleared islands of Christianity struggle to survive up against dark walls of savage forests, In that, it echoes some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spookier fiction, in which he dips from the same well.

But it’s a horror movie, so the central character witch is herself a teenager, not a mature woman. Of course you have your pact with the devil, the Witches’ Sabbat, spectral flight, possession, and Black Phillip, the goat who is more than a goat. In lighting, costuming, and general atmosphere, it is the best of the three. Unlike the other two, it was not filmed partly in or near Salem but near Kiosk, Ontario, in order to get the best cinematic forests.

Also, it gives me a segue into talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and witchcraft, coming up.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sarah Cloyce is depicted . . . differently . . . by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am coming to that.

Witches, Sea Captains, and Art — We Go Back to Salem

I am sipping this as I write.

Last November, during the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Boston, I made a quick trip to Salem, Mass., with some fellow Pagan studies scholars. It was only one afternoon—long enough to visit some of the witchy shops, a magickal temple, the Charter Street cemetery, and a few other sites.

No time for the maritime history or the highly regarded Peabody-Essex Museum or even all of the historic sites connected with the witch trials or other cultural history, such as the House of the Seven Gables.

So back I go in two weeks, and M. is going with me — a trip celebrating a wedding anniversary that ends in zero. We have lots of Amtrak reward points to spend, and it’s too early for gardening here. A rented apartment awaits us. Granted, winter is hanging on grimly in New England, but we will take our chances.

Our guidebook is J. W. Ocker’s recent A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts.

We have been preparing ourselves with a series of movies — more on that soon — and I actually read all of The House of the Seven Gables, with more of Hawthorne waiting on the bedside table, to put myself in a mood of dark Romanticism and decay.

Like Ocker, I wonder, “Why Salem did attract today’s witches? Why in the 1970s?” He has some ideas, which I will share later.

So consider this to be the first of a series of travel-related posts that will appear between now and Beltane, more or less.

A personal note: Despite her French surname, M. on her father’s side is New England Yankee all the way down. According to family tradition, the name came from some French Huguenot (Protestant Christian) who fled across the Channel in the 17th or early 18th century to escape Catholic persecution, the family transforming gradually into English Puritans.

Although they moved on to northeastern Vermont, they presumably came through Massachusetts. “So,” I tell her, “you might pass by an ancestor’s grave. Perhaps even one of the witch-hunters. . .”

And at that point she starts shouting at me.

What can I say? The Cliftons were Virginians who probably spent their Sundays sipping rum and betting on cockfights, not listening to two-hour sermons and hanging so-called witches.

On the other hand, she is willing to make the trip!

Can You Put Your Paganism in the Street?

Union Avenue in Pueblo, Colorado — January 2018. Banner at left marks the Hanging Tree Cafe, where you will find me sometimes.

Late last year, I read this in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper: “Pueblo Church Walks and Prays over Every Walkable Street in the City.”

About a year ago, the Rev. Jim Murray had a vision. In that vision, members of his church, the First Church of the Nazarene, 84 Stanford Ave., would walk every walkable street in Pueblo and pray over the city.

It was a daunting challenge. The maps of Pueblo listed more than 1,200 streets covering more than 340 miles. When you double that by walking down both sides of each street to reach every home or business or school, the distance is nearly 800 miles.

“In any political economy of the sacred, therefore, conflicts over space are inevitable” — David Chidester. (Photo: Muslims in Milan’s central square, 2009).

It put me in mind of an essay by religion scholar David Chidester called “Mapping the Sacred” in which he writes, “Of course, religion inevitably spills out of the privatized enclaves of homes, churches, mosques, temples, or synagogues to assert broader claims on urban space, taking to the streets, so to speak, to negotiate religious presence, position, or power in the city.1)David Chidester, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012), 35.  As an aside: Chidester is writing about Cape Town, which is currently in the middle of ecological crisis — running out of water — due to a combination of drought and growing population. Who is next? Phoenix? Albuquerque?

A French scholar suggests that such religious demonstrations in the polis are a sign of globalization:2)Lionel Obadia, “Urban Pareidolias: Fleeting but Hypermodern Signs of the Sacred?” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 47, no. 1 [in press].

Similarly, modernity has been associated with the decline and the privatization of religion, whilst globalization has meant the return of religion in social arenas and in public spaces. Consequently, the world is a new (social and political) theater for religious dynamics. The spatial expansion of religions is remarkable in urban and public spaces, perhaps the more visible site of the “return of religion” in Europe and globally—prayers and processions in the streets of secular global cities, the semiotics of religious clothes (Muslim hidjab, Buddhist robe, Jewish kippah) and, of course, the problem of religious buildings in Europe are evidences of such a reinjection of religion in the spatial and sociological heart of so-called “secular” modernity. Cities are, in this perspective, very important and strategic sites for the observation of the mutations of religion.

