Truth and Legends: Witchcraft in America

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Witchcraft in America has a rollercoaster history. Most of us are familiar with the Salem Witch Trials that took place in Massachusetts during the early 1600s, but witchcraft goes back even further in time. While there have been several depictions of good witches, like those in films like Practical Magic or books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, witchcraft in America has a dark history. This is a brief look into the truth and lore behind the history of witches in the United States. 
 
The Earliest Witches
 
The idea of witches, or witch-like beings, has been present in American lore for generations. Some of the earliest depictions come from the Navajo people, though they express little information to outsiders about the belief as it is meant to stay within the tribe. Witchcraft is represented in the Bible as well. In the Old Testament, the book of 1 Samuel tells the story of King Saul seeking the Witch of Endor to summon the spirit of the deceased Samuel to help him win against the Philistine army. The witch does as he wishes, but prophesizes that Saul and his sons would die the next day. The following day, each of Saul’s sons died in battle and Saul commits suicide after hearing the news of their losses. Another appearance arrives in Exodus 22:18, reading “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” 
 
A witchcraft mania swept Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. During this time, two German writers published Malleus Maleficarum, a how-to guide for hunting and interrogating witches, which only served to further exacerbate the fear. Between 1500 and 1660, several thousand suspected witches were killed. Eighty percent of the accused were women who were thought to have been worshipping the Devil. 
 
As Europeans spread into North America, their fear of witchcraft did too. The Salem witch trials began when two young girls began experiencing inexplicable fits. Today, researchers believe their outbursts were caused by a fungus poisoning that made them experience spasms and delusions, but at the time there was no such medical explanation. More and more women began having similar symptoms and colonists declared that witchcraft was to blame. Three local women were accused: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba, an enslaved woman owned by the family of one of the young girls. Of those three, Tituba was the only one to leave prison alive after serving over a year behind bars.
 
In Connecticut, 46 people were accused of witchcraft and 11 were executed for their supposed crimes. The state of Virginia passed a law stating that no one could be falsely accused of witchcraft. Still, accusations were made and trials carried out, although no one was executed. One of the most famous instances of someone being accused of witchcraft was a woman who lived in Virginia. Her name was Grace Sherwood and she was accused of killing her neighbor’s pigs and casting hexes on their cotton crops. When she was brought to trial, the court used a water test, binding her arms and legs and tossing her in a vat of water, to determine if she was guilty or innocent. If she sank, she was innocent, but if she floated, she was deemed guilty. Unsurprisingly, Sherwood didn’t sink and was sent to prison for eight years. 
 
Witchcraft in Modern History and Today
 
In the 1960s, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.) formed. This was a feminist-oriented group used witch-like stunts for publicity and referred to witches as “the first guerrilla fighters against women’s oppression.” In 1973, the American Council of Witches was formed and met the next year to establish a set of rules for the group. Here is where the 13 Principals of Wiccan Belief were created – the first of these rules reads, “We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal Quarters and Cross Quarters.” However, due to disagreements on how the group should operate, it was quickly disbanded.
 
Modern-day witchcraft, or better known as Wicca, is recognized as an official religion in the United States and Canada. At their core, Wiccans avoid evil, practice under the phrase “harm none,” and fight against existing stereotypes to live peaceful lives. Modern Wiccans practice spells from their Book of Shadows, a 20th-century collection of incantations that resemble what other religions would consider an act of prayer. A potion fashioned by someone practicing Wicca is likely an herbal remedy for the common cold or flu.
 
Despite the lack of ill-intention, modern-day witches still face harsh treatment in many places in the world. In 2010 in Papua New Guinea, several men and women were beaten because they were suspected witches. Among these was a young mother who was burned alive.
 
Witches in Popular Culture
 
In the 1960s, the popular television show Bewitched began to air. It followed a modern-day witch living as a suburban housewife. Episodes were filmed on location in Salem and the show’s main character Samantha would occasionally call out the ridiculous nature of the witch trials that took place there. Bewitched was one of the early shows that helped reestablish witchcraft in popular culture and highlighted the unfairness that came upon those accused of witchcraft in the early colonies.
 
Television shows like Charmed, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, and Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina all brought fanatic attention back to the theme of witches and witchcraft. While some witches were still seen as evil-doers, an overwhelming number were written as the heroes of their narratives. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series drastically changed how witches (and this time wizards too) were viewed in popular culture. Instead of being perceived as gross old women with long noses, moles, and wrinkled skin, witches resembled average people and even children.
 
In the earliest years of their history in America, witches were thought to be evil monsters. Today, thanks to modern television and a better understanding of the world, that position has shifted into a more positive light.