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.