The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which resulted in 19 executions, and 150 accusations of
witchcraft, are one of the historical events almost everyone has heard of. They began when three
young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam began to have hysterical fits, after being
discovered engaging in forbidden fortune-telling (not dancing naked in the woods) to learn what sorts
of men they would marry. Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, called in more senior
authorities to determine if the girls’ affliction was caused by witchcraft. Although Betty was sent away
fairly soon, and did not participate in the trials, the other girls were joined by other young and mature
women 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 Arthur
Miller which we are going to read during this unit.
They are interesting to anthropologists because
they display some of the characteristics of "village" witchcraft and some of the features of the
European witch craze. Many commentators have seen the Salem witch craze as the last outbreak of
the European witch craze, transported to North America. As in African and New Guinea villages, the
original accusations in Salem were made against people who, in one way or another, the accusers
had 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 to
encompass people not involved in any of Salem’s local grudges. As in Europe there was a belief that
the accused were in league with the Devil and ;experts; employed ;scientific; ways of diagnosing
Interestingly, during the colonial period in Africa, shortly after World War II, there were a number of
witch finding movements in Africa, which resembled the Salem episode in some ways, and had a
similar 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 be
able to rid the village of witchcraft. At this period there was great dislocation, with people moving
around because of government employment, appropriation of farmland, and other causes. Some
people were improving their economic status as a result of these changes, and some were doing
much 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 their
region, or whose regions they had moved to. In the cities of central and southern Africa, many local
religions and Christian sects could be found, as well as Islam.
Belief in witchcraft tended to unite
people across religious differences. Typically, the names brought to witch finders were those of the
same sort of local enemies we have become familiar with in reading about the Azande. As the frenzy
increased, people began to be accused who had not aroused any particular jealousies, possibly
because they possessed a peculiar bag or horn, which might be said to contain ;medicine; – in one
reported case, such a container did indeed contain ;medicine; but ordinary physical medicine, not
magical substances. These crazes tended to die down, often after considerable conflict and property
damage, and the witch finders would then move on to the next town. As witchcraft accusations still
occur in the area, we can conclude that the movements did not get rid of witches forever, nor, unlike
the 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 probably
less to repent in the end, though there was certainly social disruption and property damage.
these 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 relatively
localized, have happened elsewhere under particular social conditions. These social conditions
include fairly rapid social change, a distrusted outside political authority (the British government in
Africa, Salem town council in Salem village), and new opportunities for betterment which are not
evenly distributed throughout the population, causing increased social inequality.
There have been three basic approaches taken to the analysis of the Salem witch trials. .