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A Brief History of Witches in America

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By Scan by NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before J.K. Rowling started dabbling in the American history of witches, we had our own traditions: Native American myths, the Salem Witch Trials, Bewitched, the 1970s resurgence, and the current phenomenon tell a long narrative of witches in America.

First, as in most cultures, the conceptions of witches and witchcraft have been around for a while in the North American region. The witch-like concept of skin-walkers, or yee nahgloshii, comes from the Diné culture, or Navajo people. However, it can be difficult to find information about Native peoples’ concepts and histories of witchcraft, mostly because they’re not very interested in going into detail about it with people outside of the culture. As Dr. Adrienne Keene wrote, “These are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems 'unfair,' but that’s how our cultures survive.”

We do know a lot about American colonial conceptions of witchcraft, if only because it led to a lot of drama and death. But in 1658, predating the Salem Witch Trials, there was Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick, Long Island's Witch of Easthampton (modern day East Hampton), who had been accused by an ill 16-year-old mother right before the teenager died. The local magistrates—even then overwhelmed by the gossiping and pettiness of their constituents—deferred to Hartford, Connecticut’s court (at the time, Long Island had administrative ties to Connecticut). Luckily for Goody, the Governor of the colony was John Winthrop, Jr., who saw these accusations of witchcraft as mere community pathology—a viewpoint he carried throughout all the witch trials he oversaw over the next decade.

Salem, Massachusetts, as we all know, was not so lucky between 1692 and 1693. There have been several reasons cited for what led to the witchcraft hysteria—among them: colonists displaced by King William’s War pouring in from the north; ergot poisoning in the rye grain; and Salem Village’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, who the people of Salem generally thought of as greedy and rigid (or, in modern day parlance, a “hardass”).

By Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver - from "A Popular History of the United States", Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878, p. 457, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

So it was particularly fascinating when Parris's 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 11-year-old niece began experiencing contortions and tantrums, or “fits,” alongside another 11-year-old girl. All three were pressed for why, and in turn blamed Parris’s slave, a woman named Tituba; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a woman who had a reputation for breaking social norms.

While the latter two women denied being witches, Tituba made up strange, fascinating stories that captivated and went along with the leading questions asked by John Hathorne, the Salem town justice who handled most of the town depositions.

All three were jailed, though Tituba was the only one who lived; she was let out of prison 13 months later. (Osborne died in prison while Good was hanged after giving birth in prison; her baby died before her hanging.) Meanwhile, special courts were put in place for these Salem witch trials, and nearly four months after the initial accusations, Bridget Bishop—who was known for her gossipy nature and promiscuity—was the first person hanged as a witch. In all, 19 people were hanged as witches—including John Proctor, who eventually became the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—and one was pressed to death before the special courts were disbanded and “spectral evidence” (i.e. dreams and visions) was no longer usable during trial.

The next time witches were part of popular culture—beyond the condemning of the Salem Witch Trials—was in a much smaller context. In the early 1900s, when women’s magazines were giving advice on throwing Halloween parties, they were describing an opportunity for mixed-sex courtship rituals. This meant making elements of the holiday more palatable to the decade’s New Woman, depicting witches as beautiful and alluring instead of terrifying and devilish.

The cute witch trend continued into the 1960s with Bewitched, a popular TV series about a then-modern-day witch who decides to live as a suburban housewife. Before the show, the citizens of Salem were ashamed of the trials—to the point that no one would speak to Arthur Miller when he went there to do research. But with The Crucible’s success, and Bewitched filming episodes on location in Salem—including one where main character Samantha Stephens calls out the ridiculousness of the trials—the city experienced a resurgence, enough to boost the local economy through kitschy acknowledgement of the trials. This included, incidentally, a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played Samantha on Bewitched.

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Around the same time in the 1960s, the independent feminist group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or W.I.T.C.H., was founded. (They also went by “Women Inspired to Tell Their Collective History," "Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays," among other names.) They were interested in a feminism based on several methods of social change, not just toppling the patriarchy, and viewed witches as “the first guerrilla fighters against women’s oppression." They spread their message by carrying out witch-like publicity stunts, such as protesting and “hexing” Wall Street, giving out garlic cloves and cards that said “We Are Witch We Are Women We Are Liberation We Are We” at a restaurant.

In the 1970s, witch collectives began to gather and organize more openly. Dianic Wicca, or Dianic Witchcraft, founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest and started on the Winter Solstice of 1971, is unlike other Wiccan traditions in that it has women-only covens, and worships only a monotheistic goddess (though it perceives goddesses of any culture merely as other incarnations of the main goddess). When asked about this during a 2007 interview, Budapest said, “It’s the natural law, as women fare so fares the world, their children, and that’s everybody. If you lift up the women you have lifted up humanity. Men have to learn to develop their own mysteries. Where is the order of Attis? Pan? Zagreus? Not only research it, but then popularize it as well as I have done. Where are the Dionysian rites? I think men are lazy in this aspect by not working this up for themselves. It’s their own task, not ours.”

In 1973, the American Council of Witches was founded and convened in April 1974 to draft a set of common principles of Wicca and Witchcraft in America. Unfortunately, they disbanded that same year because they could not agree for long, though they did come up with 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief (the first of which is, “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”), which is still used today. In fact, in 1978, these principles were put into the U.S. Army’s Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains.

If we’re going to look at a more modern witch, we’d want to turn to Alex Mar, author of Witches of America, last October’s cultural history of modern witchcraft and Wicca in America. According to an article she wrote for Cosmopolitan, “Since the '80s, Pagans have been gathering in outdoor festivals and indoor hotel conferences all around the country, sometimes in groups of a few thousand. And with the rise of the Internet in the '90s, vast networks have also spread online, making it that much easier for someone Craft-curious, in an area without a visible Pagan presence, to connect with a mentor in a chat room.”

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The internet has also definitely changed witchcraft. It’s become a cornerstone of modern feminism. It’s led to fights and discussion about the capitalist uses of witchcraft, which involves selling spells on Etsy. The website Broadly, in particular, has regular witch news about local covens, pagan festivals, and guides to celebrating the fall equinox.

What about the future of American witches? Well, next year will see the release of Basic Witches: A Guide To Summoning Success, Banishing Drama and Raising Hell With Your Coven, by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman.

Suffice to say that witches have come a long way in America.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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How to Make Sure Your Child’s Halloween Costume is Safe
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For kids, Halloween is a time to let their imaginations run wild and offers them chance to inhabit some of their favorite characters. For parents, it’s a time to make sure their children don’t gorge on candy and that costumes don’t pose any unnecessary dangers. Owing to poor production quality or design, some outfits and masks hold the potential for tripping, skin irritation, or—very rarely—becoming a fire hazard, ABC News reports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are a few ways to mitigate those risks. When shopping for costumes, look for nylon or polyester materials or tags that indicate the material is flame-resistant. Flimsy fabrics, particularly in outfits with long sleeves or big skirts, might brush up against candles and ignite.

Mobility is another concern: If a costume has a long skirt, it shouldn’t interfere with walking. Masks shouldn’t significantly obstruct vision and should provide ample ventilation; kids should be advised to lift them up when crossing streets to make sure they can see crossing traffic. For trick-or-treating after dark, reflective stripes on treat bags can help visibility for passing motorists.

Kids who get together to try on one another’s costumes pose a less serious, though potentially troublesome, hazard: head lice, which can be passed from sharing masks and costumes. If your child plans on exchanging disguises, sealing the costumes in plastic bags for 48 hours or drying them on high heat for 45 minutes should kill any pests.

[h/t ABC News]

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