24.2.13

AMERICA BEWITCHED

Owen Davies. America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem. Oxford University Press, 2013.

In this latest addition to his excellent series of books on witchcraft and the paranormal in popular culture, Owen Davies turns his attention to the United States. The Salem witchcraft trials and the subsequent apologies are often taken to mean the end of witch beliefs in North America, and to signal the triumph of the enlightenment. Davies shows how false this idea is; long after the law and elites had abandoned belief in witchcraft, belief at folk level continued right into the twentieth century. Showing the enormous value for historians of on-line press sources and indexes, Owen tracks the paths of these beliefs in meticulous detail through the court cases they generated.

He shows how witchcraft beliefs in the United States reflected the great cultural melting pot of that country, the beliefs of First Americans, African Americans, and the numerous European immigrant communities merged together as an underground stream.

Outside of the autonomous First American communities there was little in the way of institutional persecution of alleged witches. There was little or nothing of the grand conspiracy theories of the demonic witch seen in the European witch trials, rather the witches are usually seen as the purveyors of folk magic, whose hexes and spells are the causes of life crises (illness among people and livestock, failing crops, financial failures etc.) and/or anomalous personal experiences. Among those who may both be among the accused or among the accusers are the local folk doctors (hex doctors, pow-wow men and so on). Their ambiguous role is similar to that of the British cunning folk.

Behind many of the accusations lie community and family tensions, in a surprisingly high number of cases those accused are family members of the accuser, often from the outer family (in–laws, cousins etc.). They give some idea of the stresses which often lay beneath the surface of small, face to face societies.

This might seem trivial but Davies shows how often these tensions and accusations led to violence and murder. These led to questions of how society should deal with those who were accused and those making accusations. In some cases slander cases in either the civil or religious courts would suffice, but when it came to serious violence the question arose as to the sanity of those who acted against witches, and indeed whether belief in witches was in itself evidence of insanity.

In the final chapter Davies gives a brief account of the arrival of neo-pagan witchcraft such as Wicca into the US (mainly due to Sybil Leek, another of those people whose imagined life was much more colourful than her real one). Owen tentatively suggests that belief in witchcraft may at last be fading, and there are grounds for thinking that might be the case; modern medicine and sanitation have made life more secure. The vague, often psychosomatic ailments that used to be a staple of both witchcraft accusations and folk cures are now attributed to things like pollution, radiation, electrical sensitivity etc.; anomalous personal experiences that used to explained by witchcraft such as sleep paralysis or seeing strange lights, are now explained by spirits or extraterrestrials; paranoids have tended to replace witches with influencing machines and so on.
 
But I suspect that the old beliefs may have just gone underground, they may not feature in the mainstream press now, but they certainly featured in 'occult' magazines such as Fate, Beyond and Exploring the Unknown well into the 1960s and beyond.

This will be an essential work for researchers into both witchcraft beliefs and folk medicine for some considerable time, and a study which is entirely readable for the non-specialist reader. -- Peter Rogerson


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