Folklore: Puritans, Magic, and Witches

Puritans brought over from the Old World a belief in magic. The difference between magic and religion is that magic is about controlling the supernatural (for gain), and religion is about supplicating the supernatural. Naturally, Puritan theologians preached against magic and so did some believers, but just as many believers switched between and combined the two ideologies--kind of like a fundamentalist Christian who also adopts New Age health practices.

Of course, New Age health practices don't get you hung for being a witch, but then, neither did a belief in magic all that much. Many more people practiced magic, including counter-magic (against witches) than were ever considered threats to their communities.

Basically, there were two types of magic: "like produces/cures like" (a leaf shaped like a kidney will fix that organ) and "part of the whole effects the whole" (think of the Buffy episode "The Witch" where Willow tests a piece of Amy's hair to find out if Amy is, in fact, a witch). Like in Buffy, counter-magic involved identifying the witch and then practicing one of the two types of magic against the witch.

However, the theological stance was that magic was the result of a contract with the devil and should be avoided. (In fact, some preachers opposed the practice of counter-magic, stating that all negative effects should be endured, even effects brought on, supposedly, by an evil agent; since the devil, not the witch, was the real culprit, it was God's will that the sufferer be afflicted, and the sufferer should just grin-and-bear-it.) The contract is what jeopardized the witch's soul, not necessarily what the witch did.

This motif (devil and human sign a contract which then must be honored or somehow voided, sometimes through a contest) has produced some real literary/music classics: "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and don't forget "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

But what about those witches?

A lot of scorn has been poured on, well, everyone in Puritan times from the victimized witches (who are always portrayed as feminists) to the evil paranoid ministers. The scorn ignores some important points:
1. The Puritans, including many accused witches, truly believed in magic. Think about it: how would you feel if your neighbor could actually control the weather, crops, and livestock? Oh, wait, the environmentalists do believe that! (Sorry, I would never bring up environmentalists in the classroom: I would say something like, "Why would the belief that others could control nature be both frightening and comforting?")

2. Although most accused witches were female, witchcraft was also practiced by men, and some male witches were accused, and some were hung (but yes, women were the bulk of the accused and executed).

3. Witches (male and female) tended to be accused in batches (this was true in Europe as well). Arthur Miller was right: you really did have to have a zealous McCarthy type on hand to get witch trials started at all. Kramer, author of the big witch book that supposedly paints the entire Middle Ages as prejudiced and anti-fun-loving-witches--Malleus Maleficarum--was a real zealot, who just about everybody in power thought was nuts (I agree with scholars who claim Sprenger's name was added by Kramer to add gravitas to the work.) Of course, it doesn't say much for the Middle Ages that this crazyman ended up giving public lectures, but he was one guy, not everybody in Europe at the time.

Absent a zealot McCarthy-type, witch accusations tended to occur in small communities against a particular individual (gives you a whole new respect for civil lawsuits!).

4. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was more likely for a woman to die in childbirth than to be accused of being a witch. (Check out Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization by Dan Burton and David Grandy.)

5. Witches were NOT, collectively, sweet, wise, herb-collecting midwifes. In her excellent book The Witch Throughout History, Diane Purkiss tackles the New Age image of the sweet, wise, herb-collecting midwife witch. Purkiss, by the way, represents the commendable side of Women's Studies: women scholars who refuse to accept comfortable, self-gratifying images at the expense of true history or at the expense of the real women who struggled and believed and endured those times.

Many witches in Europe and Puritan New England believed they were witches. Many midwifes were not only not witches but helped to identify witches. And whatever anyone likes to tell you, the environmental/Wiccan stuff is a late development.

6. The push to stop witchcraft trials came from Puritan ministers (who were bothered by the lack of tangible evidence), not from "enlightened" outsiders. Prolific blatherers like Increase Mather expended great energy trying to focus attention on the theological principle rather than on the accused: "It is then evidence that the devil himself did that mischief [not the self-accusing woman]. It must, moreover, be sadly confessed, that many innocent persons have been put to death under the notion of witchcraft, whereby much innocent blood hath been shed." Of course, Mather then goes on to paint Catholics as more likely to burn witches than Protestants. This is incorrect. Inquisition or not, Protestant countries hung/burned as many if not more witches than Catholic countries. So, he's a two steps forward, three steps back politically correct kind of guy.
Now, none of my points make up for what we moderns consider innocent people being tried and convicted on what we consider false testimony. Just: any trial/accusation should be judged by the times in which it occurred.

In terms of folklore, despite my list of "true" facts, the popular image of the witch--female, crone, pointy hat, broom (think Wicked Witch of the West)--appeared very early on. And, whether I like it or not, the image of the witch as a sweet, peaceloving, herbal collector has gained sway in popular culture. The Wiccans are right about one thing: beliefs in witches and magic lasted long after the Puritans morphed into gentler (but just as noisy) religions. Stories about magic and witches were collected from the Schoharie Hills (New York) as late as the 1930s:
Mrs. Elisha Case used to be witched. She would sit in a chair with one knee uplifted, the foot off the floor, hours at a time. When her folks asked her why she sat like that, because of course it was "an awful hard position to keep," she said she couldn't help it. Her family sent a lock of hair, her name, and her age to Dr. Jake Brink, and he cured her.
There are literary and film references to the older folkloric image of the witch--The Wizard of Oz being an excellent example. However, contemporary thought is more in sympathy with the witch than with her accusers. One common literary motif (not necessarily a folktale) that I've encountered is "teenage girl accused of being a witch and then saved by providential (scientific) intervention": The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare; Elizabeth in which Willo Davis Roberts basically stole Speare's entire book and rewrote it as a Sunfire romance; Gallow's Hill by Lois Duncan (nice twist at the end); Buffy episode "Gingerbread" (Season 3).

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