Word Count: 4010The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which resulted in 19 executions, and 150 accusations ofwitchcraft, are one of the historical events almost everyone has heard of. They began when threeyoung girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam began to have hysterical fits, after beingdiscovered engaging in forbidden fortune-telling (not dancing naked in the woods) to learn what sortsof men they would marry.
Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, called in more seniorauthorities to determine if the girls’ affliction was caused by witchcraft. Although Betty was sent awayfairly soon, and did not participate in the trials, the other girls were joined by other young and maturewomen in staging public demonstrations of their affliction when in the presence of accused "witches. "The events in Salem have been used as a theme in many literary works, including the play by ArthurMiller which we are going to read during this unit. They are interesting to anthropologists becausethey display some of the characteristics of "village" witchcraft and some of the features of theEuropean witch craze.Order now
Many commentators have seen the Salem witch craze as the last outbreak ofthe European witch craze, transported to North America. As in African and New Guinea villages, theoriginal accusations in Salem were made against people who, in one way or another, the accusershad reason to fear or resent. Moreover, the first few of the accused fit the definition of "marginal"persons, likely to arouse suspicion. However, as in Europe, the accusations spread, and came toencompass people not involved in any of Salem’s local grudges. As in Europe there was a belief thatthe accused were in league with the Devil and ;experts; employed ;scientific; ways of diagnosingwitchcraft. Interestingly, during the colonial period in Africa, shortly after World War II, there were a number ofwitch finding movements in Africa, which resembled the Salem episode in some ways, and had asimilar status ;in between; the sort of witch hunt found in Europe and the typical African pattern.
Typically, in these movements, ;witch finders; would come in from outside a village and claim to beable to rid the village of witchcraft. At this period there was great dislocation, with people movingaround because of government employment, appropriation of farmland, and other causes. Somepeople were improving their economic status as a result of these changes, and some were doingmuch worse than before. Whereas in the past everyone in a locality had followed the same religion,people were now exposed to Christianity and the local religions of people who had moved to theirregion, or whose regions they had moved to.
In the cities of central and southern Africa, many localreligions and Christian sects could be found, as well as Islam. Belief in witchcraft tended to unitepeople across religious differences. Typically, the names brought to witch finders were those of thesame sort of local enemies we have become familiar with in reading about the Azande. As the frenzyincreased, people began to be accused who had not aroused any particular jealousies, possiblybecause they possessed a peculiar bag or horn, which might be said to contain ;medicine; – in onereported case, such a container did indeed contain ;medicine; but ordinary physical medicine, notmagical substances. These crazes tended to die down, often after considerable conflict and propertydamage, and the witch finders would then move on to the next town.
As witchcraft accusations stilloccur in the area, we can conclude that the movements did not get rid of witches forever, nor, unlikethe situation Salem or Europe, did belief in witchcraft itself actually end with the witch crazes. The actual execution of witches was not usually a feature in African witchcraft, so there was probablyless to repent in the end, though there was certainly social disruption and property damage. Despitethese differences, these African witch movements are evidence that events like the Salem witch trials,where village witchcraft accusations blossom into something larger, while still remaining relativelylocalized, have happened elsewhere under particular social conditions. These social conditionsinclude fairly rapid social change, a distrusted outside political authority (the British government inAfrica, Salem town council in Salem village), and new opportunities for betterment which are notevenly distributed throughout the population, causing increased social inequality. There have been three basic approaches taken to the analysis of the Salem witch trials.