book Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America

reviewed by Candace Moonshower

Published in Issue No. 21 ~ February, 1999

Rarely do words carry with them such long-standing pejorative connotations as the terms “witch” and “witchcraft.” Although most folks living on the cusp of the twenty-first century claim not to believe in witches in the same way that their ancestors in seventeenth-century Colonial America might have, according to the contributors in Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, witches are alive and well in our time, calling themselves “wiccans” or “neopagan goddesses.” Though no longer accused and condemned by their neighbors and families in the manner of the infamous 1692 Salem witchcraft trials, they continue to face a stigma and subtle persecution, born, say many proponents of goddess worship, of ignorance and bigotry. In this fascinating anthology, essays by scholars and writers in such diverse areas as history, religion, English, law, cultural anthropology, and women’s studies explore the lineage of witches and witchcraft within the United States. The twelve essays in Spellbound can be subdivided into three topics: witchcraft in America at the time of the Salem witch trial; witchcraft and occult activity in the eighteenth century, including that activity identified among Seneca and Cayuga Indians and African Americans; and current trends in feminist spiritualism, including Goddess religions, corresponding misogynist trends, and the ways in which race, gender and class have molded our views about witches and witchcraft.

Each of the four essays in the first section of the book offers new insights into the stories of the slave Tituba and the possessed young girls of Salem, Massachusetts, a story most people have heard as children and never questioned. A dark woman, either African or West Indian, lures adolescent girls into performing suggestive and dangerous acts which open them up to possession by witches or the devil. The ensuing spate of accusations rips the village of Salem apart; the children accuse their elders, even their own kinsmen, neighbors accuse neighbors, and husbands accuse wives. In four compelling essays, scholars examine the financial situation of the women accused, the power of language in Puritan New England to identify someone as either pure or sinful, the ways in which the Puritan religious culture prompted confessions from women rather than men, and an examination of the myth that surrounds the slave Tituba, accepted by many as the “fatal spark” that set fire to the 1692 Salem tragedy.

Carol F. Karlsen, in her essay “The Economic Basis of Witchcraft,” presents cogent and authoritative evidence that the majority of women actually executed as witches throughout the seventeenth century were those that had recently inherited property or those who stood to inherit property or money. Karlsen contends that many of these women were usually alone, meaning they had neither husbands, brothers nor sons to protect them, or, in an interesting twist, later accusations involved “unlikely” witches who were married to wealthy or influential men. These women were vulnerable to witchcraft accusations because, according to Karlsen, “they stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.” Karlsen readily refers to inconsistencies in her hypothesis, including the cases of women with brothers or sons who were accused and tried, but her numbers still show that the overwhelming percentage of those women actually executed as witches in New England from 1620 through 1725 were women without brothers and sons. Karlsen provides the details of many of the cases from which she draws her figures, rendering her thesis both entertaining and credible.

“Dark Eve,” excerpted from Bernard Rosenthal’s book Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, explodes the common belief that the slave Tituba precipitated the hysteria in Salem in 1692 with her tales and practice of voodoo. While records and documents clearly show that Tituba did indeed confess to practicing magic and voodoo and to telling lurid stories involving the already accused Sarah Good, her testimony shows that she initially denied being a witch or hurting the children and eventually changed her story to say that she only hurt the children because she had been threatened. Rosenthal illustrates how the story of Tituba moved from myth to “fact” with the 1867 account of the trials by Charles W. Upham called Salem Witchcraft. Upham speculated that Tituba and her husband, John, practiced “systems of demonology” and strange voodoo rites and met regularly with a group of impressionable young girls in the kitchen of the Reverend Samuel Parris to entice and beguile them away from their Puritan beliefs. From such specuation came the tradition of Tituba as the “central, generating figure in the origins of the witch-hunt.” Rosenthal traces that growing tradition and asserts that no historical evidence supports it, though popularizers and even scholars continue to accept it as fact. For Rosenthal, Tituba represents the “dark Eve” Americans find so easy to blame. Seeing Tituba as precipitating agent in this shameful hour of our history, when these early Puritans lost their tenacious religious hold over their, is consistent with American stereotypes and the negative myths they continue to perpetuate.

Among the essays exploring witches and witchcraft during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Nell Irvin Painter’s exploration of the religious path of Sojourner Truth is significant because Painter disrupts prevailing assumptions about historic black religion. Sojourner Truth, born into slavery as Isabella, was freed in 1827 and became an American abolitionist and feminist, renowned as a leading figure against slavery and for the rights of women. Isabella’s religious belief evolved (much like that of many marginalized peoples’) -from one in which she viewed God as a kind of “great man” – literate in ways she could never understand and one with whom she tended to strike deals (much as slaves did with their masters) – to one in which she viewed Jesus as her friend and saw worship as an end in itself, not simply a part of deal-making. During the year of 1827-28, a year in which she became one of the founders of the Kingston, New York, Methodist Church, a freed Isabella worked to find her son, Peter, who had been sold away from her. Upon regaining physical custody of her son, Isabella experienced a religious moment that cannot be attributed to her Southern, Protestant religious background. Shocked at the brutalized appearance of her 7-year-old boy – who had been whipped, kicked and beaten – Isabella forgot the Methodism that had brought her such peace. She cursed the family of the man who had mistreated her child, calling upon her God “to `render unto them double’ for what they had done to Peter.” Isabella’s curse bore fruit. The same man who had abused her son so brutally soon beat his own wife to death; the mother of the dead woman eventually lost her mind and the child of the dead woman became chronically depressed. Isabella, though not a witch, found that her rural Afro-Dutch culture had re-exerted itself. Though this culture may have had African roots, it was also part and parcel of a witchcraft native to Ulster County, New York, in early seventeenth-century New England. The lesson to be learned here, Painter insists, is that symbolic constructions by historians that are common in the study of black life and religion, in which “scholars speak in the singular and merge the categories,” are erroneous at best and dangerous at worst. Discrepancies in the beliefs held by slaves throughout the United States are instructive; a look at the life of Sojourner Truth “immediately relocates the investigation from the Southern slave community – always assumed to be a plantation society – to places where African Americans lived surrounded by whites.”

