Posts Tagged ‘tourism’
In 1692, the sleepy town of Salem Massachusetts was swept with fear as the most infamous witch trials of colonial America rocked burgeoning province. While not impervious to the witch trials which had been sweeping Europe over the course of the preceding centuries, America had managed to avoid the wild, superstitious fear until the 1640s. Several trials occurred in the 1640s, but only in 1647 did New England have its first execution of a witch. A smattering of accusations and trials occurred over the next several decades, but the peak of the witch-hunt in the early Americas ultimately took place in Salem and its nearby villages.
The most well-documented of the early American cases, the trials of Salem spiraled from cases of childish magick to a socio-political nightmare that took the lives of a significant number of the female population of the township and its surrounding areas. The witch trials encompassed both purported actual witches, like the confessed enchantress Tituba, to the young girls whose immature attempts at divination were tied together with later seizures, speculatively from the eating of or exposure to psychotropic grain or other natural products. As the American lowlight of the Burning Times, the Salem Witch Trials represent an important, although tragic key point in the the anthropology of magick.
As I happened to be in Massachusetts this past weekend for an archaeology and heritage conference, I was able to make a pilgrimage to the pleasant New England town of Salem. Be it out of respect for the witches and innocents persecuted by the infamous trial or a morbid curiosity about gothic matters, Salem has become a tourist Mecca. And while many things in Salem have an element of kitsch about them, there is still much respect for the town’s solemn role in the history of witchcraft, both with regards to honoring the dark events that brought it notoriety and valuing the role it has for the modern Wiccan, Witch, and Neo-pagan communities because of its occult connotations.
My tour through Salem started off with a green bang. As we drove into Salem proper, my co-tourist and I discovered that Salem Commons was featuring an ecological rally for a green Salem (good cause!). We began our official tour with a brief visit to the National Park Service’s Visitors center for Salem, mostly to collect the relevant maps and brochures that were necessary to navigate the town. A meandering stroll around town led us past such amusing things as a local Pirate museum and some of the Witch museums of wax figures, none of which took our fancy enough to actually go in. Though these museums probably certainly have their charm, I was more keen to skip such secondary and third resources and go straight to the primary. And thus my principal goal for my Saturday afternoon in Salem was visiting the actual historical points of interest.
This kicked off with a visit the Burying Point, the oldest graveyard in Salem. Somberly perched on high ground in the city center, the Burying Point contains several of the dignitaries associated with the witch trials, many relatives of famous colonial personages, and my particular favorite concept (from my warped archaeological perspective) an exciting array of tombstone iconography representative of the seriation of styles prominent during the late 17th and early 18th centuries (super dorky reference, but I am quite a fan: Remember Me as you Pass By, Chapter 4 of James Deetz’ seminal book on historical archaeology and the cultural implications of gravestone iconography In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life). I had been planning on taking some pastel rubbings of some of the iconography, but sadly, very prominent signs forbade against this artistic endeavor. I did , however, manage a respectful rubbing of Emily Dickinson’s grave marker (“Called Back”) earlier in my trip.
The Burying Point is also the home of the Witch Trials Memorial, an artistic series of granite benches and inscribed paving stones which memorialize “the events of 1692 … as a yardstick to measure the depth of civility and due process in our society” (per the Salem City website).
Following a quick trip to A&J King’s fabulous bakery (walnut cinnamon buns to die for!) and brief tours past some of the more architecturally exciting bits of downtown Salem, we headed for the most pop culturally iconic monument in the town: the Bewitched Statue. As pictured at the start of this article, the statue is a bronze casting of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens astride her broomstick and against a crescent moon. Placed in Salem by TVLand, it is a fitting memorial to one of television’s greatest and most respectful representations of witchcraft in the modern world, as well as a testament to the role Salem holds as a place of magic, forever associated with the witches (and falsely accused magicians) of the New World. As a bright spot in the history of witchcraft, the show Bewitched, and its commemoration in Salem, provides a perfect counterpoint to the dark history Salem is typically associated with.
More meanders through town ensued, including trips into several of the touristy cum magickal shops, which although great, could not compare to the Sacred Mists Shoppe (if you haven’t been to the bricks and mortar version of Shoppe in Napa, it is well worth a trip of its own! Go!). And finally, after some fabulous frozen custard, my co-tourist and I headed over to the Maritime Museum and House of Seven Gables. Though the pirates obviously held strong appeal, it was the House of Seven Gables I was more excited to see. For one reason or another, it seems most American high school curriculums include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, but I believe his House of Seven Gables to be the far superior and more engaging text. The story of a lingering superstition, the politics of the witch trials, and a cursed set of families, the dynastic saga peaks at the invasion of a distant cousin who manic-pixie-dream-girls the lineages out of their various plights. Hawthorne’s cousin’s house that inspired the tale still perches along the waterfront in Salem. The house is a stunning piece of period architecture which serves as a historical testament both to the book, and the family’s own actual connections to the Salem witch trials that inspired the initial cursed events of the classic tale.
Though Salem’s place in the history of witchcraft is a dark legacy, the town of Salem remains an important focal point for magick. The idea of ‘The Witch’ has come a long long way from the hysterical fear it once elicited. Modern role models for the wiccan and neo-pagan communities like Bewitched or even Harry Potterhave done much to move away from the evil stereotypes once associated with being a witch. But in order to appreciate how far society has come out of the broom closet, we must fully understand how deep the fear of the ‘other’ represented by magick has come. We must memorialize the dark times in order to fully appreciate the light.