Monday, April 14, 2014

A Day Spent in Salem, Massachusetts


When I was a kid, I watched a lot of the TV show Bewitched. That might be where my love of witches originated, I really can't remember. I only know that my favorite Halloween costume was a witch, and one of my earliest best friends and I used to play witches all the time in the neighborhood. I was supremely pleased that my first pet was a black cat named Boo-Boo (Boo for short, and no, I don't know how she got that name), and I often pretended she was my familiar.

I realize the whole witch fiasco of Salem was a travesty and probably none of those women and men were actual witches, as we know witches now or as the legend makes them, and it's a bit perverse to so associate the city of today with witches and witch culture. Still, I've always wanted to visit Salem. I recently found out that I had ancestors in Salem during the infamous trials, which made the region all the more enticing. 

There are a number of museums dedicated to witches in Salem. My boyfriend Greg and I visited the most famous, the Salem Witch Museum, which turned out to be much smaller than I had anticipated. Greg very much enjoyed it because he thought it was like being inside a Hammer Horror Film. I did learn some things that I didn't know. I had never heard that Ann Putnam recanted as an adult in hopes of saving her soul from Hell, for instance. I also didn't know that modern words "witch" and "pharmacist" have the same root in Greek, pharmakeia. I know wicca comes from Old English, and I can't actually find the etymology on this Greek relation. It amuses me to think that my dear friend who is a pharmacist is a magic-user, though.

Incidentally, they also told us at the museum that "warlock" is an insult, and male witches do not use this term. That is not true. Though many people believe that "warlock" is an insult and do not like it, and many do not use it, it is because they have been taken in by the Christian redefinition of the word that made it an insult, or at least dangerous to be called one since it meant persecution and possible death. Many claim that "warlock" means "oathbreaker" or "liar," but there are just as many claims that say it means "cunning man," a position in early Scottish pagan religions that Christians dubbed as evil. Also worth noting, cunning has changed meanings since then and has a totally different connotation now than it did then, probably thanks to the same Christians who made the holy warlock into a minion of their Satan. Warlock might also come from the Norse "vardlokkur," meaning "spell singer," a rather pretty term in my opinion. (Click here for a concise rundown. There are plenty more sources if you do an internet search.) Oh, the stickiness of letting your enemies define you. Moving on...


The author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who supposedly changed his name from Hathorne to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne, one of the leading judges of the witch trials and who is said to be the only judge who did not repent) was born in Salem and grew up there. I read his novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables right before our trip, and I really enjoyed them! Both the house where Hawthorne grew up and the house on which the book was based are preserved in Salem, and of course I had to visit. The House of the Seven Gables was one of the few attractions that was open while we were there as we were visiting in the off-season. 

I would like to return to Salem in the on-season. Really, so many places were closed or were open very limited hours and so we missed them. I also really enjoyed the place we stopped for lunch, Gula-Gula Cafe, and would like to try more of the items of their delicious menu. There were those other witch museums that I'd like to poke into, and a lot of witch-themed shops. 

I actually think I could see myself living in Salem for a time. The atmosphere is so very different from the religiously conservative place I grew up, where I wasn't even allowed to wish people a "happy Halloween" at my jobs for fear of offending them and getting into trouble. (If only I had $1 for every time I've heard "we don't celebrate that devil holiday; we honor the harvest"...) I think Salem was welcoming me with open arms. One of the two flags blowing in the breeze outside the Hawthorne Hotel was the State of Michigan's. Coincidence? Or... magic?

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