Witches, part 1

One of the connections that the dominant US culture makes with Halloween is witches. So this Halloween I want to reflect with you about witches.

Witch is from the Old English wicce, meaning "female magician, sorceress." As Christianity spread through England, it came to mean "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts."

There were men, supposedly, who practiced witchcraft, too -- wizards and sorcerers. In fact, wicce is the Old English feminine and wicca the masculine for such practitioners. But this "dealings with the devil" idea has a very long-standing much stronger association with women. The Laws of Ælfred, established in about 890, for example, identified witchcraft as specifically a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons. Behind this, we see women's wisdom, power, or authority was resented and suspect.

The Biblical verse, Exodus 22:18, declares, in the King James, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The word rendered as "witch" meant "female sorcerer." That the feminine was specified apparently indicated that casting spells was much more common among women among the ancient Hebrews -- or that the patriarchal interests of the time were more threatened by women than men engaging in sorcery.

With that as background, let us turn to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It all began in January of that year with accusations against three people:
  • Sarah Good, a beggar who was disliked for constantly, well, begging – and showing little gratitude for what she received while cursing those who declined;
  • Sarah Osborne, also peripheral to the community, who was a widow engaged in a protracted court battle over the settlement of her husband’s will; and
  • Tituba, the Indian slave of the town minister’s family.
The two Sarahs maintained they were innocent of any devil consorting, but Tituba gave a long and lurid confession with all manner of strange details about her pact with the devil and blasphemous rituals. That really got the whole community worked up, and the search was on for others who might have participated. Eventually, 19 people would be executed: 14 women and 5 men.

Stacy Schiff, in her book, The Witches: Salem 1692, writes:
The youngest of the witches was five, the eldest nearly eighty. A daughter accused her mother, who in turn accused her mother, who accused a neighbor and a minister. A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons-in-law their mothers-in-law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed. A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out. In Andover, the community most severely affected – one of every 15 people was accused. The town’s senior minister discovered he was related to no fewer than 20 witches. Ghosts escaped their graves to flit in and out of the courtroom, unnerving more than did the witches themselves. Through the episode surge several questions that touch the third rail of our fears: Who was conspiring against you? Might you be a witch and not know it? Can an innocent person be guilty? Could anyone, wondered a group of men late in the summer, think himself safe? How did the idealistic Bay Colony arrive – three generations after its founding – in such a dark place? Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. You can blame atmospheric conditions or simply the weather: Historically, witchcraft accusations tended to spike in late winter. Over the years, various parties have played the villain, some more convincingly than others. The Salem villagers searched too to explain what sent a constable with an arrest warrant to which door. The pattern was only slightly more obvious to them than it is to us, involving as it did subterranean fairy circles of credits and debits, whispered resentments, long-incubated grudges, and half-forgotten aversions. Even at the time, it was clear to some that Salem was the story of one thing behind which was a story about something else altogether. In 300 years we have not adequately penetrated nine months of Massachusetts history. Things disturb us in the night. Sometimes they are our consciences. Sometimes they are our secrets. Sometimes they are our fears.
* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Witches"
See also:
Part 2: Persecutions Sometimes End
I am indebted to my colleague Rev. Erica Baron, upon a sermon of whose I have relied.

No comments:

Post a Comment