Sacred Springs and Holy Wells

At Litha, or Midsummer, the sun is entering the astrological house of Cancer, which is a water sign. In many traditions, this time of year is associated not just with fire, but with water as well — rivers, streams, springs, and so on.

Kildare - Holy Well

Image of the Well of Kildare by William Murphy / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the British Isles, sacred springs and holy wells were considered more potent than usual at the summer solstice. In Bairnwell, Cambridge, a Midsummer festival has been held next to a sacred spring each year since at least the early thirteenth century.

In many rural areas, local gods were often honored at holy wells and streams. Historians say it became a popular custom to toss a bit of silver — coins, pins, etc — into a sacred body of water as an offering to the god or goddess of that area. Near Pickering, Yorkshire, residents performed sacred ceremonies at a local well to ensure fertility of both the people and the harvest for the coming season.

Holy wells also appear prominently in Welsh and Irish legend. The healing powers of water are common in Irish myth, and in many cases the wells are sources not only of healing but also of wisdom and fortunes granted.

Pagan religions do not have a monopoly on sacred streams and wells. In Christian legends, many or Ireland and Britain’s holy springs are the domain of a particular saint associated with the area. It is believed that it is the power of the saint that makes the water flow, and thus the water is imbued with magical properties. Many of these sites became the destination of Christian pilgrims, seeking the healing powers of the water.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of these sacred springs and wells were boarded up or covered, as their presence was a constant reminder to the church of Pagan history. By the time of the Reformation, most of the sites had been forgotten. Around the late seventeenth century, however, it became stylish to visit springs and wells for therapeutic purposes, and a brand new industry cropped up around wells, springs, and streams. By the time of the Regency period, spas like the ones at Bath were a popular destination for members of the gentry, and springs and wells which had been lost to disuse were opened up again and presented for their healing value.

Many holy wells and sacred springs exist today on private properties throughout the British Isles and parts of the European mainland. Because of the relative obscurity of most wells and springs today, it is hard to tell how many are still in existence.

The History of the Sheela na Gig

Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the sheela-na-gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male.

St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Sheela na Gig image by Amanda Slater / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Folkloric evidence indicates a long-standing theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones,” which were used to bring on conception, but scholars have been questioning that lately.

Although traditionally the sheela has been regarded as a representation of a fertility goddess, John Harding, spokesman for the national Sheela na Gig Project, says, “the symbols are more likely to have originally been a warning against the sin of lust, before gradually mutating into a protective force against demons. In modern times, the sheela na gig has become a pagan symbol.” The figure is found all over the United Kingdom, as well as in France and Spain, and as far away as the Czech Republic.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, it is Ireland that the claims the most sheela na gig carvings, and the England-Wales border is the home of the best known carving, the sheela of Kilpeck Church. Experts say that during the Victorian era, many of the carvings were destroyed or altered, thanks to the repressive social mores of the time.

Eamonn P. Kelly suggests that etymologically, the sheelas may be connected to the second-century Saint Cecelia, who fiercely guarded her virginity and told her Roman Pagan husband that she was betrothed to an angel, and was therefore sexually unavailable. I’m not sure that line would hold water today, but at the time, it must have worked.

The Irish Gaelic name Sile is a derivative of the Roman Caecelia. Kelly goes on to point out that later Sile became associated with guardianship of the land, and the Sile na Gadra was a personification of Ireland itself. Kelly theorizes that “linguistic and folklore evidence suggests that sheela-na-gigs may have become associated with the protection and control of land and lordly status.” It’s entirely possible that the sheelas were not simply carvings of wanton and fertile women, or even of sin and lust, but guardians and protectors of the Irish people and the land upon which they lived.

No, Salem Ancestry Doesn’t Make You Special

A reader says, “I just found out that I’m descended from one of the witches from the Salem witch trials and I feel like this makes me have witchcraft in my blood. I went to a Pagan event not too long ago, and when I told everyone about this they acted like it was no big deal. I feel like I deserve a little more respect since my ancestors were Salem witches.”

