October 20, 2013

American Horror Story: Did Tituba Practice Voodoo?

We've been watching season three of American Horror Story, and last week's episode ended with a confrontation between Fiona Goode the supreme witch (played by Jessica Lange), and Marie Laveau the immortal voodoo queen (played by Angela Bassett). As they argue in a New Orleans hair salon, Marie claims that the witches stole their power from Tituba, who practiced voodoo in Puritan Salem. (To be clear, Voudou or Voudoun is an African-based polytheistic religious system; in popular culture, voodoo is a magical system that is derived from Voudou.)

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau

American Horror Story is of course fiction and created to entertain (which I think it does), but it usually works in some historical information as well. So who was Tituba, and did she really practice voodoo or Voudou?

Tituba was a slave owned in the 1690s by Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. After his daughter Betty, her cousin Abigail Williams and other local girls began to have fits, they accused Tituba of bewitching them. Some writers, like Marion Starkey, have claimed the girls made these accusations because Tituba taught them voodoo-style magic. In particular, Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts claims that the guilt and conflict the adolescent girls felt about practicing Tituba's magic was the spark that ignited the Salem witch trials.

This probably never happened, but it sure looks dramatic!
However, there's not much evidence that Tituba practiced any magic at all, let alone voodoo or Voudou. According to Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials, there's just one documented incident of Tituba performing magic.

On February 25, 1692, before she was accused of being a witch, Tituba made a cake made from the afflicted girls' urine and fed it to a dog. This was a form of diagnostic magic. If the dog became sick after eating the cake, it would prove the girls had witchcraft-tainted urine and were indeed bewitched. Baking a witch cake is not a practice associated with Voudou or voodoo, but is part of English folk magic. Tituba was in fact instructed to make the cake by Mary Sibley, an English neighbor of the Parrises.

When Tituba did confess to being a witch, her confessions matched those of her English Puritan neighbors. She had flown through the air on a pole to the witch meetings, had been pressured by the Devil to serve him, and had been offered animal familiars. These are all part of English witchcraft belief, not Voudou. Another Salem slave named Candy was accused of witchcraft, and her confessions also matched her Puritan neighbors. I think it's safe to assume the slaves were just telling the judges what they wanted to hear. It was the safest strategy to prolong your life during the Salem trials.

It's also not entirely clear if Tituba was of African, or even part-African, descent. The trial records refer to her as Tituba Indian, and her husband as John Indian. It appears they had come originally from the Caribbean, and some historians have claimed they were actually Arawak Indians rather than Africans. On American Horror Story Marie Laveau does mention that Tituba was an Arawak, but any connection between Arawak religion (now extinct) and voodoo or Voudou is mostly speculative.

American Horror Story also has a minotaur in it, so I'm not expecting historical accuracy. The show entertains while discussing broader social themes, and this season seems to be partly about racial conflict. If that turns out to be the case Tituba certainly fits right in.


Unknown said...

Taking a masters folklore class at USI and we have referenced your blog. I haven't fully watched the earlier two shows, but am watching Coven. Wow. I am hooked on the show and look forward to any other posts you have on related topics. I haven't begun to get through your blog yet, but I hope to read here a lot more.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Lorri! Thanks for reading,and congrats on taking a masters class in folklore. I'm just letting COVEN wash over me right now and experiencing the craziness. I watched the other two seasons and found that all the disparate parts were tied together by the end. I'm hoping they reference Salem again, perhaps with a flashback or two!