Photo by Arno Smit/Unsplash/Creative Commons, via Religion News Service.
Happy Ostara to those of you who experience something called “spring.” I will be taking advantage of the last of three warm days — which have melted most of the snow that was on the ground — to split some firewood in advance of the snow expected Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday.
That is life in the eastern Rockies, where we have a little poem about the weather:
Winter in the spring,
Summer in the fall,
Fall in the winter,
And no spring at all.
I was interviewed by a writer for Religion News Service for an article about Pagans at Ostara, which is a little funny since I am usually thinking about snow and not new life and renewal. That comes in April (along with a chance of snow).
Samuel Sewall, a witch trial judge, painted by John Smibert (Peabody Essex Museum).
In 2017, Donna Seger, a history professor at Salem State University (Massachusetts) wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum, a big, rich institution in downtown Salem that along with being a major art museum, controls (and usually hides) the town’s historical archives.
Her letter stated,
Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.
I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.
“We don’t talk about Salem, we talk about the world,” the PEM’s chief marketing officer told Ocker. “The October [witchy] crowd, they don’t go to art museums.I think that M. and I proved him wrong, although admittedly we did not visit in October. . . . . We are a museum of art and culture, not a museum of social history.”J. W. Ocker, i Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016), 78–79.
Somoone must have suffered a change of mind though, because the Peabody Essex is offering a new exhibit through April 4: “The Salem Witch Trials, 1692.”
Join [Dinah Cardin] and Chip Van Dyke, your hosts of the PEMcast, as we go beyond the often-told story of the Salem witch trials to give you a deeper understanding of what happened. We’ll explore what life was truly like in a 17th-century home, go to key sites around the city and even find ourselves on a hilltop in Maine. A selection of the largest collection of Salem witch trial documents goes on view at PEM on September 26, with the opening of The Salem Witch Trials 1692. Visitors can also see, from PEM’s collection, possessions related to the judges, and the 25 innocent people tragically died.
Watch it if you can’t visit the exhibit, and be glad that perhaps peace has been made between the high art-focused museum leadership and the events three hundred twenty-eight years ago that remain spirituall potent today.
• One more “high” priestess joke, and you’re out of here. From the Colorado Springs Independent, the weekly that gets all the cannabis advertising because the chain-owned daily paper won’t touch it: “Meet Colorado’s High Priestess of Cannabis.” Yes, it’s that favorite form of American creativity: Let’s start a church!
• And on public [sic] radio, “When you hear the word ‘witch,’ what does your mind conjure?” Damn, that’s clever writing. This time it’s the 1A show: “Hex in Effect: Why Witches are Back.” (Were we gone? Did I miss that memo?) A teaser for the radio show, which you can listen to if you have unlimited earbuds time.
Maja, photographed by Frances Denny of Brooklyn. Denny is descended from a Salem witch-trial judge of 1692. That qualified her to “explore what it means to be a witch today.”(Daily Mail).
• Ah, those millennials. Now they are “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.” I could be snarky and say, “Hey, the Seventies called and they want their headlines back.” Or I could say that this is something that is always going on. Decades. Centuries.
I am reading one of the Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child “Agent Prendergast” mysteries right now ,Crimson Shore.
Pendergast is a New Orleans-raised rich eccentric (New York mansion, manservant) with a twenty-something assistant/ward, Constance, possessed of “an old-fashioned beauty.” He has FBI credentials, but apparently answers to no one in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on a regular basis, instead taking cases that engage him intellectually.
Crimson Shoreis set in a lonely, decayed Massachusetts fishing village Are there really any un-gentrified ports left? and the plot involves events in Salem in 1692. And someone once was walled up in a wine cellar and left to die — there is your Edgar Allen Poe reference, as the characters make clear. Lovecraft? How about a reference to the Necronomicon delivered with a literary elbow to the ribs? Also mysterious creatures in the salt marshes.
So is that more like theMurder, She Wrote TV series meets Poe, etc? A little toward the “cozy” end of the spectrum as opposed to the hard-boiled “police procedural” end?
“What I would like you to do, Constance, is to go to Salem tomorrow morning. I understand there are many attractions, including a ‘Witch house,’ a ‘Witch Dungeon Museum,’ and the famous Witch Trials Memorial, not to mention the ‘Witch City Segway Tour.'”