I know it’s very exciting to discover that your ancestry contains people who were interesting, or even famous.

And sometimes, when we make a discovery like that, we want to share it with others, and we want them to be as excited about it as we are. So if you’re descended from one of the men and women who were convicted of witchcraft in Salem back in 1692, that definitely makes for fascinating family conversations around the dinner table.

However – and this is a big however – it doesn’t really make you a special snowflake in the Pagan community at all, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the people executed in Salem were most likely not witches at all. Other than accusations which were later recanted and apologized for, there is no evidence that the accused were anything other than victims of hysteria and fear.

In fact, most of of the individuals hanged in Salem (as well as elderly Giles Corey, who was pressed to death) were devout Christians.

(The one exception to this may be the slave Tituba, who is believed to have been from the West Indies, and may have had some knowledge of folk magic, although that is unclear and has never been proven by scholars. However, Tituba vanished, released from jail shortly after the Salem hangings began, and her whereabouts afterwards are unknown despite the best efforts of academics to learn her post-Salem fate.)

A second reason that it was probably treated as “no big deal” by the people you met is because there are hundreds, if not thousands of people alive today who are descended from the victims of the Salem witch hunts over three hundred years ago. Again, this does not make you unusual. While it may be a really big deal to you, to everyone else, it’s just a mildly interesting fact at best.

Finally – and feel free to take this with a grain of salt – your email indicates that you expect people to show you respect automatically based upon your ancestry and what it means to you personally. In the Pagan community – as in others – respect is earned.

It can’t be demanded, because you’ll never get it. It’s earned by your words and deeds, not because you happen to have a certain family tree.

Step back, take a breath, honor your ancestors and do a little more studying and research. With a little bit of experience and learning, you may eventually become someone who earns respect based on your own merits, without invoking the names of the accused men and women of Salem.

Just for funsies, here are some cool articles I’ve written on the topic of Salem, which should keep you busy for a while.

 

 

Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World

For many people in the modern world, finding a Pagan belief system is a positive and life-affirming experience. It’s not uncommon for us to find a joy and lightness in our traditions, something that brings light into once was a dark existence. This is indeed a good thing, and what draws many new people into the Pagan community. Unfortunately, the downside of it is that there can sometimes be an unwillingness to accept that not all Pagan cultures in the past were full of light and love and rainbows.

Our ancestors, hundreds of years ago, lived a completely different existence than we do today, and their relationships with their gods were different than ours is today. This means that their guidelines as to what was acceptable spiritual behavior is not the same as those we see as reasonable in the 21st century. As much as we may wish to deny it, or claim that it’s anti-Pagan propaganda, the inescapable truth was that for our ancestors, religious worship sometimes included things that modern Pagans find distasteful.

Sacrifice – both animal and human – was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world, and was generally performed in the context of making an offering to the gods. Animal sacrifice is still practiced today by a few religious groups, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on ritualized human sacrifice in the ancient world. Obviously, this is a complex and vast topic,
and there’s no way we can cover every single aspect of it, so for now, we’ll be looking at the basics of human sacrificial practices among groups such as the Celts, the Greeks and Romans, and Mesoamerican tribes.

Human Sacrifice in the Celtic World

Although the Celts didn’t leave us much in the way of documentation, we can glean a bit about their practices from writings created by foreign observers. In particular, the works of Pliny the Elder, along with Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, give us some insight into sacrifice in the Celtic world.

Pliny and Caesar make a very big deal about human sacrifice among the Druids. However, keep in mind that both of these men were Romans, writing about the practices of a people who had been more than a little difficult to conquer. In history, not only does the victor get to retain the spoils of war, he also earns the privilege of writing about it afterwards.

