Fantastical Witches: Myths and Legendary Truths

Discover the history behind the Salem Witch Trials and how they influenced American literature, from the nineteenth century to today.

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witch on a broom flying across an orange moon; white letters spell witch to her left

“Double double, toil and trouble: Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Even if you aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you may have heard this iconic line spoken by the three unnamed witches in the play. Witches and other supernatural beings have captured the human imagination for centuries, and the modern age is no exception. Modern movies and shows like Kiki’s Delivery Service and WandaVision reimagine the role of witches in today’s world.

But what’s with the obsession with witches in the media? Whether you personally believe in them or not, witches have existed since ancient Greece, 17th-century Europe, and modern America. How did (arguably) the most famous witchy historical event, the Salem Witch Trials, lead to multiple executions and mass hysteria? While there’s no singular, definitive answer, we can make guesses based on history and literature and the ultimate effects of this action. Through this inquiry, we can also discover the myths and truths behind the Salem Witch Trials.

What were the Salem Witch Trials?

The Salem Witch Trials occurred in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. These trials prosecuted people for practicing witchcraft, primarily women of color or low social standing. About 20 people, 14 of them women, were executed. Even after the Salem Witch Trials ended, 12 others were executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut for allegedly practicing witchcraft.

Drawing of Salem Witch Trials; courtroom in which woman in front of man lying on floor expels lightning from hands and viewers scream

But before there were official trials, something strange occurred in Salem that had no identifiable causes. Two young girls began having intense and uncontrollable fits in which they screamed, uttered gibberish, and contorted their bodies into strange positions. The doctor claimed that there was nothing physically ailing the girls, so the presumed cause was witchcraft. Soon after this, several other young people in the village started to display similar behavior.

Just a quick and frankly bizarre note: recent studies have shown that the scientific cause of these unusual and alarming behaviors was ergot, a type of fungus that grew on rye when it was stored for too long in a cool and damp environment. This fungus, when ingested by young people, has been proven to cause delusions and spasms similar to the effects of LSD.

Painting of Salem witch trials; young girl in a dress points at something unseen while men whisper in the background and a young girl hugs an older woman

Okay, back to the trials. The leaders were New England Puritans who were either European immigrants or descended from Europeans. Like them, the Puritans believed that supernatural forces were evil workings devised by the Devil. Catastrophic events such as plagues, infant mortalities, and the loss of crops or cattle were deemed to be the results of vengeful witches.

According to the Puritans, women were most likely to be witches because they had weaker constitutions and could therefore be easily possessed by the Devil. However, a more accurate explanation for why women were more likely to be accused of practicing witchcraft was because of blatant misogyny and a general misunderstanding of wise women who used herbal remedies.

Witch Hunts Throughout History

Now that we’ve established what the Salem Witch Trials were, it’s time to delve into the history books and look at other witch hunts. Like the Puritans in Colonial America, many people in the past believed that witches were evil beings allied with the Devil. The reason for this most likely comes from the Bible, which states that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Also, there are other passages in the Old Testament that caution against using witchy powers.

The belief that witches were evil became widespread, and numerous witch hunts were conducted by religious leaders throughout the 15th and 17th centuries. Women who were most likely to be accused of practicing witchcraft were single, widows, or on the margins of society in some other way. During this time, around 80,000 people were executed for presumed witchcraft in Europe.

Colorful drawing of witch hunt in Europe; two people burn three witches at the stake in front of a church

While there isn’t a clear answer as to why and when the witch hysteria took over Europe, we can still make guesses based on what people were reading at the time. Malleus Maleficarum, Latin for “Hammer of Witches,” was a guidebook on how to hunt and identify witches. It was written by two Germans in 1486 and claimed that witchcraft was blasphemous. This spurred both Protestants and Catholics to buy Malleus Maleficarum and use it to conduct witch hunts.

But what does all that European history have to do with the Salem Witch Trials, which happened all the way over in North America? Even though it was far away, Colonial America was still being heavily influenced by its European founders. While witch hysteria was decreasing in Europe, it had by then crossed the Atlantic and infected the minds of Colonial Americans.

Drawing of a woman using magic to send a book flying across the room at a judge in a courtroom with horrified onlookers

European events and culture weren’t the only causes of the Salem Witch Trials. The American colonists dealt with a lot just before the close of the 17th century though this doesn’t justify killing innocent people. Colonists were trying to avoid ongoing wars between Britain and France; there had just been a rampant smallpox epidemic, and violent attacks led by Native Americans against the colonists were increasing — probably because the colonists stole their land.

Witches in Modern Literature

The Salem Witch Trials took place over three centuries ago. So why are Americans and people from all over the world still fascinated by witches and their persecutors? There isn’t a simple answer to this question, but one reason might be that witches are powerful and complex fictional characters who can aid the author in making social commentary.

One of the earliest examples of the occult appearing in American literature is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel was published in 1850, but it’s set around the same place and time as the Salem Witch Trials. The Scarlet Letter criticizes Puritan society and portrays witches in a slightly more sympathetic light, revealing that the true forces of evil were the strict values and expectations imposed by the Puritans.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne cover; young woman in old-fashioned dress with embroidered A on the front holding baby

Although it might not seem like it, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is also a witch-positive American classic. Written in 1900, just before the women’s suffrage movement was about to materialize, the novel depicts several powerful women. Not all of them are benevolent — the Wicked Witch of the West is, well, wicked — but Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and even Dorothy challenge the male fear of female power and rule.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum cover; illustrations of Wicked Witch of the West, the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Dorothy with Toto, and the Yellow Brick Road

Jumping ahead almost a century later, the Harry Potter series brought the world of witches and wizards to the forefront of the world’s imagination. Similar to Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, both good and evil witches exist in the world of Harry Potter. As female rights advanced in the real world, so did the influence and complexity of witches in literature.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling cover; young boy wearing glasses riding a broomstick with a unicorn and a castle in the background

Just a few years ago, Circe by Madeline Miller took the world of witches and society’s perceptions of them by storm. What used to be a shallow and simply evil woman with unnatural abilities from the Odyssey is transformed by Miller into an intricate and powerful witch. While Circe isn’t a chiseled replica of our traditional heroes, she is a fascinating and sympathetic protagonist who defies stereotypes and empowers women.

Circe by Madeline Miller cover; illustration of young woman's face in orange and black wearing a diadem

One last question: What do all those very different witchy stories have in common? As we analyze the timeline, an answer emerges. The Scarlet Letter was one of the first books to view the Salem Witch Trials from the lost and forgotten perspectives of the female victims.

Then, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gave us a strong female protagonist who is both aided and obstructed by witches, this time providing women with both voice and agency.

Finally, modern books such as Harry Potter and Circe transformed the cultural landscape surrounding not just witches but also the perception of any woman who dares to use her magic.

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