This is something I originally wrote for my creative non-fiction writing class. Even though Halloween has come and gone and we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in just a few days, I’ve learned something from my visits to Salem this year that have helped me think about what’s currently going on in the world.
Online, people post things, share things and say things, most of the time without doing much research to support their opinion. An opinion is an opinion and that’s fine but what I think we really need now more than ever is education. When we log onto Facebook we’re immediately bombarded with thousands of opinions, judgments and arguments often advertised as facts.
When I went to Salem I had not expected to meet people who called themselves witches and practiced a religion called Wicca but I did. I still don’t know much about it, but before Salem and meeting these people I knew pretty much nothing. I had been warned to stay away from witchcraft, never use a Ouija board or mess around with magic; I had heard stories of human and animal sacrifices and devil worshiping. I won’t lie, it scared me, as things we don’t understand often do. Just like when the girls in Salem started experiencing strange symptoms in 1692, the people of Salem didn’t understand what was going on. They were afraid, people acted rashly, hysteria spread and in the end over nineteen innocent people had been executed.
In the end I learned that the people who were tragically executed in Salem were just ordinary innocent people. I learned once again that people are forgetful; we will cover up a tragic past with romanticized stories to draw crowds and make money until a valuable lesson is lost in a sea of costumed people. I also learned that this unique place has attracted real witches who really are just people like us, who practice a different religion. Most importantly I learned that religion, things we don’t understand and things that are scary to us only have as much power as we give them. If we feed fear, it will feed on us.
In a world where things that we don’t and may never fully understand are constantly happening around us, It’s important to keep these things in mind. I don’t expect everyone to agree on everything and I don’t expect world peace any time in the near future. But If I had to request one thing, right now, It would be that we take the time to educate ourselves about what’s going on around us because knowledge may be the only thing that will save us from ourselves in the end.
A panel of 15th century magistrates and jurors illuminated by spotlight glare down at four women wearing glittering witch hats in the front row. The women stare up at them while listening to the prerecorded story of the Salem witch trials that has been on repeat almost constantly during the month of October. Some of the group is held captive by the story while others pick at their fingernails or tap their foot while starting at the red, glowing exit sign.
Suddenly, the lights come back on alerting the half of the group with tan stickers to continue onto the next presentation, while the half with blue stickers are told to wait in the gift shop.
The second half of the presentation is a plea from modern day witches to be understood and not condemned like the nineteen hanged and one crushed to death during that fateful year of 1692. This plea is in the form of more recordings, used to give a voice to several life-sized figures depicting witches throughout history, each stood in their own personal spot light.
One modern day male witch explains “we are all called witches, the word warlock means traitor and is never used.”
His female counter chimes in, “There is no room for devil worship in the Wiccan religion.”
A few group members stare speculatively at the blatantly pagan Wiccan “Wheel of the year” as the presenter explains the pagan holidays briefly, stopping on Samhain, taking care to make sure that we all understand the pronunciation, “Sow-ween.”
“Sounds kind of like Halloween, doesn’t it?” she suggests.
Halloween though, we are all told, has little to do with Samhain. Halloween is merely a commercialization of old celtic traditions without spiritual significance.
“Don’t talk to a real witch as if Halloween and Samhain are the same thing” our guide warns.
We exit into the gift shop, some of us a bit more confused than before we had entered the Salem Witch Museum.
The gift shop, much like Halloween, is a commercialization of both old celtic traditions and the Salem witch trials. At the beginning of the presentation the guide tells us that the mission of the museum is to give voices to the innocent victims of the trials, which they do in the gift shop by selling little stuffed dolls, in stereotypical witch clothing, with stereotypical ugly witch faces, stereotypical broom included.
Along the walls there are more accurate depictions of Salem’s past and present in the form of books on the witch trials of 1692 or on modern day witchcraft and Wicca.
There are some celtic knot and celtic symbol necklaces for sale next to some cute little ghost string lights. I exit the gift shop noting that even the Salem witch museum is not above capitalizing on Salem’s tragic past.
Stepping onto one of Salem’s busy streets I am instantly surrounded by princesses, witches, superheroes and an assortment of animals walking on their hind legs. All of us shrouded in a mist made from a fog machine, which is conveniently hidden behind a food stand selling caramel apples and fried dough.
