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?”
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.
Sometimes, as in the Roman West, you get the feeling that the upper classes, at least, just followed a fashion set by the emperor: “If you’re going to get ahead, it helps to be a Christian.” The lower classes were slowly brought around by a mixture of preaching, examples, and punishments.
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, whose best-known work, Things Fall Apart, is set in a late-19th-century Igbo community, describes government-backed missionaries’ influence on the community, and some of the people’s response (or rather, non-response) might surprise you.
In one instance, however, indigenous people fought a war against the missionaries and won. It was Pagans 1, Catholics 0, at least until the rematch.
To summarize a lot of history: During the 16th century, several Spanish expeditions crossed or probed the upper Rio Grande Valley of what is now New Mexico, as well as entering settlements to the west, such as Zuni (New Mexico) and the Hopi towns (Arizona).
Serious colonization began in 1598 under the leadership of Don Juan de Oñate. About fifty Franciscan monks and priests were part of his expedition, bringing not just their gospel but Mexican chiles, tomatoes, and melons, as well as Eurasian peach tree seedlings and more, thus changing foodways of the American Southwest forever. More colonists, soldiers, and missionaries continued to arrive subsequently, although never in large numbers.
It was the usual story:
The Franciscans not only wanted to replace the idolatrous religious practice of the Pueblos, which were clearly the work of the omnipresent Devil, but also all aspects of their non-European, barbarian way of life The Indians needed to learn to wear proper clothes and shoes, to be modest, and to never engage in adultery.Jake Page, Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2013), 57.
Over the next eighty years there were sporadic acts of resistance but nothing major. The leaders of rebellions were usually questioned, tortured, and executed. In one 1675 round-up of rebels, 47 religious leaders (medicine men) from nearby Pueblo towns were brought to Santa Fe, where a few were hanged and the rest flogged and imprisoned. One man, a shaman named Po’pay (also spelt Popé), from San Juan Pueblo (now using its old name of Okeh Owingeh again), upon his release announced to the people back home that the gods had given him a plan.
He and his group carried out an astonishing strategy: they organized warriors who spoke multiple languages (all unwritten), over distances of hundreds of miles, to all rise up on the same day, 11 August 1680. Inevitably, there were some security leaks — the Spanish governor in Santa Fe found out what was planned, and so Po’pay told people in his area to strike a day early.
The priests died first. Churches — even huge adobe edifices like the first church at Pecos — were burned internally and then torn down brick by brick. Other warriors attacked Spanish farms and ranches, killing and looting. In the north, survivors fled to the governor’s palace, the casas reales, in Santa Fe, while others further south gathered at Isleta, south of today’s Albuquerque. Twenty-one Franciscan friars “achieved martyrdom” that first day.
At Hopi, after they torched the churches, “the two-hundred-pound bells, so piously hauled the thousand miles from New Spain [Mexico] over the years, were destroyed, except at Oraibi where they were hidden, and remain so to this day.”Ibid., 115.
The survivors, less than half of the colonial population, prepared to break out of their siege in Santa Fe, even though most were not fighting men. But the Indians, who outnumbered them, let them go, and they straggled south, eventually stopping where Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, now stands.
Good bureaucrats, the Spanish censused the survivors:
Catalina de Zamora passed muster with four grown nieces, Spaniards, all on foot and extremely poor, and five servants [presumably Indians]. The enemy killed two of her nephews and more than thirty relatives. She does not sign because of not knowing how.Ibid. 136.
When you read that the natives of western North America “got horses from the Spanish,” 1680 is when that happened.
No Golden Age emerged in the former colony. Some communities mounted a “de-Hispanization” campaign. At Okeh Owingeh, Po’pay ordered un-baptism ceremonies and forbade his people to ever mention Jesus, Mary, or other saints again. Other communities relocated to more defensible locations, expecting that the Spanish would return — which they did, twelve years later, in 1692.
Meanwhile, inter-tribal wars flared up again, Apache raids were a constant problem, and drought was always lurking.
