A Wiccan Witch In Salem
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Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 01:04:15 PM EST
Since it's only two weeks from Halloween, I made my usual foray into Christian Right Country to find out what their plans are for this Halloween. I don't know where to be sad or just bored that there is nothing original to report. The same folks are still claiming that if you let your child dress up as Spiderman or a Disney princess and collect candy from the neighbors, that child will wind up killing cats and murdering babies as offerings to his or her Dark Master Darth Vader--er,  Lucifer. Or at the very least they'll end up sneaking copies of Harry Potter books which will lead them into corruption and Satanism, with usual cat killing and baby murdering  along the way. You do get the usually advice that you should give out Jack tracts warning of the dangers of Halloween (dead cats and babies,  and eternal damnation, natch) to the poor misguided innocents who expect candy, not a cheesy cartoon pamphlet designed to lure them into Dominionism .  Funny how these people are always screaming "parental rights" when it comes to their kid being exposed to the theory of evolution or accurate info on birth control and STI prevention--but have no qualms about foisting their values on the children of people who don't buy into their rather unpleasant version of Christianity.


I thought I had nothing to write about this year, and then I remembered something that gave me chills.  Back in 91-94, we were living in Brunswick, ME, and we often visited friends near Boston. One afternoon, we decided to head over to Salem. There are number of great museums  there, from the House of the Seven Gables, where Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestor and one of the judges of the witchcraft trials, lived to the Peabody Essex Museum, home to  many exhibits of historical interest but particularly rich in the China Trade. The first time we went we concentrated on that museum  and having a  late lunch. We avoided the more touristy aspects like the plague.

The second time went was a different story.  We had a friend from D.C. who was interested in exploring Salem.  Unfortunately it was  mid-October.  The place was crowded with tourists. There was scarcely room to walk, and I hate crowds.

Oddly, Salem, which makes its money off tourism pertaining to the witch trials, was not where the madness happened.  The actual  collective insanity took place in Salem Village, which is now called Danvers.  The Salem I am discussing here was nearby Salem Town.  Most people neither know or care about something as minor as geography, and modern-day Salem is the place youi go if you are interested in the trials.

For those of you who have only a hazy idea of what happened in 1692, allow me to sum it up.  The daughter and the niece of the local minister, Reverend Parris, began to have fits and bouts of uncontrollable screaming. The doctor concluded they were the victims of witchcraft.  They named Tituba, Parris's Caribbean slave who, when confronted, named others.  The husteria lasted from spring  through September,  often on the basis of "spectral evidence"--no physical proof was required. Cotton Mater and, later Increase Mather, advised the court not to use such flimsy evidence, but until it was finally officially ruled out, nineteen people were hanged at Gallows Hill, and Giles Corey was pressed to death (he refused to plead at all so they couldn't try him). There have been many explanations for this outbreak, ranging from Freudian hysteria to sexual repression to the "afflicted girls" lying about Tituba to save themselves from a beating and then enjoying the attention they got to ergot  poisoning, which produces many of the symptoms the girls claim to have experienced.  The only thing we know for sure was that Tituba was from the Caribbean and may have been a practicioner of vodun or some similar  religion, and that the conditions, according to one researcher, were just right for the growth of the ergot fungus--and that this happened at the tail end of the witch hunts in Europe and Great Britain

For more information, visit here. It has an excellent summary and the home page contains valuable links to original documents. I find the accounts both sad and frightening.

These trials, despite having occurred  in a different town entirely, are the main draw for tourists.  October, needless to say, is the high point of the year. There area lot of neat New Age and Wiccan shops in the area, a witch museum, a wax museum, and the reenactment of the indictment of Bridget Bishop, not to mention a pirate ship. The local Wiccans used to hold an open  circle on Samhain (the Celtic  name for Halloween, a feast of the dead in the old religion) for those who were sincerely interested in learning what real witches do as opposed to what the Halloween Haters claim we do--but   after years of growing harassment  by local rightwing Christians, they've had to move the circle indoors and make invitation only.

