Witchcraft Explained: The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

by Megha Majumdar

In 1926, anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard lived with the Azande in what is now South Sudan. One day, he came upon a hut burnt to the ground. The owner of the hut was distraught. He had been preparing pots of beer for a feast. The previous night, he had gone to check on the beer, and in darkness, had lit a handful of straw for light. The thatched roof had caught on fire.

Later, the anthropologist met a boy who had cut his toe on a stump of wood in the bush. The boy blamed witchcraft for the festering wound. The anthropologist argued that the boy had simply been careless. It was natural for tree stumps to grow in the path.

How would the boy respond?

The boy accepted it. He knew that the wood caused the cut, and he knew that the wood grew naturally. But why, he pointed out, had he hurt himself this time? He had walked safely in the bush hundreds of times. And why did this particular wound refuse to heal?

For the boy, witchcraft explained the peculiarity of this injurious event.

Evans-Pritchard noted: The man and his companions were convinced disaster was caused by witchcraft. Witchcraft did not supplant, but it did complement, the logic of the physical world.

In The Witches, a rare moment of disappointment arrives when Schiff writes, “[T]he seventeenth-century mind … consisted of a crazy quilt of erudition and superstition.” Medicine, we are told, “blurred into astrology, science into nonsense.”

When Evans-Pritchard published his ethnographic account of Zande life in 1937 — a book called Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande — he offered a provocative argument. For the Azande, he wrote, witchcraft was a coherent, logical system. It was far from nonsense. It was an interpretive structure that heeded intentionality where you and I might acknowledge coincidence. He was responding, you can tell, to the argument that “primitive” people had a “pre-logical” mentality.

So in Schiff’s refusal to dig deep into the logic of seventeenth-century witchcraft as it appeared in Massachusetts Bay, The Witches loses what might have been an enthralling opportunity to stand us at the doorstep of a different rationality.

This is a mode of thought that persists in the world. Consider how, in parts of Sierra Leone, the Ebola outbreak was read as an outcome of powerful witches losing control of malevolent forces; consider the rise of occult economies — the sale of body parts, “ritual murder,” and so on — which grapple with the punctured promises of global capitalism in rural South Africa. The point, of course, is not that we ought to believe in witchcraft. Rather, it is to comprehend the existence of thought categorically different from our own.

From the spring of 1692 to the summer of the following year, an epidemic of bewitching swept through several Massachusetts Bay communities. The first to be accused of witchcraft was a slave woman from Barbados, Tituba, who appeared in court and defended herself (“I no hurt them at all”) before launching into a confession. The devil, she admitted, had appeared to her, a yellow bird perched on his shoulder.

The Witches captures and distills the lives and anxious days at the heart of the witch-hunt. Its attention to the political instability of the time nudges us to some comprehension — the witch-hunt occurred, we remember, in a new colony in which property, propriety and freedom remained ambiguous. The settlers watched for “marauding Indians” while establishing their own boundaries. Salem tussled over the demarcation of territory. In such a precarious environment, it is perhaps not strange that people looked with fear upon even the most ordinary of injuries.

Here too, as in Zandeland centuries later, witchcraft made sense of misfortune. Witchcraft allowed explanations for “the sick child and the rancid butter.” When Schiff writes that we will never know what truly happened to the girls, indicating that their symptoms — twitching and grimacing, curled tongues, delirium — match what would be called, in the nineteenth century, hysteria, the conceptual translation discourages our comprehending witchcraft on its own terms. It could be that the disease that gripped the people of Salem rose from an “overtaxed nervous system.” It is also possible that those who endured “a claustrophobic winter housebound, under ashen skies and drifted snow, between whitewashed walls, amid undecorated surroundings” may have succumbed to visual hallucination.

How dreary their world, and how a touch of magic might have supplied a charge of life. The social implications are clear: Isn’t it in misfortune that relations are activated? Isn’t it in suspicion and malice that the weave of community shows itself?

One wonders, though, what knowledge might await us if we resisted this exercise of translation — if we paused our reading of conviction as error, and tried to apprehend the logic, rather than forgive the illogic, of witchcraft.

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