The Reconquista is sometimes described as “bloodless,” but it was not. Many Pueblo towns looked at their odds and decided to surrender. Without the grand coalition of 1680, the 50 veteran Spanish soldiers who accompanied the new (or returning) colonists could defeat the warriors of any single town.
Yet in some places, there were bitter fights. Archaeologists found evidence of them only relatively recently — David Roberts’ The Pueblo Revolt (linked at the image) tells that story. Jake Page’s Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom, which I have quoted here, is stronger on the cultural background issues and the long-term effects of the Great Pueblo Revolt and the Reconquest. I would recommend it as a good first book on the revolt.
With the Reconquest, the Franciscans and other Catholic missionaries came back too, but they never ruled the Pueblo towns as before. Many tribal members took a “dual faith” approach, attending Mass but also celebrating their own festivals or blended festivals, while keeping much of their various Old Religions a private matter. It was, Page notes, “a mutual accommodation.”
Candomblé is the most West African of the Spiritist religions in Brazil. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Brazil’s sugar plantations brought in more African slaves than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Because of the size of the plantations and the lax oversight by stretched-thin Catholic clergy, the Brazilian slaves more easily retained their traditions than did those in mostly Protestant North America.Whereas a “big” American tobacco or cotton plantation might have had dozens of slaves, a big Brazilian sugar plantation might well have had hundreds.
Candomblé survived centuries of slavery, but the quasi-respectability it has gained in recent decades is now under concentrated attack from radical Evangelical Christians, a growing force in Catholic Brazil, who regard it as the devil’s work and its priests and priestesses as little more than neighborhood witches.
Tactics range from propaganda blitzkriegs launched on blogs and YouTube videos to threats, violence and expulsions from drug gangs. Afro-Brazilian religious leaders and sympathizers are fighting back in court. A low-intensity war is being fought for Brazilian souls. . . .
Last year, Rio prosecutors launched a civil action to require Google to remove videos attacking Afro-Brazilian religions from YouTube. A judge ruled against them, writing that Afro-Brazilian religions could not be considered true religions because they lack a written text, a hierarchical structure and a god.
This is 2017 Rio de Janeiro, not late 4th-century Alexandria or Antioch. But it’s all the same story. As Krasscova comments, “A monotheist is a monotheist wherever you go.”
In the floating world of the Internet, Afro-Brazilian religion is more popular than ever. I sent the links above to a friend who has lived in Brazil (she has a PhD in Luso-Brazilian literature), who writes on the religion, and who herself is a Pagan Witch.
She replied, “[This is] weird because so many more people here [USA] and elsewhere are getting involved in Candomble, etc. For example, now when I Google Pomba-Gira, there are more than 5,000 sites dedicated to her. In my day, nobody had even heard of her around here.”
Maybe there’s Tumblr Candomblé, and then there is the kind that brings Jesus-loving gangsters to your door.
Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)
When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.
But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.
It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.
On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.
Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”
No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!
If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.
I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.
I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.
Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, … Continue reading
Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.
Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.
In lengthy interviews with The Telegraph, the two exorcists discuss how the increase in drug and pornography addiction, failure of the mental healthcare system and a rise in popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, are among the factors contributing to the huge increase in demand for the Rite.
But no, I was in my dining chair when one of the Mormon “Seventies” — a member of an upper level in the hierarchy — delivered a benediction. (While the fundamentalist, breakaway LDS groups had been a major focus of the conference, this was about the only official-ish interaction with the mainsteam LDS church.)
First he said a few words in regard to the group’s purpose, acknowledging its diversity (founder Massimo Introvigne, for example, is an Italian lawyer by training and very Catholic), adding, “but we all worship the same [G]od.”
I groaned inwardly. It reminded me why I don’t do interfaith stuff — I spoke once at a luncheon in Denver, that’s all. I know some Pagans do it — more power to them — but I become a little . . . withdrawn . . . when the “we all worship the same god in the end” discourse begins.
