Witches counter evil stereotype

SUN JOURNAL

Image: Witches have chosen Salem, Mass., the town that hanged suspected witches 300 years ago, to prove their dark image is unwarranted.

June 13, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

SALEM, Mass. -- Could there be a more unlikely place for a witch?

This quaint New England town is renowned for expunging or exploiting witches. Expunging came in 1692, when Puritan Salem hanged 19 residents in a wave of hysteria fueled by suspicions of witchcraft. Exploiting comes now, as the town's trademark -- a hag on a broom that is offensive to contemporary witches -- plasters everything from police cars to the masthead of the local newspaper.

And yet, real witches -- in general, those who adhere to the principles of a modern religion called Wicca -- have flocked here in droves. Salem's witch population says it is 3,000 strong today and that 2,000 more live in the surrounding communities along the shore north of Boston.

"I came here because I thought it was a nice little town and I was a single mom taking care of two children," says Laurie Cabot, the "official witch of Salem," a title bestowed by former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. "Now it's a mecca."

When pressed, of course, witches here acknowledge that Salem offers the ideal forum to wage war against the stereotypes that offend them -- starting with, for example, the Colonial-era assumption that witches deal with the devil.

"What better place to polarize what happened in 1692?" says Cabot. "We're the opposite of what happened then."

According to other witches, Cabot, who in 1986 founded the Witches League for Public Awareness to protest portrayals in the film "The Witches of Eastwick," plays no small role in attracting others.

Since moving here three decades ago, Cabot has been flaunting her witchhood, wearing dark robes and black makeup on the streets and conducting classes for would-be witches. Other witches began to view the community as particularly tolerant to alternative religions and began to move in.

Teri Kalgren arrived in 1989. She says her Long Island community was no place for a witch, especially not one who transferred to Wicca from Roman Catholicism.

"I used to know when people were going to die, and the nuns said I was evil," says Kalgren, who sells herbs, dietary supplements and oils at a store on historic Pickering Wharf in Salem.

In jeans and a T-shirt, Kalgren -- like most witches -- looks as ordinary as your average Salem tourist. She turned away from Catholicism, she says, because it was too patriarchal. Among witches, a distaste for male dominance in religion seems to be common.

Wendy Griffin, a professor of women's studies at California State University, Long Beach, who specializes in contemporary witchcraft, says many women -- mostly middle class and white -- are drawn to Wicca after feeling powerless as females in their own faiths.

"A lot of women simply are not interested in male divinity," she says. "They've had it for 5,000 years. They are interested in exploring the female face of what they believe the divine to be."

Griffin says that in the past decade, interest in the religion has exploded. In 1988 there were 50,000 to 100,000 witches in the country, there are more than 300,000 today. In less tolerant communities, she says, witches and their children can face discrimination from police, churches and schools.

While most witches are female, male witches are not uncommon.

Strolling the streets of Salem is Mike -- he offers only his first name. An electrician from Somerville, Mass., he is also a witch. The energy he draws from herbs and rituals of witchcraft, he says, helps him focus his mind to answer daunting questions.

"I got cancer twice," he says. "I wanted to know why."

The origins of modern witchcraft are debated. Some witches say the recent trend toward Wicca is a revival of traditions in European folklife dating to the 13th century. Some scholars, however, believe modern Wicca is not a revival but a religion that emerged in about 1930 in England.

Witches believe in the healing powers of herbs and celebrate earth-based holidays on the solstices and equinoxes. Their New Year's Day, known to most as Halloween, is the day they believe the veil between the living world from the nonliving one is thinnest.

And then there is their "magic." Many witches claim to cast spells, often using mixtures of herbs, that can help one find the perfect job or romance. Griffin explains that witches believe energy can be manipulated to move matter.

Alternatively, she says, people who believe they have had spells cast on them may make a personal commitment to diligently pursue the desired job or romance, making them more likely to find it.

"And whether that's magic or pop psychology," she says, "you tell me."

Salem has always struggled to find the right way to market itself. Some are reluctant to focus the local tourism industry on the horrific witch trials of 1692, but it is undeniable that that is why many people come.

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