That said, while it’s unlikely that the Celts – and specifically, the Druid priest class – was engaging in the massive wholesale slaughter of human beings that Pliny and Caesar suggest, they did utilize human sacrifice on occasion. Caesar describes Celtic funeral customs in his Commentaries, in which the body of the deceased is cremated, and the clan then adds to the fire “everything they reckon to have been precious to the departed, even living creatures…” He suggests that slaves and other dependents might have been tossed in there as well, to join the deceased clansman in the afterlife.

The Wicker Man

Did the Celts really use a Wicker Man? Yuuuup.

Perhaps the best-known summary of Celtic sacrifice is the concept of the wicker man, another practice we know about based on Caesar’s writings. He describes “figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.” Caesar goes on to explain that the men burned inside one of these structures were often criminals – thieves or robbers, specifically – but in the absence of a criminal sacrifice, the Druids “have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.”

Author J.A. McCulloch points out in Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911), “Human victims were also offered by way of thanksgiving after victory, and vows were often made before a battle, promising these as well as part of the spoil. For this reason the Celts would never ransom their captives, but offered them in sacrifice, animals captured being immolated along with them.”

Foundation Sacrifice

There also existed, among the Celts, the concept of what scholars called foundation sacrifice. This was, essentially, the sacrifice of an individual before the construction of a new building. In some cases, the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled around the foundation of the structure, and in others, they were actually buried beneath it. There are a number of locations, including Christian churches, in what was once the Celtic world that still have legends and rumors of foundation sacrifices.

In generally all of these cases, scholars believe that human sacrifice was intended to strengthen the connection between man and the Celtic gods, to bridge the gap between the mortal world and the divine realm. Human remains have been found which support the ideas of Pliny and Caesar, and indicate that these bodies were interred in a ritual context. However, we will likely never know the extent of human sacrifice, and academia seems to be divided on whether or not Roman writers exaggerated the number of deaths taking place as propaganda.

Wicker Man image by larajanepark via Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Ribbon Trees & Rag Bushes

offerings

This is an article that originally appeared on my About site, but with the migration to the super-cool new ThoughtCo vertical, some under-performing articles got done away with. However, I was traveling recently and saw a ribbon tree, and it made me want to share this once again.

The history behind the use of ribbon trees is a long and complex one. It’s a practice found in a number of different cultures, so I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging and see how they compare in various places around the world. Although it’s difficult to tell, at least initially, where this practice may have originated, it looks like it’s safe to say that it’s something that happens pretty much globally.

Sometimes called wishing trees, other times called rag bushes, these plants are often decorated by strips of cloth by visitors who want to see their wishes fulfilled. In some areas, these trees are located near sacred springs or holy wells, although that doesn’t appear to always be the case.

Irish Clotties

At the Hill of Tara, which was the home of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a pair of trees growing side by side. It’s not uncommon to see these trees tied with brightly colored pieces of cloth around the Beltane season. The trees – which are hawthorns – are decorated by visitors in early May, and the strips of cloth are known as clotties.

Interestingly, in recent years people have been tying seemingly random bits of detritus – plastic and metal, in particular – to the trees at Tara and the area around the holy well of Kildare. This is a deviation from traditional practice, in which the cloths from a sickbed were tied and hung along with appropriate prayers. As the sickcloths decomposed and biodegraded in the elements, the illness itself was carried away.

There are some belief systems that refer to Ireland’s clottie trees as “Fairy Trees,” but again, this is not part of traditional Irish legend, and appears to be more of a new age type thing.

Chinese Wishing Trees

In Hong Kong, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are a popular destination for tourists, as well as the locals. These large banyan trees are part of a shrine where visitors can burn joss sticks and ask for their prayers to be answered. In the past, there was a practice of writing one’s wish on a piece of paper, tying it to an orange, and tossing it up in the tree. For years, papers hung in the trees, but apparently this became dangerous, because in 2005 a branch fell and caused injuries to several guests.

After that, authorities set up a series of racks on which people can tie their wish papers, in the hopes of allowing the trees a few years of recovery time.

