As the month of October is now half over, and we are wending our way to Foundation Day (this is the Ekklesía Antínoou, after all!), and then onwards to Samain, there’s a certain town in Massachusetts that is inextricably linked in the modern mind with witchcraft: Danvers, MA. Yes, that’s right–that’s where the “Salem Witch Trials” took place, as those events occurred in what was then known as Salem Village, and not the town of Salem, and Salem Village changed its name to Danvers later. But, nonetheless, the association of Salem with witchcraft, and as a quasi-Mecca for modern pagans, still stands, and is particularly popular in the month of October leading up to Hallowe’en.
While that’s all well and good, I’ve always found this a bit problematic from an historical view, strictly speaking. The main reason: the people tried and executed for witchcraft at Salem Village were not witches, they were Christians who were the victims of circumstance and slander based on suspicion, resentment, and more often than not economic factors. There was no “underground religion” of witchcraft in Salem (though the slave woman Tituba–possibly of African, West Indian, or Native American descent, though it’s impossible to know…and who had her name be used as the “Queen of the Witches” in a Bewitched episode!–might be a possible link to some non-Christian religious practice taking place therein, though it’s impossible to even conjecture very responsibly on this topic given the nature of the surviving sources), and while the various victims of the Salem Trials are heroic and honorable in their own rights (especially individuals like Giles Corey), they cannot exactly be said to be “martyrs” for paganism in any form, unless we take “paganism” as a synonym for any and all victims of circumstance. (Note: we should certainly have solidarity with anyone unjustly accused of anything; but that’s not the same as taking them for members of our often-oppressed religions.) The theory that the witch hysteria in Salem was caused by ergot poisoning, likewise, is rather dubious. What sheds the most light on the situation is the tax records and property zoning maps of Salem Village, which is the subject of the very best book on the subject, Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum.
While much more could be said on all of this, I want to turn your attention to another phenomenon and individual entirely, from the same century in the North American British colonies but much earlier than Salem’s witch hysteria, and a situation where the individual involved was nominally Christian (though an extremely liberal version thereof, which did not endear him to his Puritan neighbors in the colonies or back home in England), but was in essence a British folk religion adherent and a quasi-classical revivalist, Thomas Morton. It may have been more appropriate to have mentioned him around six months ago, because he was not known to have celebrated a major festival in October or around Hallowe’en, but instead to have celebrated May-Day, the “festival of Philip and Jacob” (i.e. the Christian apostolic saints Philip and James, whose shared feast-day is May 1st).
While he celebrated Mayday in 1627 and 1628 in the settlement of Merrymount (or “Ma-Re Mount,” as he preferred to call it, which was originally called Mount Wollaston, and was later called Mount Dagon by the Puritans!), and he did so with a maypole, dancing, drinking, and a rather “free-love” approach to sexuality that encouraged intermingling of English colonists with the local Native American populations’ women, a large part of his theological outlook in these matters was not traditionally English, British, or Celtic at all, but rather Greek and Roman. While the full text is worth reading, both a “Poem” and a “Songe” that were used on these occasions written by Morton survive in his account (on which more in a moment), which read as follows:
Rise, Oedipus, and, if thou canst, unfould
What meanes Caribdis underneath the mould,
When Scilla sollitary on the ground
(Sitting in forme of Niobe,) was found,
Till Amphitrites Darling did acquaint
Grim Neptune with the Tenor of her plaint,
And causd him send forth Triton with the sound
Of Trumpet lowd, at which the Seas were found
So full of Protean formes that the bold shore
Prsented Scilla a new parramore
So stronge as Sampson and so patient
As Job himselfe, directed thus, by fate,
To comfort Scilla so unfortunate.
I doe professe, by Cupids beautious mother,
Heres Scogans choise for Scilla, and none other;
Though Scilla’s sick with griefe, because so signe
Can there be found of vertue masculine.
Esculapius come; I know right well
His laboure’s lost when you may ring her Knell.
The fatall sisters doome none can withstand,
Nor Cithareas powre, who poynts to land
With proclamation that the first of May
At Ma-re Mount shall be kept hollyday.
Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes;
Let all your delight be in the Hymens ioyes;
Jô to Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome.
Make greene garlons, bring bottles out
And fill sweet Nectar freely about.
Vncover thy head and feare no harme,
For hers good liquor to keepe it warme.
Then drinke and be merry, &c.
Iô to Hymen, &c.
Nectar is a thing assign’d
By the Deities owne minde
To cure the hart opprest with greife,
And of good liquors is the cheife.
Then drinke, &c.
Iô to Hymen, &c.
Give to the Mellancolly man
A cup or two of ‘t now and than;
This physick will soone revive his bloud,
And make him be of a merrier moode.
Then drinke, &c.
Iô to Hymen, &c.
Give to the Nymphe thats free from scorne
No Irish stuff nor Scotch over worne.
Lasses in beaver coats come away,
Yee shall be welcome to us night and day.
To drinke and be merry &c.
Iô to Hymen, &c.
That’s pretty specific, isn’t it?
Morton’s memoir of his adventures in the colonies–he ended up being banished several times after this incident, and before it, he also was an anti-indentured-servitude crusader, as well as an advocate for English-Native American assimilation (favoring the latter to a much higher extent than any other early English person did), as well as getting the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony revoked due to his resentment against the Puritans, and much more besides–was called New English Canaan. He likened the Native Americans to the good and peaceful Canaanites, who were unjustly persecuted and run out of their territory by the invading Israelites (i.e. the Puritans).
Not by any means am I saying that Morton was “perfect,” or that there were not many problematic aspects of the entire English and European project of North American colonization. He was a rare individual, though, in terms of how he actually thought the Native Americans were worthy of respect, and he considered them far more civilized than the Puritans.
I wonder if he might merit reckoning as a Sanctus in terms of being an exemplar of syncretistic, polytheist spirituality? Or, perhaps in Sannion’s terms, he belongs amongst the Dionysian Dead as well…
I don’t know…but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Note: I’m not saying Salem’s witches-and-pagans associations should be abolished, by any means, but I do think we should be more realistic about it and honest about it. However, I am most certainly saying that neopaganism in North America actually started in very late mesopaganism with Thomas Morton.