All this came back when I read Galina Krasskova’s recent blog post, “Interfaith Doublespeak.” She writes in her usual take-no-prisoners style:
It becomes all about making the person feel good, about making them look “enlightened” and “spiritual” so they can get a pat on the head without ever having to challenge any oppressive status quo, especially any religious status quo. Their model is monotheistic. The model for their rites and rituals is, whether they acknowledge this or not: monotheistic and actual engagement with the Powers of any tradition is generally lacking. Most interfaith rituals I have observed are not just doggedly human centric but, despite whatever trappings the organizer might appropriate, devoid of Gods. I mean, you sort of need to name the Gods to call Them into a space and that might be exclusive. Everyone has to feel comfortable after all so let’s just go with the lowest fucking common denominator and call it a day. Hence you end up with what I call impious and unclean space. (Read the rest.)
Ah, Mary Magdelene, who was she? A minor disciple of the wandering preacher? Or the disciple who understood him best? A wealthy follower who financed his wanderings? His wife and mother of their kids? Some combination of the above? Or as Robert Graves imagined in the 1940s, the priestess of some surviving Canaanite Paganism who sexually conveyed to him a sovereignity over the land — the thesis of his novel King Jesus, which predated The White Goddess by two years.
The Lost Gospel’s authors, “Simcha Jacobovici, author, and TV personality perhaps best known for his series The Naked Archaeologist, along with Prof. Barrie Wilson of York University,” make a textual argument over a “6th century Syriac text that records the apocryphal tale entitled Joseph and Aseneth.”
So this is a text written some centuries after Jesus lived but maybecopied from a much earlier original about two biblical characters who might be read as allegories for Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
She pokes some holes in their argument and faults them for taking the rhetorical stance sometimes called “They laughed at Galileo” — If the established experts are against me, then I must be right!
But I might still read The Lost Gospel anyway, just for cultural reasons. Whereas we Pagans are comfortable with the idea of female religious leaders, the Middle Eastern monotheisms mostly still are not. Cwikla quotes an MCC pastor:
The possibility of Jesus having a wife sparked positive responses from some female clerics. For example, in a blog post on the Huffington Post website, Moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson expressed tempered optimism about the fragment’s potential to change the patriarchal position of many Christian denominations: “Will a little snippet of ancient writing change the Christian world? It is possible, and I am hopeful.”
By looking to the past for evidence of women as leaders in early Christianity, we are attempting to look for a way to change the longstanding tradition of women having less power in most Christian traditions that is still evident in modern society. By wedding Jesus, we may be trying to make him more “human-like,” or, as Alex Beam suggests: “The purpose, animated by the all-powerful secularism of our time, is to bring him [Jesus] down to our level.”
There is a potential irony there for the liberal Christians: If you add female clergy but lose the divinity of Jesus, what is left? Where is the “juice” of your religion?
Although gospel music is part of the heritage and spirit of the neighbourhood, some have suggested that scenes in local churches are starting to resemble a Hollywood movie. Tourists visiting have become an issue of contention, to the extent that some are now shut out of services.
Shrinking from gentrification on one side, some of Harlem’s well-known historically black churches, famous for their gospel choirs, are overwhelmed on the other side by tourists (many of them European, I am told).
Others report that their church stopped letting tourists come to services because of the disrespect and rudeness they exhibited. For example, in some cases, as soon as the “praise and worship” or music ended, they got up and left.
The scale is much, much, much smaller, but I think back to the Wiccan wedding that M. and I conducted here in Colorado in the 1980s for an American guy and his Thai bride — they met while students at Colorado College.
Her relatives orbited the circle like electrons, camcorders whirring. It really put me off. I was not used to multiple electronic devices during ritual — not “in circle,” but “right outside of circle.”
The bride’s father was some kind of United Nations functionary — he lived in Italy — and after the wedding he did take us all to a Thai restaurant in Denver, where he ordered without reference to the printed menu, and we had a delicious feast, while his daughter made sarcastic remarks about the king of Thailand, whose portrait hung on the wall.
That made up for the uncomfortable ritual just a little.