The Hindu Kalpavriksha

In the Hindu religion, the Kalpavriksha is a divine tree that fulfills wishes. This tree of life, or world tree, appears in the Vedic scriptures, and is said to have originated during the churning of the primal waters of the ocean, and was found by Indra, the king of the gods. Indra took the tree home with him and planted it there so he could have it with him at all times. In some Indian villages, individual trees – often fig, coconut or the baobab – are considered Kalpavriksha trees, and are often decorated by residents as a way of asking the gods to grant wishes.

The Walleechu of Argentina

High in the mountains of South America, some indigenous peoples still honor a tree that has been a source of wish fulfillment for many generations. A British missionary wrote the following account:

“Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place, numberless threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not having anything better, pull only a thread from their ponchos, and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour spirits and mato into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu.”

Appropriate Offerings

If you’re lucky enough to see a wishing tree or a rag bush somewhere and want to add to it, make sure that anything you hang on it is in fact biodegradable. Blogger and travel writer Rich Rennicks, over at A Trip To Ireland, points out that many people put in a lot of hours trying to save the rag trees at Tara from the damage done by so many years of inappropriate offerings.

Rich says, “Traditionally, people tied strips of linen or cloth to a rag tree as a symbol of their prayer (long before synthetic substances were invented). Over time, these offerings have been replaced by inappropriate modern items (mass cards, glass jars containing candles, coins embedded into the bark, rosaries, dummies/soothers, etc.) and some complete rubbish added by careless people who either didn’t think about their actions or added the first thing they had to hand (nylon string, plastic ribbons, rings, beads, love locks, loom bands, or — strangest of all — socks and underwear–why?). Things that don’t naturally and quickly biodegrade or rot away harm the trees by killing limbs, preventing buds forming and leaves opening, or breaking branches. Over time, others add more bad stuff under the mistaken impression that the items already on the tree are acceptable, and the trees start to weaken and die.”

He suggest small strips of non-synthetic cloth – draped over branches, and not tied – as an acceptable offering that will eventually biodegrade without causing long term damage. Also, colored paper ribbon like crepe, or origami papers are a great option as well.

Ideally, you’ll want to leave the tree intact and healthy for future generations, so if you have a chance to leave anything, consider something non-tangible, like a simple prayer or song describing your wish, cast upon the wind and into the skies.

Image by Jennifer Pickens, licensed through Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sybil Leek and the 6 Tenets of Witchcraft

In some forms of traditional witchcraft, there are six basic tenets – and that’s not TENANTS, with an AN, but TENETS. These are simple principles, or guidelines, meant to help practitioners lead positive and spiritually fulfilling lives. Do you have to follow them? Of course not!

Although they vary somewhat from one tradition to the next – just like everything else in modern Paganism – they are nearly always similar in spirit and intent. This particular list was created by the late author Sybil Leek as an outline of the basic guidelines of her spirituality. While not universal to all belief systems, these six principles can be a valuable tool for self-discovery – and that goes for people of just about any religious background.

Balance

Balance is found in all things. We find it in nature all the time. If balance can exist in the natural world, surely we can find it within ourselves. Our physical selves, our emotional state, and our spiritual plane… by finding the right balance of these three parts of our lives, we can live as better human beings. When our balance is thrown off, that’s when we begin to suffer. Too much of anything sends us off-kilter — for example, someone who takes on too much emotional baggage will begin to feel physically unwell. Someone whose spiritual needs aren’t being met can feel emotionally fragile. Without balance, it’s nearly impossible to be a well-rounded person.

Harmony

Harmony is something we must give ourselves. It’s not something others can attain for us, nor is it something that we can gain without effort. Don’t rely on other people to provide for you! Harmony is a gift to our soul, from our soul. How do we interact with others? Do we allow the shortcomings of the people in our life to negatively affect us? Are we forever blaming other people, and making excuses instead of finding reasons? If we are, then we are lacking harmony and must re-evaluate our lives, and our perception of what things are. To truly find harmony, we have to stop looking around us and begin looking inside us. To this effect, harmony really has to work hand in hand with the concept of balance.

