Tag Archives: witches

Imagine Devils

One of the more encouraging events of recent times took place on Tuesday. In elections across the country many public offices were won by women. After a year of official misogyny from the Comrade in Chief—it started long before the election, of course—I felt hope for the first time. You see, I’d been reading Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. I’ve been interested in witches as part of my general exploration of religious views of monstrosity, and in the Early Modern Period, witches were still lurking in the imagination of many. Karlsen’s book isn’t focused solely on Salem. There were other outbreaks of witchcraft accusations, and a general air of suspicion had hung over New England from its founding.

Why women? Karlsen’s question haunts much of human history. Why one gender, or gender construct, why one race, or racial construct, feels itself superior to others is an issue not easily resolved. It doesn’t come, necessarily, from being a “white” male, but it is a disease that primarily effects that demographic. It’s a myth of superiority. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is not an easy book for a man to read. Centuries of bad behavior don’t exonerate those who, although their belief was sincere, found an outlet for their faith in the destruction of others. Karlsen demonstrates that quite often the background issues were those of inheritance—in a patriarchal society, land passed to male heirs. Women who owned property complicated a social picture that was already under stress. Consider: any family with two sons would halve (although the proportions were not equal) its land each generation. The only way to keep the wealthy wealthy was to snatch land wherever they could.

It wasn’t so simple as that, but the basic economics—which haven’t changed much—set colonial New England up for disaster. Birth control was considered evil. Men still had to be gratified, however, and population increased as land size remained the same. The system is untenable. Just a year ago the electoral college made love to an angry white man. A man who “owns” lots of “valuable” property. A man who demeans women and those of other “races.” When his own shady dealing come into the light he cries “witch hunt!” History is full of ironies. One of the greatest of them in the fact that women have been held back long after circumstances had advanced enough to allow equality in a stable society. There may still be witch hunts, but they flow in the direction they always have—toward those denied autonomy and civil rights. Maybe Tuesday was finally a sign of hope.

Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Whither the Weather?

The weather which we’re having, showing the impact of imaginary global warming, has been quite dramatic of late. I recently had occasion to be out driving during one of the more intense weather events when the sun broke through only to reveal an impressive array of clouds heading in—all the way from the ground to the gray ceiling of the firmament itself. It was quite beautiful in a threatening way. Of course, I’ve been fascinated by the weather for years, going so far as to write a book about weather in the Bible. A friend recently sent me a story reminding me of an under-recognized aspect of witchery. Our standard cultural myth suggests witches are all about casting spells on your cow, or your family. In reality, many witchcraft accusations were about bad weather.

The story by Pollyanna Jones, “Storm Callers—The Art of Weather Magic,” describes beliefs in witches and weather magic. I couldn’t help but think of our current situation. We live in an age of empowered climate change deniers who also happen to be misogynists. Can this be mere coincidence? 45 and others of his caliber seems to think that women are the cause of all masculine problems, which are, after all, the only problems that really matter. The red states do seem to have a preference for the dark ages, overall. I don’t need to worry about them reading this because electricity is of the Devil and the internet doesn’t really exist. It’s amazing how liberating blinders can be. February was spring this year and April feels like January. Must be some woman to blame.

The truly tragic aspect of this tiresome repetition of misogyny parading as righteousness is that the myths behind it have been thoroughly debunked. The atmosphere’s so complex that even with all our understanding of fluid dynamics and chaotic systems we still can’t be sure what tomorrow’s weather will be like. The atmosphere, by definition, is larger than the surface of the earth and is constantly trying to adjust itself like a passenger on a long-distance commute. Yet we go from McCarthyism to Watergate to Reaganomics to 45 rpm, each one as tawdry as the previous attempts to blame the poor for the woes of the rich. “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Scripture saith. That doesn’t sit well with true believers, however. It’s much easier to hunt for witches than to deal with facts.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?


Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

New World Witches

MarWitchOne of the most coveted phenomena in the publishing world is the bad review. Controversy sells a book like nothing else. It wasn’t because of the controversy, however, that I read Alex Mar’s Witches of America. Looking back, I wasn’t even sure of what to expect. Witches can mean many things and there is little one can do, beyond reading the blurbs and summaries (and who has time for that?) to know beforehand what a book’s really about. I like books about witches, so I just read it. I soon found myself engrossed in a spiritual memoir. Perhaps even more than books on witches, I’m drawn to women’s experience of religion. Many such accounts have haunted me over the years, but Mar’s story was different than most I’ve read. Women often write of escaping intolerant, priapic religions of a conservative stripe. Mar may be the first account I’ve read of a spiritual seeking becoming part of modern paganism.

The negative reviews largely focus on what they perceive as a false bill of goods. A woman passing herself off as an authentic seeker just to write a book that violates confidences. As a writer, and as someone who knows authors, I was a little taken aback at this. Those who know writers know they’re disruptive personalities. They look at things differently than most other people do. More than that, their experiences are subjective and must be explained in that vein. Some reviewers claim Mar was just wanting to write a book. Writers know that books write the authors. Spiritual experience is notoriously difficult to capture in words. I’ve read plenty of books about modern witchcraft, including the balanced, academic titles everyone commends. Mar was able, however, to explain the lure far better by taking a personal approach.

There are inherent dangers to sharing your innermost experiences. Other people are involved and honest perceptions will sometimes hurt. A writer finds it difficult to hold back. Spiritual experiences are something complex, multilayered, and scandalous. Often I was told, as an undergraduate at a conservative Christian college, that mystical experiences were to be avoided. They are powerful, frightening, and addictive. I can’t say if Mar violated any confidences, but it seems to me that the portraits she paints of witches are complimentary, and generally feel heartfelt. Then again, Christianity has been analyzed seven ways to Sunday, so it may feel like violation if a religion is still largely secretive. Were it not for the negative reviews, I would’ve never guessed that I’d read anything more shocking than the spiritual memoir that offers other ways of looking at what we think we already know. Oh, and did I mention the book was about witches?

The Devil Made Me

TheWitchesWitch-hunts, I suspect, will become all the rage again if a certain presidential candidate is elected. The fear of witches is not easily explained in a world driven by materialism, but certainly misogyny plays an unholy role in much of it. Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 has been selling well. Since my wife is one of the many descendants of the Towne family that suffered three witch accusations resulting in two executions (Rebecca Nurse, Mary Esty, and Sarah Cloyce) we read this book together. It is a detailed account of the year we went mad. A year when being different, especially not being Puritan, and not being male, was dangerous. Religious tolerance was not a gleam in the colonists’ eyes since religious freedom translated into not being forced into the government church, not allowing others the same privilege. Indeed, as Schiff points out, religious tolerance was considered by many to be a satanic idea. If ministers starved due to such freedom, it would be easy for Satan to take over. As it was, the Dark Prince seems to have done a pretty good job among the Puritans without such tolerance.

The idea of the Devil has been (and still is) the ultimate scapegoat. People in a capitalist society are naturally frustrated—surprisingly few see this—and frustration always seeks a reason for its own existence. That is patently clear at Salem: blame the Indians, blame the French, blame the Quakers, blame the women. Any and all may be agents of the Devil. Even the descriptions of the Lord of Darkness varied so much that, were he a human, no one could be quite sure who it was they saw. The Devil always takes the form of your enemy. All it takes is an influential clergy willing to push tense believers over the edge. Soon we begin building walls. Then we build gallows.

Religious tolerance has always been a frightening thought. Protestantism challenged a somewhat uniform Catholicism and the mite of a doubt burrowed deeply into peoples minds: is my religion the wrong one? Tolerating other religions means admitting that yours might be wrong. The logic that plays itself out is a terrifying one to some. Belief is never easily changed. States can’t stand dissenters. The only capital crime for which the federal government still executes citizens is treason. Treason sits uncomfortably on the other side of the coin whose obverse reads “tolerance.” You’d think that three centuries would be long enough to learn something. Unfortunately some lessons—often tragic ones for the powerless—have to be played out over and over before we start to comprehend that Satan can be anyone we want him to be.