Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America

Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America

Smith, Moira

Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America. Ed. Elizabeth Reis. (Wilmington: SR Books, 1998. Pp. xxiii + 276, introduction, suggested readings.)

Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America raises two images: the infamous Salem witchcraft trials, and today’s practicing Neopagan witches. As Elizabeth Reis notes in her introduction, the relationship between the Salem witches and those of today is a controversial one. Many modem witches claim to be reviving an ancient religion that was also practiced by the victims of the Salem trials-in other words, that the Salem witches really were witches. Most historians, however, would dispute that claim. To investigate this controversy, Reis has collected 12 articles that explore various definitions of witchcraft in America, from New England trials to modern witchcraft, including studies of witchcraft and women’s spirituality among Native Americans and African Americans. Half of the contributions are reprints or excerpts of published work.

One broad group of witchcraft definitions is that offered by persecutors, who, as Reis says, have used theology to control women throughout history. The first four essays in this book all take a feminist approach to witchcraft accusations, not just at Salem but in colonial New England generally. In “The Economic Basis of Witchcraft,” Carol Karlsen argues that a woman was more likely to be charged as a witch if she were a single or widowed woman who had inherited an unusually significant amount of property. Based on the excerpts reprinted here, her statistical argument is flawed, in that she does not compare the rates of wealthy women among the accused to the general population. Moving from economics to sociolinguistics, Jane Kamensky’s contribution examines the gendered basis of Puritan attitudes toward decorous speech. The witch’s crime was one of speech–scolding, cursing, or speaking against authority. However, not every woman who spoke improperly was seen as a witch-others were thought to be the victims of witchcraft (such as the possessed victims at Salem), or simply of demon possession. In “The Devil Will Roar in Me Anon,” Kenneth Minkena presents one case from 1741 in which contemporaries readily explained a cursing argumentative woman as a victim of possession, with no hint of witchcraft.

Elizabeth Reis examines the confessions from the New England trials and finds that Puritan women were more likely than men to see themselves as inherently sinful. Since the excerpt presented here does not include detailed analysis of the confession texts, this foray into the psyches of alleged witches remains speculative in my opinion. As with other essays in this anthology, the reader might have to look up the original book-length studies from which the selections are excerpted in order to assess their arguments properly. In contrast, a chapter from Bernard Rosenthal’s Salem Story relies on close textual analysis to show how gender and race stereotypes have inflated and distorted the role of Tituba in the Salem witch panic.

Neopagan witches are criticized for appropriating elements of Native American and other religions (see Eller’s article, discussed below). Matthew Dennis’s essay about Seneca Indian witchcraft beliefs shows that this cultural borrowing can go both ways. Traditionally, the Seneca believed that both men and women could be witches. In the 19th century, the Seneca leader Handsome Lake adopted the gendered definition of the witch from Europeans, and so created a tool to destroy the traditional authority of women among the Seneca. A century later, however, two Cayuga women were acquitted of murder by claiming that they were following traditional precepts of witchcraft and counterwitchcraft, as Sidney Harring’s essay describes. Witchcraft, then, is a powerful signifier that can be used against the oppressed but also appropriated to empower them.

Present-day witches have also appropriated this label as a means of empowerment. An excerpt from Starhawk’s influential Spiral Dance presents the revisionist myth behind this modem spiritual movement, according to which the alleged witches of the trials are explained as practitioners of an ancient goddess religion, and the victims of Christian persecution. An excerpt from Cynthia Eller’s book examines the contemporary feminist spirituality of which modern witchcraft is a part, with a special focus on the ethics of cross-cultural borrowing. These movements rely heavily on imitating rituals and myths from Asian, African, and especially Native American religions, often misunderstood and freely recombined to suit the inclinations of the modern worshipper.

Despite the eloquent efforts of Starhawk and other modern witches to rehabilitate the traditional negative meanings of the term witch, those negative associations remain strong, and alternative definitions persist. For example, although witchcraft as goddess worship is usually meant to empower women, it is not always feminist. Linda Jencsen’s essay examines the misogynist strands in the movement, focusing especially on the practices of Aleister Crowley and his followers. Where modern witches embrace this label, other alternative woman-centered religions work hard to distance themselves from it. David Estes’s study of the African American Spritualist Church describes how another womancentered religion resists efforts to demonize them as hoodoo sorcerers.

What then is the relationship between all the different varieties of witch covered in this volume? As a feminist historian, Reis faces a dilemma. While supporting modern witchcraft’s attempts to offer an alternative and empowering spirituality for women, she also knows that their claims about the colonial witches are unsupported by historical facts. She writes, “The accused women were not witches, and neither the dubious judicial proceedings of three hundred years ago nor the well-meaning, if ill-informed, revisionism of today can so make them” (p. xxii). How then to characterize the “relationship” between witches then and now? Reis’s solution is to argue that all are women who encounter prejudice and hostility-“Women have been demonized historically,” she writes (p. 202).

This statement is undoubtedly true, but in the end I find it unsatisfying. Witchcraft cannot be completely reduced to a question of gender. Indeed, one of the strengths of this anthology is that it goes beyond gender and the usual focus on Euro-American witches to include native Americans and African Americans and show the impact of race and cultural contact on changing definitions of witchcraft. Given the usual caveats about uneven quality that apply to anthologies, this collection serves as a sometimes confusing introduction to the changing definitions of witchcraft in America.


Indiana University

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Winter 2001

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