5 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About the Salem Witch Hunts

Categories: Random Ephemera

witchhunt1.jpg
Thompkins H. Matteson
"Examination of a witch"
Now that I've finally got the utter failure that was the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven out of my head, I think it's time to address something that bothered me a great deal throughout my coverage of the show. Namely, that people seem to be misled a great deal on what was actually going on at the Salem Witch Hunts.

Witch Hunts are a hobby of mine... reading about them, I mean. Not, you know, going out and looking for third nipples on comely young puritans then denouncing them as abhorrent in the eyes of God. I'm on enough government lists as it is. No, I just read a lot, and today I'm going to offer up some of the fruits of my scholarship.

American Witches Were Not Burned at the Stake: Ask any of the more twitterpated Wiccans out there and they will allude to the Burning Times. What's more iconic than the image of a poor witch being tied up and engulfed in flames as the superstitious peasants cheer on? By my count it happened at least three times in Coven alone.

The fact is that the witches of Salem were hung, not burned, except for a guy named Giles Corey who was crushed to death with big freakin' rocks (Why do they never put that in films?). In fact, burning witches alive was rarely employed even in Europe, and it was usually reserved for those who refused to repent of their crime. Doing so won you the option to be strangled to death before they burned you, though the French were actually really keen on the living barbecue thing. Burning the bodies was always common though, which may account for some of the confusion.

Nothing About the Witch Hunts Was Pagan: A popular way to look at the persecution of witches was that they were part of some pagan, pre-Christian tradition that held sacred Earth Mother beliefs or other such nonsense. Neo-paganism often employs the victims as martyrs for an omnipresent ancient faith.

Almost without question the people being accused were Christians who went to their deaths proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ. They were not accused of consorting with other gods, but with Satan himself, and often confessed to sexual acts with him while under torture. Virtually every religious aspect of the witch hunts was centered very firmly in Christian, not pagan mythology.

The Witches Were Not Persecuted Healers: Another group that loves to include the victims of the witch hunts among their brave martyrs is the organic supplement hawkers. The image of women just practicing natural herbal healing being cruelly cut down in their work by folks that just didn't understand is a very popular one.

It's important to note that at this time period in America most basic medicine was practiced in the home by private people. Yes, there were doctors and of course some were more knowledgeable than others but the herbalist who lived in the woods communing with nature is a modern myth. Midwives did occasionally fall victim to witch accusations, but it had more to do with their connection to abortions and still births. Both were potent ingredients in old fears about blood libels and black Sabbaths stemming from Jewish persecutions in the 12th century that mutated and refused to fade. Still, unless the midwife had made an enemy of a powerful clergyman or doctor they weren't otherwise the focus of witch hunts.

This story continues on the next page.

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28 comments
lee777
lee777

To the Author: Why do you automatically assume "everyone" gets these "things" wrong? I did not get any of them wrong. While I agree Wiccans are, for the most part, nothing more than a bunch of uneducated, vegan, animal rights freaks, "everyone" isn't a Wiccan and some of us have actually studied the Salem witch trials!

silverstein.larry03
silverstein.larry03

IN THE 21st CENTURY, MUSLIMS ARE STILL MURDERING PEOPLE FOR WITCHCRAFT!


CHRISTENDOM HAS LEARNED FROM ITS PAST, BUT ISLAM HASN'T:

19 June 2012


Saudi man executed for 'witchcraft and sorcery' 

A Saudi man has been beheaded on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, the state news agency SPA says. 

The man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, was found in possession of books and talismans, SPA said. He had also admitted adultery with two women, it said.

The execution took place in the southern Najran province, SPA reported.

Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned executions for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia.

Last year, there were reports of at least two people being executed for sorcery.

Mr Asiri was beheaded after his sentence was upheld by the country's highest courts, the Saudi news agency website said. 

No details were given of what he was found guilty of beyond the charges of witchcraft and sorcery. 

Amnesty International says the country does not formally classify sorcery as a capital offence.

But the BBC's Arab Affairs Editor, Sebastian Usher, says there is a very strong prohibition of some practices from the country's powerful conservative religious leaders. 

