Witch Hunt

Original documents and manuscripts fascinate me, and much of my research as a Ph.D. student over the last few years has focused on historical sources and archival materials. That is why when I heard on NPR about Katherine Howe’s The Penguin Book of Witches (2014), a compilation of original sources about witches dating from 1582 to 1813, I determined to get my hands on it.

penguin book of witches cover

The book did not disappoint.  It is a chronological edited collection of original documents about witch trials (including the most infamous in Salem, Massachusetts), confessions, and defenses.  I think my favorite document was Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), in which he calls into question the validity of witch trials and hunting, noting that people have been “accusing their innocent neighbors . . . to let loose the devils of envy, hatred, pride, cruelty, and malice against each other; yet still disguised under the mask of zeal for God” (p. 200).  He has a point, that perhaps our judgment of others is a worse devil than the one we suspect our neighbor of serving.  It reminds me of Christ’s idea that we should get the beams out of our own eyes before looking at the motes in others’ eyes.

While I read these accounts, I took note of exactly which characteristics make a witch.  What qualities does she have that cause people to fear her or accuse her of witchcraft?  I came up with the following.

Witches practice medicine.  They can heal, but also curse. They can give remedies and comfort, but they can also cause sickness.

Her abilities to heal mimic what God can do, but these miracles are performed for glory rather than for God. This makes them a threat to Christianity.

Witches do not fear God.

Witches are often poor or outcasts. They might have a poor social reputation among the community. They may not attend church as regularly as others expect them to.

The majority are women.

They are often thought to be ungovernable and may have challenged authority or hierarchy. They are described as rebellious and disobedient. They don’t behave in the way the community demands.

They might be angry because of abandonment by a husband.

They are a sexual threat.

They have a mark on their bodies called a witches’ teat.

They attempt to control or have control over somebody. The victims are often infants and children.

They float in water.

Later on, as people became less concerned with prosecuting and punishing witches, the reputation of a witch looks more like this:

Witches are familiar with and practice folk magic.

They are often consulted for advice and have ethos in a community.  They are cunning, have occult skills, and might be respected or feared.

While a lot of this might seem ridiculous and antiquated, Howe makes the case in her introduction that during these centuries, “witchcraft was a legitimate, but dangerous, category for explaining reality” (p. xii).  While this view was very real to those in the past, it would be a mistake to claim that we are free from such thinking today.

As I read, I kept thinking of modern-day “witch hunts” and the way in which we all tend to fear what is other, different, or outside of our experiences.  We may reject people for their skin color, religious beliefs, or lack of fashion sense.  The word “witch hunt” comes from the tradition of witches presented in this book and the worst episode of it occurred in Salem.  It wasn’t just a turn of phrase to characterize McCarthyism as a witch hunt.  It really was, in the most literal sense of the word and tradition, a search to root out those who were different, outcasts, possibly powerful, and antithetical to a particular kind of hierarchy.  While this is a well-known recent historical example of a witch hunt, I can think of smaller but just as damaging witch hunts that have occurred on my local and community levels in the last twenty years and in the last two years.  We continue to engage in this sort of fear-based reaction to others.

There’s an interesting connection of all of this to the Christian origin story of Adam and Eve.  While I’m pleased that my own church leaders have called Eve’s act in the Garden of Eden a good choice and a necessary one for the agency and ultimate purpose of man, I know there’s a long tradition of condemning Eve and her daughters through the centuries for this one act. In one account in Howe’s book, we learn “that sex [female] is frailer then [sic] man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in these gross snares of the Devil, as was over well proved to be true, by the serpents deceiving to Eve at the beginning” (p. 37).  This view of Eve is related to the “witch” characteristic of disobedience. Another document explains that “rebellion and disobedience is as the sin of witchcraft, that is, a most horrible and grievous crime, like unto that wicked, capital, and mother sin” (p. 45).  I can clearly see a prejudice against women in these statements, but I can also see some faulty logic, such as basing one’s opinion of an entire sex on a single incident.

Overall, this is a fascinating book of primary sources with excellent introductions contextualizing the sources. I enjoyed this read, although somewhat dense and demanding because of the old uses of language.  I highly recommend this one, especially if you of are interested in archival research and if you find yourself looking for something frightening to read next October.

28 thoughts on “Witch Hunt

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  1. Never heard of that book. I’ll be looking out for it now though. I also like Diane Purkiss’s the witch in history. It refers to primary resources and looks at the different attitudes to witches from 1600s to modern day.

  2. Emily, this sounds very interesting. It is not ironic, strong women who practiced herbal, homegrown medicine scared people. Maybe the embellishments ands accusations were made to cast doubt on them, I don’t know. As for the McCarthy Communist Witch Hunt, it is also not ironic that Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” about the Salem witch trials was written during this time. It was his way of showing McCarthy for what he was.