Trust

A key part of many NeoWiccan paths today is the concept of perfect love and perfect trust. To someone who is spiritually whole, trust is a many-layered principle. It not only means trust in those around us, but also in our gods and in ourselves. Trust isn’t blind, but it sure does involve faith. For example, we may know that the gods walk with us and guide us; we trust them to do so because of past experience, not because someone has told us to believe this. Trust is being willing to close your eyes and fall, knowing the person waiting to catch you will actually do so.

Humility

When we stand before the gods, we know that we are imperfect, and they know this too — and yet they still manage to tolerate us and guide us. We’re pretty much flawed as a species, and yet we often try to be the best we can. This paradox, then, is an example of humility. It’s the knowledge that while we may be mere lowly mortals, we are also deserving of love and happiness and opportunity — and the chance to make the world a better place, not only for ourselves but for others. As part of this process, we must love ourselves, because if we don’t, who will?

Tolerance

Tolerance may be one of the least acted-upon principles of many modern belief systems. While many people espouse the virtue of tolerance, many refuse to actually be tolerant. They make blanket statements about people whose religion doesn’t coincide with their own. To tolerate someone else’s belief doesn’t mean to put up with it begrudgingly; instead it means to accept their right to choose differently from us. We’re all human beings, and all connected to the Divine; this factor makes us part of the cosmic whole. When in we look at the concept of “do no harm” — and this includes with our words as well as our actions — we refrain from doing harm not because a rule tells us so, but because it’s the right thing to do. After all, what goes around comes around.

Knowledge

Finally, there is the tenet of knowledge. Without knowledge, there’s no growth, no chance to evolve. While we can read books and take classes until the cows come home, true learning also comes from life experience. To advance on a spiritual plane, we must accept the fact that we just don’t know everything there is to know. If we don’t want to stagnate, we have to continue to learn and grow. Once we refuse to learn anything new, it’s pretty tough to develop as a spiritual being.

A final note: It’s important to remember that, much like other guidelines found in modern Pagan religions, this list doesn’t apply to every path. Not all witches adhere to these tenets. If you are an eclectic practitioner, you may want to look at this list and see how it can be applied to your own belief system.

Animism and the Cosmic Whole

 

Tree Guy
Tree guy is watching you.

Animism is one of the earliest known spiritual structures. From an anthropological standpoint, it is a belief system based upon the concept of all things having a spirit or soul. Humans and animals have souls, as do plants and trees and rocks, thus eliminating any separation between the mundane world and the metaphysical one. Nineteenth-century anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined animism as a belief that all natural objects – in addition to, but not only humans – have souls. This includes living beings — dogs, horses, birds, etc. – as well tangible items like rocks, mountains, the sea, trees and flowers. It also includes natural phenomena such as earthquakes, wind and lightning.

One thing that anthropologists have yet to agree on is whether or not early cultures had one, all-encompassing and universal belief system that would be considered animism, or if instead, the term applies to multiple mythologies and worldviews.

Typically, anthropologists – particularly those influenced by Tylor – agree that for a belief system to be animistic, there are two criteria. The first is, as mentioned above, that all natural things have souls or spirits. The second, and equally significant requirement is the belief that these souls are capable of moving without a physical form. In addition, many early animistic societies practiced some form of ancestor veneration.

In some societies that are animistic, there is some overlap with shamanistic practices as well.

Although we often think of animism as primitive and ancient, there are some groups that still practice it today. In Malaysia, there are tribes who still honor the rice spirits at the time of planting and of the annual harvest. Shinto, which is the predominant spirituality of Japan, has a strong foundation in animistic beliefs. Following the devastating March 2011 earthquake that struck Japan, many Japanese made offerings at Shinto and Buddhist shrines to the spirits of the land, hoping to gain a better spiritual understanding of all that had taken place.

