Witches, warlocks & wizards…oh my! Halloween-Part Two

The modern representation of witches in most media… Wizard of Oz, for example, while it is not recent does show one of the best examples of good versus bad characterizations with two “bad” witches and a good witch. One of the witches is killed by being squashed by a house and the other melts. When Dorothy Gale and Toto are whisked away to Oz by a tornado, she comes across various people and creatures in her adventure home on the Yellow Brick Road toward Emerald City. Dorothy meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Of course, this traverse through the forest leads to the line, “Lions, tigers, and bears… Oh my!” as they are all afraid of various things as time goes on. Dorothy eventually makes it to the Wizard only to find out that he isn’t a real wizard at all. However, he does help her get home.

The modern representation is somewhat different from the historical experience, however. Throughout history people have been accused of witchcraft for various reasons whether they, themselves, believed it to be true or not. This would often be the case if there was illness in a village or if someone thought that a person was just a little odd and lived on the outskirts of what was considered normal. However, it was a rarity before 1400 for witchcraft to actually be prosecuted more than maybe standing in the stocks for a day. The 15th century changed this as more and more people began to believe that witches not only existed but were a problem. The Malleus Maleficarum, or “The Hammer of Witches,” written in 1486 by a group of German Dominicans, was a guide on how to find and identify witches and then interrogate them once they were found out. People were convinced even more so by this that witchcraft was a heresy and that anyone accused was in league with the Devil. This was something that both Protestants and Catholics agreed on and the book sold more copies than anything else other than the Bible for over a century.

The fear of witchcraft and the hunt for witches traveled all over Europe. King James VI of Scotland and I of England became more familiar with witch hunts when he traveled to Denmark to meet his wife. Denmark had long been familiar with the witch hunt and James became interested as he considered it to be a form of theology.

James was present for the first major witch trial in Scotland in North Berwick. In 1597 he wrote Daemonologie, a book based on his experiences. He had observed the questioning and torture of women who were accused of being witches. Daemonologie was used by Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Macbeth as a source.

Eventually the public interest began to die down and James also lost interest as he grew older. James had become skeptical and wrote to his son Henry that he congratulated him on “the discovery of yon little counterfeit wench. I pray God ye may be my heir in such discoveries … most miracles now-a-days prove but illusions, and ye may see by this how wary judges should be in trusting accusations.”(Wikipedia)

While things were starting to slow down in Europe, they were really just getting starting in New England. In the rural community of Salem Village, where Puritans made their home, they had just had a smallpox epidemic, fear of attack from local Native Americans along with various other concerns such as war and local rivalries with Salem Town. This atmosphere of fear and resentment against the outsider did not help when accusations against witches started coming forward. It all started in January 1692, with two young girls who began having “fits” which were diagnosed by a doctor as bewitchment. This was followed soon after by a line of other young girls exhibiting similar symptoms to the first two. In February, three women were arrested. One was a homeless beggar, one was a slave belonging to one of the girls families, and one was an elderly woman. All three were outside the norm of society in some way. Only Tituba, the slave woman, confessed. She not only confessed but named others as well and some of these also accused others. While there were some men among the accused, the majority of those accused were women. Puritans believed that women were naturally weaker and thus their souls were more susceptible to the Devil.

These accusations led to trials in a court called the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem Town. This court was dissolved as trials slowed down and in 1693 they stopped. The Massachusetts General Court declared that there would be a day of fasting in January 1697 in regards to the Salem Witch Trials. Many of the leaders involved apologized publicly and several of the decisions were later reversed. This allowed for financial restitution for heirs and the restoration of reputation and the good name of those who had been accused. There are several memorials that have been added over the years in both Danvers (Salem Village) and Salem (Salem Town). In 1992, the 300th anniversary was marked a new memorial in Danvers and by the dedication of a memorial park in Salem with stone benches for each person who had been executed in 1692.

So, while what we read in books, see in movies or buy in the costume store at Halloween might be fun, the modern stereotype of the witch took a long time to get to where it is. The history isn’t exactly a fairy tale, and back then there wasn’t a Glinda the Good Witch to ask if you were a good witch or a bad witch or even a witch at all.

#18 shows what may have been the inspiration for the “witches hat”

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