Performing your religion in the polis is nothing new, but performing it in a way to challenge groups is new again, you might say. (I think there was some of it in the 4th-century Roman Empire, for instance.) Just here in Colorado, former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard infected his congregation with the idea that downtown Colorado Springs needed spiritual cleansing.

I admire those Greeks who held a Dionysian procession in Athens four years ago (Do they still do it?). Of course, they get to play the heritage card: “This is what our ancestors used to do, right here.”

So you don’t have musicians and followers enough to stage a public procession, so what to you do. Maybe instead of imposing your sacred meanings on the polis, you go looking for them instead. Not “I put Hermes here!” but “Where does Hermes show up?”

That is what one of my favorite Pagan writers, Sarah Kate Istra Winter (a/k/a Dver) advocates in three short books, built up upon her blog, A Forest Door. (Look in the “Pagan Bloggers” sidebar — she has stopped updating it, but I keep it there for the archive.)

The books are Between the Worlds: Notes from the Threshold, Dwelling on the Threshold: Reflections of a Spirit-Worker and Devotional Polytheist, and the one I need to get, The City Is a Labyrinth: A Walking Guide for Urban Animists.

Blogging in or near The Capitol, Hecate Demeter notes,

Speaking of being fully Pagan in urban settings, if you can possibly get your hands on Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s new little book entitled The City is a Labyrinth:  A Walking Guide for Urban Animists, please do so.  It is full of simple, practical, doable ways to come into relationship with an urban landscape.

And none of them involve wagging your butt at Allah.

Notes   [ + ]

1. David Chidester, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012), 35.  As an aside: Chidester is writing about Cape Town, which is currently in the middle of ecological crisis — running out of water — due to a combination of drought and growing population. Who is next? Phoenix? Albuquerque?
2. Lionel Obadia, “Urban Pareidolias: Fleeting but Hypermodern Signs of the Sacred?” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 47, no. 1 [in press].

They Were Not Witches — They Are Our Martyrs

Walking through the witch-trial memorial park.

This is the memorial created in 1992 for the victims of the Salem trials in Salem, Mass. Each “bench” contains the name of an accused person: “Margaret Scott. Hanged. September 22, 1692.”

Walk there, and you know that it has become a shrine.

Then you realize that you are walking on their words, their pleas to the uncaring judges: “God knows I am innocent of such wickedness.”

Twenty-five people died (five of them in prison), all professing their innocence, and I tend to believe them. But they left us something: Witch Tees!

And Witch Pix!

And a passel of museums, “haunted houses,” ghost tours, and the like.

Crow Haven Corner.

The first witchcraft shop was Laurie Cabot’s the Witch Shoppe in 1971, which later moved and was renamed Crow Haven Corner.

It has been joined by many others. Walking along nearby Pickering Wharf feels like a trip down Diagon Alley.

Could Sarah Good, a homeless beggar (hanged) or Susannah Martin, an impoverished widow (hanged)  have imagined that their deaths would produce a Salem where being a witch is fairly normal and the police cars have flying witches on their doors? 1)Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

The National Park Service visitor center, devoted both to Salem’s peak years as a port in the 18th and 19th centuries and to the events of 1692, contains several shelves of books on historical witchcraft.

It’s a crooked path, all right, from hysterical teenagers accusing adults of witchcraft before judges who accepted “spectral evidence” to a wax museum, signage directing visitors to Gallows Hill, and at least two dozen witchcraft shops, but there it is.

The “witches” of 1692 gave it to us.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign? Want to Check Out my Van?

It is a fact in journalism that some things never get old. Stories about today’s young people are evergreen: Are they hopeless screw-ups? Do they possess a brilliant new world-saving vision? Or both? Or neither?

Live long enough, and everything recycles, like platform shoes (they were popular in the 17th century too, not that I remember that far back). Here is a piece on “Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.”

Astrology has been debunked by numerous academic studies, but Banu Guler, co-founder of artificial intelligence powered astrology app Co—Star said the lack of structure in the field is exactly what drives young, educated professionals to invest their time and money in the practice.

Take out the word “app,” and that sounds like the early 1970s to me, another “tumultuous political time” (Vietnam War, resignation of President Nixon, etc.)

And speaking of the Seventies, when I knew people who did it, here is a snarky piece in the New York Post titled “Meet the pretentious millennials who romanticize living in vans.”

Twenty-four years ago, calling your car home was Plan Z. Now it’s a generation’s greatest aspiration.

Copiously illustrated with photos of beautifully restored VW campers, both air-cooled buses and water-cooled Vanagons, the article would produce a predictable result from M., who still laments that we sold the 1984 Vanagon camper that we owned from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

“I could put it up by myself!” she would say. #Vanlife.

And so she could, but the only mechanic in Nearby Town who would work on fiddly European fuel-injection systems had been about to retire.1)He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

So I sold the Vanagon to a guy up in Fort Collins, thanks to the Internet, and got something with four-wheel-drive. Volkswagen did make an all-wheel-drive Vanagon, the Synchro, and while fishing in the mountains last June I found a nicely restored example parked at a trailhead.

