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Which Witch is Which? Witches in History: Salem and Beyond

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Collage of witch books
If you know only the basics about witches, take one of these deeper dives, historical or fictive, for truly eye-opening reads

Over the years, the witch has become a popular figure and costume choice for our modern commercialized holiday rituals. And the stormy events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-3, which we tend to revisit around Halloween time, have become the inspiration for all sorts of mass-media entertainment; there are more serious attempts, but just saying: Love At Stake (1987). Salem itself has rebranded as the spooky Halloween fun capital of the country. Of course, there was nothing particularly Halloween-related about the original tragedy in colonial Massachusetts, in which a bizarre mass hysteria fueled by underlying socioeconomic turmoil and frontier clashes led a group of young girls to experience, or at least act out, spectral possession and accuse an ever-growing number of innocent community members of witchcraft, a craze that local leaders and tribunals somehow failed to stop. More than two hundred were accused, nineteen were hung, and one was pressed to death with heavy stones; at least five others died in jail before the madness finally burnt itself out in 1693. It was the culmination of a long era of ‘witch hunts’ in Europe and the colonies and a shattering moment of self-doubt for American governance—sidelining the more obvious forms of theocracy, if only temporarily. Formal apologies, reversals, and memorials have been issued since.

Though dozens of men were accused and five went to the gallows, the Salem Witch Trials were fundamentally an explosion of female power struggles (which quite overwhelmed the men ‘in charge’). The American witch is now definitively feminine. Whether vamping in sexy black mini dress or cackling in the green and warty mode popularized by Margaret Hamilton in the blockbuster Hollywood version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), witches are everywhere at Halloween, stirring cauldrons, riding broomsticks, and of course, rarely sans black cat. Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is generally considered the cultural locus for the pointy witch hat, likely descended from the tall Puritan Capotain. The overlay of seasonal caricature tends to obscure a truer appreciation of witchcraft's evolving social role and witches, fairly or unfairly labeled—reviled and put to death in some times and places, seductive or celebrated for wisdom and power in others.

Witches predate the rise of modern science and medicine, just as Halloween is our modern expression of a pre-Christian Celtic sun festival celebrating the completion of the harvest and the end of Summer. Before there were medical doctors, there were folk healers, staving off disease and ill health with traditional remedies and rituals. Their power was largely home-and hearth-based, and thereby traditionally feminine—the broom or besom would have been used to clean an interior space to receive one seeking healing, long before the literary image of riding it through the night sky was conceived. Aged folk healers with magical faculties, in tune with invisible forces of nature, could be feared as well as revered, and the idea of the evil witch causing affliction at a distance came along with the good. As science confronted tradition in the West, magic was increasingly regarded as occult and fearful—other societies enjoyed a smoother integration or even coexistence of the two. This all came to a head in Salem, with accusations of witchcraft wildly hurled at innocents out of complex misfortunes, cementing the modern image of the evil witch. Older traditions lived on in the margins, and there is a growing resurgence of ‘good witchcraft,’ Wicca, and similar approaches among younger generations seeking ancient wisdom and a deeper connection to nature. Wiccans would be quick to distinguish themselves from Salem's terrors or the Halloween party witch, despite their commonality of origin. There are many resources in the library’s collection on the history of witches and witchcraft, from historical roots to modern-day Wiccans.

The savage clashes of the Salem Witch Trials themselves are so vivid, complex, and formative as to repay endless research and reinterpretation—to say nothing of their continuing resonance through American mass hysterias from the 1950s Red Scare right up to post-9/11 panic, which reanimates with eerie regularity from the fertile soil of American ignorance. They have birthed an ever-growing shelf of texts from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to more recent investigations and novels, examining through lenses from politics to psychology, religion, race, economics, gender, and generation. A wishful 1692 ban on all writings about the witch trials by Massachusetts Governor William Phips, fearing that publicity would incite more widespread trouble, was immediately flouted by the publication of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). Quite a few of these are gripping and insightful, adding perspectives and layers to a surprisingly rich story. If you know only the basics, take one of these deeper dives, historical or fictive, for a truly eye-opening and blood-curdling read.

Some Histories

The Witches: Salem, 1692
Schiff, Stacy

Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Stacy Schiff brilliantly recreate the strangeness and fascination of the Salem Witch Trials, juxtaposing fantastical reports of witches sighted flying around the township with richly excavated detail. Her tightly-plotted study, vivid with imagery and subtle humor, shows how the sadistic schoolyard fantasies and wild physical tumult of young girls easily overwhelmed the sputtering, scientistic rationalism of the elite adults supposedly in charge of the hearings. Vengeful emotions, rivalries, and jealousies swirl through the muddy lanes with murderous finality. An impressive narrative plunge into the world of colonial 1692 and the psyche of the accusers and victims.

A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience
Baker, Emerson W.

