The Serious History Of Hocus Pocus In 'Penguin Book Of Witches' In Colonial America, a witch was not a Halloween costume, but a criminal. NPR's Rachel Martin revisits this moment in history with Katherine Howe, editor of the new Penguin Book of Witches.
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The Serious History Of Hocus Pocus In 'Penguin Book Of Witches'

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The Serious History Of Hocus Pocus In 'Penguin Book Of Witches'

The Serious History Of Hocus Pocus In 'Penguin Book Of Witches'

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In this Halloween season, we turn our attention now to witches. Today when you think of witches, maybe you conjure up the warm and fuzzy Hermione Granger of Harry Potter or maybe the Wiccan priestess who works at the neighborhood coffee shop. Our next guest is going to take us back to a time when just being accused of witchcraft was enough to get you killed.

Katherine Howe has put together a new compilation of writings from the 16th and 17th centuries looking at why these accusations took root. Howe is an author and the editor of "The Penguin Book Of Witches." She's long been intrigued with colonial America, but witches? Well, that part of her fascination is personal.

KATHERINE HOWE: There are a couple of witches hiding on the family tree. There's a couple of witch leaves - dark, curled leaves on the family tree. One of them was Elizabeth Howe, who has the same last name as me. She was actually put to death towards the beginning of the Salem crisis. She lived in Topsfield, Massachusetts.


HOWE: Yeah. The other one was Elizabeth Proctor who was supposed to be condemned to death, but fortunately, she - her sentence was commuted because she was expecting a baby.

MARTIN: Can you just lay the groundwork? What was the culture like? What was happening that made the conditions ripe for these trials?

HOWE: The early modern period was kind of the peak for witch trials. So that's from the 1500s, give or take, through the 1600s. It was a time of scarcity. And so much of witchcraft anxiety has to do with goods and services and everyday life. And also having to do with relationships because if you're living in an early modern frontier village, as many people were - as people in Salem Village were , for instance - you are totally dependent on trading with your neighbors and on goodwill of your neighbors in order to survive. And so you would guard your reputation very carefully.

MARTIN: But this was, in large part, a feminine phenomenon, right?

HOWE: It was. The 16th and 17th century had a different stereotype about women from what we have today. If our stereotype about women today is that women are the moral center of the home, they are the beacon of light that keep men and children in line. I mean, this is the plot of every Super Bowl commercial.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So it must be true.

HOWE: Right. So it must be true. So - but that idea is actually of relatively recent vintage - that stereotype about women's morality. That actually comes from the late 19th century. The stereotype about women in the 1600s and 1700s was just the opposite. It held that we were naturally lustful and wanton. We are in need of male guidance both in the form of, say, a father or of a husband in order to protect ourselves from our natural inclination and temptation into sin.

MARTIN: You chronicle the stories of several different women and different trials. In looking at these primary texts, did you start to see a pattern emerge about the kind of women that was always accused?

HOWE: Definitely. Typical the woman who was accused as a witch was a woman at middle-age. And middle-aged for them was the same as for us, incidentally, so 40s to 60s. But they also were marginal in some capacity. Perhaps they did not have children, which was very unusual at that time. Perhaps they had had an unfortunate marriage. One of the women in "The Penguin Book Of Witches" had a husband who absconded with her money and left her destitute. Or perhaps you were a woman who expressed anger in a time when that was not widely looked upon.

And one of the early skeptical writers in "The Penguin Book Of Witches," Reginald Scott, he writes in discovery of witches, why is it if we think that witches get all this extra power from the devil, how come the women who were tried are typically bleary-eyed, poor, disempowered? You would think that if you traded your soul to the devil, you would be beautiful and rich and successful.

MARTIN: Why is there such an appetite for a book like this today? What is it about the supernatural, and the idea of witches in particular - women and witchcraft - that so preoccupies us today?

HOWE: I think there are two sides to that question. And one side clearly has to do with the question of scape-goating. It fills us with tremendous anxiety because we want to believe that we are a culture that is tolerant of religious difference that is kind to people who are vulnerable in the community. And Salem is chilling. Witch trials in general, but Salem, especially, is chilling because it reminds us how fragile these ideals really are because here is a case of 19 people being put to death by the state for a crime that a generation later would be held to be imaginary. So part of it I think has to do with the interest in that and the anxiety around scape-goating and how easy it is to do that.

But the flip side of that coin has to do with power. What made witches dangerous in the early modern period makes them enticing now. Here is a case of a figure, a person, a woman, generally, laying claim to power that does not belong to her that should belong only to God or should belong only to people in authority. And she's taking that power for herself. And so that upending of the social order in the early modern is intolerable and yet today is kind of attractive and exciting because who among us would not want to find a secret reservoir of power within ourselves? Who among us doesn't want to be in our cupboard under the stairs and be delivered a letter by an owl that tells us that we have secret powers we never understood before?

MARTIN: Katherine Howe - she is the editor of the new compilation of historical texts called "The Penguin Book Of Witches." Thanks so much for talking with us, Katherine.

HOWE: Thanks so much for having me, and have a great Halloween.

MARTIN: Happy Halloween.

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