It has grown dark by now and a group of people holding white plastic cups lit up by candles catch my eye. They are standing around the edge of the graveyard, where the Salem Witch Memorial is, while a guide with a megaphone repeats the phrase “nineteen hanged, one pressed to death.”
This seems to be something of a motto in Salem at this time of year, which goes along with their other name “witch city”, or “city of witches” and the cities mascot, a witch on a broom.
For a place with such a rich history, few of its tourists seem to be interested in the facts. The fact that none of the nineteen hanged were witches or even pagans, and neither was Giles Corey, the man who was crushed to death, and who’s memorial stone I now stood next to.
Corey’s Stone reads “GILES COREY, PRESSED TO DEATH, SEPT. 19 1692.” Over this carving coins, fruit and potions are left as offerings to the tortured soul. I learned that leaving offerings to the dead is a custom during Samhain. Offerings are left on most of the memorial stones, although Corey seems to be a bit of a celebrity. Inside the graveyard is the stone of an ancestor of mine, which lies untouched and reads “SUSANNAH MARTIN, HANGED, JULY 19, 1692.”
Those who were tried and executed for witchcraft in 1692, were innocent, but not only that, they weren’t witches at all. Yet Salem has built its fame on the backs of witches, and if you build it they will come. Hoards of tourists that is, but also real witches.
“I’d say there are a few hundred witches living in Salem today,” Said one of the witches behind the counter of Salem’s oldest witch shop, Crow Haven Corner. This particular witch shop was founded in 1971 by Laurie Cabot, who was once declared the official witch of Salem. The shop now has a different owner.
The shop is filled with a strong herbal sent, given off by an array of
herbs littering a large table. The same witch explains that they can make a custom spell for anything you need, including fertility or love spells. You can also have a palm or tarot card reading.
Behind a curtain I hear a woman telling another that she will soon find herself on a journey. She can tell by the lines on her palm, a tradition that comes from the ancient Celts.
I stop in front of a case full of small swords and daggers. One I recognize as a Sgian-Dubh, Gaelic for “black knife” or “hidden knife” and indeed it is a small blade with a black leather handle with a Scottish thistle on it. This knife is another tie to a culture with a celtic past, amidst a sea of herbs, potions and fortune telling.
In other shops there are also pagan items, for purposes which date back far before the hysteria of 1692, such as coyote rib bones, dragons blood perfumes and Norse curse boxes. Yet among all the bones, curses and spells there is a table, which is ignored by most of the tourists. A table set up displaying all natural and all organic perfumes, lotions and other products. The table smells like an herb garden, light and airy but unmistakably of nature.
“You know, this is a big part of what Samhain is really about,” offers the woman manning the table,
“It’s about honoring the dead, but it’s also about enjoying and honoring nature too.”
There is someone standing at the entrance of each shop in Salem tonight, a man with a long gray beard stands outside of Wynott’s Wands, which is a shop filled with Harry Potter Music and handcrafted wands. A blond witch with smokey eye shadow and a long black coat with a heavily furred lapel, greets those eager to have their palms read at another witch shop.
The bewitched statue though, stands alone. There is no one to explain that TV Land was met with a good amount of resistance when they proposed to erect this monument to their show in 2005. That some local Salem residents thought that this statue of Samantha perched on a crescent moon was insensitive to those condemned to death during the witch trials and was not a true depiction of the witches who now reside here.
This center of controversy is now lost in a sea of costumed tourists and locals all celebrating, filling the streets and pouring out of Rockafella’s which was hosting a costume party tonight.
Also standing alone now were the male and female witch figures in the museum, who tomorrow will go back to their repetitive loop of explaining that they and Samhain, are nothing to fear, but at this time of year when the veil between the living and the dead scarcely exists, aim to celebrate and honor the dead.
The dead in Salem are particularly famous, drawing a unique crowd from near and far. It could even be said that this huge celebration that lasts nearly a month long in Salem, all started with the nineteen hanged and one pressed to death.
Although this is nothing to celebrate it is something to remember. I learned that Samhain is mainly about honoring the dead, our ancestors and those who walked this earth before us.
Salem’s dead have inadvertently created a place where people from all over are welcomed to celebrate, learn and just be together in a place as unique as Salem so maybe we should be thanking them for that.