Even in Salem, Witchcraft Evokes Apprehension

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 8, 2012 — 16 Comments

It’s hard to not acknowledge the fact that the word “witchcraft” still evokes feelings of apprehension, or even fear, from those who hear it. It’s a word that is almost primal, bringing up associations with magic, and the fantastical dark purposes some imagine when hearing that a “witch” might be near. The same reason some feel misgivings, however, is the reason many of us have reclaimed the term. Using that power to recast the folkloric evil crone into a wise woman, a healer, a representative of religions thought destroyed by the rise of Christianity. Since the emergence of Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, practitioners of modern Witchcraft have been hugely successful in changing associations, changing minds, about what a Witch could be, but that childhood figure of fear still lurks with some. Even in modern day Salem, New Hampshire, there are still some who whisper about the dangers of accepting the Witch.

tow new home

The Temple of Witchcraft’s new Salem home.

“Some may have thought it was a Halloween joke last week when they were invited to the Temple of Witchcraft for an open house. It was no joke. The Salem-based nonprofit organization is seeking Planning Board approval to relocate from its current home at 2 Main St. to a two-story, 19th-century home at 49 N. Policy St. […] Selectman Everett McBride Jr. said he’s received a few emails from people who are worried about having the Temple of Witchcraft in their neighborhood. He has asked Town Manager Keith Hickey to look into the proposal. “The neighbors are nervous,” McBride said.”

The “neighbors are nervous,” but about what? Are they picturing Rosemary’s Baby, The Wizard of Oz, or are they simply worried that Wiccans will drive the property values down? Whatever the reason, the temple was quick to reassure the unnamed nervous neighbors that there was nothing to fear.

“To help dispell the misconceptions, the temple held an open house at the proposed site on Halloween, distributing fliers to neighbors to give them a chance to learn about the organization and its teachings. Only five people showed up. Some asked if they were handing out Halloween candy, which they did, Kenson said.”

The Temple of Witchcraft, which was co-founded by author Christopher Penczak, probably won’t have any major obstacles in getting their new temple space approved, it’s clear they have the law on their side, and that they’re not afraid of scrutiny from the public. They present a new sort of tension for those who hear the word Witch, the affirmation that we live in a country where even the faiths you might be afraid of have rights. It also presents a challenge for those who’ve reveled in the power of the word, of its ability to shock and unbalance. For if the Witches have a temple down the street, hold open houses, and hand out candy at Halloween, how scary or powerful could they really be? Indeed, whenever the word Witchcraft comes up, chances are good that Wicca will also be invoked. An uneasy co-existence ensues where fantasies like True Blood try to have their folkloric “bad” Witch and their “good” Wiccan-Witch healer at the same time. It doesn’t always work.

Hundreds of thousands of us have chosen to be Witches, to wear the title with pride in hopes of creating a new paradigm of power around it. The Temple of Witchcraft show that this effort has been wildly successful. We are no longer merely subcultural, but a part of the daytime world. We buy property, we have temples, we do PR, we’d like to build a parking lot for our guests. Still, the folkloric witch remains, so there will always be a liminal uneasiness that comes with our name (even in Salem). Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, perhaps that uneasiness reminds us that we are part of something far larger and wilder than we could hope to wholly control. We are modern, respectable, Witches, but perhaps those Halloween crones hold lessons for us still.

On a somewhat related note – this weekend I’m off to FaerieCon East in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Temple of Witchcraft’s own Christopher Penczak will be in attendance giving talks and participating in panels. If you’re in the neighborhood, please drop by and say hi! I’m hoping that maybe I can do a nice interview with Christopher for The Wild Hunt while I’m there.

2012 faeriecon east postcard front 202x3001

As for The Wild Hunt this weekend, not to worry! The rest of our wonderful staff will make sure things keep running while I’m away playing with the faeries, and I may even pop in with an update.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    “Witch” still raises apprehension because it marks an intrusion of the mythic world into the everyday world, and the mythic world is — let’s face it — scary. Pagans must learn to live with that because Pagans spend a lot of time in at least contact with the mythic. We can’t make the mythic world non-scary — that would eviscerate it — but we can be, and are, brave in dealing with those aspects.