Some, he explains, have repeatedly called for the strongest possible punishments against anyone suspected of sorcery - whether they are fortune tellers or faith healers. 

In 2010, a Lebanese television presenter of a popular fortune-telling programme was arrested while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. 

Though sentenced to death, after pressure from his government and human rights groups, he was freed by the Saudi Supreme Court, which found that he had not harmed anyone.

More recent cases of death on charges of sorcery include that of a Saudi woman, executed for committing sorcery and witchcraft in December, in the northern province of Jawf, and that of a Sudanese man executed in September, despite calls led by Amnesty International for his release.

ISLAM TELLS THE WORLD THAT ITS THE RELIGION OF PEACE - GRAVEYARD PEACE!

trclark81
trclark81

A large and growing number of Wiccans and Neo-Pagans are rejecting the many pseudo-histories put forth by Gardner and other early Wiccans.  The Burning Times is hardly mentioned among most who've been part of the community for more than a few years.  It's a fair comment to raise in the article as the thread of those who still cling to the more far flung and discredited theories of Gimbutas and Murray is still strong in the community.  However, the bulk of us these days have read Hutton's Triumph of the Moon and done some research of our own and are well aware of the lack of evidence of unbroken lines to stone age matriarchies or intact surviving cults or direct religious ties to the victims of Salem.

Those who still hold tight to the Burning Times story line do so largely on symbolic grounds.  Sure most, if not all, were not witches or pagans, or anything of the sort.  But they were burned for being witches and are viewed as connected by concept on those grounds.  And even so, as you note, it can still happen again.  But even that crowd is dwindling.  With Pagans engaged in modern battles over child custody, right to worship peacefully, and in one case a Pagan children's author getting shot at by slur-shouting thugs, we have more than enough to worry about in the here and now than to try to tangle ourselves up in questionable readings of history.

artsanderson
artsanderson

First I must comment on the use of the word "hung"--so called witches were not "hung" (some people may be hung), however those presumed to be witches were "hanged." One of my great (10 or 12 times removed, I haven't counted) grandmothers, Rebecca Nurse was hanged as a witch at the age of 71 years, along with one of her sisters. Some years later Ann Putnam recanted her accusation against Rebecca Nurse, and the charges against Rebecca were dropped--much to late!

Noelle A. Perry
Noelle A. Perry

actually, what they're saying is that christians were persecuting other christians. which sounds pretty familiar, actually.

Bob_Knows
Bob_Knows

Pardon me, but the Fosters and Lacey women admitted being witches and were sentenced to hang at Salem.  It is dishonest to claim that none of the people were (pagan) witches.  Their hanging was delayed hoping to get more names, and the new Crown Governor put an end to the whole affair before sentences could be carried out.  But Ann Foster died in the prison, and the other two only escaped by happenstance.  Your "facts" are the usual lies that allege hanging witches was only wrong if they weren't witches -- it would have been OK to hang witches.  Shame on you.  And shame on you for telling untruths. 

theripper626
theripper626

They did show the crushing a guy with stones thing in film, it was an unforgettable scene in The Crucible.

dream_the_dark
dream_the_dark

Anyone who attempts to seriously discuss the witch hunts of Western Europe and the US without including references to the Malleus Maleficarum, the misogyny of it's authors and other leaders in the Catholic Church, and the political, societal, and financial motivations behind the Spanish Inquisition, is pretty much going to be missing an understanding of everything important to the discussion, as this author seems to be. Nice fluff piece, but not much on substance - it's all opinion, no references to any actual hard facts and material from the time. No quotes, no new evidence, just lots of opinion and failed attempts at humor. So tired of this type of thing...

Daniel Rodríguez Daál
Daniel Rodríguez Daál

Which hunts were persecutions against Christians??? are you saying that Christians were a persecuted minority?

Drake_Burrwood
Drake_Burrwood

I once ran across a claim that the crime of "Witchcraft" originally was defined as the use of arcane knowlage to commit murder.

Once the proscuters could point to "scholastic" proof that those who gained S-----ic "powers" had commited murder as part of the deal.

