When I travelled to Salem, Massachusetts this past summer, I expected to see an ordinary town trying to forget a catastrophic series of events. I was surprised when I saw an image of a witch on the side of an icecream shop, and witch souvenirs sold at the gift shop.
After I visited the Salem Witch Museum, I understood why Salem wasn’t in a rush to forget their troubled history. The Salem Witch Trials were not only a tragedy, as I had previously thought; they were the result of a terrible misunderstanding. It is a misunderstanding which still exists in our modern world – and one that becomes apparent at this time of year.
My favourite Halloween costume I wore as a child – second only to the year I was an icecream cone – was when I was a witch. My mom made costumes for my younger sister and I: long black skirts, black flowing capes, and pointed hats (mine was green, and my sister’s was purple). To complete the ensemble, we carried around broomsticks.
Last year in English class, when I was studying Shakespeare’s MacBeth, I learned about different portrayals of witches in pop culture. Thanks to Wicked and The Wizard of Oz, green skin is a common attribute of witches. Other television shows, movies, and books have given witches different traits: long noses, warts, purple hair, broomsticks to fly on, cauldrons to stir, and magic potions typically involving human limbs.
Witches are Halloween icons (I know because I dressed up as one), and they hold a fairly prominent place in pop culture and Halloween festivities. The word ‘witch’, however, and the idea of witchcraft, did not find its origin in a Halloween tale; and modern depictions of witches do not at all reflect the origins of witchcraft.
At the Salem Witch Museum, I learned that the word ‘witch’ is not inherently tied to evil (as pop culture had made me believe it was). It was, in fact, tied to a religion. The wicca religion, according to British civil servant Gerald Gardner, began as a ritual associated with fire, animal fertility, and the curing of disease. Wicca “is a very peaceful, harmonious and balanced way of life which promotes oneness with the divine and all which exists.”
Around the 15th-18th centuries the Medieval Church, wanting people to return to their way of thinking, made the witch into an evil individual. By turning the religious figures of wicca into devils and demons, they frightened people away from the religion. This, unfortunately, was only the beginning of a troubled history of the religion.
I mentioned earlier that the Salem Witch Trials – in which a significant number of women were imprisoned or burned at the stake for purportedly practicing witchcraft – were the result of a misunderstanding.
The trials began when one young woman fell ill and allegedly cried out the names of women who were then believed to be witches (who had caused the girl to become sick). Following this, several other young girls had similar symptoms. It is possible that it was something the girls ate that caused them to feel and act the way they did; meaning witchcraft was not involved, and were the cause of a serious mix-up.
The women burned at the stake in Salem were not witches, or at least not the kind of witches that Hollywood perpetuates. Some may have practiced wicca – but even so, that did not make them evil. While researching wicca, one thing I found particularly interesting was that witches believe in a “rule of three”which is similar to the concept of karma.
Simply put, the rule of three states that what we put out into the world comes back to us multiplied by three. So if we do good for the world, good things (times three) will come into our lives. However, if we do evil for the world, then terrible things will happen to us. If a witch did something evil – like brew a potion of human body parts – then the rule of three dictates something three times worse than that would happen to them; meaning they probably wouldn’t do it.
Recently, an article in an article in The Huffington Post declared witches “the ultimate feminist icon” because their power comes from within (and not from an external source), and therefore they are “self- defining”. “Witches are having a moment in pop culture,” the article boldly states.
I understand where the article is coming from, but it’s hard for me to see witches as icons to aspire to when I consider the history of women being targeted for their religion (and burned at the stake, no less). The exact happenings of the Salem Witch Trials are fuzzy – at the Salem Visitor’s Centre, my dad bought a book that essentially disproves the facts we learned at the museum – but the fact that women were killed for being thought of as witches remains crystal clear.
I don’t think witches are a feminist icon, and I don’t even think they should be a Halloween costume. When we idolize and dress up as witches (in their negative, pop-culture connotation, not with a religious lens) we discount their tragic past and perpetuate a serious misconception.
Of course that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not of the wicca religion. It’s not up to me to say, with absolute certainty, that witch costumes are offensive. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into this. Maybe the word ‘witch’ has been reclaimed. But even so, I just can’t see the modern meaning being completely separate from the word’s fatal history.