  • Not to be a pain in the neck, but the Temple of Witchcraft is based in Salem, NH, not Salem, MA. I used to live essentially between these two cities, so we always had to be clear which one we meant. In Salem, NH, I am not surpised, though saddened by the reaction. I highly doubt Salem, MA would bat an eye.

    • I am roundly embarrassed at this mistake! I have corrected the text! Mea Culpa!

      • It happens! Thank you for correcting it.

  • Tara

    Wow, that’s a beautiful building! Good luck to them.

  • Michael Lloyd

    How scary or powerful could they really be? As scary as an ignorant person wishes them to be; and as powerful as someone with the US Constitution and centuries of case law on their side can be. Surely a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die” will approach situations like this in a rational manner. :-/

    • That assumes, of course, that people are rational. Hells, every two years or so my parents have to vote whether or not their town is going to secede (it about half an hour from Salem, NH). Not exactly rational. Its also the state that had the moron in the Senate offer a bill that said that all other bills needed to reference the Magna Carta. I personally (as a native New Hampshirite) blame it on the influx of flatlanders from Massachusetts and elsewhere, but even i have to admit that there are a good number of natives who are nuts as well.

  • Pitch313

    My own experience suggests that folks tend to be a bit uneasy about anybody or any group moving into their neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be witches or magicians or spiritualists. It could be physicians, real estate agents, the Red Cross, painters, or families with young children. When I lived in Berkeley, lots of folks did not want chain restaurants in town…

  • Deborah Bender

    I wish them well, but “temple” and “witchcraft” don’t go together and the juxtaposition is a contradiction in terms that is jarring to me. The deities worshipped by witches may have temples and witches may visit the temples, but temple religion and witchcraft are different activities. One does witchcraft in a forest clearing, on a hilltop, or in the privacy of one’s home.

    Wiccans aren’t the first to do this. The Reform movement in Judaism refers to its synagogues as temples. Temple worship and the activities of a synagogue are quite different in Judaism too, which IMO makes the Reform movement look silly to other Jews .

    • I could be wrong (Hebrew classes were a very long time ago), but I’m pretty sure that the word ‘synagogue’ means ‘temple’. I’ve been to many Conservative synagogues that refer to themselves as temples as well.

      • Deborah Bender

        You are right about the Conservative congregations. I had to look that up.

        Hebrew classes wouldn’t help you. “Synagogue” comes from a Greek word meaning “assembly”. I’ve been told that “synagogue” translates two Hebrew phrases that mean “house of prayer” and “house of study” (bet tfillin and bet ha-midrash or something like that), which are the dual functions of a synagogue. The Yiddish name is shul. I don’t know whether that’s cognate with school.

        Temple comes from a Latin word which maybe means something like sacred precinct. Pagan cultures have multiple temples for each of their gods. For most of Israelite and Jewish history, until a few decades after Jesus’s death, the primary (and to some, the only legitimate) Jewish temple was the one in Jerusalem. It was regarded as the particular dwelling place of YHVH, was the site of daily sacrifices, and there were some sacrifices that could only be made there. All the Jews in the world were supposed to send money to support the Temple and the priesthoods that ran it.

        Synagogues began (I think during the Hellenistic period, which is why they have a Greek name) as gathering places to study and discuss Torah. I don’t think religious services took place in synagogues to begin with. Local seasonal and weekly religious rituals were held as they always had been in homes and at various outdoor sites. Any adult (traditionally, any adult male) could and can lead most of the religious rituals that don’t involve sacrificial offerings. My impression is that synagogues became substitute places for communal worship after the Romans tore down Herod’s temple, sacrifices could no longer be offered there, and the priests were out of a job.

        I have no idea why Reform Judaism started calling synagogues temples, and whether it’s only a custom of English speaking countries. (Reform Judaism originated in Germany in the nineteenth century.) IMO synagogues aren’t temples in function, although they do contain a couple of architectural features that emulate the Temple in Jerusalem, namely the Ark and the Eternal Light. The descendants of the Kohanim and the Levites are still around, but they have very minor duties in a synagogue, unlike a temple.

  • KHC

    Seconding what Heather said below – The Temple of Witchcraft has been located in Salem, NH (not Massachusetts) for years, long before acquiring this property.

