The Salem Witch Trials.

No, this is not going to be some intelligent study of the events that took place way back when. (See right there?  I don't even know the dates.) I just find the whole thing really interesting, so I thought I'd talk about it a little bit. Over the last week I've been writing a new book while I let The Sometimes Sword rest, and it includes a young witch character. So I thought, hey, I'll do some research on witches and witchcraft, just for kicks you know? I even went to the library with Becky. Let me tell you, I never thought I would find myself looking up witchcraft in a public place using the Dewey Decimal System. But you live and learn right?

Anyway, I found some great books, some a little more.... technically informative than I preferred (let me just stress, I am NOT a witch, you people with torches and pitch forks), but overall there was some good stuff. A lot of the books focused on presenting thoughts and evidence on two sides of the whole witchcraft issue; for, or against. I'll just say this: the Christian pastor who tried to represent Harry Potter as evil in his arguments came off looking quite a bit worse than the self proclaimed Wicca did in her arguments. But that's beside the point.

While I simply intended to get some general knowledge about what modern witches are all about, develop some ideas on things to include in my book, and learn something new, I ended up reading a lot about the Salem Witch Trials. This is something I think most people learn about in elementary school, at least to some degree, but may not really come to understand fully. I know I personally never really thought about it as more than a story about people getting scared of witches and burning them at the stake (which they totally didn't do). What I didn't realize, is that the Salem Witch Trials was a fascinating study of the human experience, and how society failed horribly when confronted with unfamiliar territory. Society tends to do that, doesn't it?

Doesn't this image just
tell the whole story?
I ran with the Salem thing, read some books, watched a documentary, and viewed The Crucible. (Disclaimer: I know that the film took a lot of liberties in the narrative department. It was very much Hollywood-ized, and most of the facts are fictional. Just so you know, I am aware.) But the movie still serves the function of pinpointing the important ideas and themes: we lost our freaking heads over a bout of contagious hysteria spreading through a group of young girls who most likely felt powerless in their society. Once they had the attention of important men for the first time in their lives, it probably felt as intoxicating as a drug, and twice as hard to give up. Kids are notoriously bad at looking at the consequences of their actions, and I almost can't blame them. Almost. Unfortunately, even a young kid should know better than to send people to their deaths just because they like the feeling of a power trip.

But who knows exactly what was going on in their brains? If contagious hysteria is really a thing (which science suggests it is), the game kind of changes. I find it fascinating to think that we have such little control over ourselves. We tell ourselves we are these sophisticated beings with big brains and blah blah blah, but in reality, it's all so very fragile. But that's just a tiny bit of what I found interesting about the stuff I was reading.

The biggest thing that I couldn't stop thinking about was the villagers' willingness to accept any accusation, as long as it was leveled at someone they thought was different than themselves. Old, wrinkly woman? She could be a witch, sure. Old dude whose cow ate your turnips last week? Probably. How bout that slave woman from Barbados? Of course she's a witch, she's got dark skin and all that stuff. You'd never hear about someone declaring themselves to be a witch, obviously. It's because we are familiar to ourselves; we don't need to ask questions about our own motivations or whether or not we signed the devil's book last Tuesday. But Old Aggie down the street now, who knows? We fear anything or anyone who isn't familiar, who doesn't fall into our arbitrary rules of acceptability. This is actually one of the biggest reasons the trials eventually came to a close; the girls began accusing people who were, at the time, considered above reproach, because they were too successful or well liked (ie: too similar to the judge's own self-identity to be allowed). In other words. the girls hit a point where their society would no longer accept the accusations because the accused were too close to home, too similar to themselves.

How can we look at this as a lesson to be learned, and not just a blip on history's radar? I think the fact that the term "witch hunt" has become so widely used to describe an irrational and fear-motivated condemnation of people or groups, speaks of the continued existence of the phenomenon Salem experienced way back when. It's unfortunate, but it still happens today: in our neighborhoods, school hallways, internet forums, and especially our politics. The only way we can avoid repeating the past, ending in lives ruined and people dead, is to dig into the root cause of these witch hunts. For me, it all boils down to this: a lack of social, economic, and personal responsibly on an individual level.

We're always looking for someone else to blame, for that one person down the street who is different. It's hard to believe in our own ability to affect the world, so when strange things happen, good or bad, we freak out, pointing fingers and convulsing. We need to learn to trust ourselves, which will in turn, teach us to trust others. There is no inherent reason to distrust a person with different skin color, cultural identity, sexual orientation, or religion. Our society had bred us to form that distrust from the get-go, instead of taking the time to learn about all the wonderful things other people have to offer.

I don't understand the need so many people have to be part of a cookie cutter group. We all crowd into a corner with the rest of the white guys/black guys/pink guys, staring out at the rest of the world with judgmental/fearful eyes, or group up at dodge-ball with the rest of the Republicans or Democrats so the Tea Partiers and Libertarians don't "get us". What a horrible way to live. Not only do lines and boundaries put up a wall against new ideas and diversity, it serves to emphasize the solidarity of the group hiding behind them. It's something that we can't simply wait to sort itself out. It gets worse as it goes on, people becoming more entrenched in their bigotry and misinformed opinions. Solving this problem requires a purposeful, targeted step in the right direction, action with intent to begin change. And this can only happen one person at a time, starting with me, starting with you, and especially your great grandmother who begins locking her door when a black man moves into town.

This all ties back to witches and the Salem Witch Trials... I think. See if you can draw the connections, cause I'm too tired to do it for you, despite having written it myself.

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