March 14, 2017

Becoming A Witch, New England Style

The following letter appeared in my mailbox the other day:

Dear New England Folklore,

Thank you for writing such an awesome blog. I really love reading your posts about witches and witchcraft. I have some annoying neighbors and would like to ruin their butter, sicken their livestock and cause their crops to fail. How can I become a witch? It sounds like fun.

Your faithful reader,

Darlene in Dunwich

Gee Darlene! Thanks for the wonderful letter. Personally I don't think you should use malevolent magic to revenge yourself on your neighbors, but you do ask a good question. How does one become a witch? There are several different opinions on the matter.

For many modern spiritual witches (Wiccans and others who follow witchcraft as a religious path*), becoming a witch involves being initiated by someone who already is one. These initiations usually involve sacred oaths, nudity, some good-natured torture, and the imparting of secret knowledge. This initiatory model was started by Gerald Gardner (1884 - 1964), the father of modern witchcraft and the first person to declare himself a Wiccan. Gardner claimed that he himself was initiated by a pre-existing coven, but the rituals he created include many elements from other sources, including Freemasonry and the works of Aleister Crowley.

This type of initiation would be quite foreign to a traditional New England witch. All those candles and chants and incense - why, it's downright Popish! The stories about Puritan witchcraft initiations describe something simpler and much more bare-bones. The Puritans sought to strip away all extraneous elements from Christianity, and this impulse is also reflected in their stories about witchcraft, which they viewed as Christianity's evil twin.

A modern witchcraft initiation. Nothing this exciting happens in traditional New England folklore!

Most stories simply involve someone signing their name in the Devil's big black book. Often it is implied that they are signing in blood. A lot of these stories come from confessions collected during the witch trials. Puritan magistrates thought the Devil was behind all witchcraft, and they would get people to confess the Evil One's involvement any way they could. I mentioned that there may be some good-natured torture in a Wiccan initiation. The torture used by the Puritans was not in any way good-natured.

For example, during the Salem trials teenaged witch suspect Richard Carrier and his brother Andrew were bent over backwards and tied head to ankle. They had initially plead innocent but - no surprise - after this painful torture they confessed to signing the Devil's book in an apple orchard in their own blood. They also said the Devil had baptized them in a waterfall in Newbury. Several other Salem suspects also claimed the Devil baptized them.

The Satanic baptism is obviously an inversion of the Christian baptism, while the Devil's black book is the dark twin of the book that Puritans signed when becoming members of their local Puritan congregation. The classic New England witchcraft initiation is basically a distorted reflection of Puritan religion. Interestingly, some suspects confessed that the Devil only wanted their service for a set number of years. This is also a reflection of New England Puritan society, where many people were indentured servants who sold themselves to masters for a set period of time.

I realize this may sound a little tame to you, Darlene. Like eating at a Dunkin' Donuts, New England witchcraft is effective but doesn't have a lot of sex appeal. Well, if you want something a little more sexy, I'd suggest reading Vance Randolph's Ozark Magic and Folklore (1947), which contains folklore he gathered in the 1930s and 1940s. There are some interesting parallels between Ozark and New England folklore, but the stories about witchcraft initiations are much different.

Well, that's how you can become a witch. But don't rush into it, because you may already be one! Some modern witches think that witches are born, not made. A few go so far as to claim that some people carry "witch-blood" inside them and are descended from the Nephelim, the fallen angels from the Book of Genesis. I suspect the idea of witch-blood was popularized in the modern era by Jack Williamson's 1948 pulp novel Darker Than You Think, but it does have deep roots in European folklore. For example, Merlin is often said to be the half-human offspring of a human woman and a demon.

Some European cultures claim that children born in strange ways or at strange times are destined to become magical beings, regardless of their parentage. For example, in Renaissance Italy children born feet-first were said to mature into either witches or witch-fighters, while in Greece babies born on Christmas day grew up to be kallikantzaroi, hideous evil monsters. So perhaps you are already a witch! (More details on this idea can be found in Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches' Sabbath (1993)).

I haven't found any comparable lore from New England, but many stories from this region don't really indicate how people become witches. They tend to focus instead on how to detect and defeat them. The Puritan leaders were convinced that all witches got their power from Satan, but this opinion wasn't shared by everyone. The average person didn't really care where witches came from. For many people they were not part of a demonic conspiracy but were instead, like March blizzards or stony soil, just part of New England they had to deal with.
*Mandatory disclaimer - Unlike the witches from folklore, modern spiritual witches are mostly nice people and don't go around cursing livestock or ruining your butter. Don't confuse modern witches with the witches from folklore!

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