    As for the comment that “‘temple’ and ‘witchcraft’ don’t go together – I suggest you do a bit more research. Perhaps a visit to the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall is in order, if for no other reason to learn that no one person dictates what Witchcraft is or isn’t. The simple fact that you refer to members of the Temple of Witchcraft as “wiccans” shows that you are sorely lacking in information. In the interest of full disclosure, I will add that I am a certified HP in the Temple of Witchcraft, fortunate enough to have done all of my training personally with Penczak. I have also been fortunate enough to practice for the last two years in the southwest of England with a number of “old guard” BTW’s. They certainly have not had the least bit of trouble with my tradition being called the Temple of Witchcraft, and I think they would find your attempt to limit and define how they – of all people – do and do not practice to be amusing to say the least.

    • I am roundly embarrassed at this mistake! I have corrected the text! Mea Culpa! Sorry ToW folks!

    • Deborah Bender

      I agree that I have no standing to tell you how to practice witchcraft, with or without a capital letter. You are also right that I’m not well informed about the Temple of Witchcraft. Just the same, I’m not challenging your legitimacy. We are having a disagreement about labels, or perhaps about taste.

      You are indeed fortunate to have had the opportunity to practice with BTWs in the southwest of England. Witchcraft on its indigenous soil, connected to the local flora, fauna, rocks and ancestral places, is different from the cultivars from transplanted rootstock in the New World. It has a different place in society too.

      At one time, some British witches regarded Gardnerian Wiccans as upstarts and took pains to distinguish themselves from them. I am under the impression that these days, differences in origin are simply differences and not the basis of a pecking order.

      A spectrum of definitions of “wiccan” is in use in popular culture, the interfaith movement, academia, and within the pagan community. Before taking offense when someone applies the term to you, you might ask the writer what he or she means by it.

      Some apply the term “wiccan” only to witches who practice a form of initiatory, coven-based witchcraft similar to what Gerald Gardner’s covens practiced, make use of a Book of Shadows that contains a version of the older texts in the Gardnerian BOS, and claim a person-to-person initiatory link (“apostolic succession”) back to Gardner or another member of the New Forest Coven. Under a definition like this, just a handful of coven-based, lineaged, initiatory, dual sex traditions are wiccan. A few other coven-based, lineaged, initiatory, dual sex traditions are not wiccan. Groups of witches who aren’t coven-based, or aren’t lineaged, or aren’t initiatory, or are single sex, or don’t use a BOS-like text, or don’t do anything consistently, definitely aren’t wiccan.

      I was using “wiccan” in a broad sense. Among witches today, most who practice any form of witchcraft that involves goddess worship have been influenced directly or indirectly by Gardner (whether they know it or not). Groups of witches that predated or started up independently of Gardner exist, but when such a group comes across some Gardnerian practices and adopts them, it usually has a catalytic effect: the entire system of the group shifts to become a lot more like Gardnerian Wicca in behavior and outlook. Gardnerian Wicca has a gravitational pull like Jupiter. It requires either isolation or determination and stubbornness not to be brought into its orbit. These observations were made by Aidan Kelly about thirty years ago.

      The marks of Gardnerian influence include explicit moral codes about the use of magic and a pattern for group ritual containing characteristic elements such as invocation of entities associated with the cardinal directions. I won’t run through the whole list here. Most, though not all, organized groups of witches who regard witchcraft as a religious activity do resemble the Gardnerians in a variety of ways. They are wiccan in the broad sense of the word, whether these resemblances are the result of descent, borrowing or convergent evolution.

  • Morri

    “”Its also the state that had the moron in the Senate offer a bill that
    said that all other bills needed to reference the Magna Carta. I
    personally (as a native New Hampshirite) blame it on the influx of
    flatlanders from Massachusetts and elsewhere, but even i have to admit
    that there are a good number of natives who are nuts as well.””

    Hey – it’s not us Massholes who are intolerant. LOL We’re the most liberal state in the country; do as thou wilt and all that. NH is a Republican state; you have some serious conservatives and fundies up there. As well as the recent influx of Free Staters – a very mixed lot, and highly involved in your politics.

    I’m a bit old-school, too; a ‘temple’ of witches just sounds strange to me, but each to their own. As a disclaimer, I avoid all the new age groups and black-cloaked Salem, MA types.

    • Morri

      I also meant to add that the rise in xtian fundamentalism, especially the Dominionsts and Third-wavers, is not going to be making the idea of witchcraft any more palatable to many.