The most peculiar part of this day was the fact that  there were Wiccans in robes on every corner, handing out fact sheets on Wicca, standing right next to the Church Ladies in their tasteful dresses who were thrusting Chick tracts at anyone they could reach.  The reason this was so odd is that Wiccans don't proselytize. We view religion as a circle with God/dess at the center and infinite paths all leading to that center. People find the path that is right for them. We also generally don't accept  people who haven't reached legal adulthood into a coven, unless the minor is the child of a coven member.  We DO respect parental rights--and we don't like lawsuits.

Odd as it was to see Wiccans handing out fact sheets on the town square and at the entrances to the various witchcraft-oriented sites, that wasn't the thing that scared me. No, that happened on the third visit, on a rainy weekday. We had parked out car and were heading out from the parking lot for the town center when a large yellow bus (think a school bus) with the name of a Baptist church in Carolina pulled up to park. That's when I looked around and realized that there were a couple of similar church buses parked in spaces set aside just for them, all three of them from Southern churches.  I couldn't figure out why right-wing Southern Christians would want to visit Salem, since it's a very Wiccan-friendly town. A number of the more successful shops are run by witches, including one owned by Laurie Cabot, a very out front and prominent local witch.

I found out pretty quickly why they were there.  

We were wandering out of the shops and were trying decide what to do next: lunch or a search for the Tee shirt I wanted , the one with the large embellished A on it (I have an odd sense of humor).  A young man dressed in something vaguely from the period of the witchcraft trials was playing town crier and inviting us to attend the reenactment of the indictment of Bridget Bishop, promising us audience participation. Now I've done a lot of role playing in my 60+ years, from Dungeons and Dragons and LARPing to the SCA, but the idea of pretending to be part of a jury or panel of judges indicting an innocent woman of a crime punishable by death made me feel sick to my stomach.

Bridget Bishop was the first to be tried,  and she wasn't well-loved in the town.  She kept a tavern and served her customers hard cider even on the Sabbath, Critical of her neighbors and  cantankerous to boot, she was typical of the sort of person who was accused of witchcraft.  Anyone familiar with the trials in England can tell you that you were most likely to be accused if you were a healer/midwife (if you failed to bring a child safely into the world or your herbal cures didn't work, it had to be intentional); a mentally ill or just nonconforming  old woman who was marginal in the community, especially if she didn't attend church faithfully; and a young and pretty widow whose stepson resented paying her the money specified in the marriage contract. Once the hysteria began, however, anyone was fair game for accusations.  Even people with impeccable reputations and faithful churchgoers were accused.

As we were thanking the  town crier, the busload of Southern Christians arrived. He went into his spiel and invited them to participate. That was when it got scary.

I overheard the  group, mostly women and teenagers, talking among themselves. Unlike me, they weren't upset at the notion of indicting an innocent woman for a crime she didn't commit. Nope, they were excited. They'd come her to learn about the evils of witchcraft, including how to detect a witch and how to avoid the lures of Satan which draw the unwary into his unholy service.  If it had been a few years later, they'd have been muttering about Harry Potter. They  were talking about Wicca: Satan's Little White Lie which, despite having been thoroughly debunked and riddled with factual errors, is still a mainstay in right wing Christian bookstores. The author and others like him make a nice living holding seminars for  fundamentalist churches. And they were utterly convinced that Wiccans like me were evil and worshiped the devil (he's part of Christian mythology, not Wiccan; we don't even believe in him).  They also didn't think the First Amendment should apply to Satanists (read: Wiccans and pagans) since it isn't a real religion.

The spirit of 1692 is alive and well.

I don't know why I was so shocked. From 1984 through 1991, I'd lived in North Florida. Every Halloween, local papers would run an article talking about the pagan roots of Halloween, with comments from local right-wing preachers and a small sidebar with  a local Wiccan explaining what Wicca really was about.  The letters to the editor were usually numerous and vitriolic,  denouncing us devil worshipers.  One year I actually wrote one in response--and asked them not to print my address because I really, really didn't want to get hate mail.