    Even, in the last forty years, strong women have been criticized by people protecting their version of what women should be – Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, e.g. As you know, as on old male, I for one believe we need more of these strong women in power. Collaboration is greatly needed, as evidenced by the 20 female senators meeting regularly to find common ground. I wonder how Mr. McCarthy would feel about that.

    Great post, BTG

    1. Oh yeah! Great insight. I had forgotten that The Crucible was written at the same time. I LOVE that play. It is a must-read for everybody. I love what you’re saying about strong women, and how they continue to “scare” people. We do tend to attack their character or their “femaleness” when women get “out of place.” It seems that witches survive!

      1. Emily, the witches do survive, but the letter “b” replaces the “w” when someone wants to denigrate strong women. A strong male leader does not get that kind of criticism, even when they are an asshole. It is akin to using Nazism to define anything you don’t agree with. So, if a woman is called a bitch, it is because the labeler does not have a very good argument to define why he (or she) does not like what the person is all about. For example, Barbra Streisand is dismissed this way by some, yet here is a woman who knows what she wants and how to produce a high quality performance. Sorry for the diatribe. BTG

        1. I love your diatribes! And yes, you are making connections that I’ve thought about before but not in connection with the historical witch. You are so right!

  3. I don’t think it’s at all unconnected, either, that when medicine became more than just a barber pulling out teeth, the men began running the women out of midwifery, charging that their practices were unsanitary.

  4. This is really interesting. I’ll definitely look into this book. I’m also curious if witches in other cultures were outcasts too, or if it’s just the female witch vs. male religion in Western culture that caused such a broo-ha-ha through history and as you pointed out, still today. It seems to me that in other cultures when witch doctors are male, they are revered and I wonder if that reverence extends to female witches in those societies too.

    1. Very good point. This book was focused on British and American “traditions” so we could very well see some more adoration or acceptance of female healers in other cultures. That WOULD be an interesting comparison!

  5. I am reading The Winthrop Woman right now, which is historical fiction of the early colonies. It shows the early Pilgrims in a rather unsympathetic light, actually, as a group of power hungry crackpots, led by some pretty oppressive men, who fled England, not so much to practice their religion without interference, but, rather, to bludgeon everyone else into submitting to their humorless, intolerant version of faith, which condemned everyone who wasn’t them to the eternal fires of hell.

    It’s interesting.

    Jessica Spotswood also wrote a really interesting YA series set in AU America – The Cahill Witch Chronicles – that tackles some of these ideas head on.

    1. Wow, that does sound interesting! And accurate… This stuff about witches would probably interest you after you finish The Winthrop Woman. I bet you’ll see a lot more connections than I did since I wasn’t thinking about Puritan cultural and religious values before starting. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  6. I like the concept of witches. I write horror and weird fiction, so witches make fine characters for me. Not good ones like Gandalf and Harry Potter, though. Really terrible ones. When I was 12, a story was told in the church of one of our pastors who had gone to preach on a certain island in Lake Victoria, Kenya. The event was to go on for a week, beginning Sunday to Saturday. But, for three days, he could not preach. He was sick, constantly fatigued and sleepy. He also suffered severe headaches and his chest hurt. Instead of praying for the people whose hopes he had gone to revive, he became the one in need of prayers.
    On the fourth day, when his condition was worse, one of the elders was appointed to stay with him throughout the night. Sometime after 3AM, the elder was woken up by horrible groans and wheezing sounds coming from the pastor’s chamber. He rushed in and found a huge woman sitting on the pastor’s chest. She was enormous and terrible; she was stark naked and she was blowing fire from her nose while smoke came out of her ears. She knocked the elder down on the floor and walked over him. He said he was too paralyzed to breathe, let alone scream.
    The following day, when the story had spread throughout the congregation, one man confessed that on the day the worship began, he had seen that very woman carrying a fully grown hippopotamus over her head and out of the water, as if it was nothing. He said he had been too confounded to believe it himself, which was why he never told anyone.

    1. Oh wow! This is an incredible story. My brother did some preaching for our church in Honduras, and while he didn’t go into any detail, he was adamant that strange things happened there in ways they didn’t happen here at home. This kind of stuff is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing. And good luck with your writing!

  7. I am so happy I stumbled onto this (and your blog). I have a strange fascination with witches and Hallow’s Eve, and am writing a story that would be greatly improved by firsthand experiences! Thanks, I look forward to reading about more of your finds!

      1. Most of my interest falls in the fantasy genre, and centuries past willingness to kill someone based on ridiculous tests (if she lives she’s a witch, if she dies, she’s dead), also one story we read in high school about a witch that was hung and didn’t die, and lived with a mangled neck amongst those who tried to kill her. When I finish my story I’d welcome your review of it (private or public)!

  8. Very interesting, I think I might buy this book. Your comment about the fact that the strange or what does not correspond to a norm is feared is good.

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