They then could point to the same or other "scholastic" sources to find in the discription of these renegades habits, and appearance, to derive, clues to an individuals guilt.  Arcane did not innaitly mean magic, today if a doctor used there specialist knowlage to kill secretly that would be witchcraft.. and you wouldn't have to look for a third nipple.

Unfortunatly most of the proof came out of books picked in the end because they proved what was desired to create the correct outcome.

trclark81
trclark81

Side note: Many, many people before and after Gardner were drawn in by Gimbutas and Murray as both were and are respected in their archaeological fields.  The universal matriarchy and the witch cult theories, however, were both examples of them getting out of their elements and taking a step or three too far.

lee777
lee777

@artsanderson  I also find "hung" irritating, but because most of today's so-called "writers" are hopeless, as well as clueless, I don't even bother correcting them anymore.

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@artsanderson  A consistent error in grammar I should really work on... or at least stop doing so many stories that involves hangings.

silverstein.larry03
silverstein.larry03

IN THE 21st CENTURY, MUSLIMS ARE STILL MURDERING PEOPLE FOR WITCHCRAFT!


CHRISTENDOM HAS LEARNED FROM ITS PAST, BUT ISLAM HASN'T:

19 June 2012


Saudi man executed for 'witchcraft and sorcery' 

A Saudi man has been beheaded on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, the state news agency SPA says. 

The man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, was found in possession of books and talismans, SPA said. He had also admitted adultery with two women, it said.

The execution took place in the southern Najran province, SPA reported.

Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned executions for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia.

Last year, there were reports of at least two people being executed for sorcery.

Mr Asiri was beheaded after his sentence was upheld by the country's highest courts, the Saudi news agency website said. 

No details were given of what he was found guilty of beyond the charges of witchcraft and sorcery. 

Amnesty International says the country does not formally classify sorcery as a capital offence.

But the BBC's Arab Affairs Editor, Sebastian Usher, says there is a very strong prohibition of some practices from the country's powerful conservative religious leaders. 

Some, he explains, have repeatedly called for the strongest possible punishments against anyone suspected of sorcery - whether they are fortune tellers or faith healers. 

In 2010, a Lebanese television presenter of a popular fortune-telling programme was arrested while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. 

Though sentenced to death, after pressure from his government and human rights groups, he was freed by the Saudi Supreme Court, which found that he had not harmed anyone.

More recent cases of death on charges of sorcery include that of a Saudi woman, executed for committing sorcery and witchcraft in December, in the northern province of Jawf, and that of a Sudanese man executed in September, despite calls led by Amnesty International for his release.

ISLAM TELLS THE WORLD THAT ITS THE RELIGION OF PEACE - GRAVEYARD PEACE!

lethesbramble
lethesbramble

@Bob_Knows  

I think you are missing the point. What happened in Salem had little to nothing to do with actual pagan (witches). Salem was about Christians who were believed to be consorting with the devil. 


By the new Crown Governor I take it you mean Governor Phipps. Governor Phipps put a stop to the trails and further arrests for a very good reason. His wife was being questioned regarding witchcraft. 





JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@theripper626  I have only seen The Crucible on stage now that I think about it. I just meant in general, not in films specifically about the Salem trials

chiweeboo2
chiweeboo2

@dream_the_dark  

love your comment ... good words .. :)

yep big pile of crap this opinion piece ... there were well over 100,000 murdered ... many because they did carry knowledge of plants n medicines and "doctors" were just starting to be and were men only .. many because of the misogyny and hatred of the catholic church ... many because they had the nerve to tell some man no when he wanted a little role in the hay ... so many reasons, so many senseless deaths but mostly imo due to the fear and hatred of men and the church 

Bob_Knows
Bob_Knows

@lethesbramble @Bob_Knows    You've been taught the usual Christian foolishness that was behind the original Salem trials.  It was about zealous Christians trying to attack real pagan witches, accusing them of all their usual hateful nonsense.  With all the witch hunting going on in England in those centuries some real pagan witches had moved to the Americas hoping unsuccessfully to evade the witch hunts. The foster family admitted being (real pagan) witches at Salem and were sentenced to hang.  Other members of the same family had been hanged in England during their lifetimes.  The Salem trials were not "bad because the victims were not Witches."  The trials and hangings were evil because they wanted to hang (real pagan) witches. 

