The show is a historical horror fantasy set in Salem during the 1692 witch hunts. Although we all rationally know weren't any real witches in Salem, just political turmoil and personal grudges, the show turns that on its head. Salem's premise is that although the people executed for witchcraft were innocent, they were framed by the town's real witches, who operated unseen and undetected.
This idea was also the premise of a 2008 comic book, Salem: Queen of Thorns. In that comic the real witch was a huge supernatural tree-monster (the Queen of Thorns), but in the TV show Salem people who really lived are being portrayed as Satanic witches. I have to say, it's a little weird. Weirder even than a giant tree-monster witch.
|Salem: Queen of Thorns.|
The leader of the witches is Mary Sibley, the wife of George Sibley, the wealthiest and most influential man in Salem. Mary was once in love with heroic soldier John Alden, but when he didn't return from war she became bitter, gave her unborn baby and her own soul to the Devil, and entered into a loveless marriage with George Sibley. Oh, and she controls George with a toad-shaped familiar that she placed in his stomach. That all happens in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode.
Mary is supported, but perhaps also controlled, by her sinister yet sexy Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba. There's lots of erotic lesbian energy between the two characters, and Tituba often rubs herbs and oils on Mary's naked body and reminders her of her vows to Satan. Again, this all happens in the first first episode.
|Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) in Salem.|
The real Mary Sibley played a small but significant role in the actual Salem witch hunt. Mary and her husband Samuel (who was not particularly wealthy or influential) were neighbors of Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter of 1691 - 1692, Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams had been acting strangely. They had made been making odd noises, moving in unusual ways, and complaining of mysterious pains. The local physician thought it might be witchcraft. Reverend Parris and his wife tried to treat the girls' ailments through prayer.
On February 25, 1692, Reverend and Mrs. Parris left Salem to hear a minister speak in another town. Mary Sibley came over to the Parris house and told the reverend's slaves, Tituba Indian and her husband John Indian, to make a cake from the girls' urine and rye flour. Following Mary's instructions, the slaves baked the cake and then fed it to a dog. Mary, Tituba and John then watched the dog to see if it acted strangely.
This type of cake was known as a witch cake, and was method for diagnosing witchcraft. If the girls really had witchcraft in their body, it should also be in their urine. If the dog acted strangely after eating their urine it would be proof the girls were indeed bewitched.
History does not record how the dog reacted, but we do know how Reverend Parris acted. He was furious. All magic was considered evil magic, and he believed Mary Sibley's benign attempt to help the girls had opened the door to greater evil. He may have been right, since after witnessing Mary's magic the two girls began to actually see human forms tormenting them. Previously they had just suffered vague physical maladies. It seems likely that her actions strongly suggested to Betty and Abigail that they were bewitched, and they began to act accordingly from that point on.
Reverend Parris gave Mary Sibley a stern private lecture, and she publicly and tearfully confessed her errors to the Salem Village congregation on March 25, 1692.
Mary fades from history at this point and didn't play any further role in the Salem witch trials. However, some writers have suggested that her witch cake was the incident that really kicked off the witch craze. They speculate that Betty and Abigail might have stopped their odd behavior if Mary hadn't asked Tituba and John to bake the witch cake.
That's something we can never know, but we do know that things didn't go too well for Tituba and her husband. Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, and John was accused soon after. Neither was executed, and they survived the trials the same way most others did - by accusing even more people of witchcraft.
When I was a child I learned that Tituba was the person who started the witch craze by telling Betty and Abigail stories of voodoo and black magic. But as I've since learned, this idea was started by historians in the 19th century who wondered why nice rational white people would do something as crazy as hunt witches. Clearly, they thought, the idea of witchcraft must have been introduced into Salem by Tituba, who they imagined to be an irrational black woman. It couldn't have been someone a nice white lady like Mary Sibley.
More recently, historians have learned that Tituba has been misrepresented. The only act of magic she ever performed was to bake the witch cake, and she executed this piece of traditional English magic at the bidding of Mary Sibley. There was no voodoo involved at all. It also seems likely that she was not black, but was an Arawak Indian from the Caribbean. It had been assumed that her last name was Indian, but the word "Indian" may actually just have been a descriptor. Not Tituba India, bur rather Tituba, Indian.
We've also learned that no race or ethnic group - white, black, Arawak, etc. - is more rational or irrational than any other. Well, I hope we've learned that. But I think that's important to keep in mind if you watch Salem. Rationally, we all know there weren't any witches in Salem. We know Mary Sibley wasn't a witch, that Tituba was framed, and that she probably wasn't black.
But somehow, irrationally we're still entertained by a show where the Salem witches are real, Tituba is a manipulative evil black Jamaican woman, and Mary Sibley suckles her familiar with blood from her thigh. So as you watch Salem, and maybe even enjoy its trashy supernatural melodrama, remember what you're seeing is not true.
And when you shut off the TV just remember: there were no real witches in Salem.