The final three essays in the anthology merit examination because they speak to our contemporary concerns regarding spirituality, feminism, and modern witchcraft. In “Witchcraft as Goddess Religion,” Starhawk traces the “history” of witchcraft, a religion whose origins predate all the “so-called great religions,” and which “takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, the flight of birds, the slow growth of trees, and the cycles of the seasons.” This poetic description is footnoted; in a rather lengthy aside, Starhawk tells us that the history she is presenting is “a mixture of oral tradition, interpretations of physical evidence, and standard scholarship.” A complete, documented, and foot-noted presentation of the history of witchcraft would require volumes, Starhawk asserts, “many of which have already been written by other people.” She follows this assertion with sweeping, mythopoetic retellings of skin-dressed shamans worshipping the Mother Goddess, of bare-footed priestesses with increasing power to “probe the secrets of time, and the hidden structure of the cosmos.”

Thirty thousand years of domination by the mythological cycle of Goddess and Consort, Mother and Divine Child, then succumbed to the “values of conquering patriarchies” as the culture of war developed during the time of the Bronze Age. This led to widespread persecution of witches and witchcraft, forcing practitioners to go underground. While I do not dispute Starhawk’s retelling of history, I disagree with her assertions that witchcraft differs from other religions in that it concerns a spirituality encompassing an inner knowledge that “literally cannot be expressed in words,” the primary symbol of which is the Goddess, the “reality, the manifest deity, omnipresent in all of life, in each of us.” This sounds much the same to me as God, Buddha and Allah, deities whose followers also claim are the omnipresent realities residing in all of us. According to Starhawk, the importance of the Goddess symbol for women is that she inspires us to see ourselves as sexual, sacred and powerful, the harbinger of all life, with the power to both create and destroy. The Goddess doesn’t exclude men but helps them to feel the most sensitive aspects of themselves. Later, in a small and easily missed paragraph of four sentences, Starhawk addresses the uneasiness of many feminists with regard to the rise of the Goddess religion as a distraction from the political energy necessary to bring about social change. In another sweeping and unsubstantiated statement, Starhawk informs us that this fear is needless; the symbol of the Goddess “conveys the spiritual power both to challenge systems of oppression and to create new, life-oriented cultures.” It all sounds plausible initially and is beautifully written, but I found myself questioning her claims and sources after every two or three sentences. Starhawk undermines her own credibility with her barrage of footnotes and endnotes, many of which often contain information which contradicts what she has said in the referenced passage or qualifies it out of consequence. The essay, excerpted from Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, proves insubstantial, reading like so much of the feel-good fluff that is being touted as scholarship these days.

Cynthia Eller performs admirably in her essay “Affinities and Appropriations in Feminist Spirituality,” noting the difference between neopagans and neopagans who are also practicing feminists, groups who utilize goddess symbolism in widely varying ways. I enjoyed the way Eller questions the widespread appropriation of other religious traditions by women questing for a truly feminist spirituality. Eller asks: Is this borrowing a way to honor the traditions of marginalized peoples and women such as African-Americans and Native Americans, or is it yet another instance of the pillaging of others’ customs and lifestyles by whites? She notes that “the joy of feminist religious syncretism is marred somewhat by the fact that when one borrows religiously, one is borrowing from someone (or some culture), and often without permission.” Eller offers cogent arguments for both sides of the debate, complete with examples from a variety of feminist spiritualists both pro and con on the value and problems of “cross-cultural borrowing.”

In direct opposition to the feel-good, anti-scholarship approach of Starhawk, Linda Jencson explores the underside of Goddess worship and neopaganism, particularly with regard to the manner in which male misogynists use the rites and practices of Goddess worship to exploit the sexuality of the women in their covens. Goddess misogyny exists and is perpetuated, Jencson asserts, because women join covens in their search for an alternative to mainstream Christianity, a religion they believe to be oppressive to their feminism. Often, though, the disastrous result is that these women – and the Goddesses they worship – become “pawns in male contests for dominion over one another.” Jencson warns women to be cautious in blindly accepting any direct correlation between Goddess worship and empowerment to women, and she offers persuasive evidence to bolster her warnings.

Why is it important to examine witchcraft in our country from its earliest beginnings, and the ways in which our beliefs about it have evolved, when, as editor Elizabeth Reis admits, the “definition of `witch’ is ambiguous and has changed over time”? Reis suggests that as the meanings of “witch” and “witchcraft” change, “so too does our understanding of women’s roles in society.” A man is a person; a woman is “other,” and the label “witch” most accurately expresses our centuries-long conception of otherness in which women are at the mercy of the societal and cultural rules of the norm established by men. Although witches have been – and continue to be – either women or men, the essays delineate the ways that “witchcraft, witch-hunting, and womanhood are inextricably linked in American history.” Spellbound offers a well-balanced presentation of the history of witches and goddess worship in the United States and of the ways in which our beliefs about witches, goddesses and the corresponding contemporary feminist spirituality movement are shaped by issues of culture, race, gender and class.

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Candace Moonshower is an army brat who taught herself to type the summer she turned eight, knowing even then she would write. Now a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she studies English and writes both fiction and nonfiction. Candace's personal and ongoing work involves researching and writing about the cultural aftermath of the Vietnam War, especially with regard to the men and women that served and the families they left behind, in the hopes of promoting an understanding of our national consciousness before, during and since our involvement there.