“Segway Tour? Surely you’re joking.”
“More to the point, Salem is also home to the Integrated Wiccan Alliance.” He passed her a card. “A certain Tiffani Brooks, also known as Shadow Raven, is head of the league and the leader of a coven there.
Constance took the card. “Wicca? White magic? And what am I supposed to find out?”
Some came voluntarily. Others were prisoners of war, and some were vagrants, orphans, and street kids rounded up in English ports. One ancestor of mine shows on a ship’s passenger list as an unaccompanied 12-year-old boy, so he probably was already someone’s servant or else the ship’s captain planned to sell him on arrival.
Imagine our surprise to see this storefront on Essex Street next to the [Peabody-Essex] museum: Kakawa is coming! Sure, I’d believe it in Aspen, Colo., or Scottsdale, Ariz., but Salem? I would love to know how they picked Salem, but I suspect that their new outlet will do well, being perfect for someone seeking a historical “elixir” after a morning of museuming. A Salem-Santa Fe axis — who knew?
Now I know. I stopped at Kakawa in Santa Fe yesterday and spoke with Tony Bennett, who owns it together with his wife, Bonnie. This is what they do.
Aztec-style chocolate: cacao, chiles, other spices, flowers.
And they decided several years ago that Kakawa would fit right into the commercial building that they own adjacent to the museum. Then their architect died, and there were other complications, but Kakawa is on-track to open in the near future. In addition, Tony said, there would be a Kakawa kiosk inside the museum. Some buenas noticias for Salem.
Inscription: John Proctor. Hanged. August 10, 1692. At the 1692-1992 memorial site in Salem — which is not the execution site and not the victims’ burial place.
The last time that I walked through the Salem witch trials memorial adjacent to the Charter Street cemetery, I saw that someone had left a rolled-up paper at John Proctor’s memorial bench.No one ever seems to sit on the benches, perhaps because they usually hold offerings of one sort or another. Was it a petition? An announcement of an upcoming workshop on Tarot reading? Maybe Proctor, a prosperous farmer before he and his wife were accused, would have been interested in a farm-auction flier.
Obviously, I did not pull out the paper and read it. Doing that might have been good journalism but poor manners. Even though the memorial is not a cemetery, I feel that cemetery etiquette applies. But if it was a missive addressed to Proctor, that could mean that someone now considers him to be among the Mighty Dead.
In a turn of events that would have mystified [accused witch] Ann Foster, it is easy to buy a broomstick in Salem, home to a large Wiccan community. Hotels are booking now for next Halloween.
We have been talking for decades — since Margaret Murray’s time — about reclaiming the word witch from its satanic and evil-doing associations.I am fully aware that some people, however, want to keep them. We could do that without dragging in John and Elizabeth Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, Ann Foster, and the other 150 or so people who were charged in 1692, of whom 19 were executed.
But we have dragged them in. We are (apparently) treating them as honored ancestors, the Mighty Dead, sometimes defined as “those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil.”
Wiccan writer Christopher Penczack equates the Mighty Dead with the Secret Chiefs or Hidden Company that various occult groups invoke. Yet at least in their 17th-century lives, those Puritan colonists would have been horrified to think of themselves as “practitioners of our religion,” wouldn’t they?
We like to say, “What is remembered, lives,” but are we really remembering the Rev. Samuel Parris, Tituba, Judge Hathorne, Rebeca Nurse, and all of them as they were?
Or are we just performing civil religion with robes and incense, “[expressing] the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries)”?“Civil Religion,” Wikipedia. Is leaving flowers and pretty stones and coins and costume jewelry at the Salem witch-trial memorial merely expressing our admiration for the First Amendment?
Somehow I think that it is more than that. Parallel and occultly linked to the transformation of maritime Salem and manufacturing Salem into “Witch City” has been the transformation of the accused Christians of 1692 into “witches” whose deaths — eventually — produced a Witch-friendly little city today. It’s not conventionally rational, but it is what it is. And we are thanking them for that transformation.
Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.
The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.
Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.
A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.
There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.
Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.
But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.
The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.
Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.
But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)
It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.
Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.
“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!
“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”