Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.
This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.
To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.
Salem is a town with a conflicted identity. The true history of the death of innocent women and men for a fictional crime is sobering. In a day when few take witches seriously—certainly not many believe that supernatural, green-faced hags fly the unfriendly skies—it is difficult to sense the utter terror the idea once comprised. We are still afraid, but our fears take more current forms. So with its lugubrious history, Salem now demonstrates itself as a model of tolerance. One local source cited the fact that eight or nine hundred modern witches live in the city. Modern Wicca, while taken very seriously by its practitioners, is laughingly appreciated by those who find release in the caricature of fictional, idealized witches. The police cars in the city of Salem even have witches riding broomsticks on them.
In this day of triteness and easy entertainment, it is easier to project the fictional image of the pointy-hatted witch and laugh at our past mistakes. Salem bills itself as “Witch Town” and hosts several witch museums, varying in historical accuracy. Shops throughout the town exploit this image of the harmless witch. It is difficult for the visitor to know which witch believes his or her establishment to be authentic and which is just out for a quick buck.
Places have a feel to them, as any pilgrim knows. The National Park Service, in its visitor center for Salem has a question-board that asks, “How Many Witches were Executed in Salem?” The answer underneath is “None.” Instead, twenty regular people were murdered for a crime they didn’t commit. The witch hysteria happened so early in the history of the town that it appears foundational for all its later developments. Who would go out of their way to visit yet another thriving mercantile port of the eighteenth century, were it not for the tragedy underlying it all? Like children laughing while making guilty eyes at their parents, those who prosper over Salem’s sad history realize that whether modern witches live there or not, religious intolerance is never a heritage to wear proudly. Exploiting a tragedy to make a profit is a time-honored American practice, and the real witch to fear is the one who says, “cash or credit?”
I married a witch. I suppose I ought to clarify that a bit. My wife is descended from Rebecca Nurse’s brother Jacob. Rebecca Nurse was one of those unfortunately hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. My family has been spending the last couple of days touring Salem, seeking to get in touch with our heritage. Yesterday we had the rare opportunity to tour the home of Rebecca Nurse which, remarkably, still stands over 300 years after the tortured events of the late seventeenth century. Our tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the witch hysteria. She noted that in the Puritan (Reformed) mindset, with no science to speak of, evil could only be explained by the Devil. If misfortune came, the Devil was to blame. Even after the “witches” were exonerated (too late to save 20 lives), it was understood that the Devil incited the girls to make their false claims against their ultimately and penultimately righteous neighbors. Without the Devil none of this made sense.
The Rebecca Nurse homestead
Salem was founded as a utopian community free to live out its Puritan religion. It was named after Jerusalem, a city of peace (!). As our guide noted, religious freedom was not the same as tolerance; the Puritans wanted the freedom to celebrate their own religion, but were extremely suspicious of all others. One of those hanged as a witch, George Jacobs, had nearly beaten a neighbor to death simply because he was a Quaker. Rebecca Nurse, however, at 72 years old, was no threat to anybody. She was a member of a Christian community that turned on her. Condemned for charges the nearly deaf woman could not even hear properly, she was hanged for consorting with a mythical Devil.
Rev. Parris's house, where the witch hysteria began
No doubt the religion of the Puritans was a harsh religion with a God nearly as unforgiving as that of Sweeny Todd. The problems occurred, however, when the law came into the hands of religious leaders. There is an allegory and a moral to this story. Today many of the tourist attractions in Salem focus on the need for true tolerance. They no doubt come closer to the spirit of the founder of Christianity than the Puritans ever did. As I stood looking over the hole in the ground that is all that remains of Rev. Parris’ parsonage—the very location the witch hysteria began as his daughter Betty started to act odd after hearing the stories of the slave Tituba—a profound sadness afflicted me. Twenty people died and many lost all their worldly possessions because of an uncontrolled mythology of a church convinced of its own righteousness. An allegory and moral for the twenty-first century indeed. Have we yet learned the lesson of Salem?
Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.
Cedars of Lebanon
My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.
Somebody's eye is watching you.
The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” I borrow the opening words from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis since upon rereading it yesterday I found it consonant with much of mythology. Even the title chosen by Kafka resonates with Publius Ovidius Naso’s (Ovid’s) Metamorphoses. Transformation at the hands of the gods. The idea lives on in the concept of conversion, the religious experience of profound change at the behest of God; some claim a willful hand in their conversion while others simply give God the whole credit. Kafka, one of the great existentialist writers of the twentieth century, considers the transformation without the gods and the terrifying results.
Having discovered the existentialists in high school, I was immediately taken by their writings. Characters find themselves cast into a world devoid of meaning, a world that they can’t understand and in which they often suffer unusual consequences. Little did I know that I was in training for my own experience in the academic world. Academia involves a major metamorphosis, one from which the victim cannot return, and after which she or he will find him or herself ineligible for employment. Reading The Metamorphosis as an often displaced instructor who’s only ever received positive evaluations, I saw much in the novel this time that I could not appreciate last time I read it. In short, I had metamorphosized.
Gregor Samsa, discovering he is now a bug, immediately worries about how to get to work. The painful description of his financial worries and ultimate rejection resonated a little too clearly. Is conversion a positive phenomenon? It is difficult to evaluate. In my experience, those who’ve converted tended to have been pretty decent people in the first place. As Ovid notes over and over again in his lengthy epic poem, when the gods make you into something else a sadness will pervade this new existence. If you survive. As Gregor slowly starves to death (in a fate hauntingly similar to Kafka himself) he finds no divine consolation. The situation is absurd—best just come to terms with that. Kafka could have been a struggling academic in the century after his death and he would have found the same situation applies.
No one is safe. The calamitous tornadoes that have been devastating the south are indeed tragic. Some years ago while working on my weather in the Psalms book, I experienced a brooding fascination with tornadoes. Since I was living in Wisconsin at the time, this was natural enough, but the facet that always gleamed the darkest was the arbitrariness of it all. Tornadoes are notorious for destroying one building while leaving the one next door unharmed in a rapture-like abandon. And there are those who claim the righteous survive while others soberly state the good die young. The fact is life always ends in death, and if tornadoes don’t get you, earthquakes, comets, or microbes will. Our religions help us cope with the fact that consciousness leads to a sense of victimization—things are always after us. Religions teach us that something (God, spirits, Tao, karma) will balance it out. We so hate to see the bad guys win.
Tornadic devastation does have the divine edge, however. Apart from the randomness are the celestial origin, the sharp distinction between those reaped and those sown, and, of course, the angry brow of the frowning wall cloud. What is purely a natural event feels like punishment from our species-specific view. And who doles out the punishment if not a parent stronger than the cowering children? Does religion reassure in this case? The one who is begged for comfort is the same one who sent the storm. As humans the best we can do is help those who are within reach.
The photos emerging from Joplin, Missouri are heart-rending. The more we build the more we stand to lose. Long before European settlers laid claims to this land, cool, dry air masses tumbling over the Rocky Mountains collided violently with warm, moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. For as long as prevailing weather patterns have been established, there have been tornadoes. Believing in God’s protection and blessing we build on dangerous fault lines, in drought-stricken plains, and in the shadows of biding volcanoes. Disasters are a matter of perspective, for they are as natural as the air we breathe. Perspective transforms them to divine chastening and us into helpless children.
That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.
Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.
This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.