This 2014 study from Oxford University Press explores not only the details of the trials but also the broader context: the civic rivalries, the economic hardships, the effects of King Philip’s War and Indian raids, and the 1691 Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. Baker also takes a rare look at the aftermath of the trials, how the authorities’ denial of wrongdoing led Salem to become symbolically tainted, and the difficulties of participants’ re-entry into society. The psychology of mass hysteria is thoughtfully treated and connected to similar episodes in recent years, while the potential role of ergotism, Lyme disease, encephalitis, and other proposed medical culprits is effectively undermined.

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692
Norton, Mary Beth.

Norton’s insightful book digs deep into the textual evidence of letters, diaries and trial records to evoke the mindset of a frontier people in crisis, feeling beset by violent Indian raids and personal failures. It was unusual for adult magistrates to take the frenzied outpourings of young girls as serious testimony, but in Norton’s telling, this presented a unique opportunity to deflect blame for their economic and military mismanagement. She resists analyzing the psychology in modern terms, instead sensitively evoking how 17th-century minds on both sides of the bench would have perceived the events at play.

Six Women of Salem
Roach, Marilynne K.

Throughout the trials, so many became accusers, accused and afflicted that the individual stories can blur into stereotypes: Cotton Mather’s ‘desolation of names’. Roach takes the ingenious approach of thoroughly telling the lives of six of the women involved, accusers and accused. Her expert narratives create an intimacy with the world and its participants, laying out the facts and the perceptions in detail without overly judging or drawing bold conclusions. The horror of the time and its visceral impact on individual lives should be remembered like this.

Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England
Hollman, Gemma

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World
Jaher, David

The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present
Hutton, Ronald

Modern Witches

Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers
Kitaiskaia, Taisia

Revolutionary Witchcraft: A Guide to Magical Activism
Lyons, Sarah (Witch)

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
Hutton, Ronald

The Ultimate Guide to Witchcraft: A Modern-Day Guide to Making Magick
Kiernan, Anjou

Weave the Liminal: Living Modern Traditional Witchcraft
Zakroff, Laura Tempest

Bewitching the Elements
Herstik, Gabriela

Practical Magic: A Beginner's Guide to Crystals, Horoscopes, Psychics & Spells
Van De Car, Nikki

Witches in Fiction

Editors note: There are so many excellent witch and witchcraft books in our collection, I've broken the lists into age categories. Also witches in graphic novels is its own category for the sheer volume of terrific titles. This is by no means a complete list, but I made sure to have my favorites here. Magic Lessons I'm thinking of you, and how you'll surely be on my year's top ten!—Tina Lerno

Adult Fiction

Magic Lessons
Hoffman, Alice

A Discovery of Witches
Harkness, Deborah E.

The Mercies
Hargrave, Kiran Millwood

The Once and Future Witches
Harrow, Alix E.

The Witch Hunter
Seeck, Max

The Witch's Kind
Morgan, Louisa, 1952-

Circe: A Novel
Miller, Madeline

The Familiars
Halls, Stacey

The Remaking: A Novel
Chapman, Clay McLeod

Young Adult Fiction

A Wicked Magic
Laurens, Sasha

Witches of Ash & Ruin
Latimer, E.

Akata Witch
Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
Tokuda-Hall, Maggie

McKenzie, Paige

The Lost Coast
Capetta, Amy Rose

The Merciful Crow
Owen, Margaret

The Near Witch
Schwab, Victoria

The Shadow Glass
Chupeco, Rin

Toil & Trouble: 15 tales of Women & Witchcraft

The Burning
Bates, Laura

How to Hang a Witch
Mather, Adriana

The Babysitters Coven
Williams, Kate

Cemetery Boys
Thomas, Aiden

The Wicked Deep
Ernshaw, Shea

When the Moon Was Ours
McLemore, Anna-Marie

Graphic Novels

Okay Witch
Steinkellner, Emma

The Witch Boy
Ostertag, Molly

Spell on Wheels
Leth, Kate

Hex Vet: Witches in Training
Davies, Sam

Zabarsky, Jessi

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Book One, The Crucible
Aguirre-Sacasa, Roberto

Leyh, Kat

The Weirn Books, Vol 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods
Chmakova, Svetlana

Grimoire Noir
Greentea, Vera

Flying Witch, Vol 1
Ichizuka, Chihiro

Séance Tea Party
Yee, Reimena

Witches of Brooklyn
Escabasse, Sophie

Rivers of London: Night Witch, Issue 1
Aaronovitch, Ben

Supermutant Magic Academy
Tamaki, Jillian

Witch Hat Atelier, Volume 5
Shirahama, Kamome

Ries, Ariel Slamet

Little Witch Academia, Vol 1
Yoshinari, Yoh

Baba Yaga's Assistant
McCoola, Marika

Blackbird, Book 1: The Great Beast
Humphries, Sam

The Montague Twins: Vol. 1, the Witch's Hand
Page, Nathan

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