Over the years the witch hunters have been busy. A number of well-known pols and preachers have entered the fray.  Take Jesse Helms, for example. The First Amendment protects Wiccans from persecution, just as it does members of more mainstream faiths -- but not everyone was happy about it. In 1985, Helms and  Representative Robert Walker introduced bills to deny Wiccan and other neo-pagan religions the tax exempt status they are granted under the law. Fortunately, those bills were defeated when it came to a vote, and Wicca has been upheld as a religion in several court cases. .

Still, Wiccans face discrimination if they're out of the broom closet.  A good example is what happened at Hood in the late 90's when Wiccans, after jumping through all the hoops and getting a chaplain sponsor, began to hold an open circle on the grounds of Fort Hood. Their group had outgrown the living room where they'd been meeting, and they needed more space. They also wanted to educate non-Wiccans on the teachings of their faith by showing what really happens at rituals, rather than what some Christians believe.  They met peacefully for a time, until a local hellfire and brimstone preacher got wind of it, and he and his pals began to  harass the witches and disrupt their religious services (imagine what would have happened if those witches chose to do something similar outside his church on Sunday morning).  Security had to be called in to protect the witches from the Christians. Not content with that, someone vandalized the altar site the Wiccans had constructed with the base's permission, destroying the attar stone, a half ton piece of granite, and the stones that mark the four directions. And good old Bob Barr organized a Christian boycott of the military, pressuring the military to change its policy of actually following the constitution on religion. There have been similar incidents at the Air Force Academy when a stone circle was erected. It was vandalized soon after it was put up.

There have been some changes for the better.  Wiccans now can have their religious preference listed on their dog tags.  My husband wore his for 15 of the 23 years he was in the Navy. Wiccan veterans buried in military cemeteries can have a pentacle on their tombstone, thanks to one strong Wiccan widow and Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary who led  a campaign to force the VA to be more inclusive (atheists can have the symbol for the atom on their tombstones).

On the home front, Wiccans still face closed-mindedness and discrimination. There have been cases where a parent's Wiccan religion has been used to try to deny the custody of their children/ Students whop wear a pentacle to school are still suspended under idiotic dress codes which consider the pentacle to be either offensive or a gang symbol. New Age and Wiccan stores face opposition from local Christians. Sometimes the opposition escalates into actual harassment -- death threats and  bricks being thrown through windows and pickets outside. These  cases crop up often enough and are usually sensationalized by the press because middle-aged people quietly practicing their faith without baby killing and devil worship don't sell as many papers.

And this is the sort of thing I knew happened, way back in '93 when I heard that busload of Christians working themselves into a lather at the thought of indicting a witch.

Today, you're likely to face lawsuits and protests rather than the gallows, but the spirit is the same. These days it isn't all or even most Christians, but only the more fringe fundamentalists. Yet even someone like my mother-in-law demanded that while we lived under her roof, we would not practice our religion anywhere at any time. In short we were forbidden even to pray. She's a fairly reasonable woman, but under the influence of right wing Christian books and TV (she's been watching the local Christian channel lately, which makes me uneasy), she accepts a lot of lies about non-Christian faiths, including Islam. Those religious tourists were the lunatic fringe, but they were also the tip of the iceberg in many ways.

I live in the South so I keep my eye on what's happening locally, and every so often, anti-Wiccan prejudice rears its ugly head.  In spite of that, I'll be setting up shop on my front porch to distribute candy to the trick-or-treaters as I always do, dressed in a black velvet medieval gown and traditional witch's hat, explaining I'm a good witch like Glinda, while our little fog machine pours out its eerie mist. And after the last of the kids have visited, my husband and I will do our Samhain ritual, because for us, it's both Halloween, a night for costumes and candy, and a holy day for witches when the veil between this world and the next is thin. And as always we'll include a prayer that tolerance continues to grow and hatred is weakened, and that the witch hunters find something better to do with their time--like, perhaps, following their Jesus's  call to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and care for the sick.  I can't help thinking that those Christian tourists  could have done lot of good with the money they spent on their trip to Salem.

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