February 07, 2010

Love Magic Gone Bad

The Ann Putnam house in Danvers (formerly Salem Village)

A special post in honor of Valentine's Day!

When I read through books of New England folklore, I'm struck by all the folk magic aimed at revealing who your true love will be. Throwing apple peels over your shoulder, sticking apple seeds to your forehead, reading tea leaves, pouring melted wax into water - there's probably a technique using every common household item.

I can understand the need for all this magic. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued that people use magic in situations where they feel helpless; isn't being in love (or not being in love) one of them?

Love divination is often claimed to be the spark that kindled the Salem witch trials. In the long dark winter of 1691-92, a group of teenage girls in Salem would gather to fight off boredom by practicing fortune-telling. As John Hale wrote in his 1702 book A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, one day the girls were floating egg whites in a glass of water. The goal was to learn what trades their future husbands would practice. For example, if the whites formed the shape of a ship, he'd be a sailor. If they formed a plow, he'd be a farmer. (This technique was called a Venus glass.)

Unfortunately, when one of the girls put the whites in the glass she saw "a spectre in the likeness of a Coffin." Would her husband die an early death? Or did it mean she would die soon, in effect becoming Death's bride? Needless to say, she became upset. Soon thereafter the group of girls became afflicted with strange behaviors indicating they were bewitched. (Interestingly, Hale claims he met another woman later who had tried the same spell, and who "came under sore fits and vexations of Satan." Hale later freed her with his prayers.)

Most people have assumed the girls John Hale describes were the ones who started the Salem witch trials, but historian Mary Beth Norton points out in her book In the Devil's Snare that Hale never makes this claim. Wouldn't he, if it were the incident that started everything?

I'll leave that to professional historians. And just to be safe, I'll scramble my eggs, not divine with them!


Lisa said...

I love those love superstitions as well! You should know about Polly Pen's chamber musical, The Dumb Cake, which is based on a ritual about baking a cake at midnight and then looking over your shoulder as you walk up stairs, in order to see who you'll marry.
Polly also wrote a musical about the Dunmow Flitch trials, but since those are in Old England, not new, I presume it would be of less interest. Still, they date back to Chaucer, are still performed, and are fucking cool.

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for posting Peter! It's interesting to learn those that feared 'magic' were so obsessively fascinated by it!