‘Tis the season of the witch! At least, I’ve got witches on the brain because Halloween is rapidly approaching.
My favorite fallback costume involves pointy black boots, a long skirt and some vaguely gothic fingerless gloves, with leaves and twigs scattered in my hair (because you shouldn’t dress up as a “wood witch” without some actual tree bits). You, however, might be more inclined to see it as the season of applesauce and gutter cleaning, or the season of wrangling your wet mutt without coating your floors and furniture in muddy paw prints; or maybe it’s the season of chugging Vitamin D in a desperate attempt to stave off seasonal affective disorder.
Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels
Whatever autumn and Halloween signify to you, I often find myself contemplating the concept of witches and witchcraft, and how our perceptions of both can skew from the metaphysical to the demonic to the purely mercenary, as described in the excellent and thoroughly researched book “The Witches,” by Stacy Schiff. To be totally honest, I listened to this book rather than read it, and I probably missed a few details multitasking in my kitchen while attempting to absorb the intricacies of Puritan social life and customs, but I think I got the gist. Essentially, Schiff argues convincingly that most of the witchcraft accusations stemmed from a combination of boredom and a desire for power, on the parts of young girls and adults alike, with a healthy dose of prejudice and neighbor-judging sprinkled into the stew. Accusations of witchcraft have often been explained as convenient ways to rid a society of “troublesome” females (and the occasional male), and the fear, superstition, and uncertainty permeating Puritan culture at the time of the Salem trials made it that much easier for mob rule to overcome basic human decency.
For example, almost everyone is aware of the ridiculous “tests” that accused witches were subject to; my personal favorite being the search for a “witch’s mark,” which usually involved stripping women naked and looking for suspicious moles or birthmarks, to prove the devil had marked his victim - a classic tale of dermatology gone wrong. A close runner-up, though, is tossing women into a body of water such as a lake or pond and seeing if they floated. If they did, of course they were witches, and if they sank, they died, so problem solved either way! If the accuser’s family happened to suddenly inherit the fertile and well-placed land of the now hung or drowned “witch,” well, that’s just a convenient coincidence, right? And that annoying poor widow? Or the herbalist whose knowledge and skill seems a bit “too much” for a woman to have? As soon as they manage to annoy the wrong person, suddenly their incorporeal presences start appearing to folks throughout the village, causing ghastly pains in all manner of diabolical ways, or killing cows and curdling milk out of pure dairy-hating malevolence.
It’s a fascinating history and there’s much more to it than I’m able to get into here, so if the typical candy gorging, pumpkin carving, light deprivation, and endless shivering feel “so last year” to you, check out some Library resources on the history of witches and witchcraft - they might surprise you. BOO! :)
And if you don't care much about history or just want to spend time with some fabulous - and never boring - witches, here are some more entertaining options:
Have a spooky Halloween!
Vanessa Velez, Collection Development Librarian