Although it is not universal to all Pagans, many Neopagans incorporate animism into their beliefs today. It’s not uncommon to hear someone talk about the spirits or soul of a tree, or a river, or a piece of wood. In many cases, these individual spirits are seen as parts of a greater cosmic whole.

Save

Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

This is an article that originally appeared on my About.com site, but because of a network overhaul, it’s no longer available there. I wanted to share it with you anyway, because so many people forget the contribution that this woman made to the world of Tarot. Of particular note is that Smith was a woman of color, working in the creative arts during the turn of the twentieth century.


Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

The Rider Waite Tarot deck is one of the most iconic collections of images in the metaphysical world. If you see a Rider Waite card, you know exactly what it is. This is the deck that many new Tarot readers choose to learn the ropes on, and it’s often the one that is used in books on Tarot, because the symbolism is so rich and heavy. But where did the Rider Waite deck come from? Turns out it was designed and created by an artist whose name doesn’t even appear on the deck most of the time.

Pamela Colman Smith (1878 – 1951) was a London-born artist who spent her childhood in Manchester and Jamaica with her parents. Smith was biracial; her mother was Jamaican, and her father was a white American (his father, Smith’s grandfather, was the mayor of Brooklyn for a time).

As a teenager, Smith attended art school in New York City, at the Pratt Institute, and developed a stylized look that soon put her in high demand as an illustrator. Some of Smith’s most popular drawings were utilized in works by Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, and she wrote and illustrated books of her own as well.

After her mother passed away in 1896, Smith left Pratt without graduating, to join a traveling theater group and lead the nomadic life of a troubadour. In addition to working onstage, Smith developed a reputation as a skilled costume and set designer. Keep in mind that during the early part of the twentieth century, this was an unusual occupation for a young, single woman. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement that took off in the years around the turn of the century.

Little is known about her romantic life, although Smith never married or had children. It’s certainly possible that she preferred women; there is a great deal of speculation about her relationships with housemate Nora Lake, as well as Smith’s close friend, actress Edith Craig, who was definitely a lesbian. Smith surrounded herself with creative, intelligent people who valued her passion for art.

Her early work with William Butler Yeats would prove to be the catalyst for some changes in Smith’s life; around 1901, he introduced her to his friends in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At some point in her Golden Dawn experience, she met the poet and mystic Edward Waite. Around 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to do the artwork for a new Tarot deck he was interested in creating.

Waite wanted to see a Tarot deck in which every card was illustrated – which was something completely new. Up until this point, throughout the history of Tarot, decks primarily had illustrations only on the Major Arcana, and sometimes the court cards. The only known example of a fully illustrated deck, up until this point, was the Sola Busca deck, commissioned by a wealthy Milanese family in the 1490s. Waite suggested Smith use Sola Busca for her inspiration, and there are many similarities in the symbolism between the two decks. Smith was the first artist to use characters as representative images in the lower cards; rather than just showing a group of cups, coins, wands or swords, Smith worked human beings into the mix, and created a rich tapestry of occult symbolism that set the gold standard for modern Tarot decks.

The resulting collection of 78 cards was published by Rider and Sons, and sold for a whopping six shillings as the first mass market Tarot deck. Thanks to the publisher and Edward Waite, the deck became known commercially as the Rider Waite deck, although in some circles it is now referred to as the Waite Smith deck, or even Rider Waite Smith, as credit to the artist.

Interestingly, Smith did not receive royalties from the deck, and it appears that she wasn’t paid much at all for her creation of the original work. Although her artwork was popular, she never seemed to gain mass commercial success, and she died penniless in Cornwall in 1951.

Although Smith’s artwork appears simple on the surface, it’s deceptively complex. Each piece represents so many different aspects of the human experience, which is why this deck – whether you call it Rider Waite, RWS, or Waite Smith – has become such a valuable tool for intuitive readers.  Many modern Tarot readers owe a great debt to Pamela Colman Smith, for providing us with a collection of 78 paintings that delve so deeply into our hearts and souls.