I complimented the owner on his van, and he launched into a list of all the systems on it that he had rebuilt. “You have to be a mechanic,” he said.

No, thanks. On the old VWs, maybe. Nowadays I do some work on my old Jeep CJ-5, and everything else goes to the pros.

If you hanker after an older VW bus or Vanagon, I think the the place to be is New Mexico, where both they and people who will work on them seem to end up.

And, since you asked, Gemini.

Notes   [ + ]

1. He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

Let’s Have More Writing about Pagan Experience

I used to complain about the dearth of American Pagan biography and autobiography. Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan and John Sulak’s The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism made a big dent in that, but we could use more.

Meanwhile, we could use more nonfiction writing too!  Currently, much Pagan nonfiction comes in two flavors. First is the how-to-be-a-better-Pagan genre, which has kept Llewellyn in business all these years. I have done my part to contribute to it.

And there is the blogger-ish “Oh, look what a devoted devotional polytheist I am — I spent half a day assembling a playlist for my evening devotions. Here it is!”

What I want to see more of is just good writing on what it feels like to be Pagan. Hence I have come to admire Eric Scott’s writing, including his novella The Lives of the Apostates or this Wild Hunt column on a trance-possession ritual at a Pagan festival last May.

Afterwards, while talking about my friend’s difficulty coming down from the possession of the mask, the ritual’s high priest held mixture of concern and scientific questioning. The masks had been enchanted to deactivate upon removal, a sharp and seamless conclusion to the ritual, but Eris had still been laughing in my friend’s ears at the time she went to bed. The kill-switch had gone awry somehow; something must have been wrong with their masks.

Not “what should you do” but “what was it like?”

Pentagram Pizza Cut into 12 Slices

• Everything old is new againyoung Chinese discover the Western zodiac and think that it is cooler than “Year of the Monkey,” etc.

• “Witchcrap” from The Daily Beast website — “These Modern Witches Want to Cast a Spell on You.”

Modern witchcraft combines feminism, self-help, and wellness. But is there more to it than pretty crystals, stunning Instagram pictures, and lucrative business opportunities?

I think that’s called “fake news.”

• From Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery blog:American Gods: The Jersey Devil and the Pines Witch.”   This post was part of “The American Gods Project” — read the rest. “Truly, all sorcery is local.”

• In Albania, they stop the Evil Eye with plushies. Truly, all sorcery is local.

I Lived in Magic: A Video Biography of Oberon Zell

Produced and directed by Danny Yourd (Animal Studio), this meditative interview with Oberon Zell (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds and the man who put “Neo-Pagan” into the American religious vocabulary in the 1970s) is a valuable piece of American Pagan history. (It can also be viewed at the Vimeo site.)

Interspersed with video clips from the 1970s, 1980s, and on to the present — including the quixotic New Guinea mermaid quest — it pivots on his relationship with his life partner, the late Morning Glory Zell. (Their lives are also examined in John Sulak’s  The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism, which might be the best inside look at the American Pagan scene ever written.)

Oberon reflects on his life, on his loss of Morning Glory, but he is not giving up. “Don’t let it die,” were among her last words, and so the grey-haired wizard carries on. I know that he will do so until he is gone, and something like the mythic cry of Merlin is heard in the redwoods of California.

The Old Ones Built Wisely

equinox sunset

The Sun sets in Equinox Notch, one day before the actual spring equinox.

My house comes with its own solar calendar, sort of. I discovered when M. and I moved here in the 1990s that the equinoctial sunset occurs in a notch formed by the ridge to the west, as viewed from the front porch.

Surely the ancient builders planned this!

Actually, the “ancient builder” was Alan Cook, a minister in the “New Church  (General Convention),” one of the Swedenborgian denominations, who lived from 1893–1984.  He was active as a minister in the 1920s, then came to Colorado to manage a summer resort in Green Mountain Falls, west of Colorado Springs. No longer a minister with a congregation, he still held some Sunday services for the tourists and wrote in a typically Swedenborgian style, which is big on correspondences between the visible world and the Unseen World.

Mountains, as we know, signify exalted states of affection. And God’s love is the most high and exalted of which we know.

Pagan me says no, the natural world was not put here only to provide a moral lesson to us humans, although I can still feel some affinity with a man who wrote,

But the man of spiritual mind should discern the far greater wealth which lies beyond mere nature [sic] and the commercial worth of rock — he may know their soul, and, in a measure at least, he will be able to share that wealth.1)Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.

I found a photo of Alan Cook with some other books and materials stored in a crawlspace, and it hangs on the Wall of Ancestors in my study — which was his study too. We do not share theologies, but I like to think he approves the room being filled with a desk and bookcases once again.

Happy Ostara!

Notes   [ + ]

1. Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.