Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Salem Witch Trials

Throughout history, examples can be seen of persecution against people that others didn't understand. People are scared of the unknown, and can, if left to run rampant, cause mass hysteria. It happened during World War II, and even earlier than that in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600's.

Most have heard the tale in some form or another, and most know that it's a direct result of several girls accusing the women of Salem of witchcraft. Around the web, if you've explored any Wiccan sites, you've undoubtedly run across some with their banners proclaiming "The Burning Times -- never again!" While the Salem Witch Trials were a tragedy, as much so as those who died earlier in history in Europe for similar reasons, there is possibly a reason behind the behavior that started the problems in the first place.

One must understand the way of life in the late 1600's. While settlers had arrived in America, the US Constitution wasn't drawn up until 1787, and we didn't even declare our independence from England until 1776. In the early colonial times, there was a strict way of life under religion, as the King of England believed it should be. At this time, the Puritan religion was the strength and backbone of Salem, and consisted of strict rules. For example, among the Puritan children, a child of six was expected to act as an adult! Additionally, anything new or different was probably brought about by the devil, according to them.

At the beginning of the whole issue, Reverend Parris was elected the minister of the community, but wasn't popular. It was his daughter and his niece, Abigail Williams, who became ill in 1692. They enjoyed the tales of a Barbados slave girl, Tituba, and often invited their friends to listen to her tales, as well. Their illness was described as involving convulsions and delirium. One of the friends soon followed with the inexplicable sickness, and clergy and doctors watched baffled, as the girls would shout nonsensical things, contort their bodies, and simply act unusual.

Because a natural explanation was absent, they turned to the supernatural -- such was the way of life. Immediately, it was decided that the girls were bewitched, under a spell. In those days, witchcraft was part of the devil's work (and sadly, is still considered to be so, regardless of how many say Wicca isn't about devil worship, but I digress). When coherent, the girls were forced to point the finger at the person(s) who were the cause of the spell. Three were originally named -- Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba, the slave girl.

Sarah Osborne declared her innocence; Sarah Good, in turn, pointed the finger at Sarah Osborne; and after a lashing, Tituba spoke of a white-haired man who forced her to sign the devil's book, and spun tales revolving around animals. She claimed that undiscovered witches lived amongst them, and longed to destroy their peaceful Puritan society... which is exactly what happened. The hunt for witches began.
New women and men were fingered as witches, and in May of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials began, and turned into pandemonium. By this point, the girls originally affected, whether it had degenerated into lies they didn't feel they could fess up to or not, were a presence in the courtroom and boldly announced when one of the accused were doing things to them. Martha Cory, they said, would wring her hands, and it would harm the girls physically.

Their drama filled the courtroom, and those of 'good and pure' souls ate it up, believing every word about people they'd known their whole lives. These girls, who were 'possessed' or 'tormented' would cry out the names of those afflicting them in the town, and that was considered enough evidence to charge a person with witchcraft.

This type of accusation, followed by hangings and other such executions went on for a year and those in prison on witchcraft charges, along with five awaiting execution, were pardoned in May of 1693.

The mystery still lies in ... what happened? Were the stories Tituba told so frightening to the young Puritans that they became ill? Did they just want some attention, and the lies grew to such proportions that they felt they couldn't take them back? Or was it something more natural?

One theory is that all of the behavior can be explained away by a diseased plant. Ergot, claviceps purpurea, affected many through history. In Europe, prior to the Salem Witch Trials, no one knew what it was, but they called it Holy Fire. Ergot is caused by a fungus growing on rye and other cereal grains. In the days of the colonies, they survived by farming, and if this hallucinogenic fungus was consumed, it held the same symptoms that the girls originally suffered with. It acts similar to LSD, and interferes with the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Additionally, it develops after especially wet seasons, which fits with the weather patterns that year.

When the symptoms of the original two developed, they screamed words of blasphemy to the Puritan community, had convulsive seizures, went into trance-like states, and complained of ants crawling on them. All of these are consistent with symptoms brought on by ergotism.

No one at the time knew anything about ergot, so no cure would be known, and because of the way of thinking during the time, they blamed something that they weren't able to understand, and linked it to the devil, since it had to be bad to cause such illness and behaviors. While it's true that they had no knowledge of true witchcraft, it was not a direct jab at Wicca. Even today, those that don't understand it point the finger at the devil.

Just like today, ignorance, and the lack of willingness to understand, or to even attempt to, is the root of the problem.