For a thorough and in-depth look at Pamela Colman Smith and her life, be sure to read Beth Maiden’s post at AutoStraddle, Fool’s Journey: The Fascinating Life of Pamela Colman Smith or Mary K. Greer’s The Art of Pamela Colman Smith.

By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment


As many of you know, I recently graduated from Ohio University with my B.A. in History. One of my required courses was a Historical Research and Writing class, and it was awesome. After all, it combined three of my favorite things: history, research, and makin’ words! My professor, Dr. Mark Nevin, was fantastic, and over the course of 14 weeks, we each developed a thesis, pored over acres and acres of primary and secondary sources, and finally presented an academic research paper in which we supported our thesis argument with all of the evidence we could find. Continue reading By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment

Salem, Hartford, and Pendle Hill

I first became interested in the Salem witch trials long before I was interested in witchcraft itself. I remember reading about them as a child, and being fascinated by the tales of these girls my age who had been possessed, taken by spirits in the night in league with the Devil himself. Accusations flew about like gray specters in the dark nights of colonial Massachusetts, fingers pointing, and no one was safe.

As I got older, and became more interested in history itself – not just of Salem and its trials, but of the entire country and in particular, the pre-Revolutionary world – I read more and learned more. Among the many things I learned, first and foremost, was that none of the people tried for witchcraft in Salem were actually practicing witchcraft. Nine-year-old me had been certain they were, but adult me discovered this wasn’t the case at all.

But does she weigh as much as a duck?

What a lot of people are completely unaware of, though, and something I didn’t know about until I stumbled across it completely by accident, is that there was another trial in New England, three decades before Salem happened. In 1662, there was a situation very similar to the 1692 events, albeit on a smaller scale. The town of Hartford, Connecticut, saw a spring panic, the death of a child, and accusations pitting neighbor vs. neighbor, which I’ve written about in more detail here. Unlike Salem, however, only four people died in the Hartford trials.

One thing that’s on my bucket list of things to do some day is perhaps teach a class on witchcraft trials in the British Empire, and that would include Salem and Hartford. Now, this is the part where I usually get an indignant message from someone reminding me that Massachusetts and Connecticut are in ‘Murica, damn it! Well, sure… they are NOW. But in the 17th century, when these trials took place, America didn’t exist yet. Massachusetts and Connecticut were governed by British law, because they were (waaaait for it…) British colonies. Pardon me while I mic drop a bit.

Anyway, we all know about Salem and only a few of us have apparently even heard of Hartford, but Britain itself certainly has its share of witchcraft trials. One of the most notorious took place in Lancashire in 1612, in the Pendle Hill area, and ten people were eventually found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

One of the absolute most important takeaways when we look at trials like Salem, Hartford, and Pendle Hill, is that it is EXTREMELY unlikely that anyone who was convicted and hanged was actually practicing witchcraft. Every year – oddly, in the spring – there seems to be a resurgence of memes within the Pagan internet world honoring the “dead witches of Salem” or something along those lines. Honor them if you want, but they weren’t witches. In fact, many of them were very pious and devout Christians. We in the Pagan community can hardly hold up Salem as an example of anti-Pagan religious persecution – it was a total disaster, for sure, but had nothing to do with Actual Pagans™.

I have an awesome professor this semester who regularly points out that it’s not so much that history repeats itself, but that people themselves never change. Given the same circumstances, human behavior will tend towards repetition, whether we’re looking at ancient Rome, Asia, the British isles, or colonial Massachusetts. So read up, folks – read up on the conditions that can surround mass hysteria and panic, observe how people responded at the time, and then consider whether or not it can happen again.

For additional stuff to read, which includes references to academic work that’s invaluable, check out a couple of my articles here: