The unhealed wound of the Witch Trials (and how we could heal it)

Most feminist and women’s studies scholars cast a gimlet eye on the colonial New England history of witch trials.  I’m basing a good chunk of what I’m talking about in this post in the works cited and some of the analysis done by Carol F. Karlsen in her 1987 book Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England.

The reason that I’m posting all five of my Puritan legacy pieces on the same day is so you can click back and forth between them to see the breakdowns of really complex topics. The witch trials were not a simple subject, and must be viewed in the light of the cultural context that surrounds them.

Acknowledgement vs Healing

Most American high school students remember reading The Crucible. And almost everyone remembers reading The Scarlet Letter and understanding how the Puritans treated promiscuity. For most people, this feels like a well-trodden path, not an unacknowledged bit of history.

But how would you describe the witch trials to a teenage foreign exchange student?   Let me give it a shot:

Um, people back then believed in witches. There were weird signs for witches like moles and stuff, that people used to declare that witches were evil. Witches could be men or women. They probably weren’t evil. They might have just been slutty, which was a really big deal back then. A lot of so-called witches were killed. Some just got tortured like dunked in water or something. It was crazy. Then people came to their senses, I don’t remember why.

Until I set about researching this topic, that was pretty much the sum total of my education on the matter, and I’ve been to Salem.

So here are some cogent facts about the witch trials to help you understand why I say this is shadow work:

  • The Puritans really did believe that the devil and demonic forces were active elements of their lives.  Witches and witchcraft were necessary parts of sermons and rules of daily living.
  • The 1630s in particular was a turbulent time in terms of how Puritans saw and preached about women.  Woman-as-Evil was shoved into the cultural shadow, which created some tension that had to come out somewhere.
  • Many of the people accused of witchcraft were thus accused tied to previous sexual trials, and an overwhelming accusation of “discontent.”  Pride was the Devil’s own sin, and their discontent with their pre-ordained lot in life was probably the #1 element of an accused witch.  Think about lovely Eve from Genesis Chapter 3, and she is discontent, wanting to “be as the gods” and know good and evil.
  • Yes, men were executed for witchcraft (including John Carrington, who is one of my ancestors!) but roughly 86% of witches accused were women, and 94% of those convicted were women.
  • Further, 58% of those women were over child-bearing age, (so, um, useless).
  • And many of them were widows who had inherited property – or who stood between neighbors, sons or brothers and their own property. Remember that whole intense interest in land-ownership?  Yeah… Why were so many neighbors and family members accusing witches? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Puritan status in the  social hierarchy was tied to wealth, and it was not okay for women to stand as independent agents among men in that hierarchy.

How did the trials end, after accusing 344 people and executing 35 people between 1620-1725 (in a Colonial New England population of only 300,000)?  Welp, basically, too many rich people and too many men were accused of witchcraft, and the Governor made a law before his wife could be put to trial.

This was not as big a catastrophe as the decimation of the Native American population by these same exact people. (See population chart). This isn’t as bad as most of the shadow things I’m going to write about, actually.

But in some ways, it’s quite possibly one of the most pervasive elements of the cultural shadow in terms of our modern American culture.  One way to look at a culture’s shadow is to look at its villains.  Our fairy tales are rife with wicked witches.

It seems in recent years that our culture has set about trying to redeem the witch.  Wicked redeems the Wicked Witch of the West. Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent  is another example. We have Bewitched  and Charmed and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we still have Salem and even Marvel’s superheroine Scarlet Witch.  Of course, the Halloween tropes still exist, and for every Samantha there is a film like The Craft.

Have we really acknowledged what was going on? Have we ever really healed from it?

How do we Heal? Fix Salem.

Salem is awful. This write up on Cracked is more modern than my childhood memories of the town.

You know what I remember?  A dungeon-styled wax museum with wax mannequins in various phases of torture.  To  an eight-year-old kid, it was pretty traumatizing, and not at all fun.  It certainly wasn’t healing.

There is a better way to do this.  The way we heal cultural wounds is to acknowledge them solemnly. Honor the people they harmed. Set up respectful monuments  so that others can see and feel the impact of the horror of the event.  We did this for 9/11. We did this for the Vietnam War, and in fact every war we’ve been in.  This is why monuments matter.

And this is why an amusement park is not an appropriate way to remember the torture and killing of witches.  A wax museum isn’t empathy.

Until we treat the witch trials with empathy, we won’t heal the wound that still casts women as evil.

5 thoughts on “The unhealed wound of the Witch Trials (and how we could heal it)

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