As someone who is a huge fan of Halloween, scary stories, and scary movies/TV (most recently, American Horror Story: Coven) I have had witches on the brain lately. I have been thinking about the different depictions of witches in the media and came to the conclusion that sometimes witches are displayed as villainous, and other times they are just powerful women. This realization made me think of a historic side of the phenomenon—the Salem Witch Trials.
Today, many of the freedoms we enjoy, the behaviors we exhibit, or the ways in which we identify could have made us witches by 1692 standards. At the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a woman wouldn’t be plucked out of the crowd and called a witch for having a pointy hat or flying on a broom—or any of the other stereotypical images that come to our minds. Back then, witches were anyone that was seen as pagan or Wiccan. Pagan, in this sense, was used to refer to anyone who wasn’t Puritan, or someone who otherwise strayed from the conventions of the Puritan faith.
The hysteria that spurred the Salem Witch Trials began in January of 1692 in Salem, MA after 9-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began suffering from fits, contortions, and uncontrolled screaming. Today, many historians believe the girls may have been afflicted by a fungus that caused these symptoms. At the time, medical knowledge wasn’t this advanced. The doctor that came to examine the young girls told their parents that they appeared to be bewitched or cursed.
As more young girls began to fall ill in the same fashion, the town fell into a state of panic. At first, three women were accused of being witches, including a woman named Tituba who was enslaved by Elizabeth Parris’ father. Tituba turned herself and several others in as witches. This resulted in a domino effect of people being accused of practicing “black magic”. Eventually, around 150 people were accused and 20 were murdered.
It is likely that the majority of the women accused weren’t actually practicing Wicca. The tragic murders of these innocent people were primarily based on discrimination against people who were non-Puritan or otherwise different. Many of the accused were also of the lower class. The classism, racism, and sexism of this event are saddening, and lessons from it can still be applied to our culture today. The negative connotations placed on these minorities and their supposed witchcraft was mostly rooted in prejudice and wasn’t at all related to the truth about practicing real Wicca.
Yes, witches are real. Wicca is recognized as an official religion in the United States and Canada. Just as is the case with the mental image you may conjure up when thinking of witches, Wicca may not be exactly what you expect. Yes, there is a magical and spell casting element, but practicing Wiccans are rarely ever malicious. Their spells, which come from a book called the Book of Shadows, are primarily used for things like healing and protection from evil. The rituals, wisdom, and witchcraft passed on through the Book of Shadows are akin to prayer for more popular religions and belief systems. While it appears unconventional to many, witchcraft is very real.
So, as I continue to watch my scary movies and enjoy the Halloween season, I’m going to keep in mind the history of the Salem Witch Trials and the reality of witches. As is the case with anything, becoming educated on a topic can eliminate biases that are unfair and untrue. Lack of education within the Salem government led to the hangings of innocent people during the Witch Trials. And while nothing of that extent has happened recently, the word “witch” still comes with a negative connotation and can lead to imprisonment or death in some countries.
But people who are different from us aren’t inherently threats because of those differences. That applies to everyone. And in the case of witches, keeping an open mind about them led me to learn interesting things about them, such as the emphasis Wicca puts on connecting with nature. Witch or not, we can all learn from each other and our strengths. And that is the best kind of powerful.