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@chiweeboo2  Misogyny alone is not enough to explain the unique madness of the witch panic. Was it present? Absolutely, but it's still larger than just that, and failing to consider that leaves us vulnerable to another. For instance, misogyny fails to address the oft-overlooked but just as brutal werewolf hunts that killed tens of thousands of men in Europe around the same time. In the end there was no one cause, and that's what scares the shit out of me.

But if anyone is interested my primary sources on witch hunts are Nigel Cawthorne's Witch Hunt and Robin Briggs' Witches and Neighbors. Based on my readings I cannot ascribe this terrible and strange hysteria simply to misogyny. There is more than that, though misogyny was of course a major part. 

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@trclark81 @JefWithOneF @Bob_Knows @lethesbramble  Well thank you for that :)

As a long time comic reader I have no illusions about why the witch hunts remain with us in a sensationalistic form. When you break the story down to "weird women who may have sex with the devil get tied up and are at the mercy of their cruel captors" then you've jumped the shark from history to spank material. History is fascinating, but is a hard product to beat. 

trclark81
trclark81

@JefWithOneF @trclark81 @Bob_Knows @lethesbramble No worries, Jefwithonef.  Many folks see it as a Christian witch burning conspiracy around every corner.  I was glad to see a fairly sensible article on the topic.  The Salem witch trials are so caricatured in the modern view unless a person takes the time to look at the actual documents, they have all sorts of ridiculous notions as to what happened.

lethesbramble
lethesbramble

@trclark81 @Bob_Knows@lethesbramble

I just looked at those. What do you know Ann Foster confessed to being a witch only after her own daughter accused her of the crime. She confessed that Goody Carier was the one who made her a witch. That she agreed to serve the devil if only to avoid being ripped to pieces by said devil. 

I wasn't going to add this because I figure it should be pretty obvious, but maybe it isn't. Pagan's don't serve the devil. The devil is a Christian construct so there is no way a real pagan witch would have confessed to serving the devil. The spelling might be different but Ann Foster says she agreed to serve the divill. She doesn't say she is a follower of Cernunnos or any of the old gods. She then begins telling her crimes starting with bewitching John Lovejoys hog to death. 

So I am very curious where Bob_Knows gets his info?

trclark81
trclark81

@Bob_Knows @lethesbramble  Your story line is a fantasy with no documentation to back it.  There's plenty of documentation, however, to support the fact that most of the people who were killed and imprisoned at Salem weren't Pagan, even if - and it's a big if - some were.  

Those, like Ann Foster, who did confess, confessed to various agreements with the Christian devil and doing various forms of severe harm to their neighbors including, but not limited to, murder of children.  That sounds like classic contemporary Christian views on witchcraft.  It certainly doesn't sound even remotely like any form of Paganism past or present.  Is that the history of "real pagans" you want to be associated with?  Pacts with the Christian devil and murdering children?  I certainly don't want a thing to do with it.


The Salem witch trials were bad not because they wanted to hang real pagan anything.  They were bad because people were killed over heresay evidence and confessions under torture of them engaging in pacts with the Christian devil.  To say otherwise is to ignore pretty much every documented detail of the trials themselves.

T
he insistence of those who continue to beat this "burning times" drum serves only to color the better part of the modern Pagan faiths as fools.


Yours truly,

A Pagan who actually cares about history

lee777
lee777

@trclark81 @Bob_Knows @lethesbramble  I have studied the Salem witch trials for years and never come across any "court documents" indicating any of the Salem witches were actually practicing pagans. Titibua, the first accused, wasn't Puritan and was likely influenced by folklore practices from Barbados. However, the tales she told of flying through the air, harming the children, etc. were European in origin, which indicates she heard these tales from Europeans.

In my studies of the witch trials, I did come across a comment by William Barker, age 47, which suggested there were possibly some in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who longed for some of the old practices in England condemned by the Puritan Church. Additionally, Mary Sibley gave Tituba the recipe for the "witch cake," which proves there were those who practiced some forms of folk magic, but I have never found anything to suggest anyone in Salem was actually a practicing pagan.

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