Sunday, July 18, 2010

Salem

As Kristin mentioned elsewhere, I recently attended a Writer's convention called Readercon. One of the panels I attended was about horror and New England. New England is a popular setting for horror stories, for a multitude of reasons. The reason I bring it up was that the topic of Salem was raised. Salem, Massachusetts has turned itself into something like a theme park of witches. One of the people on the panel, a Wiccan, in expressing how she felt about that, said that it was like how a Jew would feel about a theme park called Auschwitzland.

There are a couple of problems with this analogy. The first is that approximately 1 million Jews died at Auschwitz, while 0 Wiccans died at the Salem Witch Trials. All 24 people killed by the trials were Christians. And therein lies my biggest pet peeve. Witchcraft, as practiced in the Wicca religion, is a very different thing than what the Massachusetts colonialists considered witchcraft. Casting it as persecution of a religion that didn't exist then misses the point, and Wiccans have come pretty late to the game in order to claim that that they have sole authority to define what witchcraft means.

Witchcraft, by the definition used by the colonialists, involved making a deal with the Devil for power and using that power to torment and kill others. I believe that C.S. Lewis was the one who pointed out that if we truly believed that such a thing existed, we would agree that those who practiced it should be brought to justice, and thus our main disagreement with the people of Salem is simply that we no longer believe in witchcraft. Personally, I prefer a somewhat more balanced view, that is agnostic to the existence of witchcraft. I believe that the Salem Witch Trials were a grave miscarriage of justice and a failure of due process, convicting people on hearsay and superstition.

So what do I think of Salem? Well, comparing it to Auschwitz is silly. But so is its attempt to make witches into some kind of mascot. Because the mascot witch is yet another definition of witchcraft, very different from both the colonialist and Wiccan one, a caricature with none of the religious connotations of either. To pretend that it has anything to do with what happened in Salem over 300 years ago is an injustice.

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