coromandal


know your witches

Western Alps: worker of magic, lurid orgies

Germany: flying witches, always a woman, wicked, lone female, wicked thoughts, satanic, dangerous, insatiable, commanding.

England: blood compact with the Devil, marked bodily, enchanter using charms, ointments and effigies.

The continent: hand walker, rode hyenas, attended forest bacchanals, stole babies and penises, extended pregnancies.

Scandanavia and Scotland: flying witches

Massachusetts: general mischief involving cattle, letters, hay and beer, witty and could either be diminutive or strong.

Witchy qualities / adjectives are established by clergy and authorities who were terribly threatened. Each adjective is a restatement – and a mask – of a root female quality that challenged the authority’s power. The root qualities are perennial through centuries: joy, curiosity, yearning, abandon etc.

What exactly was a witch? Any seventeenth-century New Englander could have told you. As workers of magic, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history. The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century, when sorcery and heresy moved closer together. She came into her own with the Inquisition, as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. The western Alps introduced her to lurid orgies. Germany launched her into the air. As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures. An influential fifteenth-century text compressed a shelf of classical sources to make its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Though weak willed, women could emerge as dangerously, insatiably commanding.

The English witch made the trip to North America largely intact. She signed her agreement with the Devil in blood, bore a mark on her body for her compact, and enchanted by way of charms, ointments, and poppets, doll-like effigies. Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen. She seldom flew to illicit meetings, more common in Scandinavia and Scotland. Instead, she divined the contents of an unopened letter, spun suspiciously fine linen, survived falls down stairs, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, or caused cattle to leap four feet off the ground. Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart. They could commit the capital offense of having more wit than their neighbors, as a minister said of the third Massachusetts woman hanged for witchcraft, in 1656.

Matters were murkier when it came to the wily figure with six thousand years of experience, the master of disguise who could cause things to appear and disappear, who knew your secrets and could make you believe things of yourself that were not true. He turned up in New England as a hybrid monkey, man, and rooster, or as a fast-moving turtle. Even Cotton Mather was unsure what language he spoke. He was a pervasive presence, however: the air pulsed with his minions. Typically in Massachusetts, he wore a high-crowned hat, as he had in an earlier Swedish invasion, which Mather documented in his 1689 book. Mather did not mention the brightly colored scarf that the Devil wound around his hat. Like the Swedish devil’s gartered stockings or red beard, it never turned up in New England.

The Witches of Salem, Diabolical doings in a Puritan village, BY STACY SCHIFF

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